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A Deeper Blue

The Life and Music of Townes Van Zandt

Robert Earl Hardy

Publication Year: 2008

This is the first serious biography of a man widely considered one of Texas’—and America’s—greatest songwriters. Like Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, and Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt was the embodiment of that mythic American figure, the troubled troubadour. A Deeper Blue traces Van Zandt’s background as the scion of a prominent Texas family; his troubled early years and his transformation from promising pre-law student to wandering folk singer; his life on the road and the demons that pursued and were pursued by him; the women who loved and inspired him; and the brilliance and enduring beauty of his songs, which are explored in depth. The author draws on eight years’ extensive research and interviews with Townes’ family and closest friends and colleagues. He looks beyond the legend and paints a colorful portrait of a complex man who embraced the darkness of demons and myth as well as the light of deep compassion and humanity, all “for the sake of the song.”

Published by: University of North Texas Press

Series: Lives of Musicians


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pp. vi

List of Photographs

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pp. vii

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pp. viii-x

In 1999, I returned to Texas for the first time in twenty-five years. My mother was celebrating her seventy-fifth birthday and the fiftieth anniversary of leaving her Galveston home and moving east. I was as happy as she was to see Galveston again, where I had spent many hours as a child, collecting shells on the beach, ...

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Introduction: High, Low, and In Between

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pp. 1-6

Townes Van Zandt was a songwriter and a traveling minstrel—a folk singer, no less—in an era when practicing these crafts had long since become anachronistic, evocative of a long-gone era in American life—of Jimmie Rodgers riding the rails of the great American West; Woody Guthrie tramping the highways ...

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1. Many a River: The Van Zandts of Texas

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pp. 7-12

When Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexican government began to encourage settlement in what was then Mexico’s northernmost province, Coahuila y Tejas. Within a short time, there was a steady flow of norteamericano settlers into the province, led officially by Stephen Austin and his famous colony. ...

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2. No Lonesome Tune

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pp. 13-19

John Townes Van Zandt grew up between the end of World War II and the coming of Elvis Presley, a great cusp of the old and the new in America. It was on this cusp that the boy, who went by his middle name, formed his first impressions of the world, gathered his first memories, and began to try to make sense of his life. ...

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3. Where I Lead Me

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pp. 20-32

Within a few years, the guitar became for Townes Van Zandt the key to the form of expression that was to become his life’s work. Learning the instrument and playing and singing along with the radio and with records quickly became for him something more than just entertainment. Once he’d learned “Fraulein” ...

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4. No Place to Fall

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pp. 33-45

After graduating from Shattuck and surviving summer in the West Texas oil fields, much to his relief, Townes Van Zandt was accepted at the University of Colorado at Boulder in September 1962, the fall after his sister Donna graduated. He loved Colorado, loved the Boulder area, and, short of following in his parents’ footsteps...

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5. Sanitarium Blues

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pp. 46-51

UTMB-Galveston was in the 1960s and still is one of the best medical and psychiatric facilities in the country. In 1964, the physical plant at UTMB was a collection of Victorian brick buildings mixed with some drab additions from the 1930s and the early 1950s, nestled into a palm-shaded campus in the northeast corner ...

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6. Waitin’ for the Day

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pp. 52-71

After his stay at Galveston, the Van Zandts took their son back home to Houston. They would not allow him to return to Colorado, but encouraged him to attend school locally, at the University of Houston. Fran had returned to Boulder to finish the year at the University of Colorado, but her and Townes’ strong desire ...

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7. For the Sake of the Song

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pp. 72-91

Stranger things have happened in the annals of the record business, but the story of Townes Van Zandt’s first record deal is bizarre even by industry standards. Mickey Newbury, a native of Houston, was at this time one of Nashville’s most prolific and successful songwriters and one of the artists who was breaking away ...

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8. Don’t You Take It Too Bad

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pp. 92-110

“Townes claims that he was the one that introduced me and Guy,” Susanna Clark recalls, “but I think Townes met my sister first somehow. I met Guy and Townes both exactly at the same time…. I was living with my sister. And apparently they had become friends with my sister…. I walked in and they were both sitting on the couch. ...

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9. Highway Kind

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pp. 111-131

The new album, called High, Low and In Between, was released in the fall of 1971. It was a heady time in popular music, seeing the release of a seemingly endless slew of great records such as the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Who’s Next, Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story, Led Zepplin IV, Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey ...

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10. White Freightliner Blues.

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pp. 132-149

For years, to maintain a sense of balance and perspective, and to escape—or at least quiet—some of his more pressing demons, Townes had sought and found comfort in the mountains of Colorado. Townes would base himself with one of a network of his Colorado friends, including Bob Myrick near Aspen, ...

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11. Dollar Bill Blues

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pp. 150-172

The actual genesis of Townes' decision to move to Nashville came during his last trip to the Rocky Mountains. Out in the wilderness for a week-long ride, he and Cindy made a serious, sober assessment of his career. Townes knew that, artistically, things were stagnating for him. He felt that he had some responsibility to ...

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12. Still Lookin’ for You

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pp. 173-195

As Van Zandt toured the club circuit throughout 1979, he repeatedly circled back to his old stomping grounds in Houston and Austin, where he revived some old friendships and fell into some new business relationships. John Cheatham had been part of the Clarksville scene a few years before, and Townes often stayed at ...

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13. No Deeper Blue

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pp. 196-220

The call of the road did not cease for Townes after the birth of his second son; indeed, it grew stronger, just as it had around the time of the birth of his first son. Once again, Townes’ self-destructive behavior was alarming his friends and family, as he was made explicitly aware of through the intervention they attempted before his mother died. ...

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14. Flyin’ Shoes

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pp. 221-244

At a hotel in Dublin, while on tour at the end of October 1990, Townes printed on a sheet of wrapping paper, in his usual all-capital-letter style, the lyrics to a song he titled “Ruester’s Blues,” then he signed it, wrapped a package with the paper, and sent it to his friend Danny “Ruester” Rowland in Kentucky. ...

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15. The Blue March

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pp. 245-267

That spring of 1996, TOWNES was surprised to hear from Steve Shelley, the drummer for the New York band Sonic Youth, that members of the group were interested in making a record with him. A major label, Geffen, was backing the project through its Ecstatic Peace imprint, which was an outlet ...

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pp. 268-270

The first posthumous Townes Van Zandt tribute show was held a few weeks after his death, at the Cactus Café in Austin on two nights when Townes had been booked to play his “home club.” Friends and fans gathered to hear Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, Kimmie Rhodes, J.T. Van Zandt (who attended a number of tribute shows and has ...


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pp. 271-287

Audio and Video Sources

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pp. 288-291


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pp. 292-300

E-ISBN-13: 9781574413298
Print-ISBN-13: 9781574412475

Page Count: 320
Illustrations: 20 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Lives of Musicians

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Subject Headings

  • Van Zandt, Townes.
  • Country musicians -- United States -- Biography.
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