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The Cult of Townes Van Zandt

Published: 1/1/2012

Townes Van Zandt in 1995. Van Zandt, who wrote the country hits "If I Needed You'" and "Pancho and Lefty'" and gained a cult following for his blues-inspired recordings about life's losers, died Jan. 1, 1997 at 52. (AP Photo / Mark Humphrey)

Townes Van Zandt in 1995. Van Zandt, who wrote the country hits "If I Needed You'" and "Pancho and Lefty'" and gained a cult following for his blues-inspired recordings about life's losers, died Jan. 1, 1997 at 52. (AP Photo / Mark Humphrey)

Townes Van Zandt, who died 15 years ago today, was one of those visionary singer-songwriters who was criminally underappreciated in his time. His isn't a name we learn from listening to the radio or reading big-circulation music magazines. We discover it in a roundabout way, after learning we like roots rock and alternative country, then digging our way through Dawes and Wilco and the Bottle Rockets, down to Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett and John Prine. Underneath, we find the man who was a strong influence on all those favorites: Townes Van Zandt.

Van Zandt was a cult favorite in his day, beloved by other musicians but held back from wider fame by managerial disputes, strange production on his studio releases, and Van Zandt's own struggles with bipolar disorder and drug and alcohol abuse. Still, the attention from his fellow country rockers helped bring his music to some devoted fans – a gig opening for the Cowboy Junkies in 1990; the unabashed adulation of Steve Earle; covers of his work by Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Norah Jones, and many more.

After Van Zandt's 1997 death, his legend and legacy grew, thanks to more covers, use of his songs in prominent movies and TV shows (The Big Lebowski, Six Feet Under, Deadwood), and well-received print and film biographies. It's a legacy that deserves still more recognition.

Written by Linnea Crowther. Find her on Google+.

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