When it comes to music, I like to think that both my knowledge and personal taste are pretty broad. Even so, there are a handful of artists whose work has just managed to plain escape me over the years. There are just a few select musicians and songwriters out there, who despite hearing great things said about them from just about everyone whose opinion I respect, have somehow fallen beneath my own radar.
Townes Van Zandt is a perfect case in point.
Although Van Zandt has never sold that many records on his own as a solo performer, he is universally respected as one of the best songwriters of his generation by nearly every artist whose music I even remotely care about. Which is why I made a point to pick up John Kruth's To Live's to Fly: The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt and read it.
So here is what I knew about Townes Van Zandt before reading this very detailed and in-depth, if occasionally somewhat difficult to follow biography. Van Zandt has many times been called a great songwriter. Some even swear that while he was among us, he was quite possibly the best. Most often, Townes Van Zandt has been cited in the same breath as two of his own heroes, Hank Williams Sr. and Bob Dylan.
Steve Earle, who is something of a Van Zandt disciple, once famously said of his mentor that he was not only the best, but that he would stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table and tell him as much. Van Zandt himself replied that he knew Dylan's bodyguards and doubted very much he'd be standing on that table.
I was also aware of Van Zandt's well-earned reputation for hard living, alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling, and womanizing — all contributing factors to his early death in 1997. I also knew that his work had influenced several generations of songwriters and musicians, from Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris to the Cowboy Junkies and The Black Crowes.
I knew that as a songwriter, he was part of the small, but elite group to produce a song that is now considered a standard. You can say that about Dylan's "Blowin In The Wind," and you can say it about Lennon and McCartney's "Yesterday." You can also say this about Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty."
So what I didn't know, and what I learned for the first time reading this book, was that Van Zandt was born into wealth, and that he died on the same day as his hero Hank Williams.