by Richelle Putnam

Townes Van Zandt: a Tribute

Photographer, Jeff Albertson

Townes Van Zandt had what every songwriter covets, the ability to write sad, tragic songs about terribly flawed characters and have superstars like Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Merle Haggard, and Guy Clark want to cover them—even if they’re five minutes long!

But Van Zandt was also known as a restless drunk, hopeless idealist, and much like his songs, dark and tragic. He entranced audiences with his lyrical genius and effortless acoustical guitar skills but also sadly disappointed them when, in his drunkenness, he forgot his own lyrics and couldn’t hit the simplest guitar lick.

He was young when he suffered mental breakdowns and was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder and manic depression. The invasive treatments he tried for those maladies included a subsequent discredited insulin shock therapy that erased much of his memory.

For decades, research has revealed the link between mental illness and addiction and how people with mental illness self-medicate to feel normal or better. Townes Van Zandt was a number within that statistic who wrestled daily to cope, manage, and overcome his addictions. On New Year’s Day 1997, he died from a heart attack. He was 52.

Sera Cahoone, Rusty Willoughby, Justin Davis, Star Anna, unidentified musician & Gary Westlake performing as part of a tribute to Townes van Zandt on the 67th anniversary of his birth. Tractor Tavern, Ballard, Seattle, Washington.
Luca Rovini

Italian Songwriter Luca Rovini was around 16 when he first heard Townes Van Zandt. “He was an instant master for me. I liked his stories in the songs. In those years, I was discovering many American songwriters like Townes and Guy Clark, Joe Ely, and Steve Earle. All of them are my heroes, and all of them influenced my songwriting.”

In May 2022, Rovini played at the XVIII Townes Van Zandt International Festival in Figino Serena (CO), Italy, a village between Lake Como and Milan, only a few miles from Switzerland. There, songwriters from the UK, France, Australia, Sweden, Norway, the USA, Canada, and Italy combine their awe for Van Zandt in a tremendous musical marathon and afterward join the audience in a dinner prepared by the local senior citizens. The night ends (or doesn’t end) with craft beer, vintage whisky, and into-the-early-morning jam sessions.

“In Italy, there was a promoter, Carlo Carlini,” said Rovini, “and he loved all these great American writers, so every one of my heroes played here thanks to Carlo. I saw Townes Van Zandt in 1994. It was a magic night to remember, Townes and Joe Ely, Rick Danko, Eric Andersen, and others.” Carlini also brought in John Prine and Guy Clark.

“It took me years trying to find my way because I love that kind of music, but I wanted to sing in Italian, and it was not too easy,” said Rovini. “When Carlo died, Andrea Parodi decided to start a festival in honor of Townes Van Zandt.”

It all began when Townes’s son, JT Van Zandt, was surrounded by his father’s friends and followers while doing his first Italian tour with his poetry and songs. That was 18 years ago, said Rovini. At the Townes Van Zandt International Festival, many Italian and International artists pay their debts to Townes and some of his friends.

“I played at the festival many times now. I used to translate some of my favorite songs into Italian and play them. Four years ago, I played an Italian version of “Desperados Waiting for a Train” by Guy Clark with Bill Kirchen and Peter Bonta, the guitar player in The Companeros.” Peter is from Washington, DC, and is a former member of The Nighthawks and Rosslyn Mountain Boys. He also played with Doug Sahm, Bo Diddley, Artful Dodger, and many others.

“He now lives here in Italy in Pistoia, and we met thanks to the late great Evan Johns. Other times I played a song I wrote for Carlo Carlini or my version of “The Rain Came Down” by Steve Earle that Is on my last record, “L’ora del Vero” (Find on Spotify). This year I translated “I’ll be here in the Morning” by Townes. I love this song! It’s very difficult to translate Townes in Italian, but I’m very happy for the job this time.”

Artists and fans who understood Townes Van Zandt’s struggles and appreciated his mastery of lyrics and composition never judged him—and don’t today. Many of us will never experience his rare humorous, soulful spirit, meticulous playing, and melancholy singing in a live performance. 

Most of us will never experience the debilitating battles that often consumed and ravaged him. 

But let us all remember, cherish, and celebrate his triumphant musical genius.

“It’s beautiful,” said Rovini, “that in every part of the world, there are people that still love Townes.”

Townes Van Zandt inspired many American singers/songwriters. But to Steve Earle, Van Zandt was a hero. Earle’s album, Townes, pays tribute to Van Zandt. Earle and Van Zandt became good friends, and Earle named his first son Justin Townes Earle. And that says it all.

Ten of Townes Van Zandt’s most memorable songs:

To Live is to Fly
Pancho and Lefty
I’ll Be Here in the Morning
If I Needed You
For the Sake of the Song
Rex’s Blues
Waiting Around to Die
Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel