There are moments in which Van Zandt celebrates love and life, as in 1971's "To Live Is to Fly" and 1972's "If I Needed You." More often, there is a sense of futility, despair and impending death, summarized in 1968's "Waiting 'Round to Die": "Sometimes I don't know where this dirty road is taking me/Sometimes I can't even see the reason why/I guess I keep on gamblin', lots of booze and ramblin'/Well, it's easier than just a-waitin' 'round to die."
In these and other Van Zandt songs, the influence he had on other writers can be discerned. John Prine, best known for such early-'70s tunes as "Hello in There" and "Sam Stone," has long been my favorite folk-oriented songwriter after Dylan, and I assumed his music was shaped almost exclusively by Dylan's work.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 9, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
"Pancho & Lefty"--Townes Van Zandt's song "Pancho & Lefty" appeared on Emmylou Harris' 1977 album "Luxury Liner." It did not appear on "Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions," Harris' 1999 album with Linda Ronstadt, as stated in an article in Sunday Calendar.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 14, 2002 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
'Pancho & Lefty'--Townes Van Zandt's song 'Pancho & Lefty' appeared on Emmylou Harris' 1977 album 'Luxury Liner.' It did not appear on 'Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions,' Harris' 1999 album with Linda Ronstadt, as reported in an April 7 article in Sunday Calendar.
But I've never heard a song to match the character study and detail of Prine's work any better than Van Zandt's "Tecumseh Valley," which was written years before Prine's first album.
Similarly, there's a sense of Texas vitality and spirit to "White Freight Liner Blues" that is echoed in the work of one of my other favorite bands--the Flatlanders, a trio made up of Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. In the music on "Best Of," you can also hear Earle, Lyle Lovett, Williams and others being inspired.
"He didn't write a lot of songs, but everything he did write was remarkable," Eggers says, with the affection of someone who has championed Van Zandt's music for three decades. "He crafted each song like it was a little diamond."
Eggers, a former rock 'n' roll booking agent, was looking for acts for his new Poppy label (the name was later changed to Tomato) when he heard a tape of the singer's "Tecumseh Valley."
"I was struck immediately," he recalls.
"Here was someone who was as much influenced by Emily Dickinson and the great poets as he was by songwriters. If you take those songs without the music, they are compelling pieces of literature, and his chief theme, to me, was about how fragile we all are."
There have been so many colorful, often conflicting stories about Van Zandt's exploits in the early years that it is as hard to piece together the chapters in his life as it apparently was for him to live them.
Most accounts agree he was from a once oil-wealthy family. As a teenager, he was diagnosed as manic-depressive and underwent months of insulin shock therapy. Inspired by seeing Elvis Presley on TV, he decided to pursue music rather than follow through on college. He started out playing blues and folk numbers in coffeehouses and clubs in Texas, but quickly graduated to writing his own tunes.
According to a posthumous press bio, Van Zandt "pursued the rambling-gambling life to its farthest extreme, performing until he was regularly collapsing on stage from increasing frailty and alcohol abuse."
Eggers says his relationship with the songwriter fell apart in the late '70s because of Van Zandt's unreliable behavior. Van Zandt's ex-wife, Jeanene, disputes that account. She said the singer severed ties with Eggers because he was unhappy over their business relationship. She also said she is considering legal action against Eggers because she hasn't seen royalty statements in years. Eggers denied any wrongdoing.
Whatever the nature of their falling out, Eggers and Van Zandt patched things up a few years later and began working on an ambitious series of duet albums that featured Van Zandt and 60 or so of his admirers singing his songs. They completed some tracks, but Eggers had trouble financing the project and it was suspended.
Some of those tracks--duets with Nelson, Harris and others--were included in "Texas Rain--The Texas Hill Country Recordings," which was released by Tomato late last year.
Eggers plans to follow it up with more duet packages. Several top artists, from Bono to Lovett, are committed to the project, Eggers says. Their voices will be added to tracks Van Zandt recorded specifically for the duets project.
Jeanene Van Zandt said Van Zandt always saw his career impact in terms of the future. "Townes didn't care about his career," she said. "He knew he wouldn't be famous until 100 years after he died. He was just driven by demons. He had depression attacks so bad that all I could do was hold his head and rock him."
Van Zandt's music is certainly strong enough to deserve the attention of a wide audience. But Eggers is a realist.
In a record industry that usually measures success in gold or platinum albums, Eggers, after all these years, will raise a toast if Van Zandt's album sales just jumped to, say, 2,000 a week.
Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.