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Townes Van Zandt: 'The Greatest Musician You’ve Never Heard Of' By Frank Turner

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I have many tattoos. One of my favourites is etched into my left-hand wrist - the letters 'TVZ' followed by a small drawing of a key. For most onlookers it's probably not immediately obvious what it means, but, to me, it's a very important statement.

I listened to punk and hardcore bands growing up, and was totally ignorant of the world of folk and country music. All that changed about 12 years ago when my friend Adam (lately of classic London country band The Tailors) spent some time educating me. He introduced me to a whole host of amazing singers and songwriters, but top of the pile, both for he and I, was the strange figure of Townes Van Zandt.

Townes was born into oil wealth in Texas in 1944. In his teens he discovered rock'n'roll and country music. A traumatic bout of insulin shock therapy, intended to treat his bi-polar disorder, unsettled his mind in his late teens, and from there he descended into a world of whisky, women, late-night honky-tonks and guitars.

In many ways, he's the archetypal tragic country singer – like Hank Williams, but even less appreciated in his own time. Townes wrote and recorded many songs, but they were always half-inched by dodgy record labels, ruined by cheesy over-production, or otherwise left to fall by the wayside. Every time he came within touching distance of success, he'd sabotage himself with drink, drugs, or ill-fated love matches. He had a way with words and a long-term relationship with tragedy.

And yet in the midst of all the chaos and failure, he was carefully crafting a body of songs that has no parallel in modern music. He had a delicacy to his guitar playing and a precision to his lyrics that I continue to find both inspirational and mystifying. He often cited Robert Frost as a lyrical influence.

He's widely regarded as one of the finest finger-picking guitar players there ever was. Even Steve Earle, who considered him a mentor, once famously called him “the best songwriter in the whole world” adding that he’d “stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that”. I find it hard to disagree.

Over time, some people came to recognise his genius, and he became known as a “songwriter's songwriter”. Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson had hits with covers of his work in the 1980s, and towards the end of his life his financial situation stabilised a little.

But he was never far away from the ragged wastrel with the shotgun and the whisky bottle that we see him as flitting around in the background of 1970's country documentary Heartworn Highways. After a depressingly fallow attempt to restart his career in a recording session with Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley, he finally drank himself to death on New Year's Day 1997.

There's precious little happiness in the bare facts of the man's life. And yet he continues to be an object of fascination, and veneration. There have been several books, documentaries, tribute records and so on in recent years; I've covered many of his songs myself. Some people find this slightly mystifying. My response is always to simply sit the person down and put on what I consider to be his best record, and one of the finest pieces of recorded sound I know.

Recorded over five nights in July 1973, Live At The Old Quarter is Townes at his most stripped back, personal and visceral. Just him and a guitar onstage, you can hear the spellbound silence of the crowd hovering in the background, the awe almost overpowering the raw performance. There are no frills, no tricks, it's just songwriting as an art in itself, pure and unadorned.

And so we come back to my wrist tattoo: the reason I have the key inked there, next to the initials TVZ, is because he is the great songwriter's test, a password, a secret key. If you listen to those songs, naked and unapologetic, if you appreciate the soul of an artform, then in my eyes you're a proper songwriter – you understand.

If it doesn't click, on the other hand, then I guess we're not on the same page. Townes is the key to it all, the nearest thing to perfection in music.

Frank Turner's new album Positive Songs for Negative People is out now (watch the video for new single The Next Storm here) and he's touring in November

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