Townes Van Zandt, who came from wealthy Texas stock and a family for whom Van Zandt County is named, died of a heart attack on New Year's Day 1997 at his home just outside Nashville. He was 52 years old. He left behind a small (about 100 songs) but estimable catalog of some of the finest song-poems written during the past four decades, among them "For the Sake of the Song," "To Live Is to Fly," "If I Needed You," "Tecumseh Valley" and "Pancho & Lefty." Musicians adored him, covered his songs, sang his praises, compared him to Bob Dylan; Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith are among dozens who claim him as influence, as mentor, as muse.
Van Zandt also left behind one hell of a mess. A battle over his music has raged for years in public and in private, one that has taken its toll on all involved, including an ex-wife, three children and the man who says he spent a small fortune producing Van Zandt when no one else would. This fight, over what some say are mere pennies and others claim are millions, has ruined many friendships, forced several lawsuits and grows more acrimonious each year. To wade into this story is to get drenched in muck. Every few months, it flares up as more Townes Van Zandt CDs appear on the market -- some legit, some of dubious origin. It is over these dozens of albums -- and who owns them, and who collects the money made from their sales -- that the squabble has, over the years, escalated into a nasty little war.
On one side of this fight is Van Zandt's third wife, Jeanene, the court-appointed executrix of his estate and mother of two of his young children, William and Katie Bell. On the other is Kevin Eggers, who signed Van Zandt to a contract in 1971 but recorded him long before that -- as early as 1968, when the two were introduced in Nashville by Jack "Cowboy" Clement, a legendary producer at Sun Records and writer of songs for, among others, Johnny Cash. Eggers owns Tomato Records, which claims to have in its catalog most of Van Zandt's studio albums, among them such essential works as High, Low and in Between, The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt and several live ones. Eggers says he alone owns the master tapes for Van Zandt's works and will never turn them over to Jeanene.
In between and on the sidelines are many, many others: John Townes Van Zandt II, Townes's son from his first marriage; Harold Eggers, Kevin's brother and, for more than 20 years, Townes's baby-sitter; Freddy Fletcher, Willie Nelson's son-in-law and owner of a label responsible for a star-studded Van Zandt tribute album; and other attorneys and former managers and hangers-on who all add to the noise and confusion surrounding this sad story.
In short, Jeanene, who was married to Townes from 1983 until 1994, claims Eggers owes her a small fortune in unpaid royalties -- just how much, she says, she isn't quite sure because there has never been a full and proper accounting of albums sold and licensed. In e-mails and interviews, she lays out her case against Eggers, claiming he has been "ripping off" Van Zandt for years by licensing his songs to domestic and foreign labels, including EMI and Rhino and UK-based Charly Records, as well as selling them himself. She says with few exceptions, none of those labels has paid the estate for use of the material -- no publishing royalties, half of which go to the songwriter; no mechanical royalties, received for each recording sold; no nothing.
Because of the glut of Van Zandt recordings, and because this trail leads back to the late 1960s, it is awfully hard to figure out who owns what and who owes what. Eggers says it's simple: He owns everything, some of which he got as the result of a handshake deal in 1968. Others don't think it's that easy, including executives at Hollywood-based Bug Music, a publishing administrator that, for a small commission, works for songwriters to make sure they're getting paid properly every time their songs appear, well, anywhere. Bug has been trying to get to the bottom of this ownership issue since the late 1980s; so far, no such luck.