By David Browne
Updated January 17, 1997 at 05:00 AM EST

In a world overstuffed with cult heroes, Townes Van Zandt was the real deal. The songs of the laconic folkie, who died of a heart attack Jan. 1 in Smyrna, Tenn., were covered by everyone from Willie Nelson to the Cowboy Junkies. But Van Zandt, 52, treated his career with the restless shrug of his own characters. Part of the late-’60s school of cosmic Texas singer-songwriters, he kept a low profile and even titled an early album The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt. When Emmylou Harris spread his reputation by covering his haunting drifter ballad ”Pancho & Lefty,” in 1977, Van Zandt could be found in a cabin in the Tennessee mountains.

Van Zandt applied his parched, creaky voice to everything from country to blues, but it was his spare, forlorn ballads — ”No Place to Fall,” ”Flyin’ Shoes,” ”Highway Kind” — that best captured his resigned, never bitter worldview. His 15 albums were not hits (he charted only through remakes, like Harris and Don Williams’ duet of ”If I Needed You”). But Live and Obscure (1989), The Nashville Sessions (1993), and last year’s High, Low and In Between reissue justify his cult status — they’re mystique set to a country-folk beat.