Townes Van Zandt never released an album on a major label and only sold a very few ones in his lifetime. He totally evaded mainstream commercial success and was never much concerned with his career. Still, Townes Van Zandt songs have influenced a wide variety of singers more famous than he would ever be.
The characters in his compositions that are usually prostitutes, gamblers, good-for-nothing, and other losers fighting to get by or looking for ways to make ends meet, were recorded by notable musicians that range from Emmylou Harris to Merle Haggard to Norah Jones.
And today, we’re choosing the best ones from his catalog, which is nearly an impossible task. Nonetheless, it’s the best way to celebrate this strikingly unique and creative genius songwriter. So, keep on scrolling below!
1. Pancho And Lefty
Is there any more obvious choice than “Pancho and Lefty” for our top spot? It’s one of the finest in the genre, which tells the story of a Mexican bandit named Pancho and his partner-in-crime Lefty, who eventually betrayed him in the end. The song became controversial as most of its details mirrored the life of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, who died at the hands of unknown assassins in 1923 – though Townes Van Zandt denied he wrote the song with Villa in mind.
“Pancho and Lefty” shot to stardom when Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard recorded it in 1983.
2. Buckskin Stallion Blues
Despite the decline of Van Zandt’s health in the middle of the 1990s, he never lost touch with music – and he showed that on “Buckskin Stallion Blues” as he crushed the song with few wisely arranged words and a sense of humor.
3. To Live Is To Fly
This is perhaps the greatest example of Van Zandt’s kind of effortless gift for songwriting. It’s a beautifully bridgeless song that floats by with apparently perfect grace and ease. This is blended with delightful philosophical and spiritual clarity.
4. For The Sake Of The Song
The achingly lovely song was recorded as the title track of Van Zandt’s debut album. “For The Sake of The Song” holds great historical importance in his career as it showcased his full potential as a legendary songwriter.
5. If I Needed You
Van Zandt once introduced “If I Needed You” as a song that came to him in a dream while living in Tennessee with Guy and Susanna Clark. He dreamt that he was a folk singer, and this is the song he played. The moment he woke up, he wrote the song immediately and went right back to sleep.
It was later covered by country music artists Emmylou Harris and Don Williams as a duet.
6. Waiting Around to Die
In the song “Waiting Around to Die,” Van Zandt is a lost soul bouncing around through life looking for a diversion from the awareness of his own humanity – and that turned out to be gambling and drinking, then drug abuse. Something he had struggled with throughout his adult life.
This is perhaps one of the most agonizing and traumatic but touching songs ever written. The song tells a homeless couple’s dreadful plight when their unborn child died while they lived under a bridge. It was actually inspired by Meryl Streep’s character in the 1987 drama film Ironweed which is a brutal look at street people in the late 1930s.
8. Snowin’ on Raton
While Van Zandt no longer recorded as often as he used to in the ’80s and ’90s, he never stopped creating incredible songs. This includes “Snowin’ on Raton,” which was the opening track to his 1987 album. The song finds Van Zandt wandering toward nowhere in particular after leaving his loved ones.
9. None But The Rain
With just his acoustic guitar and a pan flute echo in the background, “None But The Rain” makes the perfect farewell ride for his self-titled album in 1969. The song is jam-packed with broken hearts and tragic endings as he finds himself accepting the end of his relationship.
10. The Catfish Song
After a nine-year hiatus, Van Zandt came back with noticeable ravages of time on his vocals, yet that only deepened the way he tells this song’s story of love and loss.
11. No Place to Fall
This is one of the songs Van Zandt used to play live in a full five years before he decided to release an in-studio version, which leaned more in waltz-time feel, full drumbeat, and brilliant backing vocals creating an ironic contrast to the somber uncertainty of the lyrics.
12. Tecumseh Valley
While it first appeared on his debut album, Van Zandt re-recorded the song for his second album one year later to correct things that he felt were wrong. He breathed new life to its lyrics by adding important parts about the heroine’s father that better justify her choices.
13. You Are Not Needed Now
The song showcased Van Zandt’s knack for lasting melodies that adds affection and enthusiasm to even his most mysterious lyrics. The inspiring piano helps deliver that message.
14. Why She’s Acting This Way
Perhaps one of the few romantic songs of Van Zandt, “Why She’s Acting This Way” finds him spending a delightful five minutes or so, describing all the bewildering things his woman does.
15. I’ll Be Here In The Morning
In 1969, Van Zandt re-recorded several songs from his debut album, which includes “I’ll Be Here In The Morning” – a tender promise to a woman waiting at home for her wandering man.
More Townes Van Zandt Songs That Prove He’s One of A Kind
Indeed, Townes Van Zandt established himself as one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Check out some of his other songs below.
So, which among these Townes Van Zandt songs do you love the most?
Townes Van Zandt