Townes Van Zandt is often referenced as an example of a "songwriter's songwriter." Judging by the number of country and Americana songwriters who count him as an influence, that is a worthy title for the celebrated Texas talent.
In honor of Van Zandt's would be 78th birthday on March 7, we've rounded up ten of the best covers of some of Van Zandt's most beloved songs. From renditions by his peers Guy Clark and Emmylou Harris to those of the younger generations like Jason Isbell and Erika Wennerstrom, these are covers that every Van Zandt fan needs to hear.
"Pancho & Lefty"From: Emmylou Harris' 'Luxury Liner' (1977)
"Pancho and Lefty" is perhaps Van Zandt's most enduring song - and his most covered. A classic in the country music cannon, many greats - like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard - have taken their turn with the song. It's Emmylou Harris, though, who accesses the song's emotional center to the fullest potential. She covered the track for her 1977 album, Luxury Liner. The result was more than Harris honoring Van Zandt's storytelling; she brought his poetry to life.
"To Live Is To Fly"From: Guy Clark's 'Old Friends' (2006)
On his album Live From Austin, Texas, Guy Clark introduces "To Live Is To Fly" as "words to live by." Clark first recorded his rendition of the track for his 2006 album, Old Friends; a fitting placement for a song written by his late best friend. With a slowed tempo and exquisite backup vocals from none other than Emmylou Harris, Clark's version is a bit more sorrowful than Van Zandt's.
"Loretta"From: 'Poet: A Tribute To Townes Van Zandt' (2001)
Even on the occasions when he wasn't the songwriter, John Prine turned every song he performed into a John Prine song. His version of Van Zandt's "Loretta" is no exception to this rule.
On "Loretta," Van Zandt is writing in plain-spoken beauty: "Oh, Loretta, won't you say to me / Darling, put your guitar on / Have a little shot of booze / Play a blue a and wailing song." It's only fitting that the everyman poet Prine selected this song to cover.
"I'll Be Here In The Morning"From Erika Wennerstrom's 'A Tribute To Townes Van Zandt' (2019)
Heartless Bastards frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom lets her voice reign supreme on her cover of Van Zandt's 1968 classic "I'll Be Here In The Morning." Like the original, Wennerstrom is accompanied only by acoustic guitar. Her vocals are haunting and yearning, like she's taken the song into her being.
From 'Step Inside This House' (1998)
While Van Zandt released "If I Needed You" on his 1972 album, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, it was Emmylou Harris and Don Williams who brought the song to the country music charts with their cover nine years later. Then, in 1998, Lyle Lovett recorded his version of the song, with Alison Krauss supplying harmonies. Under Lovett and Krauss's care, the love song is a testament to vulnerability.
'Colorado Girl'From Steve Earle's 'Townes' (2009)
In 2009, Steve Earle recorded a full-length album, Townes, in tribute of his late mentor. (Whom his late son, Justin Townes Earle, was also named after.) One of the great highlights of the record is "Colorado Girl." Earle's gravel vocals tiptoe towards a growl at points. The effect captures the wayward and weary soul of the song.
"Rex's Blues"From Ramblin' Jack Elliott's 'Friends of Mine' (1998)
When Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Emmylou Harris, and Nanci Griffith come together on "Rex's Blues," they honor the mournful essence of the lyrics. At the same time, the song has a gentle, dream-like quality. The song's last ling may be "Alone and low as low can be," but listeners are instead left with the resonance of a prior line: "Ride the blue wind high and free."
"Nothin'"From 'Poet: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt' (2001)
When it comes to doing justice to the darkness that was at the heart of so many Van Zandt songs, there is a singular voice up to the challenge: Lucinda Williams. Williams brings her haunted, country-blues vocals and a steel guitar to "Nothin'." The song's raw bleakness is on such full display that it's almost frightening. This is what a successful Van Zandt cover is supposed to achieve.
"Tecumseh Valley"From Jason Isbell's 'Tecumseh Valley / Pancho and Lefty' (2013)
Vand Zandt's 1968 country folk song "Tecumseh Valley" tells the tale of a woman named Caroline, who comes to Tecumseh Valley looking for work. In their 2013 recording, Jason Isbell and Elizabeth Cook trade verses, letting Caroline's hard-luck fate unfold. While Van Zandt was undoubtably a major influence among his peers, his impact on songwriting extends through the generations, including Isbell.
"Marie"From 'Poet: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt' (2001)
In the 1980s, Van Zandt set out to re-record some of his classic songs. These became known as the Texas Hill Country Recordings, which included a duet rendition of "Marie" with Willie Nelson. In 2001, Nelson recorded "Marie" on his own in tribute to Van Zandt. Like "Tecumseh Valley," "Marie" is a story-song in which misery reigns all-powerful. When Nelson takes on "Marie," we're given yet another example of the country legend's supreme storytelling abilities.