It's been twenty-six years since Townes Van Zandt's untimely death. In that time, Van Zandt's legacy as one of the greatest songwriters of all time has only grown. On what would have been his 79th birthday, we're looking back on the songs that define his legendary career.
From his impeccably spun story-songs like "Pancho & Lefty" to love songs like "If I Needed You" in which every word is poetry, these ten tracks are essential listening for every Van Zandt fan.
"To Live Is To Fly"From 'Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas' (1972)
When Van Zandt wrote, every word was absolutely necessary to build and shape the song's magic. "To Live Is To Fly" is the perfect example of this ethic. In true Townes Van Zandt fashion, this song takes the immense ache of this world and translates it into something beautiful and manageable. It's impossible to pull a "best line" from a song so cohesive and whole, but there is a special kind of beauty in the words, "We got the sky to talk about and the earth to lie upon."
"I'll Be Here in the Morning"From 'Townes Van Zandt' (1969)
In 1969, Van Zandt re-recorded "I'll Be Here in the Morning," which first appeared on his debut album. In this version, he matches the wistful lyrics with a stripped-down arrangement. On "I'll Be Here in the Morning," Van Zandt's folk influences are especially apparent. At the same time, the track is an excellent example of Van Zandt establishing himself as one of the most important voices in the folk-country (or Americana) tradition.
"If I Needed You"From 'The Late Great Townes Van Zandt' (1972)
"If I Needed You" is one of the finest love songs of all time, combining a gentle melody with tender lyrics like, "And the morning's born with the lights of love / And you'll miss sunrise if you close your eyes / And that would break my heart in two." What sets the track apart from others like it is that Van Zandt does not separate romance from vulnerability as he asks the question, "If I needed you, would you come to me? / Would you come to me for to ease my pain?"
"Pancho & Lefty"From 'The Late Great Townes Van Zandt' (1972)
With "Pancho & Lefty," Van Zandt solidified his status in the country music canon. The ballad of friendship and betrayal was famously covered by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and remains one of the best story-songs of all time. Only a writer of Van Zandt's caliber can create characters that live in our collective hearts and imaginations the way that Pancho and Lefty do.
"For The Sake of The Song"From 'Townes Van Zandt' (1969)
"For The Sake of the Song" was originally recorded as the title track of Van Zandt's debut album. However, he re-recorded the song with fewer flourishes for his third album, Townes Van Zandt, and that became the definitive version. No matter the version in question, though, "For The Sake of the Song" is quintessential Van Zandt: equal parts melancholia and beauty.
"Rex's Blues" is one of Van Zandt's most beautiful songs. Playing a delicate acoustic guitar, Van Zandt sings mournful lyrics: "Ride the blue wind high and free / She'll lead you down through misery / Leave you low, come time to go / Alone and low as low can be." Yet at the same time, the song retains a sense of gentleness and peace-with-things. Van Zandt sings: "Legs to walk and thoughts to fly / Eyes to laugh and lips to cry / A restless tongue to classify / All born to grow and grown to die."
"Waiting Around to Die"From 'Townes Van Zandt' (1969)
One of Van Zandt's most distinctive qualities was the unflinching way in which he looked at the human condition. When Van Zandt brought darkness into his songs, it was not for theatrics; it was a stark, truthful sort of pain. "Waiting Around to Die" is a prime example of this. The song ends with a sobering verse, given Van Zandt's own tumultuous history: "Now I'm out of prison / I got me a friend at last / He don't drink or steal or cheat or lie / His name's Codine / He's the nicest thing I've seen / Together we're gonna wait around and die."
"Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel"From 'Townes Van Zandt' (1969)
"Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel" is a folk song in the truest sense, taking listeners back to a time when folk and country music were one. Listening to "Miss Carousel," you can hear Bob Dylan's influence on Van Zandt through the sprawling, image-heavy lyrics. The connection between Dylan and Van Zandt has been examined many times over, with Steve Earle having the most infamous last word on the matter when he said: "Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that."
"Loretta"From 'Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas' (1977)
On Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas, "Loretta" is a barroom song for a barroom girl. Here, the master poet puts complexities aside for a moment, singing, "Her age is always twenty-two / Her laughing eyes a hazel hue / Spends my money like water falls /Loves me like I want her to." "Loretta" is a reminder that Van Zandt could write simple country tunes just as artfully as he did his story-telling ballads.
From 'Delta Momma Blues' (1971)
Van Zandt's fourth album, Delta Momma Blues, was his first album that wasn't recorded in Nashville. It was also a departure from his earlier work in that it was more overtly influenced by the blues. The album ends with the ominous "Nothin'," a track that's memorable for its country-blues guitar and desolate lines like, "Being born is going blind / And bowing down a thousand times / To echoes strung / On pure temptation."