Music

5 Best Townes Van Zandt Covers You Might Not Have Heard

The singer-songwriter, and Texas native, would have turned 71 on March 7, so we compiled a list of our favorite lesser-known covers.

Whether you know it or not, you have likely heard a Townes Van Zandt song or two. His melodies and lyrics are honest, hauntingly beautiful, and almost magical. Many consider Van Zandt the best songwriter of our time.

In his 30-year recording career, he never released an album on a major label. He wasn’t interested in building a career or being a player in the music business. He told writer Don McLeese in an interview, “I was just tapped on the shoulder from above and told to write these songs, as opposed to wanting to be a success in the music business.”

Van Zandt died of a heart attack on New Year’s Day 1997 at the age of 52. He had suffered from health problems stemming from years of alcohol and drug abuse.

In 1998, the television show Austin City Limits aired “A Celebration of Townes Van Zandt.” Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle, and others came together to play his songs and reminisce about the friend they had lost. Nelson and Harris played “Pancho and Lefty,” Harris and Earle sang “If I Needed You,” Griffith sang “Tecumseh Valley,” and Lovett performed “Flyin’ Shoes.”

You probably know some of the more popular hits, like the Nelson/Haggard cover of “Pancho & Lefty,” so here’s a list of some of the great covers you might not have heard.

5. Norah Jones, “Be Here To Love Me”

Norah Jones released “Be Here To Love Me” in 2004 on the album Feels Like Home. The song also appears on the 2004 documentary of the same name, which traces Van Zandt’s work and personal life. The singer and pianist transform this song with her supple voice and pop/jazz influences.

4. James McMurtry, “Rex’s Blues”

James McMurtry, a fellow native Texan, is a brilliant songwriter in his own right. He released this no-nonsense blues cover on his 1998 album, Walk Between The Raindrops.

3. Steve Earle, “To Live Is To Fly”

Steve Earle released an entire album of Van Zandt covers in 2009, simply called Townes. The two singer-songwriters were friends, and Earle regarded him as a mentor. Earle’s stripped-down arrangements and gravelly voice perfectly match Van Zandt’s melancholy lyrics.

2. The Holmes Brothers, “If I Needed You”

This song is, in my opinion, Van Zandt’s most beautiful, most haunting song. Artists from different genres have covered it over the decades, including Guy Clark, Andrew Bird and Mumford & Sons. Emmylou Harris and Don Williams took it to number three on the country charts in 1981.

The Holmes Brothers released this song on their 2004 album, Simple Truths. The blues trio stripped off the country twang and infused it with their unique blend of gospel, soul and R&B

1. Emmylou Harris, “Pancho & Lefty”

 
Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard took “Pancho & Lefty” to No. 1 on the country charts in 1983, but Emmylou Harris covered it first on her 1977 release, Luxury Liner. She was the first major artist to record and release a Van Zandt song; however, most people have never heard her version of this iconic tune.

Rodney Crowell and Albert Lee provide backing vocals and guitars.

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5 Best Townes Van Zandt Covers You Might Not Have Heard