Townes Van Zandt was one of the most prolific American songwriters in history, and although his life was cut far too short by his death in 1997 at age 52, his music will live on forever. The Fort Worth, Texas native had a knack for conveying important messages with his music by way of poetic lyrics and folksy instrumentation. After moving to Nashville, Tennessee in 1968, Van Zandt met his longtime producer "Cowboy" Jack Clement, and he began making the music that still lives today.
Townes Van Zandt made an enormous impact on the landscape of music from the late '60s to today, and his songs have been covered by the likes of Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark and many more. It's no easy feat to choose just a few tunes from the singer-songwriter's discography.
Songs like "Our Mother the Mountain," "Kathleen," "Tower Song" and "Snake Mountain Blues" are certainly deserving of recognition. But, for this particular list, here's the singer's entire discography trimmed down to just 10 of the best Townes Van Zandt songs.
The stunning "Loretta" is featured on Van Zandt's Flyin' Shoes album.
9. "Rex's Blues"
"Rex's Blues" was written about Rex "Wrecks" Bell, the founder of the Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe, where Van Zandt recorded Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas.
8. "Tecumseh Valley"
One of Van Zandt's most heartbreaking tunes, "Tecumseh Valley" tells the story of Caroline, the daughter of a miner. The song was later recorded by Nanci Griffith.
7. "Flyin' Shoes"
Released in January 1978 from his album of the same name, "Flyin' Shoes" is a lonesome tune which finds Van Zandt coming to grips with his own mortality. He describes the sadness he feels in the verses with visuals of "days full of rain" and Fall being a feeling he "just can't lose." Through his grief, however, he realizes he's not long for this world, and someday he'll put on his "Flyin' Shoes" and pass away. In true folk fashion, the song is full of acoustic guitar, mandolin, steel guitar and harmonica instrumentation which only adds to the song's lonesome feeling. The Flyin' Shoes album also includes "Loretta," "No Place To Fall," "Dollar Bill Blues," and more.
6. "For the Sake of the Song"
"For the Sake of the Song" is a track featured on Van Zandt's debut album of the same name and re-recorded for his 1969 self-titled album. In the tune, Van Zandt sings about a woman singing a song, and he wonders if she means what she sings or if she's simply singing "for the sake of the song." His 1969 self-titled album also features many other of his prominent songs, including "Colorado Girl," "Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel," and others on this list.
5. "To Live Is To Fly"
Van Zandt brings his poetic songwriting to his 1971 song, "To Live Is To Fly." In this song, Van Zandt shares a positive message about living life to the fullest while you still can. "To live is to fly / Low and high / So shake the dust off of your wings /And the sleep out of your eyes," he sings. While still acoustic in nature, this song employs light drums and piano, as opposed to simple guitar instrumentation. The song was released from his 1971 album, High, Low And In Between, which also features "Highway Kind," "Mr. Mudd And Mr. Gold," and others.
Read More: The 10 Best Emmylou Harris Songs
4. "I'll Be Here in the Morning"
Like "For the Sake of the Song," two versions exist of "I'll Be Here in the Morning." One version is on his debut For the Sake of the Song album, and a slower, more acoustic version is found on his self-titled album. The second version of the song seems to fit more with the singer's other acoustic-leaning tunes and allows the message of the song to truly come through. The song is a slow, heartwarming tune in which Van Zandt reassures a loved one that he'll still be with her in the morning.
3. "Waiting Around to Die"
"Waiting Around to Die" also received the acoustic treatment with its 1969 remake on Townes' self-titled album. In this haunting tune, Van Zandt sings of some of the trials in his life and confronts his lifestyle of "boozin'" and "ramblin.'" The song finds Van Zandt somewhat admitting that his way of life isn't perfect, but it's easier than simply "waiting around to die." The 1969 version of the song employs acoustic guitar picking which makes the tune all the more lonesome. The song appeared as "Waitin' Around to Die" on his debut album.
2. "If I Needed You"
A Townes Van Zandt song that may be more recognizable to wider audiences is "If I Needed You." This song, released in 1972 from his album, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, finds the singer questioning his love's loyalty. The tune was famously covered in 1981 by Emmylou Harris and Don Williams and landed at No. 3 on the Billboard Country chart. The song has since been covered by Guy Clark, Doc Watson, Lyle Lovett, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires and many more. The Late Great Townes Van Zandt album also features "Snow Don't Fall" and the number one song on this list.
1. "Pancho & Lefty"
Anyone who has an interest in country music will likely know "Pancho & Lefty," originally written and recorded by Townes Van Zandt. The song was released from Van Zandt's The Late Great Townes Van Zandt album and tells the story of a Mexican bandit. The song was covered by Emmylou Harris in 1976, and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard released their famous version, "Pancho & Lefty," in 1983 from their album of the same name.
Other notable songs from Van Zandt include "Come Tomorrow," "Delta Momma Blues," "Nothin,'" "Brother Flower," "Be Here To Love Me," "Snake Song," "Buckskin Stallion Blues," "Marie," "At My Window," "Snowin' on Raton," "Don't You Take It Too Bad," and many more.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in July 0f 2021. It was updated on Jan. 1, 2022.