Hailing from the Lonestar State, singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt came from a long line of proud Texas officials. One of his family members from previous generations was even a leader of the Republic of Texas before it became an official state in the union. His own father was an attorney, and his parents hoped he’d follow in his footsteps. But after seeing Elvis Presley perform on the Ed Sullivan Show one evening, Townes was hooked and he pursued the life of a troubadour for the rest of his days.
With his preferred Gibson J 200 in hand, he wrote some of the country’s most stirring, reflective folk songs of contemporary times. A true country artist, his songs were both story-driven and poetic, with haunting melodies and stripped down production creating a moody, mysterious atmosphere throughout his recordings.
After a long bout with substance abuse issues, Van Zandt passed away in ’97 at age 52, the same age his father had died in the ’60s. He left behind a towering body of work that remains unrivaled, though many, including Steve Earle and Gillian Welch, have made valiant attempts to carry on his torch over the years by covering his music. We detail the best Townes Van Zandt songs below.
11. For the Sake of the Song
The title track to his debut album released in 1968, ‘For the Sake of the Song’ is a tender ballad that explores the complexities of loneliness, peace of mind, turning to music (and turning inward) for comfort. Townes Van Zandt was not your typical songwriter, especially by Nashville’s standards, which is where he found himself recording for the first time for his debut album. Spending much of his time in middle-of-nowhere Texas, the bustling country music mecca overwhelmed him and soon he had an album that was overproduced and didn’t sound like his acoustic, singer-songwriter sound his modest following loved. Subsequently, over the years, he re-released all tracks, including this one from his debut album, in the style he preferred, just his guitar, voice, and poetic stanzas clearly and passionately ruminating over life’s biggest obstacles and most enduring questions.
10. Tecumseh Valley
Telling the story of “Caroline” from a drifting cowboy who took a liking to her after a chance encounter, ‘Tecumseh Valley’ was one of Van Zandt’s early songs that quickly became a signature composition after its release on his debut album. Later re-recorded in a more appropriate fashion for Townes’ stripped down style, the version released on his album Our Mother the Mountain is a fan favorite. He once again shows how skilled he is poetically with this story-song, as he strings together scenes from Caroline’s life as she tries to make her way in the world. By the end, a loving tribute from the eyes of her nameless admirer comes full circle. Many view ‘Tecumseh Valley’ as one of the best songs Townes ever wrote, and big time artists like Steve Earle would later choose this Van Zandt track as their favorite to cover.
9. Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel
Heavy with metaphors and symbolism, this folk ballad requires a few different listens to fully unpack everything the songwriter included in the story. Once again, he makes masterful use of the story-song concept, weaving together a tale featuring a protagonist who’s finally drummed up the nerve to leave a manipulative, abusive lover, whose character goes by the name “Miss Carousel.” Released on his self-titled 1969 album, Van Zandt often left his songs open to interpretation, not offering anything too specific in the few interviews he did give. Listeners have debated over the years as to the song’s personal meaning to Townes, who led a very private life in the backwoods of Texas. While listening to the emotionally charged lyrics undergirded by a brilliantly understated performance, was “Miss Carousel” based on a real woman he encountered during his days playing dives across the Lonestar State?
8. Dead Flowers
One of the few tunes Van Zandt ever covered over the course of his career, ‘Dead Flowers’ is actually a Rolling Stones tune written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It debuted on their notorious Sticky Fingers album back in ’71, and marked an experimental time for the group when they were leaning into a more country sound while trying to stay true to their rock roots. The dark, melancholy tune focuses on a toxic relationship with the story’s main character trying to leave the abusive circumstances behind. With references to drugs within the lyrics, fans have long speculated whether it’s about a person or a habit. Van Zandt struggled with his own addictions, and he found the song to be particularly pertinent to his own life’s story. He included a live, recorded cover of ‘Dead Flowers’ on his album Roadsongs. His version is also featured in the cult classic film, The Big Lebowski.
7. To Live Is To Fly
Townes’ songs often contain dark undertones and sorrowful outlooks on life, but with ‘To Live is To Fly,’ the troubadour mixes things up. Taking a surprisingly positive approach when talking about life’s big picture, his lyrics elude to the fact that life is a journey full of ups and downs, and ultimately one worth living as we strive to experience the world. He wrote it while staying with friends for a few days. During his stay, the entire house came down with an intense case of the flu and they all drank cough syrup for days to ease symptoms. While in a deep sleep, Townes said the song came to him in a vivid dream, and when he woke up was able to jot the song down word for word and note for note. ‘To Live is to Fly’ is reportedly the only tune that he ever created this way.
Van Zandt showed artistic promise from an early age, but with a high IQ and traditional parents, they ushered him toward a more conventional path, following in his father’s academic footsteps to become a politician or lawyer. When Townes dropped out of college, it just so happened to coincide with the height of modern psychiatry and its experimental treatments for patients deemed to have mental disorders. When he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and manic depression, treatment in a mental facility was ordered and he underwent a form of extensive shock therapy known as “Insulin Shock Therapy,” which is now, of course, outlawed. After the intense treatments, which put patients under forced comas via large doses of insulin, he was discharged from the facility uncured, with much of his memory lost, and newly acquired breathing problems due to the nature of the procedures he endured. ‘Lungs’ paints a raw, telling picture of the pain and wide range of emotions he felt after his harrowing experience.
5. Waiting Around to Die
Featured in the 1976 documentary Heartworn Highways, ‘Waiting Around to Die’ is one of Townes’ most forlorn tunes, and one of his most honest. The main character’s arc in the song mirrors much of Van Zandt’s own life. He struggled with depression from the time he was a young boy, and never could seem to live up to his parents’ expectations. In a couple of different interviews, he said this was the first song he wrote. It was also the first single he released on his For the Sake of the Song album. The single’s haunting, dreamlike quality and tale of isolation and loneliness make this a quintessential Townes Van Zandt composition, and one that should be at the top of any songwriter’s list to study in regards to lyrical mastery.
4. Be Here to Love Me
A rare jovial take on life from Van Zandt, the uplifting quality of ‘Be Here to Love Me’ was welcomed by his fans when he released it on his Our Mother the Mountain album. Many of his tracks are eloquently simple, featuring only his guitar and yearning voice. But he fancies things up a bit as production goes for this song and adds in a more traditional country feel complete with flute work. As vulnerable as Townes’ work was, this tune proved he could lay bare his soul even more than he already had, and it made quite the impression. In 2004, filmmaker Margaret Brown released a documentary chronicling the life of the brooding troubadour and titled it after this vibrant Van Zandt original.
3. If I Needed You
Fellow musicians, especially songwriters, have long fawned over Townes’ works, with the likes of Steve Earl even daring to declare the Texas song-poet a better writer than the great Bob Dylan himself. A particularly popular Van Zandt song among artists is ‘If I Needed You,’ a quiet, romantic confession of love in its most sincere form, a poem set to melody. Covered by country star Emmylou Harris and Don Williams as a duet in ’81 on her critically acclaimed album Cimmaron, it received a ton of love on Billboard charts and set itself up to be one of Townes’ evergreen contributions to country music. It has been used as a poignant soundtrack in quite a few hit films over the years as well, including the tearjerker movie Stepmom. Starring Julia Roberts, she sings this sweet tune in one of the film’s many touching scenes.
2. I’ll Be Here in the Morning
A spiritual song drawing on the freedom found in nature, the open road, and living life as a traveling man, ‘I’ll Be Here in the Morning’ stands as a strong part of Van Zandt’s overall songwriting legacy. The tune’s hymn-like quality moved greats like Lucinda Williams. Part poem, part prayer, open-ended lyrics nudge listeners to contemplate everything from how one spends their days to the footprint one leaves behind. While not nearly as well known as lyrical giants like Bob Dylan (Dylan was a big fan of Townes though, and reportedly owned all of his albums), Van Zandt made a huge impact on the music industry during his professional career. He made an especially affecting impact on artists in Nashville, a town he could never quite get used to. Part of what keeps Townes’ flame alive even though he passed away in ’97 is the work of those after him who cover his music so passionately. In this case, ‘I’ll Be Here in the Morning’ served as the perfect title for a biographical book released in 2011 featuring commentary by artists both up-and-coming and well-known in regards to the pivotal role Townes’ music played in their own artistic journeys.
1. Pancho & Lefty
In 1983 country stars Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson took Van Zandt’s ‘Pancho & Lefty’ to the top of the charts when they teamed up for the historic collaboration. The success of the song cemented it as one of country music’s timeless tales, and as Townes’ most commercially successful composition. The tune plays out like an epic, following the antics of two outlaw-bandits on the run from authorities. Though Haggard and Nelson took great pains with the recording in keeping with the song’s original essence, our lonesome troubadour’s original version feels the most authentic, rightfully so. Van Zandt’s haunting voice tells the tale properly, with a southern gothic flavoring. And the mournful strings section he ushers in as the song gets underway makes it an unforgettable listener experience. Not only was ‘Pancho & Lefty’ Van Zandt’s official claim to country music fame, but it was arguably the best story he ever penned.
Recommended: Hear the cover version on our pick of the best Merle Haggard songs.