8 Artists on their favorite Townes Van Zandt songs

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best Townes Van Zandt songs - roundtable

Townes Van Zandt‘s most famous song is one that became famous mostly through other artists’ recordings of it. “Pancho and Lefty,” originally featured on his 1972 album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, tells a story of a bandit betrayed by his associate and left to die as a result of that double-cross. It’s a simple but beautiful song despite its tragic tale, and became a favorite of other country artists, first being covered by Emmylou Harris in 1977, then later by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in 1983, which reached number one on the Billboard Hot Country chart that year—and featured Van Zandt in its video.

Delayed recognition was par for the course for Van Zandt, an artist who never sought it out in the first place. With songs like “Pancho and Lefty,” the Texas troubadour became a pioneer of outlaw country, though his records never sold in the numbers that Nelson’s or Haggard’s did. Even today, his music sometimes proves elusive in retrospectives on the greatest country music. But that wouldn’t have bothered him; Townes was a songwriter’s songwriter, capturing mesmerizing narratives and emotional anguish on albums like his 1969 self-titled album and Our Mother the Mountain, which earned him comparisons to the likes of Leonard Cohen as often as it did peers such as Guy Clark. Some of that anguish was reflected in his own life, whether through his troubled childhood or struggles with addiction, but in spite of it all, Townes Van Zandt captured a beauty and honesty that cut through the darkness.

Townes Van Zandt, who died on January 1, 1997, would have celebrated his 80th birthday this week. And as we remember the legendary, if often unsung singer/songwriter, we present a roundtable of sorts on his far-reaching influence. While choosing the best Townes Van Zandt songs could very well comprise most of his catalog, instead, we reached out to eight artists about their favorite songs in his body of work, from indie singer/songwriters to post-punk and metal artists.

Cave In‘s Stephen Brodsky

“The Hole”

“’The Hole’ is a survival story, one that takes place inside all of us: contending with shadow forms of our inner monologue. Those dark ugly things toying with our weaknesses at every turn, taunting us like a bullfighter waving the red cape. Townes confronted his like no other, and with flying colors here. Cave In covered “The Hole” for the Songs of Townes Van Zandt Vol. III album in tribute to our late friend and bandmate Caleb Scofield, who loved Townes and this song in particular.”

Baroness‘ John Baizley

“If I Needed You”

“I fell in love with the music of Townes Van Zandt music when I was a kid, after seeing him perform a gut-wrenching version of ‘Waiting Around to Die’ in the 1981 documentary, Heartworn Highways. During August of 2012, I was seriously injured in a tour bus accident. During a grueling and extensive recovery period, my friend Katie Jones and I recorded several covers of his songs, including ‘If I Needed You,’ of which I’ve always preferred the Old Quarter version for its simplicity, grit and deeply personal performance. Learning these songs forced me to relearn how to play guitar in spite of my injuries. Learning to sing his parts instigated a process by which I gained a much deeper understanding of the transformative and healing power of the human voice. The music of Townes Van Zandt has been a continual source of inspiration, beauty and healing throughout my career. As to the depth of emotional sincerity and hardwired truth in songwriting, Townes Van Zandt has very few peers. His music has changed my life.”

Amiture‘s Jack Whitescarver

“The Velvet Voices”

“‘Velvet Voices’ is a rare instance of TVZ relishing what I imagine was a kind of mania around making music and crafting his first record. He’s dreaming of music as a divine material that moves him like a prayer. I think most musicians understand that dream. This was one of the few songs he never really re-worked into solo guitar. The blood and guts of Townes is what originally drew me in to him. Few are as eloquent in describing the desolation of their life. This song stands out in the face of that persona and I love it for that. A beautiful dream that was never fulfilled.”

Conny Ochs

“Flyin’ Shoes”

“It’s the first song I ever heard of Townes, and it immediately hit me hard. The honesty in his voice, the impeccable songwriting and the immediate feeling of an underlying, haunting truth that you can almost touch, but just not quite. It is to me a perfect example of that desolate beauty I find in all of Townes’ songs and which make them so eternal and true. The way he sings it is almost sweet, is always tender, but it carries darkness in it, too. It has always perfectly embodied the way I feel about the traveling we do in search for inspiration, love, songs. If you add the background he gives about his initial inspiration for the lyrics, the horrific consequences of war, it transcends that even further. It’s mind-blowing how Townes could put it all in seemingly simple songs, the intimate reflection and no-holds-barred, universal truth.”

Amenra‘s Colin H. Van Eeckhout


“‘Kathleen’ must be my favorite Townes song. His honest delivery and storytelling is unmatched. Scarcity in word and sound. In this song he describes a state of being that feels well too familiar to me. ‘I ain’t in the mood for sunshine anyway.’ As a writer he keeps it simple yet layered, and incredibly profound. Recognizable in his uniqueness. He speaks for all mankind, addressing universal despair. 

‘Soon I’m gonna see my sweet Kathleen’ is she his savior, is she his death? It lingers.

“Townes’ music wasn’t very known in Europe, and it took me an awful long while to discover his work. Our American peers brought it to our ears. They spoke nothing but praise and it immediately resonated with my being, ever since the first listen, and hasn’t left me since. We have covered Townes songs since then, recorded them with much regard. Only then you realize what a talent he was. May his soul rest in peace.”

Today is the Day’s Steve Austin

“Waiting Around to Die”

“It’s not the most obscure song by Townes, but it really hits home. The ballad of a young man’s journey through life. He just can’t seem to catch a break since the day he was born. The song documents his travels and depicts a life always on the wrong side of everything. Isolation and loneliness, and finally finding a friend, in a drug addiction. It’s sad and you can feel the pain and sorrow In his voice. Having read a lot about Townes, he had it pretty damn hard when he was young, and it explains why he always probably felt alone.”

Yob‘s Mike Scheidt

“Highway Kind”

“My introduction to Townes Van Zandt came as a Christmas gift from my beloved mentor Dick Gunn, who’s thumb-on-auto-pilot finger picking and an immense generosity of spirit, seemingly on tap from a deep well of fun, changed my life for the better in profound ways. 

“This Christmas gift from Dick was a double CD of High, Low and In Between/The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt. It was 1996-ish, and Townes was very much new to me. When I first listened to Townes, my first thought was “folk music”(which at the time was strike one). As the album unfolded, following into The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt, I went from skeptical, to enamored, to obsessed. The first song that truly grabbed me was ‘Highway Kind,’ the fourth cut on High, Low and In Between

My days, they are the highway kind/They only come to leave/But the leavin’ I don’t mind/It’s the comin’ that I crave/Pour the sun upon the ground/Stand to throw a shadow/Watch it grow into a night/And fill the spinnin’ sky

“Just, wow. The wide open, desolate yet very much awake and alive feeling I get from this first stanza still stops me in my tracks. Instantly, I feel the crisp air of day becoming night, countless hours on the road to the next town, a mixture of hunger and hope, with the open space in between full of contemplation, insight and restlessness. Townes lays bare his self, as is, in his lyrics, which in turn lays bare mine. Holy shit, what a songwriter.”

Slaughter Beach, Dog‘s Jake Ewald

“If I Needed You”

“I’m not sure what to say about this song that can’t be easily heard on the first listen. The heart of the whole thing is clear as a bell—there’s no misunderstanding. It’s a solid-gold love song. There’s a special place in my heart for childlike love songs, songs with big, simple ideas that remind you of what you thought love was when you were fifteen. This is not one of those songs. ‘Your softest whisper’s louder than the highway’s call to me/Close your eyes, I’ll be here in the morning.’ Over and over again. I’ll be here in the morning. It speaks to the kind of faith and trust that underscores real love, love that burns softly, long after the dance halls close and the fiery arguments fizzle out. Townes had a way with those kinds of love songs. This one is masterful.”

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