Townes Van Zandt For The Sake of the Song

10 Best Townes Van Zandt Songs

Singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt came from a prominent Texan family. Prodigiously intelligent, his family groomed him as a lawyer or senator but seeing Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show led him into music. Struggling with manic depression and addictions, his behaviour was often erratic. He was prone to self-sabotaging his career, but his talent as a songwriter shone through. Songs like ‘If I Needed You’ and ‘Pancho and Lefty’ became country hits in the hands of other artists, while Steve Earle famously said:

Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.

Steve Earle

Most of Van Zandt’s albums were recorded between 1968 and 1972 – after that his recording career was sporadic. Sometimes he was indifferent to the recording process, and his best album is arguably the solo live set Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas, recorded in 1973 and released in 1977. Van Zandt passed away from cardiac arrhythmia on New Year’s Day 1997.

10 Best Townes Van Zandt Songs

#10 – Waitin’ Around to Die

Townes Van Zandt 1970 Self Titled Album

I guess I keep a-gamblin’
Lots of booze and lots of ramblin’
It’s easier than just waitin’ around to die

from For The Sake of the Song, 1968
Van Zandt told the audience on his acclaimed live album Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas that ‘Waitin’ Around to Die’ was the first serious song he ever wrote. Thankfully it was inspired by a conversation with an old man, as it’s a worryingly nihilistic song for a 20-year-old to write. Van Zandt included this song on his debut, but was dissatisfied with the result and re-recorded it for his third album Townes Van Zandt.

#9 – To Live Is To Fly

Days, up and down they come
Like rain on a conga drum

from High, Low and In Between, 1971
Van Zandt considered ‘To Live Is To Fly’ to be one of his best-written songs – “It’s impossible to have a favorite song, but if I were forced at knifepoint to choose one, it would be ‘To Live Is To Fly.'” The song later supplied the name of a Van Zandt biography and was covered by the Cowboy Junkies.

#8 – Loretta

Her age is always 22
Her laughing eyes a hazel hue
Spends my money like water falls
Loves me like I want her to

from Flyin’ Shoes, 1978
1978’s Flyin’ Shoes was Van Zandt’s first studio album for six years, although many of its songs were previously recorded for an abandoned album in 1973. Producer Chips Moman, who’d worked with Stax and Elvis Presley, provides Van Zandt with a more muscular sound than his earlier records.

#7 – The Silver Ships of Andilar

Townes Van Zandt The Late Great

North for the shores of Valinor
Our bows and crimson sails were made
Our captains were strong, our lances long
And our liege the holy king

from The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, 1972
‘The Silver Ships of Andilar’ is an odd duck in Van Zandt’s discography. It’s a lengthy tale with fantasy lyrics, while the orchestration is bombastic. Valinor is taken from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, a reference to a futile attack on the undying lands. ‘The Silver Ships of Andilar’ therefore reads as an anti-war song. ‘If I Needed You’, which Emmylou Harris and Don Williams took to #3 on the country charts in 1981, is a more canonical choice from The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. ‘Silver Ships’, however, is a unique entry in Van Zandt’s catalogue.

#6 – Pancho and Lefty

Pancho needs your prayers, it’s true
Save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
And now he’s growing old

from The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, 1972
‘Pancho and Lefty’ is Van Zandt’s best-known song, thanks to covers by Emmylou Harris and a duet between Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. Its origins are actually mundane – Van Zandt told Paul Zollo that it was written in a Dallas hotel room, due to “not having anything to do and sitting down with the express purpose of writing a song.”

“We got stopped by these two policeman and…they said ‘What do you do for a living?’, and I said, ‘Well, I’m a songwriter’, and they both kind of looked around like ‘pitiful, pitiful’, and so on to that I added, ‘I wrote that song “Pancho and Lefty”. You ever heard that song “Pancho and Lefty”? I wrote that’, and they looked back around and they looked at each other and started grinning, and it turns out that their squad car, you know their partnership, it was two guys, it was an Anglo and a Hispanic, and it turns out, they’re called Pancho and Lefty … so I think maybe that’s what it’s about, those two guys … I hope I never see them again.”

Townes Van Zandt, from the 1984 PBS series “Austin Pickers

#5 – High, Low and In Between

Townes Van Zandt High Low and In Between

I come from a long line
High and low and in between

from High, Low and In Between, 1971
The Wrecking Crew’s Don Randi plays some lovely piano on this song. It was recorded during a time of turmoil in Van Zandt’s life – his girlfriend was stabbed to death while hitchhiking her way to the recording session. It reads as biography from Van Zandt, talking about his decision to abandon his family’s riches (“the gold’s no good for spending”) for life as a cult songwriter (“the highway’s mine”).

#4 – Saint John The Gambler

Townes Van Zandt Our Mother The Mountain

When she had twenty years she turned to her mother
Saying Mother, I know that you’ll grieve
But I’ve given my soul to St John the gambler
Tomorrow comes time leave

from Our Mother the Mountain, 1969
Van Zandt’s second album married his dark songs to gothic strings, and it’s one of his best records. ‘Saint John the Gambler’ is a good microcosm of the album as a whole, a desperately dark tale of a young woman purposely plunging herself into doom. It could be corny in some hands, but Van Zandt’s voice conveys the necessary bleakness effectively.

#3 – Flyin’ Shoes

Townes Van Zandt Flyin' Shoes

Day’s full of rain
Sky’s coming down again
I get so tired
Of these same old blues

from Flyin’ Shoes, 1978
The meditative ‘Flyin’ Shoes’ was written by the Harpeth River, where the Battle of Franklin took place. It’s another beneficiary of the improved arrangements of the Flyin’ Shoes album – it’s lovely with the sparse harmonica introduction and tinkling piano.

#2 – No Place To Fall

I ain’t much of a lover it’s true
I’m here then I’m gone
And I’m forever blue
But I’m sure wanting you

from Flyin’ Shoes, 1978
Like a lot of the material from Flyin’ Shoes, ‘No Place to Fall’ was written well before it was recorded in 1978. It appeared on Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas, recorded in 1973. It provided the title for a Steve Young album in 1978, and was also covered by Steve Earle. It provides some of Van Zandt’s most confessional writing, sadly beautiful.

#1 – Tower Song

Townes Van Zandt Delta Momma Blues

You built your tower strong and tall
Can’t you see it’s got to fall some day

from Delta Momma Blues, 1970
Van Zandt’s songs always seem to provide insight into the human condition. Like a lot of Van Zandt’s work, ‘Tower Song’ is faintly nihilistic, but it also finds beauty in fragility. According to a comment on songmeanings, it was an attempt to salvage his first marriage.

Did I miss your favourite Townes Van Zandt song?

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  1. It’s interesting – in films, when there’s a big gap between filming & release, chances are, the film isn’t so great.
    Yet with music, with artists like Neil Young / The Modern Lovers / and as you said with Townes Van Zandt, sometimes their best work sat on the shelf for a few years before finally coming out!

  2. I haven’t heard half of these songs. I know his folks committed him to an asylum and approved EST at minimum and probably worse. Thank you very much for creating the playlist I’m going to listen to in just a minute here. My favorites you didn’t list are “Tecumseh Valley” “Sanitarium Blues” “Dead Flowers” and “If I Needed You.” Let’s face it, all of his songs are precious jewels.

  3. The guy was a natural songwriter. I’m not familiar with all of the songs but I know most of them. He is another artist I want to explore more. I heard him mostly from friends.

    • Reminds me of Paul Westerberg a bit – although Van Zandt’s issues were a lot more extreme. Talented songwriter who was prone to self-sabotage.

  4. Coincidentally, I just spun my vinyl copy of Old Quarter last night. I’ve decided that “No Place to Fall” is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Happy to see it as your #2.

    • I love the lyrics on that one, particularly the line I quoted. It’s very vulnerable, but that’s hardly unusual for Van Zandt.

        • I’m mainly thinking of the first album where his songs get dressed up in these baroque pop arrangements that don’t really work for him.

          • Do you have that Texas Troubadour set? It’s a pretty easy one-stop shopping solution.

          • I do! I first heard it in the scungy record shoppe here in my town. I asked to buy it and he wouldn’t sell it to me – he was keeping it lol. So I ordered my own. I also have the Nashville Sessions and Live At The Old Quarter.

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