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Essential Townes Van Zandt Songs

Suggestions for fans just discovering the work of Townes Van Zandt


Townes Van Zandt has long been championed as one of the greatest songwriters of his time. A quintessential Texan songwriter, Van Zandt's tunes have been sung by everyone from Guy Clark to Steve Earle (who made a whole album of Van Zandt's best tunes, titled Townes, in 2009), to Emmylou Harris, and many more. If you're just starting to learn about Townes Van Zandt's life and music, check out this playlist of suggestions - essential Townes Van Zandt songs.

1. "Pancho and Lefty"

Townes Van Zandt - The Late Great Townes Van Zandt
© Tomato
Perhaps Van Zandt's most popular composition, "Pancho and Lefty" has been covered by Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and countless other major folk and country music stars. Its labyrinthine story line has been debated for years by critics and fans, wondering who Pancho and Lefty were (some think they're one and the same person). Regardless of who you might believe the story is about, it's a sad song which wrestles with themes of friendship, hard work, and mortality. In other words, it's a quintessential Townes Van Zandt tune.

Living on the road, my friend, was gonna keep you free and clean / Now you wear your skin like iron, your breath's as hard as kerosene...

2. "Snowing on Raton"

Townes Van Zandt - Texas Rain
© Tomato
Townes Van Zandt was a born and raised Texan, but he also spent a good amount of time in Colorado, eventually writing a number of odes on that state. This is one of Van Zandt's many Colorado songs, about a love affair which perhaps could never come to fruition, or maybe a one night stand. Regardless, its imagery is cold and desolate, its sentiment emotional and deep. "Snowin' on Raton," in addition to Van Zandt's version, has been recorded by Emmylou, Robert Earl Keen, David Olney, and more.

Bid the years good-bye you cannot still them / You cannot turn the circles of the sun / You cannot count the miles until you feel them / And you cannot hold a lover that is gone...

3. "Tecumseh Valley"

Townes Van Zandt - A Gentle Evening with Townes Van Zandt
© Dualtone
"Tecumseh Valley" is a traditional-style epic folk song reminiscent of some of Woody Guthrie's multi-versed story-songs, and tells the story of a young, hardworking coal miner's daughter who came to town looking for a job that might make her father proud. Poor and alone, with few jobs available, she eventually turned to prostitution before losing her pride, discovering the death of her father, and eventually taking her own life. It's a sad but lovely tune which has been recorded by numerous contemporary folk artists, like Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, the Flatlanders, and others.

The name she gave was Caroline, daughter of a miner / her ways were free, it seemed to me that sunshine walked beside her...

4. "Waiting Around to Die"

Townes Van Zandt - Self-titled
© Fat Possum
Lush with tales of criminals and hard-up people, "Waiting Around to Die" starts off like it might be an overly sad, emotional call for help. But, with Van Zandt's sharp storytelling skills, he quickly re-steers the song to be one about others who might have it worse off than him - a man taken for all his money by a woman, a bank robber, an addict...and he does all this while recognizing the humanity in each scenario, endearing the listener to each character. Of course, as his songs go, it's been covered by a number of artists, including the Be Good Tanyas, the Lemonheads, and more.

Sometimes I don't know where this dirty road is taking me / Sometimes I can't even see the reason why...

5. "Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold"

Townes Van Zandt - Soundtrack for the film 'Be Here to Love Me'
© Fat Possum
A talking blues tune of sorts, Van Zandt delivered "Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold" in a defiant monotone, with a rhyme scheme not unlike the classic poem "Jabberwocky". It's another multi-versed epic story of a folk song, telling of a poker game between two men. It's fairly clear from the beginning that the card game imagery is just an analogy for a disagreement between two men - perhaps two classes, or two differing ideologies, depending on how you prefer to dissect it. Regardless, the tune was included on Steve Earle's album Townes.

The wicked king of clubs awoke and it was to his queen he turned / his lips were laughing as they spoke, his eyes like bullets burned...

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