I feel like there’s no middle ground when it comes to Townes Van Zandt. You either have no clue who he is or hail him as one of the greatest songwriters in the history of country music. To hear his songs – no matter who is singing them – is to witness a master songsmith at work.
The list of people who covered Townes Van Zandt’s songs is long and star-studded. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Robert Earl Keen, and many more are all in that club. However, that only scratches the surface of his influence.
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The Paradox That Was Townes Van Zandt
According to Texas Monthly, Nanci Griffith once said, “If there weren’t a Townes Van Zandt, there would be no Nanci Griffith,” in a TV interview. Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell were watching that interview and agreed. “There’d be no Rodney Crowell,” Crowell said. Agreeing, Clark added, “There’d be no Guy Clark.”
Townes came from an affluent and influential Texas family. His great-great-grandfather Isaac Van Zandt was important during the early days of Texas independence. Sam Huston appointed him the Republic of Texas’ chargé d’affaires to the United States. Years later, he died while running for governor. In the future, his descendants would go on to become civic leaders. The Van Zandt family even has a county named for them in the Lone Star State. Townes started down that road, going as far as to attend law school. After his father passed, though, he dropped out of college and took on the life of a musician.
He was like this professionally as well. Townes Van Zandt’s songwriting prowess could have made him a star. He shunned recognition, though. On several occasions, he even turned down the chance to record or tour with Bob Dylan. Townes’ protégé, Steve Earle, once said that the songwriter “Shot himself in the foot every damn chance he got.”
I could spend hours retelling the countless stories and tall tales that surround Townes Van Zandt’s life. However, I think it’s better to pierce the shroud of legend and mystery and take a look at his music.
Today, Townes would have turned 79 years old. To celebrate his birthday, let’s listen to some tunes and appreciate his mastery of the craft.
“Pancho and Lefty”: Townes Van Zandt’s Greatest Hit
This is the one Townes Van Zandt song that just about every country fan has heard. However, they probably heard the version that Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard cut for their 1983 album of the same name.
Their cover of the song is great, but there’s something about hearing Townes sing it that elevates the track to another level.
“Waiting Around to Die”
On his 1977 album Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas, Townes Van Zandt says this is the first “serious” song he ever wrote. “Serious” doesn’t begin to describe this tune about a young man who goes from a broken home to riding the rails, ends up in prison, and accepts death at the hands of his addiction.
Van Zandt’s first wife Fran Petters said that Townes wrote the song in the closet of their Houston home. “That was when he wrote ‘Waitin’ Around to Die,’ which was the first song… I was twenty years old – a newlywed – and ‘Waitin’ Around to Die’ wasn’t exactly… I was expecting a love ballad or something.”
“To Live Is to Fly”
This is one of my favorite Townes Van Zandt songs. I equate it to Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever” in that it feels like a message for those who will inevitably miss him when he’s gone. There’s love, longing, and wisdom in these lyrics. More than anything else, there’s a simple message – life is a journey and we’re all going to come to the same destination.
According to American Songwriter, Townes Van Zandt wrote this song in a fever dream. He was in Nashville recording The Late Great Townes Van Zandt and staying with Guy and Susanna Clark. They all had the flu. “One night I went to bed and had a dream about being a folksinger. And I was onstage somewhere and I played this song.”
Townes said that he woke up when the song ended, wrote it down, and went back to sleep. The next morning, he played it for the first time.
Listen to these songs and many more on our playlist To Live Is to Fly: Remembering Townes Van Zandt. While you’re at it, follow Outsider on Spotify to get all the best music from our favorite artists.