Townes Van Zandt: The Songwriting Icon Behind ‘Pancho and Lefty,’ ‘If I Needed You’ & More

by Clayton Edwards
townes-van-zandt-songwriter-behind-pancho-lefty-countless-other-classics

Townes Van Zandt was many things: Texan, poet, singer, icon.

My favorite summation of Townes comes from the intro track on the 2020 album, Somebody Had to Write It, which was released 23 years after Townes’ death in 1997: “Townes was a traveling troubadour whose body of work rivals that of any writer. His songs came from his life, and he lived his life with a robust abandon that made those songs some of the finest literature of the 20th century.”

Steve Earle, Van Zandt’s protege, once 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.” That quote was printed on a sticker and slapped on the packaging of Van Zandt’s 1987 album, At My Window. Townes reportedly wasn’t fond of the sticker—or the quote. As for Earle, he backtracked a bit on the statement in an interview with the New York Times in 2009.

However, for my money, he wasn’t far from the mark.

Townes’ lack of celebrity was by design, though. He didn’t seek out fame or fortune. In the same New York Times interview, Steve Earle said Van Zandt, “Shot himself in the foot every d–n chance he got.” He lived his life in relative obscurity. In fact, he turned down several offers to tour with Bob Dylan.

Today, Townes Van Zandt is a cult figure. His fanbase is ever-growing. His influence is everywhere, from Steve Earle and Robert Earl Keen to Jason Isbell and Colter Wall.

If you listen to country or folk music, you’ve heard Townes’ work. You just might not know it. With that in mind, let’s look at—and listen to—a handful of examples of Townes’ artistry in action.

‘Pancho and Lefty’ – Merle Haggard & Willie Nelson

Van Zandt originally recorded “Pancho and Lefty” on his 1972 album, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. Four years later, Emmylou Harris cut a cover of the song for her album, Luxury Liner. However, most country music fans know the version recorded by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. The tandem used it as the title track of their 1983 duet album.

“Pancho and Lefty” is an example of what can happen when the stars align just right. It is also the Townes Van Zandt song that just about everyone has heard. First and foremost, the songwriting and storytelling behind the song are top-notch. Now, add Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. The song is a perfect thematic fit for the Outlaw legends. It’s like Townes wrote “Pancho and Lefty” just for Willie and Merle.

Willie and Merle took “Pancho and Lefty” to the top of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. Their version of the tune was inducted into the Grammy Awards Hall of Fame in 2020.

Watch the video of the classic duet and you’ll catch a few glimpses of Townes Van Zandt. He’s the young pale-skinned Federale who rides up beside Merle Haggard early in the video. Later, you can see him sitting at the table in the diner doing what he did best—playing his guitar and singing.

‘If I Needed You’ – Emmylou Harris & Don Williams

Van Zandt recorded “If I Needed You” on his 1972 album, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. Emmylou Harris and Don Williams recorded the song as a duet. Harris released their version as the first single from her 1981 album, Cimarron.

Townes’ life informed his music, and he didn’t have an easy go at it. So, his songwriting has a kind of lonesome feel to it. On the surface, “If I Needed You” sounds almost like a love song. There’s an air of sadness about it, though.

Harris and Williams’ version of the song went to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.

‘Snowin’ On Raton’ – Robert Earl Keen, Town Mountain & More

Townes Van Zandt first recorded “Snowin’ On Raton” on his 1987 album, At My Window. Since then, Emmylou Harris, Robert Earl Keen, Pat Green, Town Mountain, and several others have recorded exceptional versions.

The theme of traveling and leaving lovers behind is one that has been visited many times by many artists. “Snowin’ On Raton” is a little different though. It doesn’t matter who records this song, it hits differently than any other sad road tune.

Much like its original composer, “Snowin’ On Raton” never made a big splash on the charts. However, no matter who cuts it, it’s a great track—because of the songwriting. Check out Town Mountain playing it live for Fretboard Journal.

‘Tecumseh Valley’ – Elizabeth Cook & Jason Isbell

Townes Van Zandt originally recorded “Tecumseh Valley” on his 1968 debut album, For the Sake of the Song. Like many of his other compositions, this tune has been covered by several artists, including Steve Earl, Rhonda Harris, The Stonemans, Bobby Bare, and Nanci Griffith, as well as Jason Isbell and Elizabeth Cook.

All of those covers are solid. This is Townes Van Zandt doing what he does best, after all. He tells sad stories with flashes of love and romanticism like few others. However, I wanted to highlight Jason Isbell’s cut of the song to show the range of Van Zandt’s influence, especially on contemporary singer/songwriters.

Just listen to Isbell and Elizabeth Cook transform this mournful ballad into a duet. It’s gorgeous.

‘Waitin’ Around to Die’ – The Devil Makes Three

This is another cut from Townes Van Zandt’s debut album. Like the bulk of Van Zandt’s work, it has been covered by a multitude of artists. However, I want to highlight the cover by the bluegrass/Americana band The Devil Makes Three. It’s a great cover by a killer band. On top of that, it was my introduction to Townes. So, this one holds a special place in my heart.

This wasn’t the first Townes song that I ever heard. Far from it, actually. However, until this track sent me down the rabbit hole of his music, I was utterly unaware. This was my jumping-off point.

The cover is from their 2016 concept album, Redemption and Ruin. Half of the album is made up of gospel songs, while the other half is comprised of songs about vices. Townes Van Zandt is the perfect source.

It starts with a family torn apart by abuse. This leads to failed relationships, booze, and riding the rails. Next comes crime and incarceration. The song ends with addiction. To some extent, the song is a reflection of its writer.

Tribute to Townes

The Devil Makes Three’s recording of “Waitin’ Around to Die” is stunning. However, nothing will ever touch the sadness that Townes Van Zandt injects into it in the 1981 documentary, Heartworn Highways. Townes sitting in his kitchen, picking, and singing is probably one of the most moving things you’ll see this week.

In the video, Townes reveals that this is the first song he ever wrote. Let that sink in.

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