Townes Van Zandt is one of the most criminally overlooked songwriters of the last fifty years. His life in a snapshot is simple and scary. Born to a wealthy Texas family, he left to pursue music, diagnosed as manic-depressive he had insulin-shock therapy which ruined his memory, he lived to the extreme – once jumping off a fourth-floor balcony just to see what it was like, was an alcoholic, and in between all of that he carved out a reputation for himself as one of the greatest songwriters of all time. He was a songwriters’ songwriter.
He released his first album, ‘For the Sake of the Song’, in 1968 and followed it with a prolific run that saw him release five albums over the next four years, while crafting an arsenal of songs that today are considered masterworks of American songwriting, though mostly overlooked at the time of their release. While an influence on a generation of songwriters, he was mostly unknown throughout the bulk of his career, rarely registering on the national music conscience. He was relegated to playing small dive bars as he lived in poverty in a shack with no electricity or running water. He developed a passionate cult following and eventually found recognition for his work when his classic outlaw tune, ‘Pancho & Lefty’ was taken to number one on the Billboard country charts by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Nelson and Haggard’s version shone a light on Van Zandt’s songwriting and he finally started receiving the attention he had long deserved.
Van Zandt’s catalogue is a vast ocean of genius you can swim around in forever and never tire of the new discoveries you might find. His music means very different things to different people as his chameleon-like way with words allow a song to be heard as a simple love song to one while another views it as a sad goodbye. He wrote with an ease that is almost hard to comprehend as songs seemed to tumble out of his guitar, dripping with brilliance and disguised with slippery lyrics. Van Zandt’s catalogue is so vast that for the ten songs listed here, there are another twenty that could have easily been on the list (and if you ask me tomorrow my ten would probably change). To tackle this deep well of Van Zandt’s music, I thought who better to help than Caleb Stine, a songwriter about whom No Depression has said, “His honest stories and thoughtful poetry places him among some of the best songwriters of this time and could possibly make him the 21st Century’s Townes Van Zandt.” Over the years Caleb and I have had many long discussions about our favourite songwriters and it felt right to have this discussion with him.
Number 10: ‘High Low & In Between’ from ‘High, Low and in Between’ (1971)
‘High Low & In Between’ is from the 1971 album of the same name and a time in Van Zandt’s life when he was in the grips of heroin addiction (which would last until the end of his life) and heartbreak as his girlfriend had recently been murdered whilst hitchhiking. The song deals with the dual ends of life and the contradictions in between. Caleb calls it “A pure philosophical statement.”
Number 9: ‘Marie’ from ‘No Deeper Blue’ (1994)
From Van Zandt’s last studio album in 1994, this is one of the saddest songs ever written and appropriately from an album titled ‘No Deeper Blue’. Van Zandt’s heartbreaking delivery has the quiver of time and the gravel of age in his voice. “This one you can only listen to once a year when you’ve just had a great month and all your bills are paid” says Caleb “Do not listen to this song when you are low. You may just break. That being said, it is possibly the best written song he made; every word, every image, every story beat, is placed perfectly from beginning to end, like a master chess player who leads you from one end of the board to your check-mate under a burned out bridge holding the dead carcass of your unborn son that you just cut out of his froze-to-death mother. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Number 8: ‘I’ll Be Here in the Morning’ from ‘Townes Van Zandt’ (1969)
Is this a love song disguised as a heartbreaking goodbye, or a heartbreaking goodbye disguised as a love song. Van Zandt sings, “There’s lots of things along the road/ I’d surely like to see/ I’d like to lean into the wind/ And tell myself I’m free/ But your softest whisper’s louder/ Than the highways call to me”, but does he mean it? Is he there in the morning? The hopeful optimist in me says yes, the pessimistic realist who has listened to the rest of Van Zandt’s catalogue says no. The eternal conundrum that exists in all of Van Zandt’s lyrics.
Number 7: ‘Rex’s Blues’ from ‘Flyin’ Shoes’ (1978)
Appearing on 1978’s ‘Flyin’ Shoes’, which was Van Zandt’s first studio album in five years. “Townes was an amazing, super talented guitar player” says Caleb “Anyone who plays knows it takes a lot of consistent work to play fingerpicking parts this clean and simple. Plus a perfect mix of nonsense and too-much-sense folk lyrics”.
Number 6: ‘She Came and She Touched Me’ from ‘Our Mother the Mountain’ (1969)
Van Zandt’s 1969 album ‘Our Mother the Mountain’ is chock full of masterful songwriting. ‘She Came and She Touched Me’ stands out as the most psychedelic, Dylanesque in his catalogue. “I really don’t know why the poets are doing push-ups and the tiffanys are twisted” says Caleb “but the cumulative effect is magic”.
Number 5: ‘Be Here to Love Me’ from ‘Our Mother the Mountain’ (1969)
Another on from Van Zandt’s 1969 masterpiece ‘Our Mother the Mountain’. ‘Be Here to Love Me’ is full of his genius lyrical wordplay that he delivers with a sly hand. “The window’s accusing the door of abusing the wall” is pure brilliance.
Number 4: ‘Mr. Gold and Mr. Mudd’ from ‘High, Low, and In Between’ (1971)
Van Zandt at the peak of his songwriting powers as he envisions a card game where the cards themselves have a stake in who wins. “Only a genius conceives of this story-telling device and only a card-playing rambler could live enough life to write it” states Caleb. About the unique perspective in the songs, Van Zandt says, “I wrote ‘Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold’ in a sort of frenzy. It just came pouring out of me. I couldn’t stop, and I wrote so fast my hands were aching. Even I don’t know what that song means”.
Number 3: ‘Pancho & Lefty’ from ‘The Late Great Townes Van Zandt’ (1972)
The definitive outlaw classic. Made famous first by Emmylou Harris in 1976 on her album ‘Luxury Liner’, and later taken to Number 1 on the Billboard country charts by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. “Of course it’s a classic, but think about this the next time you listen” asks Caleb. “Who is the ‘you’ addressed in the first verse? I don’t think it’s Pancho or Lefty, I think this whole song is a sort of tall tale told around a fire from one rambler to another”.
Number 2: ‘If I Needed You’ from ‘The Late Great Townes Van Zandt’ (1972)
‘If I Needed You’ is possibly the most universally approachable Townes song. In a catalogue of contradictions and dark images, ‘If I Needed You’ is a pure love song (with a shout out to his parakeets Loop and Lil). Van Zandt claimed this song came to him fully formed in a dream and upon waking up he only had to change one line that he said did not make sense. For Caleb he relates to the dream aspect, “Having experienced the song coming in a dream phenomenon I appreciate the effort needed to pull something this fully from the netherworlds without damage”.
Number 1: ‘To Live is To Fly’ from ‘High, Low, and In Between’ (1971)
“Living’s mostly wasting time/ And I’ll waste my share of mine”. Has anything ever been said so simply, yet so profound before? “Just the right amounts of individual experience, everyman experience, and mystical philosophy. If I only had one Townes song to play, and some nights that’s true, it’s this one,” says Caleb. What more needs to be said of a song so perfect?