9. “No Lonesome Tune”
The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, the second of two sublime albums released by Townes in 1972, kicks off with this beauty. By that time, Van Zandt, with the help of producer Jack Clement, had settled into a groove in terms of how his songs should be recorded. This song is a moving testament to domesticity, making it one of the few times in Townes’ career in which the love of a good woman wins out over the lure of the road.
8. “(Quicksilver Daydreams Of) Maria”
The aw-shucks, country formality of Townes Van Zandt’s lyrics sometimes hid the fact that he could paint a vivid picture with words better than just about any other songwriter. On this song, first found on debut album For The Sake Of The Song and later refashioned for his eponymous 1969 album, he unleashes all of his descriptive powers on behalf of the title character, and the results are simply breathtaking. Once Townes is through, even those with the dullest imagination can picture Maria in their mind’s eye.
7. “To Live Is To Fly”
There is bottomless wisdom to be found in this song off High, Low And In Between, one that Van Zandt considered one of his finest and a kind of theme song for his worldview. The narrator gently advises someone about the ups and downs of life and the need to take changes in stride, because they’re going to happen regardless. “We all got holes to fill,” he sings. “Them holes are all that’s real.” Townes lived pretty hard himself and didn’t always take the song’s restrained advice to heart, but at least his listeners can forever benefit from the truths he uncovered.
6. “Be Here To Love Me”
The subtle humor and good-natured ease running through this song from 1969’s Our Mother The Mountain, in conjunction with Van Zandt’s nimble turns of phrases, make it hard to resist. Casual fans might know it from the languid cover version that appears on Norah Jones Feels Like Home album, but it’s hard to outdo Townes himself in interpreting his songs, especially when he imbues the title plea with so much humility and vulnerability.
Musician/author Adam Brent Houghtaling recently wrote a book called This Will End In Tears: The Miserabilist Guide To Music, which compiles his choices for the 100 saddest songs ever. He wisely kept it to a strict one-per-artist rule, or else Townes Van Zandt might have taken up half of it. Anyway, his choice for Townes’ sole contribution is “Marie” from his final studio album, No Deeper Blue, and one listen is all you need to understand why. It’s a staggeringly great song; just make sure to have the hankies nearby.
4. “If I Needed You”
This gem from The Late Great Townes Van Zandt is one of his most covered songs, probably because it’s one of his most basic pleas for devotion and love. His original version of the song lopes along amiably as the narrator both sings the praises of his girl and attempts to convince her that life is too short for any reticence. Van Zandt may have written songs more complex than this, but few have ever been so winningly direct.
3. “For The Sake Of The Song”
It was the first song on his very first album, so “For The Sake Of The Song” holds great historical importance in the legend of Townes Van Zandt. Yet the song is so accomplished that it sounds like the work of a veteran of twenty albums. Van Zandt gave the definitive version of it on his self-titled 1969 album, but the achingly lovely melody and lyrics that insightfully tumble one line after another out of the narrator’s mouth would have worked in any setting.
2. “Tower Song”
Maybe it should have been called “Towering Song,” as in a towering testament to Van Zandt’s ability to depict relationships that are meant to be but break apart anyway. His sad but pretty melody builds a strong foundation, allowing Townes to speak from his wounded heart to a girl whose stubbornness will eventually lead to loneliness, something that she can’t see right now but will someday understand only when it’s far too late.
1.“Pancho And Lefty”
Sometimes the obvious choice is obvious for a reason, and “Pancho And Lefty” is the obvious choice for #1. Even though Willie, Emmylou, and others did a wonderful job with the song, Van Zandt truly got inside his characters on his version from The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. On the surface, it’s a thrilling outlaw song with enough twists and turns to be the envy of any screenwriter. Underneath, it’s a trenchant meditation on the impossible choices that come with getting old. Somewhere in between the self-destructive fire of Poncho and the weary pragmatism of Lefty did the true nature of this exemplary songwriter reside.