3 Songs You Didn’t Know Townes Van Zandt Wrote for Other Artists

Etching his poetic stories on a country, folk, and blues canvas of sound, Townes Van Zandt exposed unfiltered stories of love, suffering, and the idiosyncrasies of real life, and became one of the most prolific songwriters in America.

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Born March 7, 1944, in Forth Worth, Texas, Van Zandt was a masterful storyteller through “Tecumseh Valley,” “Pancho and Lefty,” ‘To Live Is to Fly,” “If I Needed You,” “For the Sake of the Song,” and many more. His songs spanned 10 albums, from his 1968 debut For the Sake of the Song through No Deeper Blue, released in 1994, just three years before his death in 1997 at the age of 52.

Throughout the decades, his songs have been covered across genres, from Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Guy Clark, Norah Jones, Rowland S. Howard, Cave In, and Counting Crows, among dozens of others.

In honor of Van Zandt’s extensive book of songs, here’s a look at three additional songs he also crafted for other artists since the late 1960s.

1. “Mister, Can’t You See,” Mickey Newbury (1968)
Written by Townes Van Zandt and Mickey Newbury

In 1968, during his earlier touring days playing dive bars, and small lounges and clubs, Van Zandt met singer/songwriter Mickey Newbury, who suggested he go to Nashville, Tennessee, where he was introduced to who would become his longtime producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement.

For Newbury’s debut 1968 debut album, Harlequin Melodies, Van Zandt co-wrote the song “Mister, Can’t You See,” which later became a hit for Buffy Sainte-Marie in 1972.

During the Harlequin sessions, the two also wrote one other song together, “The Queen,” which didn’t make the initial cut of the album.

I’m telling you the time is coming
You’re gonna have to start
Your poor legs running
Out of this old world
You refuse to call your own

Hard it’s coming and it may be tomorrow
You’re gonna have to beg and to borrow
Sanity from a man you’ve never known

2. “Cowboy Junkies Lament,” Cowboy Junkies (1992)
Written by Towns Van Zandt

When The Cowboy Junkies were supporting their third album, The Caution Horses in 1990, they asked Van Zandt to join them on tour. On the road, Van Zandt penned “Cowboy Junkies Lament” for the band, which they released on their 1992 album, Black Eyed Man, which also featured a closing cover of Van Zandt’s 1971 song “To Live Is to Fly.”

Van Zandt also included “Cowboy Junkie Lament” on his final album No Deeper Blue.

Impacted by the death of Van Zandt, who was a huge influence on him as a songwriter, Cowboy Junkies’ chief songwriter Michael Timmins started writing “Blue Guitar” as a tribute.

In a poetic twist, Van Zandt’s lyrics ultimately helped Timmins finish the song. With permission, Timmins pulled unpublished, unfinished lyrics from Van Zandt notes for a song called “Screams from the Kitchen,” and incorporated them into “Blue Guitar,” which was later released on the band’s 1998 album Miles From Our Home.

Old lady Rose, lookin’ down her nose
At lonely Miss Lily hiding in the hall
Lily’s just praying for the trial to be over
Rosy’s just waitin’ for the ax to fall
Show me off on the way to town
The sky’s still shiny and the earth’s still brown
Tell the judge I’m ready for the vases
Gonna dance in their faces
When the guitar sounds

It won’t be long
I won’t be gone
I’ve been leaning toward the shadows all along

3. “Harms Swift Away,” David Broza (2010)
Written by Townes Van Zandt

David Broza met Van Zandt once, but the Israeli singer/songwriter left an impression on the late artist. Before his death, Van Zandt wrote a collection of poetry and lyrics, which he gave to Broza in a shoe box. Nearly a decade later, Broza revisited the box of Van Zandt’s unpublished words and arranged his 12 songs to music on the 2010 album Night Dawn: The Unpublished Poetry of Townes Van Zandt.

The penultimate single “Harms Shift Away,” explores loss and its magnification on the passing of time.

Time will go, it never stays
Memory locked in her passing
Try, oh try to cling to her
Until she becomes everlasting

The world’s still blue, my word’s still true
I feel I’m turning hollow
She does as she please, if ever she leaves
I’ll strangle upon the sorrow

“It’s like something I have never experienced before,” said Broza in 2009. “I’m just beginning to understand what’s happening here — that it’s happening. I only hope I’ve done those lyrics justice, turning that poetry into song as Townes would’ve liked.”

Photo: Tom Hill/Getty Images

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