Sing a lonesome tune: Five memorable Townes Van Zandt covers
Great interpretations of the "songwriter's songwriter"
Townes Van Zandt was tailor-made for cult stardom: After a troubled childhood where he received shock treatments to “cure” his predilection for drug and alcohol experimentation, he lived the life of the perpetually melancholy yet soulfully charismatic fuck-up before dying in 1997 at the untimely age of 52. Oh, and he also was a really great songwriter, though his lack of commercial success—while ideal for his underground cred—has kept him largely unknown. The closest Van Zandt ever got to mainstream recognition was when other, more well-known artists covered his songs, which holds true more than 12 years after he died: Steve Earle is the latest to shine a light on his body of work, visiting The Pabst Theater tonight to support his new Van Zandt covers collection, Townes.
Earle, a long-time friend and acolyte of Van Zandt—he even named his son Justin Townes Earle—once called him “the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” But Van Zandt was an average singer at best, and neophytes might better appreciate his songs when other people interpret them. Here are four covers (and one cover Van Zandt himself performed) to get you started.
Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, “Pancho And Lefty”
Van Zandt’s most popular song, “Pancho And Lefty” equates the lonely, desperate existence of an outlaw with the rootless lifestyle of the traveling musician. But Van Zandt was only in his late 20s when he wrote it, and it arguably was a better fit for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, two outlaw country singers who built careers on simultaneously glorifying and warning people against life on the road.