Here’s a clip of country music unsung hero and Americana role model Townes Van Zandt performing his career-defining song “Pancho and Lefty”, a tale of tragedy in the Old West.
Townes Van Zandt is one of those artists who is lauded by the country music community, yet is not a name that is up there with his admirers in the minds of country music fans. But, high-profile admirers he certainly had. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard covered this tune and had a hit with it. Emmylou Harris also submitted a reading of the song on her best-selling 1977 Luxury Liner LP. Songwriter Steve Earle declared that he would stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in his cowboy boots and say that Townes Van Zandt was the greatest songwriter there ever was. That’s high praise indeed. Yet Van Zandt is an obscure name when it comes to the record buying public.
Van Zandt was from an affluent background, growing up in Texas, and learning his trade as a songwriter in the folk clubs of Houston of the mid-60s. His debut album For the Sake of the Song came out in 1968, and along the way he picked up friends and admirers including Byrd Gene Clark, who was a frequent tour partner. After decades of touring and recording, Van Zandt died at the young age of 52, just before a number of demos of unreleased recordings created a renewed interest in his work.
My own exposure to his music came through the Coen Brothers, strangely enough. Van Zandt’s live version of the Stones’ “Dead Flowers” is featured on the soundtrack of the Coen’s The Big Lebowski. The song was recorded in an intimate venue, the recording originally featured on Van Zandt’s Roadsongs. The setting in my mind, suggests a honky tonk somewhere in downtown Austin, probably featuring a wood shavings floor and chicken-wire around the stage. You can hear the whoops and cheers of the inebriated patrons in the background as Townes sings. It was a powerful enough take on a record I knew to make me investigate him further. I found his Far From Dead collection, which had been put together after his death in 1997, which among other songs, featured “Pancho and Lefty”, plus a number of unreleased tracks.
To hear more music, check out the Townes Van Zandt MySpace page.
And should you feel inclined to explore even further, the next step is this Townes Van Zandt website.