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, Pancho and Lefty
Townes Van Zandt, Pancho and Lefty

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.

Enjoy!

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6 thoughts on “Townes Van Zandt Sings “Pancho and Lefty”

  1. Role model? Really? Didn’t he die from alcoholism? He is beyond a fantastic musician. I am desperately trying to learn his music and to write music like he did (with little success).

    What was the definition of role model in this article?

  2. Hi James,

    I’ve been scouring the article, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t use the term ‘role model’. If I had, I would have used it in the musical sense. But, I tend to avoid that term – it’s too loaded. And many artists whose work I admire I wouldn’t hold up as paragons of virtue. That’s not the point to me anyway. It’s the work and the creative spark behind it that I’m interested in, because it’s that which inspires fans and other musicians such as yourself to follow their own muse and pass along the torch, so to speak.

    Thanks for reading, and for comments!

  3. Rob,

    Thanks for the reply. I think it is in the first sentence.

    “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.”

    I really like this site. I started working my way through “Top Ten” pages.

    I sure love Townes’ music!!!!! Keep up it!

    James

  4. And there it is! I knew it would be there staring me in the face. That happens when I’m cooking too and looking for ingredients. 🙂

    My explanation still stands. I really do think that his musical approach influenced a lot of people.

    I’m glad you like the site, James. Thanks a lot for reading!

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