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Houston's Very Best Songs Ever

...otherwise known as the H-Town 20

4. "Pancho and Lefty"

Townes Van Zandt

Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas

1977 release of a 1972 recording

An enigmatic tale with a more or less clear story arc, Van Zandt's tale of two bandits and their respective demises seems likely to become an American standard. Over a gorgeously simple, achingly sad melody, Van Zandt spins an epic in which just enough detail is omitted to eternally tantalize all who fall under the song's spell. What did Lefty do to Pancho? Why did the Federales let him get away? Why did Lefty go to Cleveland, of all places? Is the song about Pancho Villa and Lefty Frizzell, as I thought as a kid? Van Zandt himself declared often that he knew the answers to none of these questions, save the last. (The answer is no, it is not about either of them.)

A Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard duet took the song to the top of the country charts in 1983, and the song has been recorded by Emmylou Harris and dozens of other artists of lesser fame.

More than that, the song has infiltrated the world's psyche. A few years ago, a Pancho and Lefty's Sports Bar stood on a barrio corner on the near north side, and Rodney Crowell recently told me several hundred Swedes sang along on the chorus when he performed the song there. Van Zandt himself once had a close encounter with his own brainchild on the outskirts of Houston, decades after it was released. Pulled over for speeding near Brookshire by Anglo/Mexican-American highway patrolmen, Van Zandt's ticket was summarily dismissed when his authorship of the song was discovered. Turns out that the two cops were known as "Pancho and Lefty" back at the station house. — J.N.L.

3. "I Can See Clearly Now"

Johnny Nash

I Can See Clearly Now

1972

Big Pharma should bottle this song and sell it; shrinks should prescribe it to all those who have the blues. This is one tune with optimism enough to put Prozac out of business. The pop-reggae gem passes like a giant sigh of relief; it's plain from the hard-won calm obvious in Nash's angelic, Sam Cooke-style tenor that he has indeed been truly delivered from some very dark places.

Native Houstonian Nash has had one of the oddest careers in American pop history. After stints as an actor and a billing as "America's First Black Teen Idol," Nash's career took off after he moved to Jamaica in the late '60s. There he befriended the not-yet-internationally famous Bob Marley and started incorporating rocksteady and early reggae into his gospel-tinged R&B.

"I Can See Clearly Now" was the most famous and best result. Up until its release, no one reggae song had captivated mainstream listeners with as much force, and Nash belongs right up there with artists like Marley and Desmond Dekker as one of the music's foremost early popularizers. Not bad for a guy who only a decade or so before had been humping golf bags in Hermann Park. — J.N.L.

2. "Night Life"

Willie Nelson

The Essential Willie Nelson

circa 1960

As the '60s dawned, Willie Nelson was fresh out of the Air Force and living in Pasadena with his first wife and three kids. He worked six nights a week backing local star Larry Butler on bass and DJed the seventh day.

Meanwhile, he was writing a few songs on the side in his car, while commuting between his digs in Pasadena and his gigs on the Hempstead Highway. He got hot one week and wrote three of the greatest songs in country music history: "Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away" and "Night Life," perhaps the most covered country song of all time.

And deservedly so. Lovable losers and no-'count boozers could hope for no better anthem than this resigned statement of near-suicidal intent. Sure, the barrooms might be full of people dreaming of old used-to-be's and reenacting scene after scene from the world of broken dreams, but just listen to the blues they're playing. The night life ain't no good life, but it's my life, indeed. — J.N.L.

1. "Tighten Up"

Archie Bell and the Drells

Tighten Up

1968

The very best song from Houston has to do it all. It has to be a great piece of music made by Houstonians still based in town, it has to mention Houston and it has to draw on native musical traditions. It also is known all over the world. And just for good measure, "Tighten Up" is also preeminently danceable and stands as one of the greatest party records ever put on wax.

"Tighten Up" does all that and even more. Somehow, it can almost make you feel our climate. Think about it. The way the timbre of the band — the T.S.U. Toronados — seems to breathe in and out. The balmy, sighing horns, the funky little electric guitar riff, the sweaty organ and a loping bass guitar with a tone so warm it seems to be grinning.

It's all as gracious and hospitable as springtime sunshine: The music on "Tighten Up" sounds the way a sunny April day in Houston feels. Playing it in your car can carry your mind from an exhaust-choked stop-and-go pileup on the Katy Freeway in the gray December twilight to a beery beach blanket picnic in the noontime sun on West Beach in May. Like Archie says, "Now make it mellow!"

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