Townes Van Zandt
Buy Here | Listen Below
Born 75 years ago on March 7, 1944, singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt has been dead over 20 years. He was a tremendously talented artist challenged by addiction and mental illness. Hardly a household name, he has a devoted fan base, who love him for his talent, but also, perhaps, because his fame never came close to matching that talent. Sky Blue is a collection of unreleased recordings from early 1973, a period encompassing Van Zandt's creative heights.
Van Zandt has been gone for quite some time, yet this is the fifth studio album to be released since he died. Given Van Zandt's complex personality, as well as his songwriting ability, his fans, perhaps more so than others, are very interested in his creative process. And so Sky Blue represents another puzzle piece in the ongoing struggle to understand an inscrutable artist.
These recordings were made in journalist Bill Hedgepeth's home studio, with no goal in the recording other than experimentation. And for that reason—the lack of intent—the recordings are interesting. Much of Van Zandt's studio work was overproduced. "Pancho and Lefty," arguably Van Zandt's biggest "hit" (it was much more successfully covered, commercially speaking, by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson; Emmylou Harris, among many others, has also covered it) features a perplexing mariachi groove and horn section on the 1972 studio version from The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.
Here, that song is stripped down to voice and guitar, incredibly similar to the version on Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas, a 1977 live album of an intimate show, intimate defining his performance, arrangements, as well as the venue. Sky Blue’s version of “Pancho and Lefty” feels like Van Zandt working through the song, perhaps refining it for his shows, or perhaps running through something familiar to limber himself up.
The album features three songs from Seven Come Eleven, a lost-to-dispute 1973 album that would eventually be released as The Nashville Sessions in 1993. The Nashville versions of "Snake Song," "Spider Song," and "Rex's Blues" all lose Van Zandt in an ocean of instrumentation, whereas the Sky Blue versions more effectively showcase his voice, guitar, and songwriting.
Some of the performances have the feel of an artist playing through a song to understand it, much the way Larkin Poe do on their beautiful Tip o' The Hat YouTube series. Van Zandt takes on the bluegrass standard "Hills of Roane County," injecting it with a bit more vocal twang than usual. You can almost feel Van Zandt wondering what it would sound like if he countried-up his voice like that, and then quickly getting the experiment committed to tape to hear the results.
Sky Blue also features two previously unreleased Van Zandt compositions: "All I Need" and the title track. The performances are just voice and guitar and the songs are fine, but mostly feel unfinished.
Van Zandt completists will want this, because it's new-to-them material. It's an enjoyable, solid album that doesn't disappoint, but anyone looking to get into Van Zandt would be better served by starting with Live at the Old Quarter, which has a few similar versions of some of these songs, as well as many others. Both albums share the beauty of the unadorned Van Zandt, just the songwriter, his voice, and guitar. His ability to bring songs to life with just those few tools is why, some 20 years after his death, people are still re-examining and enjoying his work. Even the things no one ever thought would see the light of day.
Notable Tracks: "Pancho and Lefty" | “Rex’s Blues” | "Sky Blue"