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Lots of people would have loved to take a peek inside Townes Van Zandt's head for a moment, if only to understand the workings of the troubled songwriting genius' mind. Sky Blue, a candid sonic snapshot of a precious piece of time in the late folk/country troubadour's '70s heyday, comes as close as anyone is ever likely to get.
In 1973, Van Zandt was coming off the most intensely creative period of his career. The Texas singer-songwriter's legacy is built on the half-dozen records he'd released between 1968 and 1972, each of which weds visionary post-Dylan songpoetry to timeless airs that wouldn't have sounded anomalous on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. Songs of bottomless pain, reckless abandon and drunken whimsy flowed from his pen with apparent ease.
Those records would go on to influence generations of artists who've hailed Van Zandt as the heavyweight champ of Americana songwriting. But at the time, he was barely squeaking by commercially, recording for the small Poppy label and making little headway at the record-store cash registers. After 1972's milestone The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, he wouldn't release another record for six years (an eternity in the '70s music business) and his output would trickle worryingly close to a halt thereafter, until his death in 1996.
But in early '73, fresh from that six-year-streak of artistic triumphs, Van Zandt paid a visit to his friend Bill Hedgepeth in Atlanta, Georgia. Hedgepeth was a journalist with whom Van Zandt felt a strong connection. As the itinerant musician would do many times in the years to come, he availed himself of Hedgepeth's surprisingly high-tech home studio (the writer was a musician, too) to lay down rough recordings of whatever songs were bouncing around his brainpan at the time.
During this particular visit, those songs included a couple of brand-new tunes he would never release, a few covers that would likewise never see daylight, demos of songs he'd record that year and a couple of songs from his previous album. Recorded in the simplest of circumstances with only Van Zandt's plaintive croon and acoustic guitar, they offer a tantalizing glimpse at the creative process of a legendarily mercurial artist.
One of the two previously unknown compositions, "All I Need," is full of longing expressed in Van Zandt's trademark blend of the plainspoken and the profound. When he sings, "Tried everything to set me free / My chains keep playin' tricks on me / And all I need is a place to lay 'em down," the melancholy in his voice foreshadows his failure to meet that need in his life.
The other, "Sky Blue," sports a sunny-sounding melody which offsets the pithy existentialism that featured in some of Van Zandt's most powerful work. After describing a fruitless search for a raison d'etre, he succinctly lays out the vicious circle that binds him: "Always sing the same sad song, no wonder that I feel this way / To me, living's to be laughin' in satisfaction's face."
Van Zandt would record "Snake Song," "Dream Spider" (later renamed "The Spider Song") and "Rex's Blues" that same year for a record that wouldn't be released until 1993 as The Nashville Sessions; its initial vanishing act contributed greatly to damping his career. His minor-key serpent and arachnid odes are among the creepier entries in Van Zandt's catalog, and the lonesome, late-night vibe of the demos only amplifies their quiet terror. The same setting, however, lends the poignant "Rex's Blues" extra emotional heft in its tender juxtaposition of the mournful and the hopeful.
Sky Blue's three covers — fellow traveler Richard Dobson's "Forever for Always for Certain," Tom Paxton's folk standard "The Last Thing on My Mind" and the traditional murder ballad "Hills of Roane County" — come from disparate sources, but the bitter regret lacing each tune to a different degree provides a common thread. And it hints that even before exiting his 20s, with decades of personal and professional disruption still ahead, Van Zandt already identified deeply with that emotion.
Van Zandt reprises two diametrically opposed tunes from his then-recent record The Late Great Townes Van Zandt: "Silver Ships of Andilar" and "Pancho and Lefty." The former is a spooky, ancient-sounding seaman's tale of grand-scale death and destruction that the songwriter once wryly called his "folk epic." The latter would become Van Zandt's most successful song, endlessly covered until it became a folk/country standard.
That classic is a deceptively simple, understated outlaw ballad about a pair of ne'er-do-wells: Pancho the bandit and Lefty, who may or may not have ever even met Pancho. The bandito meets his maker in a Mexican desert, while Lefty lives on bleakly in a cheap hotel in Cleveland. It's hard not to imagine elements of the singer occupying both characters — the romantically doomed outlaw and the quotidian survivor. When he finishes the final verse, sealing Lefty's fate with "He just did what he had to do, and now he's growin' old," one can't help but picture Van Zandt gazing inward at his own rapidly aging soul.
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Correction: March 7, 2019 12:00 am — In an earlier photo caption, we mistakenly wrote that Townes Van Zandt's birthday was March 8 and that the album would be released Friday to mark that day. In fact, his birthday was March 7 and the album was released on that day.