Why are we just hearing this material now?
Sky Blue is a full-fledged archival album, not a collection of demos or outtakes or some slapdash assembly of cutting room floor recordings scattered about Townes Van Zandt’s career. Of its 11 songs, two are never-before released, six are alternate versions of previously released songs and three are covers. The material was all recorded during early 1973 with Van Zandt’s close friend Bill Hedgepeth. If those ratios don’t persuade you, consider the high frequency of alternate recordings across Van Zandt’s early discography: Our Mother the Mountain, the self-titled album, and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, his three most popular studio albums, all feature alternate versions of songs from his debut, For the Sake of the Song. This new collection is as legitimate as any album the man released in the ’70s–perhaps even more so.
For all his immense talents as a singer, guitarist and especially as a songwriter, Van Zandt’s studio catalog has been historically marked by inconsistent production, often of the excessive, ornate variety. The man’s best recordings, 1969’s self-titled album and the legendary live double LP Live at The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas (also recorded in 1973) were also his most bare. Sky Blue pushes this even further, not just production-wise, but emotionally.
Label Fat Possum describes the version of “Pancho and Lefty” found here to be an “early draft” of the song, but that makes little sense. The famous, “fully realized” original was released in 1972, the year before this version was recorded, and that was a solid, matter-of-fact rendition of one of the greatest songs ever written. The version recorded on Live at The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas five years later upped its potency. More than four decades later, this so-called “early draft” feels like the definitive recording of the song. The performance is raw and inward, humming and ringing like a lonely hangover in a room with no light. The Eggers studio production found on other albums, frequently characterized by large, sweeping arrangements and dramatic flourishes, often seemed to act like a layer of armor for Townes. Even with his live recordings, there was always a level of guarded poise when communicating directly with his audience, always willing to share himself, but not fully.
All that is stripped away here. Van Zandt’s voice, normally somber, yet clean and stable, strains and cracks as he tells the tale of “two Mexican bandits [he] saw on the TV two weeks after [he] wrote the song.” In interviews, the song’s meaning was described literally, but in retrospect it’s a symbolic fable of self-sabotage: Pancho is the part of himself born for greatness, and Lefty the saboteur bent on killing it. The theory of this reading is given more credence with the Sky Blue version: Townes is connecting on a more personal level with the song than ever before.
This extends to every previously heard Van Zandt original included on Sky Blue. The poetic, beautifully sad “Rex’s Blues” and anti-war epic “Silver Ships of Andilar” already had solid recordings, but removing the polish and the instrumental accompaniment adds even further weight to the words, the phrasing and the picking. In the case of “Snake Song,” this new version salvages a song that was once known for its goofy, over-the-top desert rattlesnake samples and transforms it into the serious self-loathing it should’ve always been. The new ‘smoky’ version of “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues”? Well, okay, it’s still not a stellar song, but it’s better than it was on High, Low and in Between.
The selection of covers are strong as well. Van Zandt’s interpretations of Richard Dobson’s “Forever for Always for Certain” and Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind” aren’t drastic deviations, but they do justice to the originals. “Hills of Roane County” is the real standout among this batch. Far removed from the bright bluegrass version popularized by Tony Rice, Townes’ take is cold, ruthless, and calamitous, just as a murder ballad should be.
Finally, both new originals are gorgeous: It’s a complete shock they’ve been buried more than 40 years. “All I Need” feels like something of a weary, long-lost brother to “Rex’s Blues”, characterized by a strong longing for true freedom: “Tried everything to set me free/ But my chains keep playing tricks on me.” The title track almost feels closer to Nick Drake than to Townes, with its winding, gentle yet active guitar melody and depressive, nature-linked lyricism. It features some of the best verses the legend has ever penned, both darkly witty (“To me, living’s/ To be laughing/ In satisfaction’s face“) and just nakedly dark (“No good reason/ To be living/ Been looking high and low”). “Sky Blue” is so completely clear, one has to wonder if the only reason we hadn’t heard it until now is because he couldn’t bring himself to be quite that open.
Why are we just hearing this material now? Did Van Zandt want to release it, only to be turned down due to the raw sound? Did it not turn out the way he wanted it? Was it intended as an emotional, therapeutic exercise meant only for himself and Hedgepeth? It almost feels invasive to hear, but it’s a powerful listen, and our understanding of the haunted genius is better off for it. It just misses out on being Van Zandt’s definitive statement–the self-titled album is stronger song-for-song–but it feels like this is how the man was always supposed to sound. Sky Blue is a revelation, and essential.