This story has been updated.
Here in the age of information, when the access to music is infinite, and every bit of recorded material from artists past and present is right at your very fingertips at any given moment, releases of old archived scratch material from an artist who’s been dead over twenty years rarely raises a blip on your country music radar. That’s unless that deceased entertainer happens to be the one and only Townes Van Zandt—the man many offer up when queried for the names of the greatest songwriters to ever live, and in any genre. A new release from Townes means your ears are perked, the release date is circled on the calendar, and you salivate in suspense.
Sky Blue is a rare collection of 11 unreleased songs from Townes Van Zandt that were recorded 46 years ago in a session with journalist, musician, and close Townes Van Zandt friend, Bill Hedgepeth. Recorded in Hedgepeth’s home studio in Atlanta, GA, it finds Townes working out compositions such as “Rex’s Blues” and “Pancho and Lefty” that would go on to define his career. The 1973 recordings also include two unheard songs called “All I Need,” and the “Sky Blue” title track, giving this release some gravitas beyond new renditions of old favorites.
Many dedicated students of Townes Van Zandt will tell you that his greatest element was in the raw. No offense to his studio recordings, which have plenty of charm and magical moments themselves. But like the difference between a Grateful Dead live album and one made in the sterile studio environment, Townes Van Zandt sparkles unaccompanied, on a stool, singing straight from his soul, lathered in the heartbreak that his songs were covered in. This is what has made his release Live At The Old Quarter one of his most cherished collections, and what makes Sky Blue worth seeking out, beyond the two new songs.
Instead of the rough-hewn nature of the recordings hindering the experience, it enhances them. The guitar signal is decently degraded in some spots, but the voice signal from Townes is quite strong, conveying the thick emotion that hangs on his words, even when he wasn’t singing for anyone but himself, as he was in these sessions. The point of these songs was to be a work tape for Townes. It just happens to be that with his tragic poet mistique, they carry a weight few other composers could impart to primitive recordings.
As part of the collection are also a few notable cover songs, including the East Tennessee murder ballad “Hills of Roane County” popularized by Tony Rice, the old bluegrass song “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues,” as well as Tom Paxton’s “Last Thing On My Mind,” and “Forever, For Always, For Certain” by Richard Dobson, popularized by Guy Clark. It’s not fair to judge this record on production or originality because that was never the point of it. And it’s true that if you’ve worn out your favorite Townes records over the years, this new collection won’t satiate you like a brand new studio long player, while your ears may find more favor with other more familiar versions of some of these songs.
But there are also certain idiosyncratic elements present to make Sky Blue‘s specific versions of country and Townes Van Zandt classics hold their own value. Maybe while listening you hear the same verse differently for the first time. Listening to the Sky Blue version of “Pancho & Lefty,” it’s hard to not focus on how much the enveloping guitar melody is what makes that song so iconic beyond the enigmatic words.
Sky Blue is not for everyone, and may be ripe for cherry picking for others as opposed to a straight through listen. But you will struggle to find another recording that captures Townes in his most intimate and unguarded element than this album.
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