March 7th would have been Townes Van Zandt’s 75th birthday. Coincidentally, the date is also the release for his posthumous album, Sky Blue, from Fat Possum Records. The music comes from demos Van Zandt recorded in the studio of his friend Bill Hedgepeth in 1973. The new printing includes a few of Van Zandt’s classics, a handful of covers, and two previously unreleased tracks. Knowing the artist’s struggle with substance abuse, mental illness, and other vices, Sky Blue recalls his pain and vulnerability. The album is raw and deceptively simple thereby creating the space for Van Zandt to remind listeners of his musical prowess and emotional sagacity.
Van Zandt’s creative apogee spanned from 1968-1973 when he released six albums, including the celebrated The Late Great Townes Van Zandt in 1972. From that album, Sky Blue includes “Pancho and Lefty” and “Silver Ships of Andilar”. These two tracks showcase Van Zandt’s ability to use distinct songwriting styles. “Pancho and Lefty” is Van Zandt’s best-known song with artists ranging from Emmylou Harris to Frank Turner recording covers. Pancho is a legendary bandit who met his fate in Mexico. When the Federales brought him to the gallows, “They only let him hang around / Out of kindness, I suppose.” Whereas his sidekick, Lefty, ends up “living in a cheap hotel” in Cleveland, an incongruity to his adventuring past. Endowing the bandito identity with sentiment and acuity, Van Zandt interrogates human existence while leaving the listener to question if Pancho or Lefty lived the better life. “Silver Ships of Andilar” is a seven-part epic saga depicting warriors and seaborne battles echoing the tropes of heroic fantasy fiction writer Lin Carter. Much as “Pancho and Lefty”, “Silver Ships of Andilar” is life-affirming, despite, or perhaps due to the imperative to endure defeat.
Naming an album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt demonstrates the artist’s flippancy towards his own death but also his fascination with mortality. Indeed, meditations on life extend across Van Zandt’s oeuvre and reappear on Sky Blue. In the previously unreleased “All I Need“, Van Zandt considers the root of content juxtaposed to emotional depletion. Examinations of his own life and those closest to him are apparent when he looks into his “baby’s eyes, see how they shine / Will his life be like mine? / All I need is a way to take his load.” This is Van Zandt at his most optimistic.
Even with the clement title “Sky Blue” is a harrowing portrayal of grim existentialism. Throughout his career, Van Zandt often contemplated life’s purpose. But on the title track he is halcyon yet despondent in his deliberation: “No good reason / To be living /Been looking high and low / Always sing the same sad song / No wonder that I feel this way.” Van Zandt uses the song’s title to illustrate melancholy’s great expanse rendering “Sky Blue” as the antithesis to cheeriness.
Sky Blue features three covers including the traditional murder ballad “Hills of Roane County” and Richard Dobson’s “Forever, For Always, For Certain”. The cover of Tom Paxton’s love song “The Last Thing on My Mind” is as regretful as the original but Van Zandt’s voice adds a weathered feel. Despite being only 29 at the time of recording, he sounds grizzled and jaded. When aligned, the covers imbue the human condition with anguish and repentance.
Certainly, Van Zandt’s audiences are familiar with his classics “Rex’s Blues” and “Blue Ridge Mountains (Smoky Version)”. However, Sky Blue‘s simple instrumental setup, just Van Zandt and his guitar, convey prominent alacrity. As such, his fingerpicking on “Blue Ridge Mountains (Smoky Version)” is a showstopper. Stripped from its standard production, “Snake Song” is downright insidious especially when he sings “Ain’t no mercy / In my smilin’ / Only fangs and / Sweet beguiling”. With little to listen to other than his guitar, listeners must focus on his voice. In doing so, Van Zandt reveals sensitivity and musical motility.
Sky Blue is a sorrowful confession as Van Zandt’s candor is tender and hypnotizing. Undeniably, Sky Blue is another star in the artist’s posthumous career.