Sky Blue Sky

Prepare for a rebel’s revival with the most revealing posthumous Townes Van Zandt title in nearly 20 years

Townes Van Zandt Sky Blue, Fat Possum 2019

What becomes a legend the most? Dying is certainly one option. Not that it ought to be considered as a recommended route. Not hardly. Still, it can prove a career booster when fame isn’t forthcoming during life.

Of course, many icons reaped recognition well before their demise, and once they died, their legacy was illuminated that much more. Lennon, Hendrix, Joplin, Brian Jones, Keith Emerson and Marvin Gaye are some of the hallowed names that attained immortality after parting ways with their mortal coil.  On the other hand, there are countless others who acquired devotion and appreciation only upon their passing, ensuring that death would cap their careers with fruition though they wouldn’t be around to enjoy to embrace it. Consider Kurt Cobain, Alex Chilton and Townes Van Zandt among those that ascended to legendary status after their time on earth expired.

Townes on fiddle

Townes’ story was especially tragic. Although widely admired by his peers — Guy Clark, Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle all touted his talents, the latter going so far as to christen his son Justin with Townes as his middle name — the public never really caught on until well after he succumbed to the effects of alcohol and internal injuries just over 22 years ago. While several of his songs became ingrained in the annals of Americana — “Pancho and Lefty,” “For the Sake of the Song”, “Tecumseh Valley,”,”Rex’s Blues,” and “To Live is to Fly,” chief among them — he still remains an enigma, worshipped and respected mostly by diehard devotees.

Townes himself had a lot to do with that furtive claim to fame, given that he spent much of his adult life aimlessly wandering between his occasional homes and habitats without ever settling down in any one place in particular. Lacking major label support, and doomed to addiction, he never achieved the widely revered status he was so definitely due.

 

 

Happily though, his songs survive. “Pancho and Lefty” climbed to the top of the country charts after it was covered by a spate of notable artists — Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and Steve Earle among them. That alone should ensure his immortality.

Whether or not this recently unearthed collection of Townes’ seminal songs will help nudge it along is something of an uncertainty. It’s a sparse set-up to be sure, with only Townes’ mournful vocals and deft guitar work providing tone and texture. Originally recorded in 1973, it predates his earliest efforts and sounds more like demos than any actual attempt at a definitive offering. An early take on the aforementioned “Pancho and Lefty,” sounding half finished at best, will likely be of most interest to collectors, but a pair of heretofore unreleased tracks — “All I Need” and “Sky Blue” — offer further temptation for the completist. Likewise, a trio of covers — takes on the traditional standard “Hills of Roane County” and Tom Paxton’s ever popular “Last Thing on My Mind” add a rustic feel to the proceedings, suggesting that Townes was really a folk enthusiast at heart. That’s also affirmed through the archival approach he employs on two of his own originals, “Blue Ridge Mtns.” and “Silver Ship of Andilar,” either of which could be passed off as half-forgotten relics from the Woody Guthrie archives.

This then is Van Zandt in retrospect, a renewed glimpse at this troubled tunesmith through the lens of a rear view mirror. Enlightening and enticing, it’s renewed reason to elevate him to the higher plateau he failed to scale earlier on.

 

 

 

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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