Songwriting, at its best, seems to be a combination of raw talent, experience and the ability to economize language. Bruce Springsteen, after two hyper-verbose introductory albums, was able to hone his wording for his best work, which started with 1975’s Born to Run. Jason Isbell wrote several great songs with the Drive-by Truckers and for his early solo records, but life experience (and newfound sobriety) allowed him to incredibly top all of that previous work with the release of Southeastern in 2013. The late Townes Van Zandt seemed to have learned these lessons, particularly the economy of language, very early in life. His songs were always sparse, streamlined and spare. Now, to mark the occasion of his 75th birthday, we’re able to hear some of his best work at its most bare-boned on a new release, Sky Blue (Fat Possum).
Recorded in 1973 with close friend Bill Hedgepeth, a journalist and musician who also had a home studio in Atlanta, the album includes rough drafts of early Van Zandt favorites, as well as a couple of covers and standards. There are also two “new” (to us) songs, “All I Need” and “Sky Blue”. The former finds him both transient and feeling trapped – his chosen lifestyle limits his happiness: “Tried everything to set me free/But my chains keep playing tricks on me/And all I need is a place to lay ‘em down.” The song is full of references to his eternal itinerance, while he knows that, “All I need is a bed to call my own.” “Sky Blue” reflects Van Zandt’s self-awareness of his own brand of songwriting: “Always sing the same sad song/No wonder I feel this way.” It might be what we look for from his songs, but it’s wearing on him: “No good reason/To be living/Been looking high and low.”
The rest of the album is familiar Townes with a fresh, raw feeling. “Pancho and Lefty” has seemingly been covered by everyone who’s even looked at a guitar over the past 40 years. Here, it’s a western ballad in rough draft form, which allows the songwriting to shine above all else. “Rex’s Blues” show a man who’s life and travels and even words fail to fulfill him: “I’m chained upon the face of time/Feelin’ full of foolish rhyme.” And “Snake Song” hints at Van Zandt’s addictions: “I’ll be here/When you start sinkin’.” All of his wandering and vice seem to have caught up to him by the end of the album. “Last Thing On My Mind” has the singer realizing what he’s lost all his life: “Every song in my heart dies a-borning/Without you, without you.” Bear in mind, these songs were recorded prior to his 30th birthday, nearly a quarter century before his death. Regret and mortality were always on his mind.
The performances are as simple as the man and his guitar, and that’s all the accompaniment these songs require. Especially when paired with 2017’s Rear View Mirror, which featured live and only slightly more ornate versions of some of Townes’ best work, Sky Blue serves as both a time capsule for longtime Van Zandt listeners and an introduction for new Americana fans who want to know more about the man that songwriters credit for so much of what we listen to today.