A Deeper Blue: ‘Sky Blue’ Shows Townes Van Zandt in his Comfort Zone
The mid-1970s were not a fertile time for Townes Van Zandt’s recording career. Though he had released six albums by 1972’s The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, its follow-up, Flyin’ Shoes, wouldn’t see the light of day until 1978. In the years between, Van Zandt spent his time drifting between Texas, Colorado, and Tennessee, firing and hiring managers and looking for a record deal. When his travels took him through Atlanta, though, he would stay with his longtime friend, journalist Bill Hedgepeth, and sometimes do a little casual recording in Hedgepeth’s basement studio.
An album containing 11 of those recordings was released March 7 — on what would have been Van Zandt’s 75th birthday — as Sky Blue on Fat Possum and TVZ Records, where his third and final wife, and executrix of his estate, Jeanene Van Zandt, serves as CEO.
Jeanene says the songs were found on a disc Hedgepeth had given her years before that was among items in “a big safe where I keep all the interesting stuff.” She — along with Townes’ children, J.T., Will, and Katie Bell — chose the best takes of the songs that form Sky Blue and determined the album’s sequence. What you hear is Townes performing for no one but himself a collection of originals that would soon become classics, as well as a few well-chosen covers of songs he admired, in an intimate setting at a friend’s studio.
Hedgepeth, an eyepatch-wearing, Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist and former senior editor for Look magazine, and Townes Van Zandt became friends after songwriter and mutual acquaintance Mickey Newbury urged Hedgepeth to track down Van Zandt, a months-long undertaking.
“[Townes] would go to Bill’s every time he went to Atlanta. In fact, even after we were married and had kids we would stay at Bill’s,” Jeanene recalls. “[Sky Blue] sounds like it was all done in one sit-down there, but maybe some of them were done at different times, I really don’t know. No one’s still alive to tell me.”
Sky Blue is Townes Van Zandt at this most musically naked and in his comfort zone. Free from the constraints of a record label, the recordings are raw, the performances immediate. This is prime Live at the Old Quarter-era Van Zandt, delivering captivating readings of the then-new “Pancho & Lefty” and “Silver Ships of Andilar,” plus early versions of “Snake Song” and “Rex’s Blues” from 1978’s Flyin’ Shoes.
Of the cover songs, “Forever, For Always, For Certain” was written by a contemporary of Townes’, Richard Dobson. Another singer-songwriter that split his time between Nashville and Austin, Dobson can be seen performing the song in Guy and Susanna Clark’s kitchen in the classic James Szalapski documentary Heartworn Highways, which also featured informal, priceless footage of Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, and others.
Most surprising and most noteworthy about Sky Blue is the inclusion of two previously unheard originals, “All I Need” and “Sky Blue.” Jeanene says the family up to now had never been able to locate them.
“We knew they were copyrighted,” she explains, “but we’d never heard them or seen the lyrics. So, when we found them, we said, ‘Oh wow, he laid them down with Bill, great!’”
The opening stanza of the opening track, “All I Need,” is classic Townes:
Tried everything to set me free
But my chains kept playing tricks on me
And all I need is a place to lay ‘’em down
In each verse over a steady strum he presents a problem, or a situation, and then answers with a wish for the one thing that may remedy it — until the end, where he realizes that everything that he needs may actually “fall away like rain.” In typical Van Zandt fashion, he delivers the sadness of the lyric so matter-of-factly as to make the pain seem inevitable. And in many ways with him, it always was.
The other previously unheard original, “Sky Blue,” is anchored by a slow and deliberate Doc Watson-style fingerpicking pattern under lyrics that lament that “the blues keeps falling down” on the singer. He confesses: “to me livin’s to be laughin’ in satisfaction’s face.”
Sky Blue closes with a version of Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind.” Van Zandt delivers a truly haunting and sincere performance that sounds as if it could be coming from beyond, a feeling Jeanene Van Zandt is quite familiar with.
“When I heard ‘Black Crow Blues’ [from In the Beginning, the 2009 collection of recordings discovered at Jack Clement’s studio dating back to 1966], I about lost it. It sounded like he was talking to me from the grave. He wrote the song when he was about 22 years old, and it was just … .” She pauses, then recites the lyrics from memory: “‘Babe, don’t lie lonesome after I’m gone, don’t mourn your young life away,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God!’”
Even though Townes has been gone for over two decades, for Jeanene, moments like that still surface from time to time.
“I never really wanted to get legally married,” she confesses. “I was one of those people that don’t think the government belongs in people’s relationships. I was happy with the way we were; we were common law married for three and a half years. But then his mother was dying while I was pregnant, and she took her wedding ring off of her finger at the hospital when he went to visit her and she said, ‘Go home and marry that girl.’ So he came home and told me what she said. I knew how much he admired his mother. She never took her wedding ring off, and Townes’ father had been dead for 30 years, so when she took that ring off, I said, ‘Well, okay!’”
Although they still loved each other (they first met at a memorial for John Lennon on Dec. 9, 1980 – the day after the ex-Beatle was shot and killed), Townes’ drinking became too much to handle, Jeanene says. “He was a wonderful man and a wonderful father, but you just never knew which Townes was gonna walk through the door. It was actually affecting the children really badly, so we bought another house and I got a legal divorce. But I was with him the day he died. We were still in love, but it was just too much liability on us to stay legally married.”
Townes died at Jeanene’s home in Smyrna, Tennessee, on the first day of 1997, the same day his hero Hank Williams left this world in 1953. Both artists’ songs continue to captivate decades later, generation after generation. True to form, Van Zandt once confided to his compadre Hedgepeth in a 1977 profile, “I’d like to be the biggest ever, you know? No … I just want to keep on writin’ good songs. And, too, I’d like to alter the course of the universe, make it a happier place. No death. No disease. No depression.”
Sky Blue doesn’t alter the course of the universe, but it allows us to hear a little more of one of America’s greatest songwriters in his prime.