Never quite at peace, with an uncomfortability in this world likely related to a chemical imbalance, Townes Van Zandt found small solaces in writing — and in those moments, between mental hospitals and benders, he created something of musical permanence.
That he made it all seem so effortless, so conversational, remains one of his great gifts, but not his greatest: Van Zandt wrote with a straight-forward economy, again so effortless, that often obscured the exactness of his work. You could argue for him as cowboy poet laureate, so precise — so penetrating — are his lyrics.
A sense of wonder over his compositional prowess only deepens, the more you learn about the late Texas-born singer-songwriter. For instance, there seems even now to have been little basis in Van Zandt’s own life for one of his most famous songs: “Pancho and Lefty,” later a chart-topping country hit for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, creates an entire world around an uncatchable bandit on the run from the federales — even though Van Zandt had apparently never visited Mexico.
Of course, like every great poet (he was similarly praised, but rarely read) it was said that none of his albums sold more than 6,000 copies. Over time, most of them have been relegated to cut out bins, or gone out of print completely. That makes finding something new from Van Zandt — something unheard or never quite appreciated in its final, often over-produced form — that rarest of things: A moment for true reevaluation.
Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos: 1971-72 will only burnish Van Zandt’s legend. Even those who think they know him will find stark new insights into his doomed genius.
Unlike your typical star, shooting or otherwise, Van Zandt’s most important music, his best stuff, didn’t happen right away. Instead, it was on 1971′s High, Low and In Between and on 1972′s The Late Great, now a bitterly ironic title. Songs from those projects (his fifth and sixth, respectively) make up the bulk of Sunshine Boy, and the bulk of the project’s new revelations, as well. “Pancho and Lefty,” for instance, is presented without strings or horns. His Dylan-esque pretensions are made clear during this raw take on “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold.” “To Live Is To Fly” takes on an even greater, devastating beauty.
Maybe more interesting, however, are the stripped-down versions of earlier songs that producer Cowboy Jack Clements had dimmed with of-the-moment, overly pretty Nashville production — de rigueur at the turn of the 1970s, but hopelessly dated today. The four demos here from 1970′s eponymous release and 1971′s Delta Momma Blues may be the most revealing of all. There are also four previously unissued songs, including his update of Jimmie Rodgers “T For Texas” and a pair of attempts at the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers,” which would be featured much later in a different form during “The Big Lebowski” film.
Alas, Van Zandt died at age 52 on New Year’s Day in 1997 — 44 years to the day after Hank Williams Sr., a similarly talented, similarly fated, similarly fetishized figure. Van Zandt’s passing only added to his underground mystique, but his music could stand on its own — even without the weird necrophilia that surrounds stars who meet an early end.
Sunshine Boy — due February 5, 2013, from Capitol-Omnivore Records — makes that point all over again.