Ever the drifter, Townes Van Zandt came down from what would be the most productive phase of his career by ambling to Atlanta and crashing with a friend in early 1973. This visit came at the end of a six-year stretch in which Van Zandt released as many albums of his lonely and aching country-folk -- albums like Delta Momma Blues and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt that would grow into classics as the years passed. At the time, however, Van Zandt was far from a star, with meager record sales and little to show for his nonstop creative output. Sky Blue collects demos recorded in the high-end home studio of Bill Hedgepeth while Van Zandt was passing through Atlanta and considering his next move. Time would unfold somewhat cruelly from there, with a spiral into alcoholism and substance abuse creating problems that touched every aspect of the songwriter's life and slowed his recorded output to a near standstill. In fact, his stop in Atlanta preceded sessions for what was supposed to be his seventh studio album, Seven Come Eleven, which was so entangled in financial disputes between the producer and Van Zandt's manager that the producer ultimately erased the master tapes.
Sky Blue feels like the calm before what would be a stormy time, unaware of the teetering shifts of fate that lay directly ahead. The 11 songs are spare, with just voice and guitar clearly laying out dour narratives and understated songwriting. Two songs were never fully fleshed out in a studio: the yearning "All I Need" and the brightly sung but lamenting, hopeless blues of the titular track. Also included are stripped-down versions of songs that would see later album release like "Rex's Blue" and "Snake Song," as well as a hushed version of his best-known tune, "Pancho and Lefty." The intimate sound of these recordings adds another layer of melancholy to the already beautifully tragic material. The loneliness and pain that was palpable in Van Zandt's best work really comes to the surface when there's nothing but the singer and his guitar alone at the microphone. Some tossed-off cover songs and a few tunes delivered with a demo-appropriate lack of enthusiasm keep Sky Blue from soaring, but there's something weighty happening in this unassuming collection of song sketches. Put to tape at a time when the future was wide open for a young musician, there's hope, electricity, doubt, and confusion woven into the plain-spoken delivery of this set of songs. Unbeknownst to him at the time, it would be five difficult years from when Van Zandt quietly laid down these demos until he'd get to release his seventh album, and the road after that got no easier. The glimmers of brilliance captured on Sky Blue are just as equally dazzling and devastating as Van Zandt's story and the rest of the masterful catalog he left behind. ~ Fred Thomas