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Townes Van Zandt - 'Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-72'

Released on Omnivore Records Feb. 5, 2013

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Townes Van Zandt - Sunshine Boy

Townes Van Zandt - Sunshine Boy

© Omnivore Records
Townes Van Zandt is a fascinating figure to many fans of American folk and roots music. His life was a bit of a train wreck - so much so, even he believed he wouldn't make it to the age of 30. (He made it to 53.) But, despite his personal struggles and emotional rollercoasters, addictions, and self-doubt, Van Zandt was an extraordinary songwriter. There's no doubt about that, and there are few songwriters working to this day who wouldn't cite him as a significant influence. In fact, the general sense is that anyone who hasn't been influenced by Van Zandt's songwriting probably just hasn't listened to him much yet. All that said, this double album collection of his demos and unheard studio takes from 1971 and '72 will be lapped up by Van Zandt's many devoted fans, and rightly so. It's an outstanding collection.

Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos

The thing about unheard studio takes and demos of songs is that nobody involved with recording them ever expects them to see the light of day. They're not aimed at public consumption. They're only aimed at working through something until you get it right. Releasing a songwriter's demos is a little like releasing a tape of Michael Jordan missing shot after shot from the freethrow line. (Perhaps the only basketball reference you'll ever find on this site.)

The word "demo" is short for "demonstration," which is to say, the opposite of "performance" or "embodiment of a song's intrinsic musicality." It's a sort of trying out and, true to the form of what Townes thought he was doing at the time, there are stumbles and fumbles. There are places (as in "You Are Not Needed Now") where his strumming hand and fretting hand and voice all lose each other for a half-beat before finding each other again as he plows ahead through the song.

There are rhythms and melodies and instrumental experiments which never found their way onto the finished product - most likely because either Townes or his producer thought them inadequate at the time.

This is all to say that, for mistakes and misses and the places where Van Zandt and those around him felt he was falling a little short to be worth a final product, it's easy to see the bar of his talent was freakishly high. As the liner notes implicate, there is an incredible amount of talent and skill that go into making songs like these sound effortless.

Pictures from Life's Other Side

Townes Van Zandt

Townes Van Zandt

promo photo
As a young songwriter, I discovered Van Zandt just after he'd died, when one of my songwriting mentors brought "No Deeper Blue" up at an open mic night. I bought the album of the same name and delved into a voice which was smoky and ragged, having sung its way through some of the harshest moments it could imagine. It had been drenched with drink and coated in tar, and it was singing about the hope inherent in hopelessness. It took years for me to find my way back to the beginning of Van Zandt's career, to hear recordings of him when his voice was clear and his songwriting was popping out with apparently little effort.

The recordings on Sunshine Boy were most likely made during the recording of High, Low, and In-Between (compare prices) and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt (compare prices). If you're curious about this album but aren't yet familiar with Van Zandt's work, I'd recommend grabbing both those records before delving into Sunshine Boy. The versions here are not always fully realized, though they are often impressive and as haunting as what wound up on the albums.

The "Pancho and Lefty" on Sunshine Boy, for example, feels almost bouncy and danceable without the strings and horns which accompanied the final album version. The addition of those two elements stretched the tune out, added layers which gave it the shadows and mystery for which it's know. The version here would probably still sock a newcomer, but is made infinitely more interesting by coming at it with the knowledge of how the song resonated on The Late Great and the versions recorded by Emmylou Harris and Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson.

Regardless, as stated above, this album is likely to impress the heck out of anyone who picks it up. For long-time fans, though, it provides for a deeper, richer understanding of one of the best singer-songwriters to have ever entered the craft.

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