Step into the studio with Townes Van Zandt

Posted 8:47am on Tuesday, Feb. 05, 2013

The hushed stillness of a recording studio is punctuated by a brisk four-count, and like an old friend, Townes Van Zandt's voice begins to emanate from the speakers.

The Fort Worth-born troubadour is singing Blue Ridge Mountains, a tune that first appeared on his 1972 LP, High, Low and In Between.

But where the album version features little more than Van Zandt's reedy, expressive voice, shuffling drums and acoustic guitar, this take is goosed with a lively fiddle that's nowhere to be heard on High, Low and In Between.

It's just one of several subtle surprises on the new, two-disc compilation Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions & Demos 1971-1972, which Omnivore Recordings will release Tuesday. For now, the set will be available only on CD, although a limited vinyl pressing may materialize in the future.

The 29 tracks, first produced by Kevin Eggers in Los Angeles, are all previously unreleased, having languished in a sealed box since they were recorded more than 40 years ago.

As musicologist Colin Escott writes in Sunshine Boy's liner notes: "The art of Townes Van Zandt reveals itself a little at a time. Every hearing brings forth something you can't believe you missed all the other times, or something that rings even truer today than back when. The alternate versions are like seeing a friend in a new light. The new songs are simply good to have when it seemed as if the barrel was empty."

For Omnivore Recordings co-founder Cheryl Pawleski, the set represents a nearly two-decade labor of love.

The Wisconsin native first began assembling what would become Sunshine Boy in 1996 when she was working on special projects at EMI/Capitol Records (she oversaw, among other releases, the essential 2005 box set from the Band, A Musical History).

" High, Low and [1972's The] Late Great [ Townes Van Zandt] are my favorite Townes records, and I thought, 'They need some love; they need to be re-presented,'" Pawleski says by phone from Los Angeles.

Legal fight

Pawleski uncovered a trove of session tapes from the two albums, amassed a considerable amount of potential bonus material for reissues of the records, but found her momentum stalled by litigation.

In the music industry's byzantine mergers and acquisitions process, Van Zandt's original label home, Poppy Records, which had collapsed in 1973 (shortly after the release of Late Great), had been swallowed up by United Artists and, in turn, EMI and Universal, leading to a tangled web of rights ownership.

By the time Pawleski left EMI in 2002 (for stints at Rhino and Concord Records), the unreleased Van Zandt recordings were still tied up in court. The case wasn't resolved with Van Zandt's estate until 2006.

"Every subsequent label I went to, I wondered if I could revive this [project]," Pawleski says. "It really took me starting Omnivore to circle back."

Of the many reissue projects with which she's been involved, Pawleski cites Sunshine Boy as being "extra satisfying," in large part because of the sheer quality of the material, technically as well as artistically.

Untouched by anyone for four decades, these alternate takes and demo versions, which didn't undergo any extensive restoration, sound as though they were recorded yesterday.

"It's really such a bonus to hear the demos and be in that intimate setting usually reserved for the people making the music," Pawleski says. "These being session recordings, when we were cracking open the tape on the box, the last time they were handled was when the tape was put on."

Musical legacy

An eternally underappreciated and overlooked artist, Townes Van Zandt has been the focus of steady rehabilitation over the last few years, thanks to documentaries like 2004's Be Here To Love Me and the tireless advocacy efforts of disciples like Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris.

Although Van Zandt's problem-scarred life, which ended in 1997 at age 52, never brought him the acclaim he deserved, hearing him work through classics like Pancho and Lefty and To Live Is To Fly is a kind of validation in itself. The songs, sturdy and smartly observed, will outlive us all.

"Townes' songwriting -- it's sometimes very ephemeral to me," Pawleski says. "You don't quite know what it means, but there's enough room for it to mean what you want it to. That's a hard thing to do. [His] wistful, magical turn-of-phrase ability -- that doesn't grow old. ... Townes's songs have always been open enough to change with me and grow with me.

"They're a part of you and you take them along with you. Once you know them, they belong to you."

Preston Jones is the Star-Telegram pop music critic, 817-390-7713

Twitter: @prestonjones

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