The embodiment of the tragic troubadour, Townes Van Zandt's prolific and sublime output reached what some would deem its apex with the release of two 1972 albums: High, Low and in Between
and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt
. Van Zandt's lonesome folk-blues songs were at their most passionate, desperate, and visceral at this point, and his painful path continued to escalate in difficulty as his masterworks were less than commercial successes and his heroin habit drained his spirit heavily. As time went on, the strength of his writing, especially in this prolific period, would elevate Van Zandt to levels of almost mythical American legend status, and his songs would be covered by bigger names in country and folk. Sunshine Boy
collects rough studio mixes, alternate takes, and demo recordings from this golden 1971-1972 period, all previously unreleased. The 28 tracks here offer an especially intimate window on the artist, with spare demos and stripped-down studio mixes spotlighting Van Zandt's weathered vocals and straightforward, often heartbreaking storytelling lyrics. The studio half of the collection features languid blues covers ("Who Do You Love"), bluegrass romps ("Blue Ridge Mountains"), and country-fried western rockers ("Two Hands," "Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold"). An early alternate mix of Van Zandt's biggest single, "Pancho & Lefty," is heard here without its mariachi horns or string arrangements. Without these elements to date it, the crushingly sad ballad takes on a timeless feel, more direct than any era of singer/songwriter sounds it may have been created in. The 12 off-hand demos included here are what truly offer an intimate portrait of the singer in his prime. Van Zandt sounds especially candid, accompanied mostly by his own guitar and singing softly to himself between takes. Tracks like "Heavenly Houseboat Blues," the traditional "Old Paint," and a very laid-back take on the Stones
' "Dead Flowers," are all as disarming as they are enjoyable. The loose approach of these demos doesn't take away at all from their power. The space and simplicity just allow more room for Van Zandt's unique character to come through. Though all of the songs on Sunshine Boy
found their way to official albums in more fleshed-out versions, these uncluttered takes offer a beautifully bare look at a young artist whose combination of astonishing gifts and troubled life would eventually make him an American folk hero.