On his album "The Late Great Townes Van Zandt," the late, great songwriter included what would become one of, if not the, most well-known song in his catalog, "Pancho & Lefty." On it, he tells a sad tale that sounds as if it were plucked straight out of a dusty book of folk tales, the tragedy of a lost soul and a bandit, and death in the desert.
Except that Van Zandt doesn’t tell the whole story. Pancho "met his match" in the desert. We don’t know what his dying words were, or why the law treated him like they did, letting him "hang around," and "go so wrong." Not even Van Zandt knows — "out of kindness, I suppose."
During his life, Van Zandt would offer bits of explanation for the song, but nothing concrete. That it wasn’t about Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. That the song came to him out of the blue. Some of the lines, especially those in the beginning about living on the road and trying to stay "free and clean" ("now you wear your skin like iron, and your breath’s as hard as kerosene") seem to echo the life of the writer himself, but there’s no confirmation of that.
"With Townes, it feels like the songs he writes, sometimes you don’t quite understand what it means, but it leaves all this room for it to mean something to you. You get to assess your own meaning and insert it into the song," says Cheryl Pawelski of Omnivore Recordings, which this week releases "Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972" ($19.98).
With the new release, fans of Van Zandt, especially those who cherish his album "High, Low and In Between" and its followup "The Late Great Townes Van Zandt" (released when Townes was 29, the same age that influence Hank Williams died) will get to look at those songs — and perhaps what they mean — from a different angle.
The two-disc collection offers alternate studio takes and demos, some of which step back from the hand of producer Jack Clement, who favored an ornate production style (Clement added the mariachi horns to Johnny Cash’s "Ring of Fire"). Among other things, it includes an alternate studio mix of "Pancho & Lefty" that doesn’t include the horns or strings of the original version. "It’s just down to the basic track," Pawelski says of the newly released version. "It was interesting to find it just sitting there by itself as a final mix."
For Pawelski to say she found the track is a bit of an understatement. Her connection to the recordings date back to the mid-1990s, when she was working at a major record label, EMI/Capitol Records. In the midst of work on reissues of albums from the Band and the Beach Boys, she found that through a series of acquisitions — Van Zandt’s original label, Poppy Records (run by producer Kevin Eggers) was purchased by United Artists Records, which was then purchased by EMI — "High, Low" and "Late Great," her two favorite Van Zandt releases, were part of the label’s catalog as well.
Hopes of a reissue were dashed, however, when Pawelski discovered ongoing litigation over the actual ownership of the albums, a web of claims that wasn’t resolved for a decade. By that time she had moved on to jobs at other labels. It wasn’t until she became a partner on Ominivore Recordings that she could revisit the tapes.
What she found was an unusually well-documented record of the recording sessions — taking place in 1971 and 1972 in Nashville, Los Angeles and New York — mostly surrounding the making of those albums. "I tried to pull the best performances and the most interesting alternate takes on songs. There were some tracks where it was really close to the released version," Pawelski says. "So it really didn’t add any perspective to what we already know about that song. I was looking for things that would give us this fly-on-the-wall insight about how they were putting these two records together."
The first disc begins with two covers — a playful version of Jimmie Rodgers’ "T For Texas," which finds Van Zandt rolling out a twangy yodel and announcing, "I’m a goin’ where the water tastes like Robitussin"; and a fairly low-key version of "Who Do You Love." On the alternate take of "To Live is To Fly" (from "High, Low and In Between"), the piano is absent, giving the song a more somber feel than the soulful air of the original. There’s a take of "You Are Not Needed Now" with a more prominent guitar, and a barroom version of "No Deal" with backing vocals.
"On the second disc we just hear Townes on his own, and so the essence of the song is absolutely there," Pawelski says. "Because it’s just Townes and his guitar." Even as demos, many of the differences from the finished products are stark. On "Tower Song" (which appeared on "Delta Momma Blues"), Van Zandt’s voice is raw, and at one point he trips. Elsewhere, on "You Are Not Needed Now," Van Zandt offers a captivating take, with calm, clear vocals and his warm guitar playing.
Among the songs featured on "Sunshine Boy" in both finished and demo forms is Van Zandt’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ "Dead Flowers." Those takes — one more upbeat and a rolling, mellow demo — represent a small bit of news in Van Zandt’s biography. Decades before a live version (included on his 1993 album "Roadsongs") was heard in the film "The Big Lebowski," Van Zandt took the song, released only a year earlier by what was probably the biggest band in the world at the time, and reimagined it in the studio. Brian T. Atkinson, author of "I’ll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt" (and a contributor to the Austin American-Statesman), said he wasn’t aware of these early recordings. "Obviously if he was doing it there he was thinking about putting it on one of those albums," he said.
"I was kind of tickled that it was there," Pawelski said. "The fact that there was a demo and a studio version with a band that dates back to to 1972, I was kind of blown away by that because obviously he liked the song a lot, and he was experimenting with it before that later version ever came out."