Guy Clark isn’t for everyone. There are few things as predictable as my wife’s reaction to hearing the words, “There ain’t nothin’ in the world that I like better…” But for those who are true believers, who feel quite strongly that he is every bit the writer and singer that Townes Van Zandt was- and on a good day, more so- hearing Guy Clark live is a treat. Van Zandt gets the tribute albums; Clark gets to continue making music.
By writing the above I have no intention of creating an unnecessary and fruitless argument of who is/was better, Clark or Van Zandt. They both had/have their points and their shortcomings; they both had/have their frailties and vices. There is no way I could win the point in Clark’s favour as most likely Guy would suggest that Townes should come out on top. For writers who are truly artists and I would count Clark and Van Zandt among them, the normal standards of success- hit cuts, Billboard charts, sales, popular acclaim- mean little. What counts is the art.
There have been other live collections from Guy Clark and each shows a portrait of the artist as an aging craftsman. The first recorded is the Live From Austin, TX set released a handful of years back but capturing Clark as slipped through his late-40s. Documenting an Austin City Limits taping, the 15-song set presents Clark holding court as an experienced but vibrant troubadour accompanied by Stuart Duncan and Edgar Meyer. The set-list is ripe with the expected standards (including “L.A. Freeway,” “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” and “The Randall Knife”) being present alongside songs that are less frequently heard in a Clark show: the beautiful “Old Friends,” “New Cut Road” and “Immigrant Eyes.” As always, at least in my experience, Clark acts the amiable host having invited a few friends over for a guitar pull.
The first live album released was 1997’s Keepers, recorded in late 1996; Clark was in his mid-50s by this time. This album finds a larger band accompanying Clark: son Travis, mainstays Verlon Thompson and Kenny Malone, Suzi Ragsdale, and another true master, Darrell Scott. The usual songs are joined this time by “Like a Coat from the Cold,” the wordy but word-perfect “The Last Gunfighter Ballad,” “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and “That Old Time Feeling.” While Duncan and Meyer could almost be overlooked on the previous album- and I don’t mean that as a criticism, just a fact as I hear it: the focus is on Clark and his performance- here the band shares the bill with Clark not only supporting him but shining in their own right. Make no mistake, it is a Guy Clark show but the experience is made richer by the instrumental interplay between Scott, Thompson, and Clark’s bass-playing son; give “Home Grown Tomatoes” a listen to hear what I mean.
There is also a three-headed beast called Together at the Bluebird Café recorded the previous year. On this 2001 release, Clark shares the stage with Van Zandt and a refreshed Steve Earle. Clark gets five songs in but it isn’t a ‘Clark’ live show, so we’ll leave it for another day. Good recording, though.
Songs and Stories is the new release, sneaking out last week while I was lazing about. It is another beautiful recording, the type of thing- much like a Guy Clark concert performance- that you just can’t help smiling about. As Clark nears 70, the voice that was never polished to begin with has acquired a patina that reveals the treasure of the past while allowing the depth of experience and the craftsmanship of mastery- that which has true value- to be appreciated.
With noticeably greater effort than displayed on the previous albums, Clark still performs his nine songs here admirably and with distinctive flair. Doesn’t matter that he has qualified for seniors benefits for several years, Guy Clark remains the coolest guy in any room he finds himself in. A few songs contained on one or more of the previous albums are included: “L.A. Freeway,” “The Randall Knife,” “Out in the Parking Lot,” and both “The Cape” and “Dublin Blues,” featured on the Bluebird set. “Maybe I Can Paint Over That” (from his most recent album Somedays the Song Writes You) is the early highlight, but Townes’ “If I Needed You” is most certainly appreciated: still one of the most honest songs ever written. And I will never argue with the inclusion of “Stuff That Works” in any Clark (or Rodney Crowell) set. Disappointing is the absence of additional material from Somedays the Song Writes You; it would have been nice to have a live take of “Eamon” or “Hemingway’s Whiskey”
What sets this album apart from the earlier discs in the extra time afforded Verlon Thompson and Shawn Camp. In his easy-speaking manner, and similar to how he performed when I last saw him with Clark at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2009, Thompson charms while he entertains. So impressed was I by his two tracks here, especially the spirited “Joe Walker’s Mare,” that I downloaded his Works album a few weeks ago.
Shawn Camp brings some acoustiblue fire to the show, spinning through “Sis Draper” and bringing a more subtle touch to “Magnolia Wind;” both songs just happen to be Camp/Clark co-writes. While some may argue that a Guy Clark live album should feature more than nine Guy Clark performances, by highlighting the talents of those who surround him, Clark gives evidence to all the stories one has heard about his integrity and mentorship. By not excising the mid-set interlude, the album feels like a performance that the listener is witnessing.
Songs and Stories may not be the best place to start exploring Guy Clark, but it is a wonderful artefact of song writing mastery and performance. I’ve seen The David, I’ve heard Doc Watson pick quite a bit, and I’ve heard Guy Clark sing, “There ain’t nothin’ in the world that I like better, than bacon and lettuce and home grown tomatoes…” more than a few times, including here. Let’s hope this isn’t the last volume of live Clark- he’s got so many songs still to share. And I want to hear what he has to offer as he approaches 80; I trust it’ll be fun.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee; hope you’re finding things that inspire you to listen to music. Best, Donald