Some years ago, word of a birthday tape featuring Guy Clark’s Nashville friends performing his songs just for him circulated. I have never been fortunate to locate a dub of that set, but from all accounts it was something quite impressive.
Those of us outside that inner circle will have to satisfy ourselves with this remarkable set featuring 30 songs written (and co-written) by Clark and performed by some of the many performers and fellow writers whose lives he has touched. An incredible undertaking, this tribute to the living poet laureate of Texas songwriters has much to offer both the Clark devotee and the casual Americana appreciator.
Guy Clark has never been the household name that other Nashville-based singers and writers may be. His own albums have seldom charted and it was only with his 16th and most recent live release Songs and Stories that Clark finally cracked the Country Top 30. His singles fare no better, but others- among them Ricky Skaggs, Bobby Bare, Vince Gill, John Conlee, and Steve Wariner- took his tunes to the top of the charts while many more have used his material for album depth.
Still, Clark’s influence as a mentor to Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle is well-documented and his friendship with Townes Van Zandt is the stuff of legend. He paints with lyric, each word and phrase combining to create lasting images and impressions that cross generations. Frequently overlooked is the quality of his identifiable and memorable melodies. While it is always wonderful to hear Clark perform, it is equally enjoyable to experience interpretations of his songs.
Intended as a celebration of Guy Clark’s 70th birthday and opening with an unmistakable belly-laugh from the man himself, the compilers of This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark waste no time in setting the bar high with frequent Clark collaborators Rodney Crowell (“That Old Time Feeling”) and Lyle Lovett with Emmylou Harris (“Anyhow I Love You”) interpreting two classic songs from his earliest albums.
From there it is two hours of uninterrupted enjoyment. All the expected Clark characters appear: the old man with “brown tobacco stains all down his chin”; the reluctant urban dweller who just wants to “get off this L.A. Freeway without getting killed or caught”; the dreamer who trusts that he can fly; the woman “standing on the gone side of leaving;” the wino who loved a Dallas whore; the Texas six-year old placing a nickel on a train track; and the fellow who recognizes that “there are only two things that money can’t buy, true love and home grown tomatoes.” Clark’s characters are not always right, but much like the man himself they always appear to be true.
Performing are the expected cast of voices, many who have recorded with Clark in the past (Crowell, Harris, Rosanne Cash) or have recorded his songs (Jack Ingram, Willie Nelson, Radney Foster). Not all the participants are on the north side of 50 as relative youngsters Hayes Carll, The Trishas, John Townes Van Zandt II, Ron Sexsmith, and Patty Griffin each take a song for a run, perhaps most remarkably Sexsmith who does his expected beautiful job with “Broken Hearted People.”
But, most of the featured singers are of that generation that came of age in the sixties and early seventies and who worked and traveled the same roads and shared similar experiences as Clark: Ray Wylie Hubbard, Terry Allen, Robert Earl Keen, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kevin Welch, Suzy Bogguss, John Prine, and Steve Earle.
There isn’t a wrong move throughout the set. The core band- featuring frequent Clark sidemen Shawn Camp, Verlon Thompson, and Kenny Malone, among others- provides consistency, creating a comfortable environment for each singer. Some songs swing with frivolity (Rosie Flores’s “My Baby Took A Limo to Memphis”) while others offer melancholy reflection (Terry Allen’s “Old Friends”). It is this balance that most distinguishes Clark’s writing- he builds around the gems that are life’s moments.
Guy Clark’s greatest song may be “The Randall Knife,” as powerful a song about father-son relations ever recorded. Vince Gill, who played on the song’s original session in 1983, sings here with more personality than anything on his mysteriously celebrated Guitar Slinger set of last year. He approach differs from Clark’s original, but the power of the words is maintained.
Another highlight is Joe Ely’s inspired reading of “Dublin Blues;” Ely gets to the core of this song- the regret, the loneliness, the desolation- as few other singers can. When he sings the opening lines “I wish I was in Austin, in the chilly Parlour Bar, drinking mad dog margaritas and not caring where you are,” you are aware that you are listening to someone who feels a connection to Clark’s legacy.
It is fitting that Jerry Jeff Walker closes this wonderful tribute as it was through Walker’s renditions of “L.A. Freeway” and “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train” that most of us were first exposed to Clark’s masterful approach to song writing. Walker sings a new song, “My Favourite Picture of You.” In it Clark’s description of his wife Susanna- “no beginning, no end,” “you never left but your bags were packed, just in case,” “it’s bent and faded and pinned to my wall,” “a curse on your lips but all I can see is beautiful,” “a stand-up angel who won’t back down,” and “a thousand words in the blink of an eye”- resonates powerfully: these are the moments that account our lives, our relationships.
Whether you are just discovering Guy Clark or have long appreciated his writing expertise, This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark impresses.
A shorter version of this review was published in The Red Deer Advocate January 20, 2012