Friday, November 4, 2011

Guy Clark – Songs and Stories; Various Artists – This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark

I can pinpoint when I became a fan of the songwriting of Guy Clark. It was in 1972 when Jerry Jeff Walker released his eponymously named LP, Jerry Jeff Walker. It was the LP that marked Jerry Jeff’s move from the Greenwich Village folk scene to the Austin folk/outlaw country scene.

Two of the best songs on Jerry Jeff Walker, “That Old Time Feeling” and “L.A. Freeway” were credited to Guy. I was starting to play a little guitar then and learned “L.A. Freeway” from that record.

Not much later, I learned a Guy Clark song called “Lone Star Hotel Café” from my friend Bill Staines.

So Guy Clark’s was a name I already knew when his own first LP, Old No. 1, was released in 1975. By then I was a Montreal Gazette music reviewer and I remember writing glowingly about that LP. I’ve been a fan ever since. I’ve listened a lot to every record he’s ever made and have had a chance to hang out with him a couple of times at folk festivals and on his one trip to Montreal for an Outremont Theatre concert in 2001 with Jesse Winchester (while in Montreal he also did an extended interview with me on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio show).

Guy is one of the all-time great singer-songwriters, one of the definitive songwriters of the Texas country-folk school. He turns 70 this week and the milestone is marked by a new live album, Songs and Stories, which was released in August, and This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark, a 2-CD homage by 30 fellow artists.

Songs and Stories

Although they were sitting on the stage at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, there’s a real living room feeling to Songs and Stories, a friendly, informal, 69-minute set that has Guy Clark and friends sharing songs and stories from across his long career. Joining him on stage are Verlon Thompson, his regular guitar player and occasional songwriting collaborator; guitarist and mandolin player Shawn Camp, also an occasional songwriting collaborator; and the excellent rhythm section of bassist Bryn Davies and drummer Kenny Malone (one of those all-too-rare drummers who knows how to play with acoustic folk musicians without ever getting in the way).

 Guy is older and has had some health problems in recent years which you can hear it in a voice that isn’t as strong as it once was – though it’s still as expressive – and in somewhat diminished energy level. But that’s OK, in essence Guy is a storyteller-in-song and his ability to sing us a story, to instil memories in us that are not our own, remains undiminished.

Among my favourite of Guy’s performances in the set are “The Randall Knife,” a poignant memory of the father he lost three decades ago, “Dublin Blues,” a meditation on beauty, great art and great music set to the old folk melody from “Handsome Molly,” and “The Cape,” a song he introduces as being “about jumping off a garage,” but is really an affirmative song about having confidence in one’s self.

Guy also does a fine version of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You.” There are probably no other artists who understand Townes’ songs on a level with Guy.

Guy also turns things over to Shawn and Verlon – hot pickers both – for two songs each. Shawn does a couple of his co-writes with Guy including “Sis Draper,” the story of a great fiddler that’s one of the most infectious tunes from Guy’s catalog. Verlon does a couple of his own songs that show he’s a fine artist in his own right.

This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark
Icehouse Music

“Let’s give her a good go and make old Guy proud of us,” says Rodney Crowell as he kicks off “That Old Time Feeling,” a perfect gem of a song from 40 or so years ago. It’s the opening track to This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark, a loving 2-CD, 30-song homage to one of the all-time greatest songwriters on the occasion of his 70th birthday.

This album is filled with lots of great artists singing lots of great songs. Most of the artists are the kind of Texas or Nashville folk you might expect on an album like this. But, there are a few surprises, including Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith who does a nice version of “Broken Hearted People.”

There are few weak tracks here. A few of my favourites include Rosanne Cash’s lovely version of “Better Days,” highlighted by the superb steel guitar work of Lloyd Maines; Willie Nelson’s mature take on “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” a song Guy wrote as a very young man in tribute to an old man of 70 (his grandmother’s boyfriend, Guy told me when he was on Folk Roots/Folk Branches); “Let Him Roll,” a talking song ably performed by John Townes Van Zandt II, Townes’ son; Joe Ely’s version of the fore-mentioned “Dublin Blues”; Ramblin' Jack Elliott's fine version of “The Guitar,” a kind of musician's ghost story; and a sweet duet by John Prine and Emmylou Harris on “Magnolia Wind.”

The album ends by bring me full circle back to Jerry Jeff Walker, the artist who introduced me to Guy Clark songs almost 40 years ago. Jerry Jeff sings “My Favorite Picture of You,” the one song of 30 I’ve never heard before. It’s a beautiful new love song that’s as finely crafted as anything Guy’s written before.

There are few missing artists who should be here – Tom Russell, Nanci Griffith, Bill Staines and Jesse Winchester come to mind. And there are lots of other Guy Clark songs I wish there was room for. Be that as it may, This One’s for Him is a great tribute to a great artist. Kudos to co-producers Tamara Saviano and Shawn Camp; and to Guy’s long-time accompanist, Verlon Thompson, who, with Shawn, plays on most of these songs.

I'm sure, Rodney, you guys made old Guy proud with this album.

Happy Birthday, Guy!

--Mike Regenstreif

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