In Country music, there are legends, then there are people who inspire the legends. Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs and Lyle Lovett (among others) all fall in the first category. And all of them have been inspired by and recorded cover versions of the songs of Guy Clark.
Clark, who passed away last year, is belatedly starting to get the attention and praise he deserves. Fresh on the heels of his biography, Without Getting Killed Or Caught, comes the release of Guy Clark: The Best of the Dualtone Years. The album includes the best of Guy’s last and most introspective decade. Although not a comprehensive career spanning retrospective, the collection manages to sneak in latter day live recordings of early favorites like “L.A. Freeway” and “The Randall Knife.”
Listening to the songs on this collection you quickly realize that the legends cited above did not choose to cover his songs because of their fancy arrangements; they are in fact, sparse and straight forward. Nor were they inspired by the majesty of his voice, although it has been described as “a mix of oak, musk and wisdom.” What did draw so many legends to the songs of Guy Clark was his ability as a storyteller; specifically his ability to extrapolate from the personal to the universal. In “Hemmingway’s Whiskey” for example, when he sings, “Hemmingway’s whiskey; warm and smooth and mean. Even when it burns, it will always finish clean. He did not like it watered down. He took it straight up and neat.” He gives a concrete, tangible description of an everyday item and a quick glance at the person using it. But the item he’s describing becomes more than just liquid in a glass. Under Clark’s masterful influence the whiskey becomes a metaphor for something more as he sings, “There’s more to life than whiskey, there’s more to words than rhyme. Sometimes nothing works, sometimes nothing shines like Hemmingway’s whiskey.” Suddenly a larger picture emerges and deeper questions arise. What happens when you lose your sense of self identity? What happens when you seek escape from life’s problems from the bottom of a bottle? What happens when even your escape no longer works?
Ernest Hemmingway once responded to a challenge to write a story in under ten words with the following: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The genius of his response is in the details that are left out. Guy Clark masters the same style of revealing by omitting. He invites the listener into a familiar, identifiable scene. He gives just enough details to give you a sense of what just happened, but not enough to fully understand why. As you listen to his songs over and over again, you begin to fill in your own blanks and inject yourself into the stories.
For those new to Guy Clark, there are many great stories in this collection that invite you to listen and inject yourself into the song: “My Favorite Picture of You.” “The Randall Knife,” and “Maybe I Can Paint Over That,” are excellent examples. And for those who are already familiar with Guy Clark’s body of work, The Best of the Dualtone Years features three previously unreleased Clark songs: “Just To Watch Maria Dance,” “The Last Hobo,” and “Time;” the last of which is a poignant reflection from a master songwriter contemplating the twilight of his career.