Thursday, December 15, 2011

Less is More: This One's For Him – A Tribute to Guy Clark

In November 2011, Guy Clark turned 70. All our heroes are turning 70, or 75; I guess that means I’m ageing too. I don’t feel like it, except when I try to do the same old things I always did. Like stand up, or bend over! To celebrate Guy’s birthday, his friends, led by Tamara Saviano, created the tribute album, This One's For Him. Now Guy Clark is one of those heroes who needs to be celebrated, although I’m pretty sure he’d be uncomfortable with the attention.

Last time I saw Guy Clark was at Guelph’s marvellous River Run Centre. I had an appointment to meet with his accompanist and pal Verlon Thompson. Guy was asked from the audience if he was going to come out and sign CDs after the show, and he said, “Well,” in his slow Texas drawl, “do ya want me to?” And sure enough he came out, and stood quietly against the wall, looking ever so much like he couldn’t figure out what all the excitement was about. He took the gushing compliments with an “aw shucks” attitude, and scribbled his signature on a dozen or two CD inserts. He’d done his job, sung his songs and played his guitar, told his stories and entertained us for a couple hours. It was time to go, but the “Master Songwriter” (as his web site calls him) schmoozed for our benefit. He was the old pro.

This One’s For Him is a two-disc set that feels almost like one of Guy’s own records, except everybody else is singing the songs. The album was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee and Austin, Texas using a core group of musicians including Shawn Camp, Verlon Thompson, Lloyd Maines, Jen Gunderman, Glen Fukunaga, Glenn Worf, Kenny Malone and Larry Atamanuik, among others. These names will be familiar to regular listeners of Texas songwriter music. They’ve played around and are all masters of their craft. The tone is acoustic, warm, and comfortable, all the way through from the first sound on Disc One. I say first ‘sound’ because before he launches into “Old Time Feeling” Rodney Crowell says “Let’s give her a good go and make ol’ Guy proud of us…” It lends an air of honesty and intimacy to the proceedings which remains throughout both discs.

It’s really about the songs. Guy Clark’s most recent album, Songs and Stories, is itself a tribute to his own songwriting, and features a trawl through his biggest hits intermingled with the stories he so casually throws in between tunes. The stories aren’t on this tribute, but each performance is informed by the history. 

Guy Clark
“Songs are like Japanese painting,” Clark explains. “Less is more. One brushstroke takes the place of many if you put it in the right place. I’m trying to get whoever is listening to think, ‘Oh, man, I was there. I did that. I know what that’s about.’ Too many details take away.” He’s right. His songs are not ten-minute epics which tell the history of the building of the railroad, but rather small intimate snapshots that describe a moment in time. They make the listener take part in the process and share his or her own memories of the first streamline train that passed through town, or the guitar they played in a pawn shop somewhere. When matched with a personality like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the song “The Guitar” takes on a new life. Clark wrote about Elliott’s own guitar (“the one with the cowboy paintin’ pickguard on it”) in “Cold Dog Soup” (here played by James McMurtry). You see, it’s all interwoven, history and songs, lyrics and music, memory and the now.

The thirty songs presented here are played by the studio band and artists like Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, Shawn Colvin, Rosanne Cash, Ron Sexsmith, Joe Ely, Kris Kristofferson and more. Gill played guitar on Clark’s original version of “Randall Knife” and the connection he felt with Guy’s tale of a father and a son resonated powerfully. Gill says, “Giant tears were falling all over my guitar as we were playing. My dad was a lawyer, and he died when I was forty. Guy and I are tied at the hip through that song.” It’s clear that many of the guests felt the same way for one reason or another.

One time I took a friend to see Guy Clark, at a Songwriters’ Festival. My friend had been through a rough patch, in fact he was in the middle of it. We had driven an hour to get to the theatre, and he spent the drive telling me about it. After Guy and Verlon finished their set, we headed home. My friend said, “Thanks for this…I haven’t felt this good in weeks. Music is healing.”

The artists gathered for This One’s For Him know all about music’s healing properties. They know a good thing when they hear it too, so they don’t wander too far off the beaten path. Some tributes take the song and then rewrite it to suit their own style, but here the producers and studio band keep everyone reasonably close to home. And yet, they all manage to display their own personalities. There’s no way that Willie Nelson isn’t going to sound like himself; or Steve Earle, John Prine & Emmylou Harris, Radney Foster or any of the others. They all bring themselves to the project, but This One’s For Him, and so there’s an echo of Guy within every track. This one’s for Guy Clark, and the songs (and the songwriter) are shown the respect they deserve. 

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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