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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1294

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Guy Clark: The Dark
by George Graham

(Sugar Hill 1070 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/4/2002)

With the great amount of current artistic activity in the singer-songwriter realm, a particular sub-genre has also been experiencing renewed interest over the past several years -- the variety spawned in the Lone Star State. The epitome of the Texas singer-songwriter was the late Townes Van Zandt, whose songs were full of interesting characters, and whose music had a distinctive expansive quality, a kind of folk-country blend that often took on an introspective mood. Van Zandt was one of a trio of pioneers, along with Jerry Jeff Walker and Guy Clark who emerged in the 1960s and essentially created the genre. Though based in Nashville for several years, Guy Clark remains very much active as a songwriter, and continues to create some of his best work. He has just released his latest recording called The Dark.

Guy Clark has had an interesting and varied career as a television art director, a boat builder, and most recently a luthier, or builder of guitars, in addition to his creating some of the most influential songs to come out of the Texan singer-songwriter scene, such as Jerry Jeff Walker's hits L.A. Freeway, and Desperados Waiting for a Train. Clark's songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill and many others over the years, but Clark remains a distinctive and appealing performer, delivering his literate, perceptive and often wryly witty songs better than almost anyone. While Clark has never been particularly prolific in his output, he graces us with a new album every couple of years, and his latest, The Dark is another gem.

In recent years, Clark has taken to performing in an entirely acoustic context usually with a small group, including his long-time musical colleague Verlon Thompson. The new CD also features Darrell Scott, who has also worked with Clark over the last couple of albums. The trio provides most of the instrumentation, which is supplemented by the contributions of Chris Latham, who served as co-producer, plus notable guests Tim O'Brien, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. But the sound remains very informal, with very much a kind of living-room ambience with no apparent studio effects, though the liner notes do specify when a few parts were overdubbed to add a little additional instrumentation. That kind of sound suits Clark's distinctive, laid-back informal vocals just fine, and helps to keep the focus on Clark's instantly memorable songs.

Interestingly, this is very much a collaborative album. Every one of the original songs on the CD is a co-composition with Clark. Among his writing partners on the CD are some well-known Nashville tunesmiths, including Buddy Mondlock, Gary Nicholson, Steve Nelson, along with Terry Allen and Shawn Camp. Clark also covers a song by Townes Van Zandt, his friend of many years.

The title The Dark is appropriate in that the mood of these songs is a bit less upbeat than some of Clark's previous work, but the CD is full of great writing. The Texas songwriter genre is very much about storytelling, and Clark has developed some great characters who inhabit this CD, from a flamboyant would-be show-biz star to a homeless person. Interestingly, women comprise most of the more colorful characters on The Dark. Clark also does something a bit unusual and writes some new songs about a number of characters who first appeared in supporting roles in a previous song from his last album Cold Dog Soup.

But The Dark opens with one of those great songs of Clarkian wisdom and skill at the metaphor, a composition whose name is Mud. The track establishes the appealingly informal sound of the CD. <<>>

One of Clark's memorable character songs is Arizona Star, who Clark said was a real person who did her thing on the streets of Nashville. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings do the backing vocals. <<>>

On Clark's 1999 album Cold Dog Soup he created a song called Sis Draper, who was a kind of legendary fiddler in the story. Clark introduced a number of characters, including Sis Draper's ancestor who fought in the Civil War, and started the family fiddle tradition. So Clark, together with co-composer Sawn Camp, created Soldier's Joy 1864 to tell the story of the Civil War soldier who lost his leg and continued to make his contribution to the effort by playing his fiddle for the troops. Tim O'Brien makes a guest appearance to play one of the fiddles, along with the song's co-composer, Camp. It's one of the album's highlights. <<>>

Another strong woman and free spirit is the main character in Dancin' Days. The song, written with Steve Nelson, is given an appealing country and bluegrass treatment. Once again, Clark shows he has the knack to create some brilliant lyric lines. <<>>

Guy Clark is one of the few singer-songwriters who can create a song with spoken lyrics and not have it sound hokey. The technique proves very effective on perhaps the most poignant song on the CD Homeless, whose title describes the state of its protagonist. <<>>

More upbeat in mood is She Loves to Ride Horses, revolving around another indomitable woman. In this case, it's her affinity for equestrianism that provides the premise for the composition, written with Keith Sykes. <<>>

Clark says that Magnolia Wind also came out of the characters in the song Sis Draper. The slow country waltz is nicely performed by the trio, along with co-composer Shawn Camp on the fiddle. <<>>

Clark does write some songs about male characters on this CD. Off the Map starts out as a story about an endearing character whose life goes downhill, and ultimately meets a sad end. <<>>

The Townes Van Zandt song that Clark does is one of Van Zandt's more obscure ones, but one which Clark says is a special favorite. Rex's Blues is typical of Van Zandt's writing style, and Clark and company do the song justice. <<>>

The CD ends with its title track The Dark, co-written with Buddy Mondlock, and also given a semi-spoken vocal performance. The metaphorical lyrics lack Clark's cast of characters, but the verbal imagery is outstanding. <<>>

Guy Clark has been one of the most influential and significant of the Texas singer-songwriter school for more than three decades now, and the years have only seen him get better. A masterful creator of lyrical characters, a storyteller, and a charmingly gruff-voiced interpreter of those songs, Clark has created another superb album that captures those songs in a fine acoustic setting that is almost stark in its avoidance of anything artificial. It's just pure acoustic sounds, and great classy understated musicianship. The fact that Clark chose to collaborate with a number of songwriters, so that every new song is one he co-wrote with another, does not dilute the essential character of his songs. Perhaps the collaboration helped him to keep fresh. In any case, the result is one of his best albums in recent years.

Our grade for sound quality is an unqualified "A." Engineer and co-producer Chris Latham, who also handled similar duties on Clark's sonically brilliant 1999 album Cold Dog Soup again gives the CD a completely honest, unprocessed sound that brings the musicians right into your living room. It's not often that a contemporary CD release boasts such an unfettered sound.

From a combination of the other jobs he has done, Guy Clark has come to be called the "songbuilder." With his collaborators, he has built some that are likely to be durable classics on his new CD The Dark. It's another treasure from one of the great singer-songwriters.

(c) Copyright 2002 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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