The Graham Weekly Album Review #1173

CD graphic Guy Clark: Cold Dog Soup -- by George Graham

(Sugar Hill 1063 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/27/99)

The state of Texas has spawned an interesting and unique singer-songwriter scene. Perhaps it's the combination of geography, culture and history that has also influenced some of the great American novelists from the South. But for whatever reason, since the mid-1960s, a continuing stream of fine singer-songwriters has emerged, from Jerry Jeff Walker and Townes Van Zandt, to Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith. Recently Lovett paid tribute to the state's musical authors on his Step Into This House double CD. One of the people whose work was represented on that collection is Guy Clark. In fact, album was named after a Clark song.

Though he hasn't lived in Texas since the 1970s, Guy Clark remains one of the most respected songwriters the Lone Star State has produced. Clark has just released his latest album called Cold Dog Soup.

Born in West Texas, Guy Clark grew up along the state's Gulf Coast, with parents who encouraged his music. His father's law partner played Mexican music, and the younger Clark found himself enchanted by it, took up the guitar, and learned many of the songs in Spanish. While in college in Houston, Clark became involved with the folklore society there and in the course of events made contact with pioneering folk and blues artists like Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin' Hopkins, and eventually with some of his relative contemporaries like Townes Van Zandt and Jerry Jeff Walker. Clark moved to the San Francisco area at the end of the psychedelic scene and became a guitar builder. His career also included a stint as a television art director in Houston. But he kept writing a few songs here and there, and in the process created some classics of the Texas songwriting school, like Desperados Waiting for a Train, and L.A. Freeway, which were made famous by Jerry Jeff Walker.

Clark has been based in Nashville for the past quarter century, writing songs that would be made into hits for Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell, among others. During the 1980s, Clark recorded infrequently, but during the 1990s he has been much more active, coming up with a series of impressive recordings spotlighting his laconic delivery of songs with impressively clever wordcraft, performed in an almost entirely acoustic setting.

Clark's new CD carries the acoustic setting one step further with the music performed by a trio sitting in a circle in a recording studio set up like a living room and sounding just like that on the record. The other participants are Clark's long-time guitar associate Verlon Thompson, along with Darrell Scott, who is a busy studio musician and an excellent singer-songwriter in his own right. Scott plays various instruments including guitar, mandolin and Dobro. There are a couple of guest appearances, most notably by Emmylou Harris, but the focus of the recording is the intimate, and very informal-sounding trio just having a good time picking and singing.

Clark acknowledges that he is not a particularly prolific or speedy songwriter, but almost all his songs are gems in one way or another. So Clark fills out this 12-song album with three covers including material from Steve Earle and Keith Sykes. And most of the original songs on this CD are collaborations between Clark and others.

Cold Dog Soup gets under way with its title track, an interesting song written with Mark D. Sanders, another successful Nashville-based songwriter. The title was a line Sanders had written down in the course of just casting about for ideas. Clark and Sanders found that they had shared some experiences playing at the same club in the San Diego area in the late 1960s. Some of the literary references come from that time and place, and some are more fanciful. <<>>

One of the album's more appealing songs, which really takes advantage of the living room atmosphere of the session, is Sis Draper, a kind of old-time celebration of a fabled fiddler. Shawn Camp plays the fiddler and he co-wrote the song with Clark. <<>>

Ain't No Trouble to Me is another memorable song, a kind of laconic musical reassurance to someone who might be in need of some. <<>>

One of the covers is Steve Earle's elegy to the late Townes Van Zandt called Fort Worth Blues. Clark said he was especially impressed when he first heard the song, which was brought to him by Emmylou Harris. Clark and Van Zandt were good friends. Ms. Harris appears doing the backing vocals. <<>>

Clark's great dry wit comes through on another of the album's highlights, Men Will Be Boys, which basically says, guys don't really grow up. <<>>

If the song Sis Draper borrowed from the traditional song Turkey in the Straw, a Clark composition called Water Under the Bridge draws on the folk standard Little Sadie for both the some of the melodic line and the general mood of the lyrics. Clark's words, however, are full of interesting metaphors. <<>>

Clark tells the imagined story of a coin as it passes through circulation in a song written with Verlon Thompson called Indian Head Penny. Again, it's the kind of writing that has made so many other songwriters fans of Clark's. <<>>

The album ends with another of its covers, Be Gone Forever co-written by Keith Sykes and Anna McGarrigle. Though Emmylou Harris does some backing vocals, and the instrumental performance is quite nice; lyrically, I don't think that this song is up the level of Clark's writing. <<>>

Texas-bred, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Guy Clark has long been considered one of the finest of the breed of songwriters the Lone Star State has produced. His new CD Cold Dog Soup, though perhaps not his richest in terms of quantity of Clark lyrical gems, is nevertheless an excellent album that reminds us of Clark's abilities as both a writer and as thoroughly likable gruff-voiced singer with a great laid-back informal style. That style is greatly enhanced by this album's simple trio setting, with three guys sitting around the microphones picking and having a good time, while the musicianship especially on the part of Darrell Scott is excellent. Most of the tracks were recorded essentially live, with minimal overdubs. The liner notes point out the relatively few instances where that happens.

From a sonic standpoint, I just love the way this recording sounds. It really captures the living room quality of the performance, with no detectable electronic effects added, and sound so clean and intimate you feel you could reach out and touch the musicians. There is also a very commendable dynamic range. Engineer Chris Latham deserves kudos for effectively capturing the feeling of the session, and also for resisting the urge to try to pump up the sound in any way.

The singer-songwriter scene has many practitioners releasing albums these days. But there are few on the calibre of Guy Clark. His new release Cold Dog Soup is the work of a master in a wonderful, informal setting.

(c) Copyright 1999 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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