Artist in Residence: Guy Clark

TEXAS COOKIN’: GUY CLARK BRINGS THE BAND FOR HIS THIRD AND FINAL ARTIST-IN-RESIDENCE PERFORMANCE

Like a good Texas farmer who ends a harvest by anticipating the next crop, Guy Clark looked to the future as he closed out a series of concerts as the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s 2006 Artist-in-Residence.

“Let’s do it again some year,” Clark said wryly, his eyes dancing with meaning and delight as he finished his second set with “Dublin Blues” and bid a friendly end to a remarkable sold-out concert series that those who attended won’t forget.

For this night, Clark filled the stage with younger musicians for a cut-by-cut preview of his upcoming album, Workbench Songs, due out October 17 on Dualtone Records. He also performed three fiddle-based songs he wrote with Shawn Camp, a member of his band. The two wrote the tunes based on an elderly female fiddler Camp saw perform as a youth, and they’re now using the three songs—“Sis Draper,” “Soldiers Joy 1864,” and “Magnolia Wind”—as a basis for a Broadway-style musical they’re writing.

And, in a true highlight of the series, Emmylou Harris stepped from her first-row seat to harmonize and duet with her longtime friend during the second set. “I guess Guy and I have known each other for thirty-plus years,” Harris explained after a rousing reception by the crowd. “It’s a privilege to know him, and a lot of fun.”

She proceeded to show just how much fun, as the two iconic figures traded lines on Clark’s “I Don’t Love You Much, Do I,” just as they had on the original recording of the song on the 1992 album Boats to Build. Harris announced that the song has been licensed for a bread commercial, adding, “But it’s really good bread.” Clark’s longtime guitarist, Verlon Thompson, then stepped to the microphone and quipped, “I just hope they pay you a lot of dough.”

That’s how the night went, with friends old and young sharing music, trading stories, and cracking jokes while alternating between Clark’s breezy celebrations of life and his quietly dramatic depictions of life-changing moments.

On stage, Camp and Clark’s pal Jamie Hartford traded off on acoustic guitar and mandolin throughout the night, with Camp occasionally picking up the fiddle for Clark’s jauntier tunes. Bryn Bright became the talk of the crowd for her forceful, funky deep notes on the doghouse bass, which she wielded like a familiar dancing partner. Thompson, the only musician to perform on each of Clark’s three artist-in-residence shows, once again lent his fleet yet sensitive support.

Liz Thiels, the Museum’s senior vice president of public relations, introduced Clark with a personal thank you for what he’s meant to her life and career. Recalling her start in the music business as a co-owner and manager of a legendary Nashville nightclub, the Exit/In, Thiels told of booking Clark shortly after he moved to Music City in the early ’70s and what a powerful impact his songs had on her.

She loved his charismatic cowboy grace on stage, Thiels said, and he changed the way she listened to music. As a young woman with Louisiana roots, she explained that, for her, music  “had primarily been about dancing.” Clark’s songs, she continued, coaxed her to “learn to listen for the story and the melody in the words.”

Recounting the importance of their long-running friendship, Thiels summed up her feelings about Clark by saying, “He’s a man who loves everything that is right about this old world.”

Thiels then introduced each band member before Clark emerged to a standing ovation. After the crowd settled in, Clark let the crowd know they were in for a special treat.

“This’ll be a first for me,” Clark announced, then explained that he and the band would perform the eleven songs on Workbench Songs in the order they appear on the CD. As performed Wednesday night, the album displayed Clark’s depth and breadth as a songwriter and performer. It alternated from the colorfully detailed “Analog Girl,” about a woman who refuses to enter the digital age, to the metaphor-rich “Tornado Time in Texas,” in which Clark describes a storm that will “blow the tattoo off of your arm.”

He also revived “Out in the Parking Lot,” which Clark originally recorded on the 1997 album Keepers, and which was recently recorded as a duet by Brad Paisley and Alan Jackson. Other highlights included the tender “Magdalene”; the celebration of heroic individuals who forge their own path, “Walking Man”; the heart-tugging carnival story, “Funny Bone”; and a touching take on Townes Van Zandt’s earnest “No Lonesome Tune.”

After the between-set break, the Museum’s senior director for museum programs, Jay Orr, and Justine Gregory, director of education and public programming, presented Clark and Thompson with framed commemorative posters specially made for the occasion by Hatch Show Print. Orr told Clark that his residency concerts had been a highlight of the museum’s busy 2006 public programs schedule while  “reminding us of the meaning and value of our work.”

Indeed, while Clark used the show to look ahead, he also presented a few past highlights that reminded the crowd of why he’s held in such esteem by those who love well-crafted songs. Clark performed “The Randall Knife” solo, taking advantage of the natural acoustics in the Ford Theater by stepping from the stage to sing it just a few steps from the front row, away from the microphones and amplifiers. He performed “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train” with evocative backing from the band, and offered an emotional “Old Friends” with Harris on harmony vocals. She stayed to join the entire band in a celebratory “Homegrown Tomatoes” that became a crowd sing-along to end the night.

As Harris stated at one point in the second set, “Guy always writes the truth.” Indeed, by drawing on his life and his culture, and through his dedication to craft and to making every word and every note count, Clark shows how true stories, well told, can make us all view our lives more deeply—and live them with more sensitivity and feeling.

--Michael McCall


OLD FRIENDS, AFTER ALL: GUY CLARK GATHERS PARTNERS AND GUNSLINGERS FOR HIS SECOND ARTIST-IN-RESIDENCE CONCERT 

This one was about old friends, and it made for an evening of sharing songs that shined like diamonds.

For the second in a series of artist-in-residence concerts at the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum, Guy Clark invited his friend of thirty-five years, Rodney Crowell, to join him on stage. Clark brought along Verlon Thompson, his long-time guitarist and touring partner; Crowell ponied up by bringing Will Kimbrough, his guitarist and a member of his band, the Outsiders.

As if that wasn’t enough, they repeatedly persuaded country star Vince Gill to hop on for the ride. “Hey, Benefit, get back up here,” Clark wisecracked during the second set, using a nickname Gill has earned among friends for his frequent appearances at charity events. Gill stayed on stage for several songs in the first set, and for more than half of the second, including the encores.

“We’re going to play some songs we know, and some we don’t,” Clark quipped in his introductory comments, a promise that proved true over the three hours of music that followed.

Even though Clark also performed for more than three hours during his first artist-in-residence concert on Sept. 6, a majority of the second concert featured fresh songs, yet another testament to the depth and quality of his thirty-one-year catalog of recordings. With Crowell, Thompson, and Kimbrough adding self-written songs of their own, as well as a couple of choice covers, the evening carried a completely different flavor from the first concert. The first night was intense and intimate, with Clark performing subtly dramatized versions of his own songs with support from Thompson; the second was playful and improvisatory, full of laughs, remembrances, toasts to mutual friends, and an occasional tear.

Clark turns sixty-five in November, and his age and recent health problems have given his stage presence a grandfatherly air. He still maintains his cowboy swagger and old-school macho ease, but like an aging rancher, he now shows a touch of weathered frailty that gives his voice and presence added authority. Three decades ago, Clark came across as wise beyond his years; now his gruffness is cut with the sly wisdom of a man who’s lived long and hard but absorbed the lessons into every pore of his leathery skin.

His age and the years these friends have spent together—Gill, for one, explained how he met Clark and Crowell in 1976 when he performed at the Troubadour in Los Angeles—created an informal fluency between the artists, and the mood fluctuated between bawdy humor and a touching sentimentality. Like a family reunion where the patriarch is showing the wear of time, the bond on stage recognized the love and admiration these colleagues have for each other, yet it also tugged at their hearts because they’ve begun to accept that mortality will eventually impose itself on these lifelong friendships.

 At the start of the evening, Clark noted he had already co-written with Crowell before he recorded his first album, 1975’s Old No. 1. He opened with the rarely performed “The Partner Nobody Chose,” a song he and Crowell wrote from Clark’s 1981 album, South Coast of Texas. The concert was packed with songs the two friends co-wrote, including “Stuff That Works,” “She’s Crazy for Leavin’,” and the new “Exposé,” which Clark and Crowell wrote with steel guitarist Hank Devito, and which appears on Clark’s upcoming Dualtone Records album, Workbench Songs.

The night also featured two songs inspired by Crowell’s father, J.W. Crowell, a skilled laborer in Texas who led honky-tonk bands in dance clubs around Houston while Rodney was growing up. Clark and Crowell traded lyrics on the rarely performed “Jack of All Trades,”  about a bare-knuckled man who can drive, build, or fix anything. Clark noted that Rodney wrote it for his dad, and that it was the first time the two of them had ever sung it publicly. Clark also presented the sharply descriptive “Black Diamond Strings,” an account of the elder Crowell’s love of guitars, whiskey, honky-tonks and country music.

Gill, on his turns at the microphone, concentrated on tunes he’d written with Clark, starting with “A Sight for Sore Eyes,” which appeared on the tender singer’s breakthrough 1989 album, When I Call Your Name. He later offered a sensitive take on “Jenny Dreamed of Trains,” a song the two wrote for Gill’s daughter. Clark, Crowell and Gill also bopped through a rocking version of “Oklahoma Borderline,” which the three wrote together, and which, in 1985, was the second Top Ten hit of Gill’s career.

Crowell diverted from Clark’s catalog to include two other songs by writers he considers mentors. First, he tipped his hat to Tom T. Hall, Clark’s predecessor as the Museum’s 2005 artist-in-residence, who attended the concert. Crowell explained how Hall’s 1976 album Faster Horses got him through tough times as a young, struggling artist living in Los Angeles shortly after joining Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band as a guitarist and harmony singer.

 “I had a crush on Emmylou, but she didn’t have one on me,” Crowell wryly stated. “When friends were busy, I turned to this album, and I just wore it out.” He then stared at Hall, who was sitting in the fourth row with his wife Dixie, and said, “Tom T., I want to sing your song to you, that’s what I’m saying.” Crowell then performed a rousing take on Hall’s “Beer Drinker’s Waltz.”

Later, he performed “Pancho and Lefty,” a nod to Townes Van Zandt, a friend of both Clark and Crowell, whose work proved a heavy influence on both. For the encore, Crowell stepped away from the microphone and encouraged the crowd to sing the chorus with him, which they did with rowdy abandon. Clark watched intently, then afterward said, “I’ve heard that song since the day he wrote it,” but joked that he was always too busy listening to learn the words.

Kimbrough and Thompson, given a chance to do two of their own songs, proved they belonged in such rich company. A veteran Nashville rocker and producer, Kimbrough offered two satirical acoustic bouncers, “Act Like Nothing’s Wrong” and “Champion of the World,” both about people who manage to find nuggets of strength amid difficult times. Thompson showed off his guitar skills on “A Whisper and a Scream” and a heart-tugging story-song about a horse and the man who saved its life.

Before the final song of the second set, Clark stilled the crowd’s cheers and laughter by quietly standing in front of the microphone and solemnly invoking, “This is what this whole thing is about.” He then struck the first resonant chord of “Old Friends,”  the title song of his 1989 album.

 The emotional quality of the melody and the sweetly tender words drew tears from Gill as he sat watching Clark perform his toast to those we turn to in times of trouble and celebration. At the song’s last chorus, Clark turned sideways to look into Crowell’s eyes, and, as Rodney looked back and straightened his back, Clark sang with careful deliberateness, “You know, it’s old friends, after all.”

After a two-song encore, these hard-traveling poets exchanged embraces on stage before walking off together, the lessons they'd learned through the years still echoing in the air behind them.

--Michael McCall


STUFF THAT WORKS: GUY CLARK KICKS OFF COUNTRY MUSIC HALL OF AND MUSEUM'S 2006 ARTIST-IN-RESIDENCE CONCERT SERIES 

After two encore songs, and more than three hours after Guy Clark began his first concert as the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s 2006 Artist-in-Residence, the sold-out crowd was still shouting requests for a half-dozen or so favorites he’d yet to perform.

Through two lengthy sets, Clark performed only songs he’d written, passing over those written by others that he’d recorded. Despite his circumspect output over the years—he has recorded eleven original albums and one live album in twenty-one years—Clark still left some classics unsung, a testament to the consistency and depth of his catalog.

With veteran collaborator Verlon Thompson accompanying him on acoustic guitar, Clark seemed to take particular delight in the Ford Theater’s intimacy and the quality of its sound. With all 213 seats taken, and others standing along the walls, the hushed crowd hung on every phrase. Clark responded to the acute focus with a warm yet impassioned intensity of his own.

Still, if the night seemed to carry a special resonance to those in attendance, it also was simply a representation of Clark’s steadfast quality as a performer over the years—and a fine example of how well he wears his status as an icon of Texas songwriting. “This is what we do when we work,” he said before performing his first song, “The Cape.” “We have no agenda, no set list, and we have no clue.” He paused, striking his first guitar chord, then added, “And we have no fear.”

Still, his age shows, not in diminishing power, but in adding a layer of soulfulness to his interpretations of his lyrics. His gruff voice sounds a bit raspier than in previous years, and it makes the subtle dramatics of his phrasing even more penetrating. Similarly, his broad-shouldered, towering presence now shows a bit of frailty, and it makes his rugged cowboy delivery even more moving.

“Old dead men songs—I got a hundred of ‘em,” he quipped after getting a standing ovation for “The Randall Knife,” a song he wrote after his father’s funeral. For the Ford Theater show, he unplugged his guitar, walked away from the microphone and presented the song without amplification, while standing on the floor in front of the stage. The crowd’s stunned response was as explosive after the last note as it had been reverently silent during the performance.

Clark also seemed more animated and talkative than usual, introducing several songs with lengthy stories that were often funny, sometimes heart-tugging and usually both. “They told me I could do anything I wanted to,” Clark said, explaining the premise of the Hall of Fame’s Artist-in-Residence concert series. “There was a time when that was not the thing to tell me.”

Later, before fulfilling a request for “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” he noted, “A lot of people ask me what my favorite song I’ve written is, and this is usually the answer.” He then paused before adding slyly, “Because it’s just so well written.”

The songs ranged over his entire career. Before singing “That Old Time Feeling,” a selection found on his 1975 RCA debut Old No. 1, he explained that it was the first song he wrote that he kept. He also featured five songs from his upcoming Dualtone Records release, Workbench Songs, including a jaunty “Tornado Time in Texas,”  the upbeat and humorous “Analog Girl,” and the mariachi-meets-the-blues tune, “Cinco de Mayo in Memphis.” Clark wrote the latter with BR549 frontman Chuck Mead, who attended the Ford Theater concert. Other artists in the audience included songwriter-producer Monty Powell, songwriter Kent Blazy, singer-songwriter Patty Griffin and Anna Wilson, and Jack Clement, the museum’s first Artist-in-Residence, in 2003.

Clark also gave Thompson room for three songs in the middle of the second set, joining him for a song that cites forty-three places the two touring partners have performed around the world. “We ain’t been everywhere—yet,” Thompson sang, finishing the couplet with, “but we’re trying to get there.” By song’s end, he cited “the Hall” as yet another place they’ve now played.

Several songs seemed to hold special resonance for this downtown Nashville performance, including a deliberate take on “Old Friends,” a paean to good craftsmanship and staying to one’s course on “Boats to Build,” and Clark’s anthem to what matters in life, “Stuff That Works.” The latter includes lines that sum up this Texan’s legacy with the succinct potency we’ve come to expect from him: “Stuff that’s real, stuff you feel, the kind of stuff you reach for when you fall.” 

--Michael McCall