Many songwriters would give their left arm for a half–dozen enduring tunes – lyrics that provoke the imagination, massage the spirit and leave an indelible impression. Such things are second nature to Texan Guy Clark, whose 40–year catalog spans an astonishing range of sensitivity, perception and humor, musical poetry of such substance and emotive depth that even this 30–track tribute album hardly scratches the surface.
Still, This One’s For Him is a great place to start, because some of these artists are big names in acoustic Americana, and if you aren’t familiar with Clark’s work – like many of the finest contemporary songwriters, he’s never actually had a hit record – you’ll know the interpreters. Clearly, they want you to know the songs.
Here, on two CDs, we have Steve Earle, Willie Nelson, John Prine, Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris, Joe Ely, Vince Gill, Robert Earl Keen, Rosanne Cash, Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin, Rodney Crowell, Kris Kristofferson, James McMurtry, Jerry Jeff Walker and plenty more, each taking on a different tune and giving it an individual – and loving – spin.
“Songs are like Japanese painting,” the 70–year–old Clark said recently. “Less is more. One brushstroke takes the place of many if you put it in the right place.”
Indeed, many of Clark’s most intriguing works are minimalist, giving just enough information to create an image, but leaving the listener to fill in the blanks. What really happened to the lost girl in “She Ain’t Going Nowhere”? Why does the narrator in “Dublin Blues” need forgiveness? How did the people in “Instant Coffee Blues” get together? Why is the pawn–shop instrument in “The Guitar” so damn spooky?
This is the second time Nelson has recorded Clark’s tender “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train.” He did it back in the ‘80s, with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kristofferson (as the Highwaymen), and that version was overwrought and self–consciously dramatic.
Here, it’s just right for Nelson’s bittersweet solo tenor. In “Desperadoes,” perhaps Clark’s most perfect linear narrative, a young boy wistfully recalls his friendship with an old cuss who’d worked the Texas oil fields all his life. The boy matures; the oilman dies.
Other great Guy Clark story–songs, “Let Him Roll,” “The Cape,” “Randall Knife” and “Better Days,” are lovingly interpreted by John Townes Van Zandt II (son of the late great Townes Van Zandt, Clark’s longtime best buddy), Terri Hendrix, Gill and Cash.
Earle appropriately drills the cinematic Western saga “The Last Gunfighter Ballad,” while “L.A. Freeway,” Clark’s most famous (and most melancholy) ballad of loss and hope, is given a sympathetic reading by Radney Foster.
Clark sometimes creates lyrics and melodies of such heartbreaking beauty – see “Magnolia Wind,” “Madgelene,” “Stuff That Works,” “Homeless” – it’s impossible to walk away unmoved.
This One’s For Him also rounds up a few examples of his wry and sweetly childlike sense of humor – in “Texas 1947,” in fact, the narrator is 6 years old and watching an express train roll through town (“Look out there she goes, she’s gone/Screaming straight through Texas like a mad dog cyclone”).
Ray Wylie Hubbard covers the swinging hand–fruit ode “Homegrown Tomatoes,” Gary Nicholson, Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien make an old–time stringband rave of “Texas Cookin’” (an utterly addictive paean to hot and greasy Lone Star cuisine) and Lovett delivers “Anyhow I Love You” with pathos, a nod and a wink (“I wouldn’t trade a tree for the way I feel about you in the morning”).
As a longtime fan, I found several favorites notable in their absence (“A Coat From the Cold,” “Black Haired Boy,” “Shade of All Greens,” "Uncertain Texas," “South Coast of Texas”).
However, for anyone who doesn’t already know Guy Clark’s exquisite catalog of songcraft – if these are artists you respect and enjoy – this one’s for you.