Guy Clark’s country craftsmanship
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., June 12, 2003) – Texas singer-songwriter Guy Clark kicked off his stellar, two-hour set at Club Helsinki on Wednesday night with “Picasso’s Mandolin,” as unlikely a song you might hear from a country singer. An artist’s manifesto of sorts, the song includes the lines, “It’s colorin’ books and drinkin’ wine/It’s hard to stay between the lines/Ain’t no rule if you don’t break it/Ain’t no chance if you don’t take it.”
The chances that Clark has taken in his career in country music -- he has been a Nashville-based songwriter for over 30 years -- are in avoiding the obvious and rooting around in the dark corners of life for inspiration and material. What’s allowed him a modicum of success is his almost fanatical devotion to craft, which he sung about in several songs, including “The Carpenter,” which while ostensibly about someone working with wood could well have been about a songwriter: “You got to hold your mouth right, son, and never miss your mark.”
Clark never missed his mark in a low-key show that just kept one great song coming after another. Accompanying himself nimbly on guitar and backed ably by singer-guitarist Verlon Thompson, Clark delivered straightforward renditions of his songs – seemingly half of which were by request from the standing-room-only crowd of Guy Clark loyalists shouting out their favorites – in his gruff, no-nonsense style.
The 62-year-old Clark boasts a Johnny Cash-style aura, standing tall and straight and dressed in stark white and black. He sang softly and spoke even more softly, but the audience hung on his every word, and every once in a while a chord or a syllable would detonate with tremendous impact.
But organic simplicity was the catchword of the evening, albeit a simplicity that belied the sophistication embedded in Clark’s songs and outlook. Sure, he sang about an old blue shirt and an old pair of boots in “Stuff That Works,” and the joy of creating something with one’s own hands on “Boats to Build.” And on “Homegrown Tomatoes,” it wasn’t always clear if he was singing about vegetables or something else, some other pleasure, which money can’t buy.
But on “Cold Dog Soup,” Clark invoked the likes of William Butler Yeats, Tom Waits, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Ramblin’ Jack made a second appearance on “Ramblin’ Jack and Mahan,” about staying up all night partying with Jack and rodeo star Larry Mahan. “Immigrant Eyes” was a tender portrait of true love born at Ellis Island, and “Dublin Blues” was a heartbreaking portrayal of ruin in that city.
Clark was a true country poet, and he made clearly evident why his name is uttered in songwriting circles with great reverence.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 13, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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