I am honored to play a small role in the wonderful music community centered around Asbury Park, N.J. There are a number of really good bands among us, and we’re particularly fond of our singer/songwriters. Among the standouts in this genre for us are the nihilist poet Rick Barry, the irrepressible Amanda Duncan, and George Wirth, who is the musical link to the Austin, TX songwriters’ scene that this review is ostensibly about. We’re pretty proud of our local musicians, and why not? After all, Asbury Park has produced at least one of the world’s greatest songwriters.
You may have heard that Austin has a music scene all its own. Better? That’s a judgment call. Bigger? Definitely. The stars shine bright in the Austin galaxy. The scene’s most treasured son burned too brightly, and was gone too soon. Hopefully you’re acquainted to some degree with the music of the more well-known figures. Names like Jerry Jeff Walker, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Blaze Foley, Eric Taylor, and the late Townes Van Zandt leap to mind. The younger generation carries the torch in the person of Sam Beam, a.k.a. Iron & Wine. The patriarch of this scene is Guy Clark. He and his wife Susanna nurtured the others at guitar gatherings in their home, much as George and Brenda Wirth do in Asbury Park. Every few years, Guy presents us with the gift of a new album. His latest, Someday the Song Writes You (Dualtone Records), is a master class in Texas songwriting.
When I think about the Texas songwriters, and Guy Clark in particular, the word that always comes to mind is “dignified.” Don’t take that to mean that the music is dull or boring. It’s presented with great humility. Sometimes it’s funny, but rarely brash or boastful. Hard learned life lessons are shared. Hearts are broken. Nothing is conceded. Life goes on. No artist embodies the Texas songwriter zeitgeist more than Guy Clark. He’d probably hate that I just used the word “zeitgeist.” I think I do too.
The new album features ten Guy Clark originals, and a cover of the great Townes Van Zandt song, “If I Needed You.” The production is simple, involving a couple of acoustic guitars (special mention should be made of the guitar dynamic that Guy creates with his performance partner, guitarist Verlon Thompson), an upright bass, some percussion, and perhaps a mandolin or fiddle. The tempos are as stately as the man. There’s nothing rushed, no attempt by Guy Clark to be anything other than what he is as a musician. Every instrument and voice that is deployed is done so in an effort to glorify the song, not the singer.
Clark sometimes addresses the craft of songwriting itself. There is a song about writing songs, “Somedays You Write the Songs,” a fantasy about finding that magic instrument in a pawn shop, “The Guitar,” and a song about the difficulty in finding a good muse, “Hemingway’s Whiskey.” But where’s that heartbreak that the Texas writers are so good at portraying? It’s here in guise of a Guy Clark classic, “The Coat,” in which the singer walks out of a relationship only to find that he’s left his coat behind on a cold and rainy day.
“Eamon,” co-written by Rodney Crowell, tells the story of an old sailor who, having been around the world at sea, comes home to die on dry land. The song seems to have been inspired by Michael Smith’s indelible “The Dutchman,” as well as some early Jimmy Buffett songs like “He Went To Paris,” but Guy makes it all his own.
If you think it’s easy to review work by artists who are not only personal heroes, but national treasures to boot, think again. Oh geez, Guy would hate that “national treasure” thing too. Remember that humility I mentioned. The risk of being a fawning fanboy is extreme. I’ll leave it at this: Guy Clark has forgotten more about songwriting (and probably life for that matter) than you or I will ever know. Somedays The Song Writes You is no dry dissertation from a master, but the living, breathing testimony of a great artist at work.