As time passes and his peers such as Townes Van Zandt pass away, Guy Clark seems more like a sage than like a poet laureate. His voice is the sound of whiskey mixed with cigarette smoke, a pungent concoction with an afterburn that reminds you how some of life's greatest pleasures come with a price. He doesn't command a stage as much as occupy it as his rightful place, the territory where he belongs. And from that place, he offers songs that are hand-carved in the old-fashioned style. It's fitting that Clark is a guitar builder and painter as well as a troubadour, because his tales are made from the choicest woods and decorated with the pigmentation from a time that's quickly passing by. As we rush headlong into the digital age, Clark is a persuasive reminder of what we are possibly leaving behind -- simple yet rich pleasures like the taste of home-grown tomatoes, or whittling with an old Randall knife.
"Round and round a penny goes, round and back again. Listen and I'll tell you the places that I've been," Clark sings on "Indian Head Penny," a song off his latest release, Cold Dog Soup. In his best performances, he can take you to "Baton Rouge" or "The South Coast of Texas," or down the "L.A. Freeway" or along a "New Cut Road." Along the way, one meets characters like "The Houston Kid," "Rita Ballou," "Ramblin' Jack & Mahan," or those "Desperados Waiting for a Train." Yet as far as he ranges (from the "Dublin Blues" to his version of Steve Earle's "Ft. Worth Blues" on Cold Dog Soup), it feels as if every song has a point of origin somewhere near "Texas-1947." If Jack Kerouac's friends used to call him "Memory Babe," then Guy Clark is the "Memory Man."
Cold Dog Soup is suffused with the memory of Van Zandt. In the title song, Clark's late, longtime friend is "standin' at the bar, skinny as a Hollywood movie star. Can't remember where he parked his car, or to whom he lost the keys." Clark follows that with Earle's tribute to Townes, "Ft. Worth Blues." And throughout the rest of the record, one catches the shadows of a man going through the time-honored rituals of preparing to die. By the triptych of songs that ends the album, "Red River," "Die Tryin'" and "Be Gone Forever," it's clear that Clark is staring eternity in the face and maybe wondering in the back of his mind whether he can drink the Grim Reaper under the table. "Susanna oh Susanna when it comes my time," he says, "bury me south of that Red River line."
So while Clark is still with us (which one hopes will be for some time to come), we must appreciate and savor all that he has to give us. He is like some walking and talking, picking and singing icon of Texas music, a reminder of how the best folk music can transform us all into jus' folks. He is someone who knows the "Stuff That Works" and has perfected it to an art. Yet he delivers his poetry and wisdom with the seeming ease of a veteran. If there is one performer who embodies the Texas mythos in style and song, it's Guy Clark.
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