Recording of March 2000: Cold Dog Soup

GUY CLARK: Cold Dog Soup
Sugar Hill Sug-CD-1063 (CD). 1999. Chris Latham, prod., eng.; Guy Clark, Verlon Thompson, Darrell Scott, prods. AAD. TT: 40:44
Performance *****
Sonics ****?

Ten years ago, Townes Van Zandt made a record titled The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt. Little did the hard-living, immensely talented singer-songwriter know how powerfully that title prefigured his fate—he died tragically last year from too much alcohol—or, more accurately, too much life.

One of the most eloquent results of Van Zandt's death is this collection, recorded by his dear friend and—thanks to his passing—now one of the de facto elders of American singer-songwriters: Guy Clark. Judging by the emotions that rise from this record, it's clear not only that Clark misses his friend but also that he's been spending considerable time grieving and weighing consequences. On Cold Dog Soup, the laughs are a bit heartier the tears more free-flowing, and the insights from a deeper place than perhaps Guy Clark has been before.

As if he has a secret he can't keep, Clark opens the album with two tunes in which Van Zandt is a prominent character. Clark's own dreamscape title tune (co-written with Mark D. Sanders) is set in a beach bar populated by wordsmith heroes: W.B. Yeats, Tom Waits, Ramblin' Jack Elliott. It mentions Van Zandt by name: "Townes Van Zandt standin' at the bar / Skinnin' a Hollywood movie star / Can't remember where he parked his car / Or to whom he lost his keys."

By the end of the second song—a cover of Steve Earle's "Ft. Worth Blues" that's better than the original—it's already clear that Cold Dog Soup is going to be one of Clark's best efforts. "Ft. Worth" is one of several tributes Earle has written to his hard-core troubadour hero; the combination here of a slower, steadier tempo, the harmony vocals of Emmylou Harris, and Clark's deep background of sadness, make this rendition of a typically offhand Earleian masterpiece better than the original.

From there, Clark's sorrow banked for the moment, the collection grows lighter, though a sharper focus and deeper wisdom infuse the entire album—which, for Guy Clark, a remarkably sagacious songwriter to begin with, is saying quite a lot.

Clark's joy and wit shine through on the beautifully crafted "Sis Draper," a song-story about a fiddle-playin', spiked-punch-swillin' musical phenomenon that features Shawn Camp's fiddle. The chorus of "Ain't No Trouble to Me"—"Trouble be gone, trouble be damned / Love be trouble free / Come home any old time / It ain't no trouble to me"—is a classic example of how Clark blends wisdom, humor, and simple, enchanting melodies that owe as much to Bob Dylan as they do Bob Wills, into a engaging, allusive art that's uniquely his own. Though he has songwriting peers, it's no stretch to say that Guy Clark is the finest, wisest, funniest songwriter working today.

He's also become a better singer. Once a bit too nasal, his voice has grown deeper, shaded to advantage by a husky rasp no doubt aided by endless cigarettes. (The session photos in the CD booklet show an ashtray within easy reach.)

Another skill Clark has developed over the years is that of picking winners from other songwriters' catalogs. Here he nails Richard Dobson's "Forever, For Always, For Certain," probably the best tune modeled on Guy Clark that Clark himself didn't write. And his humorous side peaks on this album with the almost silly "Men Will Be Boys," in which he celebrates the Peter Pan Syndrome, complete with specifics. Sonically, everything here is close mikked though not overly so. His singing rings out warm and natural and the spare instrumentation of his trio is clearly separated.

The widening rings that the stone of Van Zandt's death has stirred in the pool of Clark's psyche return at the end of the album. In "Die Tryin" (co-written with Jon Randall Stewart), Clark sings, "If you don't know how to laugh / You'll never learn to cry / If you don't know how to fall / you'll never learn to fly," before the chorus of "What's the use in dyin' / If you don't die tryin.' " In the closing tune, Keith Sykes and Anna McGarrigle's "Be Gone Forever"—a title unmistakably laden with the finality and loss that drive and pervade the album—Clark sings (again with Harris on harmony): "Do Lord oh do remember him / Yes, yes, remember him / There will be a singer / Whenever his time has come to die / Be gone forever."

But as Cold Dog Soup so warmly and artfully demonstrates, the opposite is true. After just a listen or two, it's clear that, in the mind's eye and tender heart of his friend and songwriter extraordinaire, Townes Van Zandt will never die. In fact, in a grand way, his passing has re-fired and re-aimed the passions of his successor as the Songwriter Most Admired and Most Deserving of Wider Success: Guy Clark.—Robert Baird