Recording of June 1997: Keepers

GUY CLARK: Keepers
Sugar Hill SHCD-1055 (CD). 1997. Guy Clark, prod.; Miles Wilkinson, prod., eng.; Johnny Rosen, eng. AAD? TT: 64:45
Performance ****½
Sonics *****

In the past 25 years two men have come to quietly dominate the Texas Troubador tradition begun by Lefty Frizzell, Ernest Tubb, and Willie Nelson: Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. Unlike Frizzell, Tubb, or even Nelson, both Clark and Van Zandt began in the late '60s and were influenced not by Bob Wills or Hank Williams but by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and the Beatles. In their hands, what was essentially a rural, cowboy-song tradition turned cosmic and worldly.

Friendly rivals and inseparable friends, Clark and Van Zandt have built, song by song, two of the most impressive single-artist song catalogs of the past 20 years. It may have been coincidence, but then again, it may have been the grizzled omnipotence that watches over Lonesome Lone Star pickers that, for a moment or two, Clark and Van Zandt ended up on the same record label: Sugar Hill. Unfortunately, this happy conjunction of larger-than-life Texans was not to last. On January 1, Van Zandt died unexpectedly at the age of 52.

Van Zandt's sad demise leaves Clark in the scary position of being the last of a generation, the patriarch of a clan whose younger members include Robert Earl Keen and Nanci Griffith. It's a role he's uniquely equipped to triumph in. In terms of being a powerful performer and a truly gifted songwriter, Clark is arguably the most transparent troubador of them all.

It's fitting, then, that Clark would now choose to reprise the riches of his song catalog in a live set recorded in Nashville, a town renowned for being tough on songwriters, where every waiter has penned a would-be hit and where rejection outnumbers jubilation a hundred to one. As a final Vaya con Díos between old friends, this set is dedicated to Van Zandt.

Keepers is a gift to longtime Clark fans in several ways. For the first time in many years he plays with a band that gives his songs a richer, fuller sound than is possible in a solo performance. An essential ingredient in this album's luminous charm, this dextrous and artful pick-up band consists of Darrell Scott on dobro, mandolin, and guitar, Kenny Malone on percussion, guitarist Verlon Thompson and accordion player Suzi Ragsdale (who together sing beautiful harmony vocals), and Clark's son Travis on bass.

Next (with the usual raft of nitpicky exceptions), the cream of the Clark catalog is here: "L.A. Freeway," "Desperados Waiting for a Train" (both of which were hits for Jerry Jeff Walker, who literally would not have a career if not for Clark's songs), "Texas Cookin'," "Homegrown Tomatoes," "Better Days." The list goes on.

Perhaps it's my own wishful sense of melodrama, but in Clark's playing and singing on this disc there is a discernible air of seriousness, as if he knew he was cutting one of the key discs of his legacy. Oh sure, he's loose and conversational in his between-song patter, but the arrangements here are noticeably tighter and well-thought-out. "Desperados Waiting for a Train," for example, comes off lithe and easy, no longer plagued by the chunky arrangement it had when it first appeared on Clark's world-class 1975 debut, Old No. 1 (now reissued on Sugar Hill). And while he's rarely less than superb in his live shows (oh gee, there was that night in Tucson with the Wild Turkey backstage...but that's another story), both his craggy voice and simple guitar accompaniment are flavorful and nearly flawless. The man was clearly trying.

The biggest surprise here is the sound, which, unlike that of most live albums, is absolutely natural, unexaggerated, uncompressed, and, best of all, uncolored by the P.A. system and the recorded-in-a-can syndrome that taints most live discs.—Robert Baird