A tribute to a legend, a mentor and a friend
In 2009, Steve Earle released Townes, a tribute to one of his two greatest songwriting inspirations, Townes Van Zandt. Earle’s GUY pays tribute to the Guy Clark, a true pioneer for the Americana genre, and a dear friend and mentor of Earle’s. With his 1975 debut of Old No. 1, Guy Clark went on to establish the country folk genre with twelve other classic albums. The pair first met in 1974 when Earle took over for Rodney Crowell in Clark’s band. Upon his diagnosis with lymphoma, Clark asked Earle if they could write a song together. Unfortunately the opportunity was missed before Clark’s death in 2016. GUY stands as both a tribute and heartfelt apology; the album resonates intense respect for a man and a musician.
The 16 track album spans Clark’s entire songwriting career. Earle’s backing band, the Dukes, features guitarist Chris Masterson, bassist Kelley Looney, drummer Brad Pemberton, pedal steel player Ricky Jay Jackson and Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle and mandolin. Although the songs are Clark’s, the sound is Earle’s. The slight rearrangement of rhythm and chordal harmony adds a driving force behind the music that is refreshing, while also commemorative of Clark.
The opening track “Dublin Blues” sets the tone of a classic Clark era. It effectively opens the album as one of Clark’s most recognizable songs, while also adding a revamped sense of musical intention. The song is more filled in the arrangement and rhythmic intensity compared to its original acoustic simplicity. While Clarke’s original is strikingly intimate, Earle’s rendition feels celebratory of his friend’s musical life. Earle does a similar effect, however much more subtly, with “L.A. Freeway.” The two versions feature similar instrumental arrangement, but Earle makes Clark’s frustration tangible. The combination of Earle’s raspy voice and the added rhythmic pressure from the drums further evokes the song’s emotional angst and longing. Earle’s new arrangements all have this same underlying amplification effect on Clarke’s talent for transforming the complexity of emotion into music that felt simple and relatable. Earle’s personal relationship with Clark is evident in this ability to bring the listener exactly where they need to be in order to get the entire message of the song. Whether it’s the intimate center stage vocals of “Desperados Waiting For a Train,” or the upbeat musical sharpness of “Sis Draper,” Earle conveys all of the genius. He puts just enough of himself into the music to make it personal, but never enough to diminish the tribute to the late singer-songwriter.
The album’s final song, “Old Friends,” literally features some of Guy Clark’s oldest friends. The track adds instrumentation from Clark’s cohorts Shawn Camp, Verlon Thompson, harmonica player Mickey Raphael, dobro player Jim McGuire and Garry Nicholson. The track also features vocals from Clark’s cohorts Terry Allen, Jerry Jeff Walker, Jo Harvey Allen, Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris. The song is beautiful and touching because of the honesty and endearment that runs through this song. It is uncomplex but serves its purpose perfectly as the final musical and personal tribute to the legend of Guy Clark.