Touching At A Distance

By Paul Rigg

When American Steve Earle was 14 he ran away from home to try and seek out his guitar idol Townes Van Zandt, and when he was 19 he hitch-hiked from San Antonio to Nashville and came across Guy Clark; and both became his lifelong friends, musical colleagues and guides.When it comes to mentors, I’m glad I had both,” says Earle.  

So much so, in fact, that when they passed away – Van Zandt drank himself to death in 1997 at the age of 52 while Clark succumbed to cancer at 74 - he decided to record two albums covering their songs.

Earle’s tribute to the former, entitled Townes and released in 2009, earned Earle a Grammy for best contemporary folk album. Reflecting on his love for Clark, he said
“No way I could get out of doing this record. When I get to the other side, I didn’t want to run into Guy having made the Townes record and not one about him.” In an interview released to coincide with the release he added: “I didn’t want too run into Guy in heaven [without having made it]– he could be pretty grumpy!”


The result is 16 songs on a heartfelt album simply entitled Guy (29 March, New West Records)
. “I could have recorded 16 more, but I stuck to the things that were most important to me – it is my Guy Clark record,” he says. “There are no overdubs because there was no time; we recorded all the songs in 5 days and my band is still pissed off about it.”

Multiple Grammy winner, Earle, played guitar in Guy Clark's band, and specifically on his 1975 album Old No. 1, as well as occasionally leading the group when Clark was absent.Guy [...] taught me how to write songs,” he says. Although Clark’s songs were recorded by top acts like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Joan Baez, he never became really widely-known and one of Earle’s aims is to raise awareness about the man he says is one of the best songwriters who ever walked on this planet”. And he is not alone in this belief, as Bob Dylan himself counts Clark among his favourite lyricists of all time.

In fact the main focus of Clark’s tunes are the words and Earle treats them respectfully by not adding too much instrumentation to the songs. Most of the tracks have been drawn from Clark’s early albums, particularly Old No. 1 and Texas Cookin,’ and these include his main hits like Dublin Blues, L.A. Freeway, Desperados Waiting for a Train, and The Randall Knife. Earle has known and played these songs over a lifetime and it shows in the gentle touches and empathy he brings to songs like Dublin Blues (with added electric guitar); his faster-paced take on Out in the Parking Lot; or his employment of Emmylou Harris’ voice on Desperados Waiting for a Train.

Ricky Ray Jackson
makes some lovely contributions on pedal steel guitar to Old Friends, for example, while Steve Earle generally relies on his signature Martin M-21acoustic to back most of the tracks.

Here we will only focus on the lyrics of one of Clark’s songs, The Randall Knife, to illustrate his skill as a lyricist. This talking blues song is a deeply personal reflection on his complex relationship with his father, in which he uses his father’s own war-time knife as a metaphor. The knife was intended to kill people, but Clark recalls how he took it camping once, broke the top off it while trying to stick it in a tree and then hid it from his father; although his father never said a word to him about it. Clark is unable to cry when his father dies until he later comes across the knife - and then he goes to pieces. It is a touching story that left Earle wondering if it was too intimate for him to cover. But in the end he decided to go ahead because people can empathise with the beauty in the tale, and this reviewer believes he was absolutely right to do so.          


Earle’s lovely tribute album is in the end a success because he respects the originals and has brought attention to Clark, who aside from being a great songwriter, was also a luthier who ran his own guitar shop. His songs are definitely worth discovering and re-discovering; and if Steve Earle does ever get to meet his much-beloved mentor again it is not hard to imagine it will be a warm reunion.