The indispensable documentary Heartworn Highways is the closest thing you’ll find to a time machine capable of transporting at least part of you back to Nashville in 1975, when Music City had more great songwriters than construction cranes. In one particularly vivid sequence, it’s Christmas Eve at Guy Clark’s house, and some embryonic legends (including Rodney Crowell and Steve Young) are sitting around a kitchen table that’s jammed with with jug wine, Jack Daniels, snacks and cigarettes.
That year, Clark had released his debut album Old No. 1, solidifying his stature as a major talent with “L.A. Freeway,” “Desperados Waiting For A Train” and other songs deeply familiar to any astute country fan to this day. Clark presides over this tipsy guitar pull like an alpha dog. As a 20-year-old Steve Earle strikes a couple of chords, Clark looks straight at the camera and implores: “Listen to this song.”
It was “The Mercenary Song,” an anthem of allegiance to no flag, sung from the point of view of a band of dudes who search out Poncho Villa in hopes of fighting for coin. It’s got character and craft, some of the qualities Earle was absorbing during his early tutelage in Clark’s circle. It was very much the mentorship he’d sought out when he’d moved from Houston the year prior. Already tangled up artistically and personally with Townes Van Zandt, Earle was transfixed by Clark’s work as well. “The Mercenary Song” was one of Earle’s first fresh Nashville songs that Clark endorsed, in his terse way.
“There’s two Guy Clark critiques. Only two.” Earle said in an interview recently. “One is: ‘good work.’ And the other is: ‘needs work.’ Work is the operative word one way or the other. And that’s who he was. He was all about work.”
Last week, some 44 years after that winter night in ‘75, Earle (grey of beard but looking much healthier than he did in that film) took the stage at Grimey’s New and Preloved Music in East Nashville as part of a project that pays back Clark’s admiration many times over. He’s just released GUY, a 16-song tribute to the archetypal Texas song poet and his dear friend who succumbed to cancer in 2016. From the stage, Earle told his own stories - about the first time he met Guy Clark and about the last time he ever saw him alive. The next day he hit the road with his band The Dukes for a relentless four months of touring where he’ll spread the gospel of his hero to audiences across the US and Canada.
“I just want them to know that (Guy) was the greatest story songwriter that I ever saw,” he said. “What he did was essentially prose. It just kind of happened to rhyme. Everything has a beginning, a middle and an end and told stories.”
The album’s material comes across as a dose of sturdy integrity in a time of flimsy construction and truthiness. “The Randall Knife” is almost scriptural in its tale of an heirloom blade passed from father to son. “Texas 1947” plays out like a short documentary from Clark’s boyhood; it was one of the Old No. 1 songs that never became a number one hit but which confirmed the writer’s narrative gifts. There are a few widely known numbers here though, including “Heartbroke” (Ricky Skaggs lit that one up in 1982) and “L.A. Freeway,” a hot record for Jerry Jeff Walker.
“I did the songs I felt most connected to because I felt I’d do the best job with that. Then I hoped people will go on and find the other songs. Some people are going to be disappointed because “The Cape” is not there. I was never personally connected to “The Cape.” And there’s a few I put on there because they were later and they were out of the stuff I knew by heart.”
That includes the imaginative evocation of an Arkansas fiddle matriarch “Sis Draper,” which Clark co-wrote with Shawn Camp in an old-time vein.
“I’m really proud of the way this record turned out,” Earle said. “We made it really fast. Five days. Sixteen sides. There’s no overdubs. Every vocal’s live. Every solo’s live. The band’s still pissed off at me about it because they always like another shot at everything, guitar players especially.” The material, he said, was well prepped through sound check rehearsals during last year’s tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of Copperhead Road.
The band by the way - the decades-enduring Dukes - is in prime shape. Today’s lineup includes 16-year veteran bass player Kelley Looney and 10-year core members Chris Masterson on guitar and Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle (together they are also the married duo The Mastersons). More recent shifts are Brad Pemberton on drums and Ricky Ray Jackson on pedal steel, which adds lonesome blue touches to the Guy Clark material as well as the Steve Earle classics.
“I’ve surrendered to having the best country rock band in America,” Earle says, without much apparent ironic detachment. But as Earle proved in a by-invitation private rehearsal of the show the night before the Grimey’s in-store, this is indeed a first-class marriage of songs, singer and ensemble - one more than 40 years in the making.