Few can get away with what Guy Clark can, something the 69-year-old demonstrates in the opening moments of this aptly titled live release. Not only does he open the album with a drawling explanation of why he and his band are sitting rather than standing on the stage of the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, but he also spends time introducing each member as well. Maybe it doesn’t make much sense for him to do that—this is an audio recording after all—but then again maybe it does, for we get the full experience of the show that way.
That may or may not have been the best choice—Clark is a great storyteller in his songs, but his stage patter is hardly ever revelatory and here it doesn’t do much to move the plot of the album along. No matter, the songs, warts and all, are really what this release is about and why it succeeds in reminding us why Clark is a grand and shining star in the firmament of American songwriting.
The material itself is nearly all aces, whether the perfectly realized beauty of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You”, or “Out in the Parking Lot”, a west Texas story co-written by Clark and Darrell Scott, or the light-hearted “Maybe I Can Paint Over That”, which he penned with longtime pals Shawn Camp and Verlon Thompson. Elsewhere, “The Cape” and “Homegrown Tomatoes” remind us that sometimes the simpler subjects are the best fodder for songs, be it the ability of childhood hopes to imbue adults with courage on the former or the pleasures of a different kind of flesh on the latter.
For all the flaws inherent in Clark’s voice—a bit worn, not all that dynamic—when it disappears for a while as Thompson sings a few numbers (“Darwetta’s Mandolin”, “Joe Walker’s Mare”) you don’t just miss it, you beg for its return. Thompson is a pretty good guitar player and a decent songwriter, but he pales in comparison to Clark as a performer. It’s hard to know whether to commend him for at least giving it the old honky tonk try or to Clark for opening up the stage a little, or both. In the end, like so much of this record, it shouldn’t work, but it does.
“Stuff That Works”, a track Clark co-wrote with Rodney Crowell, also works and rather well, as do “The Randall Knife” and the closing “Dublin Blues”. Perhaps the best moment here is the opening song “L.A. Freeway”, a track that reminds us that sometimes our roots run deeper than even we can know.
So often it’s the case that an artist’s later works are not the best points of introduction, but that’s not the case with Clark. Songs and Stories is as good a place as any to get to know the man who has inspired Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Joe Ely, and numerous others. It isn’t so much that he gets better with age, it’s that he doesn’t get any worse, remaining the same consummate writer and performer he was all the way back in 1975 when he released Old No.1 in 2009 with Some Days the Song Writes You to today. Few have been that consistent in their careers and few have been as brave. None are Guy Clark.