Guy Clark, who passed in May 2016, was one of our great Texas songwriters, a comparable talent to his friend Townes Van Zandt. For curious listeners asking for the best possible “collection” of Guy Clark songs, I’d tell them to reserve about six inches of shelf space for CD format; that is, just start with 1975’s Old No. 1 and gather up the other 14 albums he recorded through his last in 2013. But that’s hardly practical, especially for the newly curious.
As a country artist, Clark’s is not a household name, his plain-spoken, road-weary Romanticism lacking the flashiness (and vapidity) required by the Nashville music machine. Though he is credited as a founding influence upon outlaw country for his introspective, folk-influenced lyrics and his avoidance of commercialized, slick production, he never set out to create any persona beyond his basic self. Where Van Zandt was the self-destructive genius, Waylon Jennings was the hard-living sage, and Kris Kristofferson was the free spirited sex symbol, Clark’s role in the scene was, simply, as the dutiful troubadour, in it for the sake of the song. He never scored a top-ten record himself, though others took his songs to higher chart positions.
There exists no one-stop collection spanning Clark’s 40-year career, but The Best of the Dualtone Years provides a useful account of his final period, collecting songs from the four albums (three studio, one live) he recorded for that label during the last decade of his life. Americana fans looking for an overview of this great songwriter’s career would do well to choose this release, along with 2007’s Best of the Sugar Hill Years and 1997’s The Essential Guy Clark. Together, these three anthologies allow listeners to track and appreciate Clark’s songwriting evolution across the whole of his career.
The two discs of The Best of the Dualtone Years collect a representative sampling of songs from Clark’s final four releases, three from Workbench Songs, four each from Somedays the Song Writes You and My Favorite Picture of You, and five from the live Songs and Stories. It’s a rare Guy Clark song that doesn’t contain at least one killer line that can stop listeners in their tracks with a shock of recognition or just plain awe and this collection is full of such examples. “You can’t tell the tears from the rain if you ain’t walked a mile in her boots”, he sings in “Standing in the Rain in Durango”. Then there’s “You never left, but your bags were packed just in case” (“My Favorite Picture of You”) or “Only two things that money can’t buy / And that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes” (“Homegrown Tomatoes”). For listeners invested in the poetry of song, Clark never disappoints.
The tracks from Songs and Stories find the mature Clark to revisiting some among his earlier classics, like “Randall Knife” and “L.A. Freeway”. His worn and weary voice in the latter adds weight to this song written in his lighter youth, so much so it can bring a listener damn close to tears over its story of a crazy landlord cutting down a grapefruit tree. The collection ends with three previously unreleased demos. “Just to Watch Maria Dance” and “Time” are classic Clark, his cracking voice and spare solo guitar work resonate quiet confidence here. Nearing the end of his life, the lyrics of the latter emphasize what a special a songwriter Clark was: “The trouble with time might be the lack of it,” he sings, continuing, “I hate keepin’ track of it. / How much is a sack of it? / I’ll take all you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
Those new to Guy Clark should pick up this collection, along with the other two mentioned above. But I’d recommend keeping that six inches of space on the CD shelf open; once introduced to this master songwriter, you’re probably going to want to fill it.