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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Guy Clark: Workbench Songs

Guy Clark
Workbench Songs

Songwriters frequently promulgate two common myths about their vocation, which are analogous to those spread by creative artists in all professions. Myth number one: I am only a vessel through which the muse speaks. I am not responsible for what emerges, I just try and get out of the way and let the pure spirit come forward. Neil Young provided a good example of this during his keynote speech at the recent South by Southwest festival in Austin. Young was introduced by a fellow who pointed out how important the tune “Ohio” was in inspiring the anti-Vietnam War movement during a previous era. He urged Young to write a new song in light of America’s recent incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan. Young demurred and said he was unable to write tunes on specific topics. The Canadian rocker said he wanted to be able to compose such a piece, but unfortunately that’s not how he works. The song has to come to him, unbidden and unconsciously. It should be noted that less than three weeks later Young began recording his new antiwar album, Living with War.

Myth number two takes the opposite approach. Here, the songwriter is a master artisan who struggles with each word as if s/he was a crafts person turning a block of wood into a guitar. Physicality and attention to detail are the hallmarks of this method. Guy Clark professes this fable. He named his latest disc Workbench Songs to suggest the labor and expertise involved in its creation. Clark, a guitar maker as well as a composer, explicitly suggests the two processes share much in common. Don’t believe it. Remember, this Texan’s a storyteller. He makes up convincing fibs for a living and does an excellent job of it. Sure, there’s a kernel of truth in it, just as there is in Young’s parable. But a half-truth is just another way of telling a lie. What makes Clark and Young special has little to do with these musicians being empty vessels or hardworking blokes.

Art is a mysterious thing, hard to define and even harder to explain. These guys are artists with long and honorable discographies who don’t know where it comes from any more than you or me. Trust their tales, not the tellers.

Clark’s latest effort reveals he’s still on top of his game. The nine original compositions (most of them co-written with friends) and two covers (that includes a heartbreaking version of his old pal, the late, great Townes Van Zandt’s classic “Lonesome Tune”) show that Clark is a man of deep feelings with strong powers of observation. He knows how to put across a line with a straight face and then follow it with a crooked twist to show deeper shades of meaning. He understands laughter is a blessing to be encouraged but so is crying, and that insight into human behavior may be useful, but it doesn’t really explain anything. Clark illustrates this by offering tales on a variety of subjects: Mexicans in Memphis headed to Graceland on Cinco de Mayo, a girl who refuses to join the digital age, a man pleading to be left out of his old lover’s memoir, and other unrelated topics that share little in common other than what they suggest about how one should live and the meaning of life. Heavy stuff to be sure, but this Texan does this with empathy and a smile.

Consider the Springsteen-like “Out in the Parking Lot”, with its details of working-class fun. There’s a fight, the sound of a band through the walls, whiskey and soda, sex in the backseat of a car, etc., and mostly it’s about everyone trying to have a good time. The Texan’s not judgmental. The squalid reality of human nature gets transformed by the magic of the night. Clark finds grace in the mundane, like “the neon dancin’ on the gravel” and the rumbling sound of pick-up truck motors. The Texas musician slowly and sweetly strums his acoustic guitar in accompaniment as if he’s playing a love song.

Clark packs his lyrics with descriptions and juxtapositions that make one think twice. In “Walkin’ Man”, he compares Chuck Berry to Mahatma Gandhi in the very same sentence because they both were famous walkers. Indeed, Berry’s duck walk and Gandhi’s walk to the sea were both liberating in intent, but who else would think to associate these disparate acts, not to mention associations between them, Woody Guthrie and those who were forced to march on the Trail of Tears. Clark’s cleverness reveals the correlations between past history and present ethics through the act of reflection; a necessary by product of walking is thinking.

Of course, these connections are also funny. The Lone Star singer uses humor repeatedly to make his points. He does a quick double-take on “Tornado Time in Texas” with the seemingly throw away line, “Now when pigs fly, no I mean really fly/ You can bet it’s blowing hard.” Or the central metaphor in “Funny Bone” about a rodeo clown whose love has left him for another: the clown too sad to laugh had his funny bone broken rather than his heart. And then there’s Clark’s ode to smoking weed, “Worry B Gone”, with its litany of one liners (i.e. “Don’t give me no shit just gimme a hit,” “Don’t give me no guff, gimme a puff”).

Clark may claim he’s just a working man who’s just practicing his craft, but this album suggests that’s just a facade. Don’t let him fool you. He’s an artist creating something special out of the ordinary materials of life.

RATING 7 / 10