Guy Clark and Darrell Scott: Country Troubadours for Our Times

A Southerly Cultural Travel Journal  Vol. 5

A prime motivation for my nearly 800-mile drive from Milwaukee to the Blue Plum Festival in eastern Tennessee was to see the now-venerable Texas singer-songwriter Guy Clark. It was a deeply gratifying experience. Though only 70, Clark is currently walking with a cane (perhaps still suffering from effects of a broken leg in 2008) but when he settled in and warmed up with fellow guitarist and songwriter Verlon Thompson, he quickly offered several fine brand-new songs, proving his creative powers have hardly diminished. “The High Price of Inspiration” addressed how creativity is almost always inextricably entwined with life when he demurrs, “Inspiration without strings, I'd like that once.” Another new one "Coyote" (Spanish for trickster or, as Clark said, “coward”), pointedly conveys the wrenching story of mercenary smugglers who exploit the desperate dreams of illegal aliens along the Mexican-American border: “You took all my money and left me to die in South Texas sun.”

Here you gain a sense of Clark's distinctive artistry as his dusty, understated singing style assured that the song’s pathos would never be oversold with sentimentality. As always with Clark, the feeling are vivid in his voice but tempered by the sense one is overhearing a man almost singing to himself. He often sounds as if he’s just awoken from a dolorous dream. So hearing him is an utterly human experience.

Lost love, a classic theme of country music, is perfectly recast in his classic “Dublin Blues” -- amid a beer-soaked rhythmic sway, the protagonist rues the fading object of his love, across the Atlantic Ocean and half of America:

I wish I was in Austin/ In the Chili Parlor Bar/Drinkin' Mad Dog Margaritas/ And not carin' where you are.

The wishful denial expresses the emotional truth, the art of slight indirection.

Although he is also a master craftsman of guitar-making, Clark understands the proper place the material objects have in life. In “Stuff that Works,” he sings about the “kind of stuff you don't hang on the wall/ the kind of stuff you reach for when you fall.”

His handsome face -- weather-worn, craggy and now slightly collapsing – seems a prime candidate for the Great American Roots Singer-songwriter Mount Rushmore.

Just for the sake of argument, I’d also nominate for such a monument Clark's old compadre, the late Townes Van Zandt (together probably the real-life Pancho and Lefty), Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and maybe Lucinda Williams, assuming room for five faces. Coincidentally the visages of all these people show the weight of their gifts and burdens, often interchangeable in nature. Calling all cultural chiselers.

Clark’s small wave to the crowd at the set’s end conveyed something, perhaps a slightly amazed humility. He has a reputation as an ornery cuss but you get the feeling that -- aside from his loving competition with Van Zandt -- he never wanted a whole lot more than a workbench at which he could fashion his guitars and dream up stories of desperados and desolatos to sing. Today Clark's esteem among his contemporaries is underscored by a recent 2-CD recording of his songs by the likes of Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Roseanne Cash and others. “Guy’s songs are literature,” said Lyle Lovett, one of the artists heard on the tribute. “His ability to translate the emotional into the written word is extraordinary.”

Despite all this, I think Darrell Scott deserved the Blue Plum’s closing headliner spot, because he's a performer in his absolute prime and a songwriter who could arguably crack into the company above. And his style connects more directly with a large crowd.

His voice can take a lyric line and hoist it from an inner feeling to an outer wail with chilling suddenness. And yet he doesn’t lose the sound of intimate probing that gives the feeling emotional honesty. His baritone-tenor range recalls Paul Simon without the tendency to preciousness.

That’s a special singing skill and his lyrics are an easy match in quality. For example, the jazzy-gospel “River Take Me” is about an out-of-work man who wants only “to live within the means of his own two hands.” When Scott sang fervently, “River take me, far from troubled times,” you sensed human desperation in the reach for a mythological metaphor: The troubled imagination must do the work that those under-used hands cannot, while understanding the risk of the dream. “The river can drown you or wash you clean.”

Yet Scott looks beyond one man’s personal situation. One of his most covered songs* is “You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” a majestically mournful melody which commemorates the hard coal miner’s life in Harlan County, Kentucky, where “you spend your life digging coal from the bottom of your grave.” It's the story of his own grandfather -- and of many men whose lives are too proverbially close to “nasty, brutish and short.”

Scott performed with the band comprises of all his blood brothers who he said had performed together as a whole ensemble since they were teenagers. You could sense the deep history circulating among these men complex yet gone with understanding and affection.

originally published at: Culture Currents  (Vernaculars Speak)
Guy Clark (right) and Verlon Thompson, courtesy Columbus Dispatch. 

* Kathy Mattea’s rendition of “Harlan County” is not to be missed on her album Coal.

1 Here's Scott's performance of "Never Leave Harlan Alive" in Bristol TN/VA in 2006

 

Views: 1313

Tags: Clark, Darrell, Guy, Scott

Comment by ace rice on June 15, 2012 at 6:37am

wonderful...

Comment by John Haynes on June 15, 2012 at 12:35pm

What a great article.  Well worth a 800 mile journey, I guess, to see Guy play live. 

I would only suggest one amendment - we need a mountain big enough for 6 faces,  to include Billy Joe Shaver.

Comment by Kevernacular (Kevin Lynch) on June 15, 2012 at 1:03pm

Thanks amigos. Yep John, I agree and maybe we need room for seven faces, the way wise old Ray Wylie Hubbard has been producing the last few years. 

Comment by leo mays on June 15, 2012 at 4:08pm

Great article, God those guys are cool! Only in opinion give guy the headliner, Lord knows he deserves it!

Comment by Kevernacular (Kevin Lynch) on June 15, 2012 at 6:48pm

Guy sure deserves it. He moved me to tears.

But in a large crowd setting, Scott impacts more strongly, especially with a five-piece band. My sister, who wasn't sitting up in a the press area like me, couldn't hear Guy's lyrics, so she was less than impressed. So it goes.

Comment by Daniel T on June 15, 2012 at 10:51pm

Excellent piece of writing Kevin.

I've had the pleasure of seeing Darrell Scott a few times. Most recently at Merlefest with the Doobies  John Cowan and Pat Simmons. Last year he was in Robert Plant's" Band of Joy". Darrel gets around. Great writer and player.

I used to see Guy Clark And Verlon Thompson as often as I could when I lived in Fort Worth. Then I moved back to Central New York about 9 years ago. 4 years later Guy and Verlon played at a small church in Homer, NY. I cried. Unashamedly. Listening to the two of them together again brought back all my fondest memories of the Lone Star State. After the show was over , talking to Guy and Verlon, I was having a lot of trouble holding back the tears. He asked if I was alright. He could see me welling up. Explained to him just how much his music made me miss Texas. He understood. We  talked a bit. Great songwriter, even better human being.


And no offense to Darrell, but Guy Clark and Verlon Thompson should always be the headliners.

Comment by Kevernacular (Kevin Lynch) on June 15, 2012 at 11:20pm

Daniel,

Thanks for your candor and anecdote. It's an old, wondrous story, the myriad and seemingly mysterious powers of music. And combined with lyrics that often have uncanny ways of cutting to the heart of human matters, a listener can sometimes feel emotionally defenseless. And part of it can be personal reasons -- like your nostalgia for Texas. Or for the losses suffered from a divorce, which led me back to Townes, and then to Guy.  Does that make you less of a man? Guy's a pretty tough old coot, but I would think he'd say "hell no."

Comment by RobinPiney on June 20, 2012 at 9:13am

Good piece, Kevin! A challenge to the artists booked on Blue Plum's Main Street Stage is that the stage is set up at a closed-off intersection that backs up to the CSX railroad as it runs through downtown Johnson City. It doesn't happen with every band or every year, but when a train rolls through the crossing a couple dozen feet behind the backstage's left corner in mid-song, it presents whoever is on stage with a Pop Quiz challenge to their repertoire. David, Dale, Darrell, Denny and Don aced it! http://youtu.be/pVcvwP_kWHM

Comment by Kevernacular (Kevin Lynch) on June 20, 2012 at 11:31am

A good point Robin. When the train first blew by I was shocked by the extreme proximity and, on a moment's reflection, the circumstance, even beyond your light-hearted point. I haven't researched whether there's ever been an accident dconsidering there's no safeguard railing or anything, and there's a certain amount of relatively intoxicated fest-goers nearby. The children's-oriented activity area is only a few yards away from the tracks as well. I think I witnessed four fast-moving trains barrelling through in the two days I was there. This isn't to discourage anyone from coming to this wonderful event. The trains seem to always announce their presence...and yet. Considering a new mainstage location is worthwhile. I hope it doesn't take a tragedy...Anyone have more info on this issue?

Comment by Stephen Jacobson on June 20, 2012 at 8:57pm
I enjoyed your review. Having seen both men perform many times over the years, I'd say they got the order of performance right. Guy is a legendary songwriter for good reason. Darrell has comparable songwriting chops, and is clearly the superior musician and singer. That reality in no way reflects poorly on Guy's talents; rather, it underlines just how good Darrell really is.

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.