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A Songwriter’s Sojourn: ‘This One’s For Him’ - Artists honor Guy Clark on new CD and special tribute show in Austin

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Bob Wills may be the king, but Guy Clark was recently anointed the elder statesman of Texas songwriting.

The Monahans native has released more than 20 albums. Jerry Jeff Walker had hits with Clark’s “LA Freeway” and “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train.” Johnny Cash, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney and Jimmy Buffett have also covered his tunes.

He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Foundation’s Songwriters Hall of Fame 2004. In 2005, he was given an AMA Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting. His 2006 album, “Workbench Songs” was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Contemporary Folk/Americana category.

On Nov. 2, musicians and fans from all over the world gathered at the Long Center in Austin to help Clark celebrate his 70th birthday. On Dec. 6, Icehouse Records released “This One’s for Him,” a 2-CD set of 30 Clark tunes, covered by some of the best musicians in the business. The show and CDs are the culmination of a two-year-long venture led by Grammy-winning producer Tamara Saviano.

“It has been an important project to me from the beginning,” Saviano said recently. “Guy is an incredible artist and his catalog is deep with these colorful pieces of literature. He tells a story the way no one else can.”

The show featured over 15 performers, while the CD includes 33 gifted artists, including Kris Kristofferson, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Radney Foster, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jack Ingram, Robert Earl Keen, Jerry Jeff Walker, Verlon Thompson and James McMurtry.

“The first day Radney Foster came in and nailed ‘L.A. Freeway,’” said Verlon Thompson, Clark’s close friend and touring partner for over 20 years. “Then Rodney Crowell came in next [for ‘That Old Time Feeling’]. Then Jack Ingram [‘Stuff that Works]. Then in the afternoon, Kris Kristofferson came in [‘Hemingway’s Whiskey’]. Then we cut a track for Willie [Nelson, who covers ‘Desperados Waiting for a Train]. That was just the very first day. If I hadn’t been so focused on my work and trying to play well, I could have gone crazy. It was like a dream come true happening every other day or so.”

Creating the set list and putting artists together with songs fell mostly to Saviano, who had a wish list in mind.

“I match performers and artists, and then it evolves from there,” she explained. “Quite a few worked out for this album. I wanted Lyle Lovett for ‘Anyhow I Love You,’ Roseanne Cash for ‘Better Days,’ Kevin Welch for ‘Magdalene’ and Joe Ely for ‘Dublin Blues.’ It’s a fun process.”

When it came time to pick a back-up band for the artists and the Austin show, Saviano knocked it out of the park again.

In addition to recording “All Through Throwin’ Good Love After Bad,” Thompson handled guitar duties and lent his vocals to several tunes, along with Jen Gunderman on keyboards and accordion, Glenn Fukunaga on upright bass, Lloyd Maines on  guitar and lap steel and John Ross Silva on percussion.

Shawn Camp, whose fame should be more widespread, lends his incredible gifts on guitar, fiddle and mandolin. Camp also laid down a achingly beautiful arrangement of “Homeless” for the CD.

Thompson believes the collaboration will meet the approval of all music fans, not just those who have followed Clark for over five decades.

“If you don’t even know Guy Clark and you sat down and put this album on, you would want to find out who the hell is Guy Clark and why are all these people doing his song and why don’t I know about him.” he said. “It’s a pretty amazing view of Guy’s life.”

The songwriter’s Texas childhood looms large in his comprehensive catalog. Willie Nelson lends his incomparable stylings to “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train.” The song details a relationship between a young boy and a rapscallion. Vince Gill lowers his beautiful tenor voice to do the talking blues on “The Randall Knife,” an emotional ode to Clark’s father, an attorney. “The Last Gunfighter Ballad” (Steve Earle), “Texas Cookin’” (Gary Nicholson, Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien) and “Texas 1947” (Robert Earl Keen) round out a tour of the Lone Star State.

Relationships are important to Clark, as borne out in “That Old Feeling” (Rodney Crowell), “Anyhow I Love You,” (Lyle Lovett), “Magdalene” (Kevin Welch), “Magnolia Wind” (Emmylou Harris and John Prine) and “Dublin Blues” (Joe Ely).

Clark wrote one new song for his friend Jerry Jeff Walker to sing. “My Favorite Picture of You,” is a tender love letter to Clark’s wife, Susanna.

When Clark called Walker to tell him about the tune, he said, “This may be my best one yet.”

One of Thompson’s favorite moments on the CD is Terri Hendrix’s interpretation of “The Dark,” even though her recording session didn’t come off exactly as planned.

“The day Terri was originally scheduled, we got behind,” he said. “She was supposed to be the last one, but we ran out of time, so we had to bump her.”

The hiccup proved to be fortuitous, however, as it gave Hendrix a chance to change her song.

“The delay gave her more time to sit down and decide what she really wanted to do,” he explained. “When she walked into Cedar Creek Studios [in Austin], she just stepped up to the mike and started playing.”

What happened next was magic.

“It was one of those breathtaking moments,” Thompson explained. “We all looked around the room at each other and had to choke it back to keep it together.”

Having a mix of artists, not all of them household names, adds a lot of layers to the album.

“It doesn’t always have to be the same names,” he said. “I thought it was brilliant to have some different blood.”

For example, John Townes Van Zandt II, who covers “Let Him Roll,” has yet to cut a record, but when he took the stage in Austin, the crowd exploded into applause. J.T., as he is known, is the son of the late, legendary Townes Van Zandt, Clark’s best friend and touring partner for 30 years.

Clark’s songs about the hardscrabble life of a journeyman musician light up this collection.

“The Guitar” [Ramblin’ Jack Elliott], which was released on Clark’s 2009 CD “Some Days the Song Writes You,” sprang from a workshop he conducted with Thompson.

“Verlon and I were teaching a songwriting class at a guitar camp,” explained Clark in a 2009 News-Telegram interview. “There were about nine students in the class. I said, ‘Let’s write a song.’ That’s the way I teach.”

Clark said he put the song away and didn’t think of it again until someone e-mailed Thompson asking about it.

“I asked Verlon if he remembered the chords,” Clark said. “Then, I read the lyrics. Verlon read them. We said, ‘This is really good.’ Verlon picked up a guitar and spoke it [the lyrics]. It was so powerful.”

“Cold Dog Soup” (James McMurtry) was written after Van Zandt’s 1997 death and gives listeners a gritty glimpse into a musician’s life on the road.

Neither Saviano or Thompson were in the studio when McMurtry laid down the track at Cedar Creek Studio in south Austin, much to their regret.

“Out of the 30 tracks, this is the only one I was not in the studio for,” Saviano said. “After I heard it I wished so much I had dropped everything and gone to Austin to be there, but the truth is that James is a total pro and didn’t need anyone to get in his way.”

Thompson said the song was in the set list for a couple of years after it came out, but they’ve let it slip off their radar. McMurtry was originally set to do another tune, but this one turned out so well, they decided to use it instead. It was a match made in songwriting heaven.

It’s the perfect combination of Guy Clark’s lyrics, McMurtry’s unique musicality and the ghost of Townes Van Zandt.

McMurty is characteristically laid back about the experience.

“I can’t really tell [if it’s good or not] when I’m recording,” McMurtry said during a phone interview last week. “I did a couple of takes and the engineer thought it was good, so I left it alone. Listening back a few days later, I thought, ‘Yeah, it’s pretty good.’”

Thompson is not so blasé.

“If you had to cast a character to take one of Guy’s songs, blend in a little Townes and a little of his own experience, that was the one,” he said. “You gotta hand it to James. He knows how to read and interpret that kind of work. With Guy’s songs, you don’t just pick ‘em up and sing ‘em. McMurtry nailed it on every level. It’s turning out to be very popular.”

For music lovers, especially fans of Americana songs, it really doesn’t get much better than this. The cut, with just McMurtry and a guitar, should be on every “best of” list when awards season rolls around.

Thompson also has high praise for Saviano.

“Tamara has to get a major shout out,” he said. “I’ve never seen anybody dive so completely into anything – ever. She has given up her entire life to this thing and a lot of it wasn’t so easy. No one else could have done it. She’s so passionate about Guy and his music. She’s going to be turning things away now.”

With all the slick, over-produced pablum spewing out of Nashville these days, “This One’s For Him” is a breath of rarified air – rich stories, told with wondrous music, by one of the best songwriters to ever pick up pen, paper and guitar.

“Guy’s a poet and a Renaissance man,” Saviano said. “They don’t make ‘em like him anymore.”

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Click here watch a video of Hayes Carll, talk about Guy Clark and perform a song from “This One’s For Him.”
Click here watch a video of Robert Earl Keen, talk about Guy Clark and perform a song from “This One’s For Him.”
Click here watch a video of Jack Ingram, talk about Guy Clark and perform a song from “This One’s For Him.”

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