The point of the "American Explorer Series" is to spotlight deserving, roots-based talents overlooked by the mainstream. Clark fits the description perfectly. Although this is his seventh album, he has been less a performing presence in his own right than a role model for an impressive troupe of better-known singer-songwriters from his native Texas. Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith and Rodney Crowell are admirers of Clark's craft; if you go to a Jerry Jeff Walker concert, Clark's "L.A. Freeway" and "Desperadoes Waiting For the Train" invariably stand out as peak moments.
"Boats to Build" makes a persuasive case for Clark as more than a craggy eminence behind the scenes. His singing style on this hybrid collection informed by folk, rock, country and blues sources is laconic, burry, and frequently wry, landing him in much the same basket as John Prine. But Clark's is also a voice well suited to such tender-hearted material as "Madonna w/Child ca. 1969," his admiring portrait of a San Francisco hippie girl who is no flower-power cliche but an emblem of True Grit.
Clark leads with his ever-ready sense of dry, subtly ironic humor, but most of these songs carry deep moral convictions as he sings about the power of love, the worth of honest labor or the need to face life with resilience and a venturesome spirit. These are qualities we'd like to think are built into the foundation of the American character, and Clark, with his homespun delivery and his writerly "show, don't tell" ethic, has a knack for presenting them without Nashville's too-common hokum, jingoism and easy self-congratulation.
Clean, folksy arrangements give the album a front-porch intimacy. You can imagine Clark and his crew of ace musicians (including the superb Nashville string players Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush) sitting in a circle and grinning with enjoyment at each inventive lick.