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Putting an ‘Essential’ Spotlight on Clark : GUY CLARK “The Essential Guy Clark” RCA (****)

Steve Earle believed so much in the songs of the late Townes Van Zandt that he once vowed to stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table to tell him that Van Zandt was the best songwriter in the world.

Van Zandt’s work includes such marvelous tunes as “Poncho & Lefty” and “To Live Is to Fly.” But he also deserves gratitude for his role in convincing his colleague Guy Clark to pursue music full time.

Sadly, Clark’s name is no better known among pop fans than Van Zandt’s. But Clark, too, is regarded by his peers as one of the great writers of contemporary pop music. Indeed, one could imagine Van Zandt once wanting to get up on Dylan’s table to proclaim Clark’s talents.

Among the artists who have recorded Clark’s songs or sung his praises in interviews: Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and U2’s Bono.

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There is much in this collection, drawn from Clark’s two albums for RCA in the mid-'70s, that reminds one of Van Zandt--from the mix of country, blues and folk strains to the strong literary sensibility of the lyrics.

Both men’s songs frequently are filled with such character and detail that they seem like short stories. Clark’s “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” “Train 1947" and “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” would fit nicely in a journal of prize-winning Texas prose.

Born in west Texas in 1941, Clark fell in love early with music, but his lawyer father instilled in his son the importance of a solid, secure job. The youngster was taught that music simply was too risky a career.

Clark worked at various “real jobs,” including art director at a Houston TV station, before Van Zandt inspired him to focus on music. Clark moved to Los Angeles in the early ‘70s with hopes of getting a recording or publishing contract, but it wasn’t a happy time.

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The Texan found Los Angeles too big and impersonal, so he headed for Nashville. But the stay in L.A. inspired a song--about how good it felt to be leaving town: “L.A. Freeway” became a modest pop hit for Jerry Jeff Walker in 1973.

Though Clark’s voice was too ragged for country radio, RCA executives were so impressed by his songs that they signed him to a recording contract anyway. He was in his mid-30s when his debut album, “Old No. 1,” was released in 1975. It stands now as a mini-classic in the Texas songwriting tradition.

After leaving RCA, Clark went on to record worthy albums for other labels, including the warmly philosophical “Boats to Build” for Elektra Records in 1993. But this early work represents the foundation of his career.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).


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