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REVIEW: Steve Earle & The Dukes – GUY

I have to do it.  I wasn’t going to, but I have to.  I’m sorry for how long it took me to get this review out.  I’m apologizing because the Steve Earle & The Dukes album, GUY (New West Records), released on March 29, 2019 and this should have been done on that date, not almost a month later.  

Steve Earle has done just about everything under the sun.  He’s a songwriter and a performer. He’s an actor and a novelist.  He’s done jail time. He’s gone completely off the grid where nobody seemed to know where he was.  He’s an activist who speaks loudly against capital punishment. That’s the short list, but more than anything, Earle is a musician.  

Photo courtesy of Patti McClintic, Think Country and Country Music Hall of Fame

Photo courtesy of Patti McClintic, Think Country and Country Music Hall of Fame

All albums are important, but GUY, at least in my mind, is special.  It is Earle’s tribute to the late Guy Clark, who was his friend and mentor, but sadly, never his co-writer.  Earle mentions in the liner notes of GUY, that, “And now he’s gone and when I follow him (because I always have) I’ll leave this world with only one regret and that is that I never wrote a song with GUY CLARK.”  If that’s Earle’s one regret in life, it’s apparent he went to great lengths making this record something that Clark would be proud of.

I spent many hours researching both Guy Clark and Steve Earle to learn about their music and their lives.  I was previously what I would now call a “casual” fan of both artists. I thought I was a much better fan, but once I started digging deep, I realized how much more there was to know.  Both of their careers are tangled up with so many legendary artists and musicians that are still fixtures in the Nashville, Texas and Los Angeles music scenes, that one could read for weeks and still never cover it all.  It all just keeps stretching out. It’s fascinating.

For all the reading I did on these two artists, I did not read any other reviews on the album.  I also stayed away from anything to do with the making of the record or Steve Earle interviews about it.  Other than past history, I went in cold for two reasons. First and foremost, because I was so late in getting to this review, I didn’t want to take a chance on being influenced by something that’s already been written, and so much already has been.  I also listened to a lot of music while doing the prep work for this review. I wanted to just sit back and drink in Steve Earle’s record one final time with a clear mind and not be thinking about what some other media outlet had to say about one song or the other.  That would have clouded my thoughts.

When I say I took this review very seriously, I’m not kidding.  I’m not a big political person, and I don’t necessarily agree with all of the things Earle does on that front, but I very much respect him as an artist and I certainly feel the same about the late Guy Clark.  I know they have legions of devoted fans that go back a long time. I can only hope that my delayed review might be welcomed because it won’t get lost in the shuffle of all the others that came in at the same time.

GUY was produced by Steve Earle, with the exception of “The Last Gunfighter Ballad”, which was produced by The Twang Trust.  It has 16 tracks, all written by the late Guy Clark (three of them with co-writers). Steve Earle sings on all 16 tracks with assistance on vocals on three.  Some of the same talented folks that worked with Guy Clark worked with Earle on this project. This wasn’t just a labor of love from Earle, it appears it took a village, a very dedicated village.

Very briefly, for those that aren’t really well-versed in all-things Guy Clark, he was born in Monahans, Texas in 1941 and died in Nashville in 2016.  Clark released more than 20 albums and many artists recorded his songs, including Ricky Skaggs and Bobby Bare. His wife, Susanna, who passed away in 2012, was also a singer and songwriter.  He was a best friend to Townes Van Zandt up until Van Zandt’s death in 1997. Clark’s accolades are too numerous to list, but he led a very interesting life. I know I’m not nearly done when it comes to learning more about him and his amazing career.  

Photo courtesy of Patti McClintic, Think Country and Country Music Hall of Fame

Photo courtesy of Patti McClintic, Think Country and Country Music Hall of Fame

When Steve Earle decided to choose what songs to cover for this album, it must have been difficult, and I’m sure if I wanted to find out how he did that, I could.  I’m sure he’s been asked, but like I said, I didn’t “read ahead”, so I don’t know. Maybe he knew exactly which ones he wanted. I know which ones on the record I think stand out and those are the ones I’ll focus on, because all 16 are worth going on and on about, but nobody in their right mind would stick with me that long.

Let’s start with “L.A. Freeway” which has an interesting backstory, but I won’t bore you with the whole thing.  Guy Clark originally came up with the idea for the song in the back seat of a car, on, of course, a freeway in Los Angeles.  Sick of living in that city, he scribbled part of the chorus on a burger bag with his wife, Susanna’s eyeliner. The couple moved to Nashville shortly after that.  Jerry Jeff Walker covered “L.A. Freeway” and pretty soon all kinds of Nashville artists were recording Clark’s songs.

Video courtesy of Live from Austin TX and YouTube

Earle’s version takes Clark’s frustration with life in Los Angeles and puts it right in our hands.  He isn’t ranting and raving, but it’s the juxtaposition of a sweet acoustic guitar with a disgruntled tale that simply says, “I’m done”, that works like a charm.

“Texas 1947” is an interesting song if you’re a history buff.  On April 16, 1947, one of the the worst disasters in Texas history happened, the explosion at the Texas City Port.  One might immediately think this song was about that tragedy, but it isn’t. It’s actually a very innocent story about trains, technology and how adults and children view such things differently.  Clark was a master storyteller in song. I’m so glad Earle decided to cover this, because he too, can craft a story in a tune so well, that even in his 60’s, it isn’t hard to imagine him as a little boy, watching a sleek new kind of train speed by a depot.  As the adults all sat on their cars in awe, that kid had bigger things on his mind. The nickel he managed to sneak on the tracks was “smashed flatter than a dime.”

Video courtesy of Live from Austin Texas and YouTube

It was actually Johnny Cash who first released “Texas 1947” in 1975, and it’s no surprise.  Cash was another artist who wrote or recorded songs about people and real life. This is why I didn’t look at this as just any review.  Guy Clark didn’t just inspire Steve Earle to do a cover album. Guy Clark touched the lives of so many songwriters and artists that people consider among the best ever.  

I can’t talk about “Desperados Waiting for a Train” without talking about Jerry Jeff Walker.  Walker was born in Oneonta, New York in 1942 and is best known for writing “Mr. Bojangles”. Walker’s name will almost always come up when someone starts telling stories about either Guy Clark or Steve Earle.  He’s been around that circle so often. Walker originally recorded “Desperados Waiting for a Train” for his 1973 album Viva Terlingua.  The song has been covered many times, most recently by Jason Isbell when Guy Clark was inducted into the Austin City Limits 2015 Hall of Fame.  Jerry Jeff Walker is still alive and well and can be found at jerryjeff.com

What I love about Steve Earle’s cover is how he keeps it simple.  If you listen to Clark’s version, he sings it with clarity, and that’s what pulls you into the story.  The vocals take center stage with the gentle lull of the guitar in the background. Earle gives this most beloved of Clark’s songs the same treatment.  What a perfect way to honor his old friend.

I listened to “The Randall Knife” so many times I couldn’t count.  Both the Guy Clark version and Steve Earle’s cover. I was trying to compare the two, which was a colossal mistake.  This was a highly personal song for Clark. It was a song he wrote about his father. There was no way anyone could ever sing it quite the way he did because he understood the story in ways nobody else could.  

Video courtesy of Robert W. Roddis, Esq. and YouTube

Randall Made Knives were founded by Walter Doane “Bo” Randall, Jr. in 1938 and the factory and showroom are located in Orlando, Florida.  “The Randall Knife” is about one of those knives that Clark’s father owned. Being a brilliant songwriter, Clark was able to weave a tale about his father’s life around a single object, in this case, a Randall knife.  When I said that nobody could ever cover this song and do it like Clark did, I mean that, however, Steve Earle is so convincing with his version, that I could almost believe the knife belonged to his own father.

Photo courtesy of Patti McClintic, Think Country and Country Music Hall of Fame

This is not an exaggeration.  I listened to Earle’s cover of “The Randall Knife” on repeat for a couple of hours one night.  I am so amazed by it. Earle doesn’t subscribe to an afterlife, but if anyone does, it certainly seems as though a little bit of Guy Clark snuck into the studio the day this song was recorded.  It’s that good. Easily my pick for best on this record.

Most people think of Ricky Skaggs when they hear “Heartbroke”.  Skaggs released the song in 1982 as the first single off his album, Highways & Heartaches, but it was written by Guy Clark and originally recorded by Rodney Crowell.  It’s always been one of my favorite songs by Ricky Skaggs, but I never would have imagined it being sung by Steve Earle.  Turns out he does it justice. Definitely more gravel, a little rougher around the edges, but that’s what you expect from Earle.  He isn’t supposed to be all shined up. It’s “Heartbroke” with some grit.

Video courtesy of Patti McClintic, Think Country and YouTube

So far, all of the songs I’ve discussed were written solely by Guy Clark.  “Sis Draper” was co-written by Clark and Shawn Camp. It’s an upbeat, fiddle heavy number that doesn’t miss a trick.  This is genius songwriting coupled with superb musicianship. Steve Earle takes you right where you need to be, in the presence of Sis Draper, a wild woman from Arkansas who can do mystical things with a fiddle, and turn any place into a party the minute she flies through a door.  She’s a whole lot of fun, but she’s also mysterious and just like Clark could do, Earle conveys all of this information in song expertly. Shawn Camp also plays acoustic guitar on this track.

Video courtesy of anonymoose711 and YouTube

“Old Friends” was co-written by Guy Clark, Susanna Clark and Richard Dobson and appeared on the 1988 album Old Friends.  It’s a sweet song that talks about the importance of reliable friends, the ones that have been around forever.  We all know the difference between those kinds of friends and acquaintances, and the lyrics here describe that kind of relationship perfectly.  

Video courtesy of Mark O’Connor and YouTube

Photo courtesy of Patti McClintic, Think Country and Country Music Hall of Fame

Photo courtesy of Patti McClintic, Think Country and Country Music Hall of Fame

Steve Earle took everything about “Old Friends” to heart when he covered it.  So many of Clark’s real old friends participated in Earle’s version, and the end result is something I’d recommend to anyone looking for the perfect song for a wedding, graduation or any special event where they truly need to pay tribute to some special long time friends.  Those old friends of both Clark and Earle that worked on “Old Friends” were Shawn Camp (mandolin, vocals), Verlon Thompson (acoustic guitar, vocals), Mickey Raphael (harmonica), Jim McGuire (dobro), Gary Nicholson (acoustic guitar, vocals), Terry Allen (vocals), Jerry Jeff Walker (vocals), Emmylou Harris (vocals), Rodney Crowell (vocals), Jo Harvey Allen (vocals).  It’s a beautiful song. For the number of artists that contributed to making it that way, it’s still uncomplicated and honest. A big thank you to Steve Earle for having the vision to do this one right.

What I’ve gained in doing this review is far more than listening to a new record.  I’ve become so much more aware of artists I didn’t know enough about, and now have a burning desire to continue to learn more.  I’ve listened to music from artists I hadn’t before. Steve Earle is one artist, yet his decision to pay tribute to the late Guy Clark has opened doors into the musical history of so many others for me.  I don’t know if he will ever know how much that means to someone like me, but it really does.

If you want to do yourself a favor, whether you’ve always been a big fan of Guy Clark and Steve Earle or not, buy this record.  Listen to it, then go back and listen to Guy Clark’s songs. Then go listen to as many other versions of Clark’s songs as you can find.  Watch the videos. Read the history of the countless artists that are connected to these two individuals. It never ends. It’s like a maze with no exit.  I’ve always been thankful for music. This album has pushed that thankfulness over the edge.

Other tracks on GUY: Dublin Blues, Rita Ballou, The Ballad of Laverne and Captain Flint, Anyhow I Love You, That Old Time Feeling, The Last Gunfighter Ballad, Out In the Parking Lot, She Ain’t Going Nowhere, New Cut Road

The Dukes are:  Chris Masterson (guitar, vocals), Eleanor Whitmore (fiddle, mandolin, tenor guitar, vocals), Ricky Ray Jackson (pedal steel guitar, vocals), Kelley Looney (bass), Brad Pemberton (drums, percussion)

Photo courtesy of Steve Earle Facebook

Steve Earle can be found:  

Website:  http://www.steveearle.com/

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/SteveEarleMusic/

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/SteveEarle?lang=en

Instagram:  @steveearle






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