Singer-songwriter Guy Clark is a key figure in alternative country music. In the 1970s, his Nashville home was an axis of creativity, a hangout where musicians assembled to trade songs and stories, and where Clark mentored young songwriters at the time, like Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell. Clark turned 70 this year, and dozens of his friends and admirers are now saying "Thanks" on a double album called This One's for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark.
Clark is Americana's craftsman, a storyteller who carves songs out of quiet moments and marginal characters that most folks wouldn't notice, and one whose simple rhymes convey complicated lives. Raised in West Texas, Clark soaked up blues, folk and Mexican music, along with a wonderfully skewed view of the human condition. He finds beauty in imperfection, though Lyle Lovett's cover of "Anyhow I Love You" is about as perfect as it gets.
The key to producing a great tribute album lies in assigning the songs to the singers, and the ones here are well-matched. Most of the artists hit the precarious balance between honoring the original work and making it their own. It all sounds as natural as the pickin' parties at Clark's house in the 1970s, from the iconic Willie Nelson — who riffs on Clark's timeless "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train" — to next-generation outlaw Hayes Carll, whose offbeat sensibility suits "Worry B Gone."
This double-disc set leans on languid tempos and omits a good deal of the success that Clark enjoyed when mainstream country acts took his songs to the top of the charts. But Clark fans will appreciate the circle drawn by this tribute, from Radney Foster's excellent reading of "L.A. Freeway" (a Clark classic made popular by Jerry Jeff Walker) to a new song that Clark wrote during the making of this tribute called "My Favorite Picture of You," which he asked Walker to sing.
Clark has received a lifetime's worth of honors and awards for filling his songs with vivid character sketches, eerie fatalism and love that never dies. But his dark humor is rarely far from the surface. It's one of the keys to his endurance as a songwriter and performer, and no doubt one of the central reasons he's so beloved by the impressive group of artists on this collection.