“It’s my fucking Guy Clark record, so I’ll do the ones that I was more personally connected to,” says Steve Earle of the process of choosing exactly which songs to record for Guy, his new tribute album to the folk-country songwriter who succumbed to cancer in 2016.
Earle has been closely linked to Clark since 1974, when they first crossed paths in Nashville. The following year, he contributed backing vocals to Clark’s debut masterpiece Old No. 1 — singing on “Desperados Waiting for a Train” with Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris and Sammi Smith — and joined his touring band as a bass player. When Earle recorded his first-ever demo to shop around Nashville, he did so in the kitchen of Clark’s modest home in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, where Guy’s wife Susanna was busy frying bacon.
“It was the same house that Townes died in,” says Earle, recalling his other songwriting hero Townes Van Zandt, a contemporary of Clark’s and the subject of Earle’s 2009 tribute album Townes. “It was a very primitive lake house that [Guy and Susanna] bought, which would normally be a summer house for most people, but they lived in it for years. Susanna was cooking bacon, making BLTs or something, and we were there all day making that tape. We listened back to it, and the bacon is really loud, and Guy goes, ‘It sounds like a Mickey Newbury record,’ because Newbury was into all these sound arrangements on his records.”
Earle doesn’t do much in the way of sonic experimentation on Guy. There’s no polished production, revamped arrangements or sizzling pork on the LP — his only indulgence is adding drums and some Waylon Jennings-esque electric guitar to “Dublin Blues.” Instead, he stays faithful to songs like “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” “L.A. Freeway” and “The Randall Knife,” Clark’s deeply personal recitation of his complicated relationship with his father. A track off 1995’s Dublin Blues, it’s a particularly daunting song to interpret — and Earle knew it.
“I almost didn’t record it, it was so intimidating,” says Earle, who nodded to “The “Randall Knife” in a lyric in his own “Taneytown” on 1997’s El Corazón. Instead of hiding from the lyrics about a blade “made for darker things,” however, Earle decided to cut it first, just like he did with Van Zandt’s signature “Pancho and Lefty” for Townes.
“To me that was like your first day in jail. You pick out the biggest guy in the yard and you knock him out and then you get to keep your radio,” he says. “I just knew to tackle that first. ‘The Randall Knife’ is talking-blues over the same pattern as another song called ‘Let Him Roll’ that’s on Old No. 1, and they both come from a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott song.”
Earle cut 16 tracks for Guy, but after a chance conversation about the album with Los Lobos founding member Louie Pérez, a Clark devotee, at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, he sheepishly realized that he had neglected the Grammy-winning LP My Favorite Picture of You. “I hate the idea that I didn’t do anything from that record,” he says of the 2013 release — Clark’s final album.
He returned to the studio and emerged with two solo acoustic recordings slated for an upcoming Record Store Day 7-inch: “Don’t Let the Sunshine Fool Ya’,” originally cut by Van Zandt for 1972’s The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, and “El Coyote,” off My Favorite Picture of You, an album inspired by Susanna, who died in 2012.
For Earle, the last-minute sessions were an acknowledgment to Clark’s tireless work ethic.
“He got up every day and wrote. What I learned from Guy and Susanna more than anything else was that they call these things that artists do ‘disciplines’ for a reason. He wasn’t an angel; he had plenty of demons. But he found it necessary to work every day,” says Earle. “I discovered how much I learned from him in making a record like this.”
With the release of Guy, Earle hopes to turn on more listeners to the talents of Clark, a songwriter who has always resided in the niche rather than in the mainstream — despite his songs being recorded by stars like Johnny Cash, the Highwaymen and Ricky Skaggs. Comparatively, the Townes album had a built-in audience, Earle says, one attracted to the tragic life of its subject. The “Waiting Around to Die” songwriter drank himself to death in 1997 at the age of 52, while Clark lived until he was 74.
“Every hipster that never quite got up the nerve to kill themselves was a Townes fan,” Earle says. “But Guy didn’t have that. He had cancer for 10 years, but he was so fucking tough it took 10 years to kill him.”