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Steve Earle has never been slow to point the direction of his greatest influences, and people he most respected in the world of singer songwriters. He has already made a record of Townes Van Zandt songs (Townes), and with Guy Clark also at the top of his list it was just a matter of time. An album of his other mentor and good friend, Clark’s best was always on the cards after his death in 2016 (Born 1941 Texas-born Clark was one, if not the finest singer-songwriters of his era and beyond). Like with Townes, he could just as easily called the record, Vol 1 due to the genuine keepers in the cupboards of both acts.
Earle is most generous with the song head count, sixteen treasures are featured, and though some have enjoyed notable covers he still manages to avoid unfavourable comparisons with any. Guy is an album I shall be listening to, repeatedly. The songs alone contain a strong, magnetic appeal. It would be fair to say some songs near sing themselves especially when placed in such capable hands.
An album by Rodney Crowell, and Earle with the likes of pickers and close friends of, and mentors whatever, Darrell Scott, Verlon Thompson, Shawn Camp and one or two more older friends as in Terry Allen would have worked a treat. With the above, introducing the songs a more intimate feel would be established. As Earle and a bunch of Guy’s friends do to Old Friends. Much has been said and written about guys first two albums, Old No 1 and (to a lesser extent) Texas Cookin’ but his Sugar Hill album Old Friends was likewise a pivotal point in his career. Maybe, another day my wish will come true regards vol 2.
As for the 16 tracks Dublin Blues, L.A Freeway and Old Friends plus the likes of The Randall Knife, that he nails, unreservedly a sturdy platform is built. He allows the band room to kick up its heels on Sis Draper, Heartbroke and New Cut Road as bluegrass flavours are utilised stylishly. Shawn Camp plays acoustic guitar on both New Cut Road and Sis Draper. Don’t let’s forget Earle’s passion for bluegrass music. A couple of songs have a doubt or two attached. I found his vocals on Old Time Feeling a little strained. It would be totally unreasonable to expect he could match, or come near Guy on all sixteen tracks. Since rarely can anyone get across a song better than the original songwriter, and when the writer happens to be Guy Clark a tougher task still.
Among those he does give a little extra you have a sublime version of The Ballad Of Leverne And Captain Flint, love ballad Anyhow I Love You . The former speaks of a man fishing up and down the Texas Coast, and enjoys some especially tasty mandolin and fiddle. From more recent times Earle lends a gritty edge to Out In The Parking Lot, it comes out so good it could have been written for him! You could the same for The Last Gunfighter Ballad that he recorded for the various artist tribute album, This One’s For Him - The Songs Of Guy Clark (2011). Earle soaks in the lyrics and spills them out like he was at the scene. Guy’s spare, evocative lyrics, and conversational writing style take the listener to a place without them giving the matter a second thought. Songs like She Ain’t Leaving on which Earle’s vocals sound like the day after having drank too many whiskies the night before. So gritty his delivery.
Players on record are The Dukes old boy Kelley Looney (bass guitar), Brad Pemerton (drums, percussion), Chris Masterson (guitar, vocals) Eleanor Whitmore (fiddle, mandolin, tenor guitar, harmony vocals) and Ricky Ray Jackson on pedal steel guitar plus, Earle on guitar, mandolin and vocals.
Old Friends closes the album in celebratory fashion as a bunch of friends get to provide some crucial harmony vocals as Rodney Crowell, Jerry Jeff Walker, Emmylou Harris and who is involved throughout the song have Jo Harvey Allen, Verlon Thompson, Gary Nicholson (plus acoustic guitar) and Shawn Camp join in the fun. Willie Nelson band member, Mickey Raphael also lends support on harmonica as Earle signs-off with as fine a closer you could wish for. Whitmore’s fiddle work is most inspired, and the mandolin it too is tasty. Photographer friend of Clark, Jim McGuire drops by to play dobro on the track. Photos taken of Clark when spread out on a table mesmerised Earle. Despite his years and success he is still in awe of Guy’s work, and would no doubt have spent countless hours agonising on the best way to present the record. As in who to bring in on the record, plus, there’s the detailed artwork. Some aspects of Earle’s life might on occasions be complicated, and even erratic, but he leaves this behind him when it comes to making a record.
If you are already familiar with Guy Clark’s songs then you are in for a treat. While if you are new to his work this set is a great opportunity to get to obtain a feel for what he was about as Steve Earle and the Dukes are caught at their best.
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