Guy Clark’s performances are striking for the charisma they put on display, but perhaps even more so for what they hold in reserve. When his massive frame resonates with his outoorsman’s voice, you don’t hear the laying bare of a folksinger soul; rather, it is like being briefly taken under the wing of a sage. He approaches you, puts a large hand on your shoulder, whispers in your ear, and then vanishes, leaving you to think.
That quality defines Cold Dog Soup, Clark’s first studio album since 1995, a CD as intimate and spontaneous-sounding as his 1997 live recording Keepers. For one thing, there are fewer musicians. Only Darrell Scott and Verlon Thompson back up the tracks with their voices, guitars, banjos and mandolins, while Emmylou Harris makes two spare and elegant appearances. Further, the material is newly minted. The title track paints a scene at a Los Angeles bar where Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Tom Waits played gigs in the late ’60s — a delicately surreal portrait of literary ferment a la 1920s Paris or Secessionist Vienna set in Mission Beach.
“Sis Draper”, a co-write with Shawn Camp, carries us to more familiar Southern environs, wrapping a lyric about a real-life woman fiddler around the variegated melody of “Arkansas Traveller”. “Water Under The Bridge” borrows a groove and melody from the traditional “Shady Grove” to build a briskly moving, banjo-driven mediation on time and chance. It’s one of the fullest and hardest driving cuts, but within the disc’s minimalist confines. Clark also covers Steve Earle’s “Fort Worth Blues” and the mesmerizingly sad “Forever, For Always, For Certain” by Richard Dobson. It all has in common a casual, comforting drift and Clark’s typically tight, moving writing.