The Country Music Hall of Fame’s annual Artist-in-Residence series has, in its four years, developed its own traditions. A longstanding ace of live performance is selected, one with legend-in-progress status and unquestionable accomplishment — who happens, also, to have a knack for planning and putting together some shows. The artist works up three different programs built on varying themes; some unannounced, significant accomplices add further variety. Cowboy Jack Clement, Earl Scruggs, and Tom T. Hall have been previous artists-in-residence; this year’s honoree/emcee was Guy Clark.
“They told me I could do anything I wanted to,” he noted wryly during the first of the sold-out shows. “There was a time when that was not the thing to say to me.”
The opening performance was set up as Guy Clark shows often are, with Guy simply doing his own singularly etched songs in no pre-set order — some 23 of them, from older (“Rita Ballou”, “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train”) to newer (“Out In The Parking Lot”, “Tornado Time In Texas”). He amiably sidetracked himself into pointed stories and explanations along the way, abetted profoundly by his longtime sidekick, guitar-picking whiz and backup vocalist Verlon Thompson.
“We have no agenda, no set list, no clue — and no fear,” Clark announced, to charmed applause. The basically unadorned acoustic approach, which made paying close attention to his lyrics both more important and easier, tended to underscore some particular Clark song characteristics: sharp beginnings, middles and ends; real hooks in lines and sounds; and that gift for making the day-to-day, homely details expand unexpectedly toward universal commentary — or even more unusually, vice versa.
The emotional high point of the series came with the remarkable second show, in which Clark traded off songs pointed, funny, and gulp-inducing with 30-plus-year compadres Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill. The guitar pyrotechnics of Thompson and Gill were taken yet further by Crowell’s regular guitar player, the unpredictable, creative and utterly dependable Will Kimbrough. With the many co-written collaborations between this bunch, options for sudden harmonizing or verse-trading were many. The evening climaxed with three-part harmony choruses on Guy’s always touching but never more appropriate “Old Friends”.
Thompson had multiple opportunities to impress the differing audiences of the three evenings with his own lesser-known but often astonishing skills as a singer and songwriter, particularly on his dramatic thriller “Joe Walker’s Horse”.
In the third show, the backing band also included Shawn Camp (fiddle, mandolin), Jamie Hartford (guitar, mandolin), and ovation-inducing bass player Bryn Bright for a more polished, rehearsed run through Clark’s entire new Workbench Songs CD, in sequence. This made for a fresh and polished sound but left little room for banter and surprises until the second half of the show, which would prove another high point in a series without low points.
Clark and Camp presented a set of co-written songs (“Sis Draper”, “Magnolia Wind”) they’re slowly working into a book/musical about the life and impact of that intimidating elderly fiddle-playing lady Sis, fictionalized from one of Camp’s boyhood acquaintances. Then another multi-decade Clark friend and collaborator, Emmylou Harris, came to the stage for the final string of duets and full-band songs. Guy took time to salute his late co-conspirator Townes Van Zandt before singing his own touching song “The Randall Knife” unadorned and away from the mikes to a hushed room.
There was inevitably some song repetition over the three evenings, and the individual audiences would have been disappointed if there hadn’t been. But for those who were fortunate enough to catch more than one, the very different performance situations made “That Old Time Feeling” and “Homegrown Tomatoes” fresh each time through. But then, as the man once put it himself, this Guy Clark material is clearly lasting “Stuff That Works”.