I just finished my friend Tamara Saviano’s heartfelt and fascinating new biography of Guy Clark, the lion of literate Texas/Nashville songwriting of the past 50 years. We’re still grieving the passing of Guy, who died in May. He was remembered and honored at a gala show at the Ryman in August. And he came up at this week’s Roots show. Noel McKay of High Plains Jamboree spoke in our interview about the life-changing impact of knowing and writing with Guy, whom he met after opening a show for him and Townes Van Zandt in the 1990s. It struck me during Zach Schmidt’s set that we had an entire lineup of songwriters who would have sounded great opening for Guy Clark. There’s always passion for the song in Americana music, but this roster brought a special focus to the art and the craft.
McKay himself was one fourth of a songwriting band as the Jamboree opened the show. Their snappy, harmony-heavy first song “The Truth Is That You Lie” made me think of a certain wealthy loudmouth. “Analog” is still swinging in my head this morning, with its skeptical outlook on digital life and timeless musical touches. Fiddler Beth Chrisman sang lead on the very Texas sounding “Dollar Bill” and Brennan Leigh’s “Steam Thresher’s Reunion” had sharp rhymes and vivid pictures. She also played the devil out of both mandolin and flattop guitar. Sign me up for the newsletter. This is a splendid, engaging band.
The set by Rebecca Pronksy was more ethereal in sound but so very down to earth in its presentation. The Brooklyn native is smart and real with a knack for bringing the audience along. Her story about how a mis-heard lyric led to surreal review was great. “Honesty” had a hearty drive, with sideman Rich Bennett playing quasi-bass lines on his electric guitar while also adding sparkle and soothing sounds throughout the set. “Bag of Bones” was a minor dirge that threw shade at the music business. “Shadow” was inspired by a visit to New York’s famous Hayden Planetarium and a presentation about mysterious Dark Matter. What better subject could there be for songs, said Pronsky, and I agree.
Zach Schmidt was our man on the spot Wednesday night, filling in on less than a day’s notice when it became clear that the band Dead 27s from Charleston SC had to focus on their families and belongings as they and a million other people evacuated ahead of Hurricane Matthew. Schmidt, a Pennsylvania-reared, Nashville-based folk singer, was more in the Guy Clark vein than anyone else on the bill, with a voice and bearing that sometimes resembled Steve Earle. (He also wears a cowboy hat really well.) “Waitin’ On Me” was a last will and testament from a dying man. Schmidt said “Dear Memphis” was the first song he ever wrote, which is quite incredible, for it showed a keen sense of interplay between mood, lyric and tune. A new album is coming from Zach in the next few weeks.
Claire Lynch’s songwriting credentials are well established, having penned songs recorded by Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea and other greats. On this night she emphasized songs by others, chiefly some important Canadians whose songs she cut on her new North By South album. She covered not-so-old Old Man Luedecke in her opening song “Kingdom Come.” Lynn Miles wrote “Black Flowers,” a brooding, imagistic mining song inspired by time in West Virginia. Lynch and her tight quartet swing breezily on Hank Williams’ “You’re Gonna Change.” Claire’s one original of the set evoked her Canadian husband and a city/country contrast, both with a lot of love. Stellar picking and vocal work was no surprise coming from band members Bryan McDowell, Jarrod Walker and Mark Schatz.
Tamara’s book is in many ways a study in artistic standards. Few in music have ever been so resolute about quality benchmarking in songs and their production as Guy Clark. He raised the standards of the writers who knew him. He remains the gold standard of well made songs. Writing songs as good or better than Guy is a kind of ephemeral ideal – a dream to live by. The songwriters in the hall on October 5 seem to want to walk that road.