The week was dominated by the passing of the mighty Guy Clark, a painful farewell that we’ve seen coming for some time. It’s different than the loss of the world-famous Merle Haggard, because Guy was more of an intimate, an artist and man woven in to the fabric and family of Nashville. We knew him and saw him around like a neighbor, and those of us lucky enough to chronicle Music City in this era found chances to catch up with Guy and talk Texas or philosophy or his Zen approach to songwriting. I got to visit him regularly through the year of 2003 to report on him building two guitars, his other major pursuit besides music. It was the closest I’ll ever come to hanging out with Hemingway.
So the craftsman of “Like A Coat From The Cold” and “The Randall Knife” was much on our minds as we gathered for this week’s edition of Roots, and it was an appropriately folky/country night, with a real lean-in on song craft and unadorned delivery. We had two duos and a duo of duos play acoustically before our rocking closing performance by a former oil well worker from the same terrain, geographically and musically as Guy.
Duo number one Zoe & Cloyd are extra easy on the ears and heart. His guitar and her fiddle and their voices affirm why Appalachian roots music has spoken to me over the years, cutting through the digital noise and pointing me home. They opened with a bluegrass feeling on “Just Let Me Go.” John Cloyd Miller sang lead on “Saddle Up My Son,” a song from the repertoire of their former band Red June. Natalya shared with us the story of transitioning from classical violinist to country fiddler and man did she ever pull it off. Her bowing and her limpid groove on “Ways of the World” were perfect. The singers evoked a shape note purity in the a cappella “Bury Me Not” and closed with a sweet song of domestic bliss and sleepy parenthood, sung like people who are devoted to one another and their new bambino.
The duo of duos went by the name Barry & Holly Tashian and the E-5 Band, which also includes Al and Emily Cantrell, because they’re longtime friends who’ve each had robust careers as folk/Americana artists. So their set, beginning with the bright country rush of “Lonesome Highway Blues” felt like an elevated version of their frequent after-dinner social jams. Emily sang lead on her song “Black Bayou” with Cajun fiddle provided by her husband. Holly’s widely covered song “Home” was a graceful and timeless waltz. And closer “Sail Away” had a breezy gospel quality. And the word quality applies to everything about these veteran pickers and good people. E-5 captures the neighborly side of Nashville, a place where the neighbors tend to have a lot of talent.
It was hard to predict the mood of a Penny & Sparrow set from their languorous recorded music. Sure enough, their songs were slow to unfold and highly concentrated. But lead singer Andy Baxter poured a lot of emotion and craft into the songs, and it cultivated an atmosphere in the hall that was as electric as it was quiet. Kyle Jahnke played guitar and sang close harmonies while Andy massaged sophisticated lyrics into surging song spells. Keeping the whole thing from being too heavy was the between song banter, where Andy proved to be a funny, dry and engaging host. It was testimony to the power of holding most of one’s chops in reserve.
And after three all acoustic acts on came a big old band with keyboards, two electric guitars and a commanding cowboy hat guy on harmonica. Out front was Jared Deck, who seems too young for the lives he’s lived in rural Oklahoma. His opening gambit “The American Dream” was a dead ringer for John Mellencamp. But he showed quickly that his voice and approach has range. “Wrong Side of the Night” had a sparkling quality and a comfortable melody. Then with “Sweet Breath” he uncorked his soul/blues muse and really impressed with his thundering, anguished yearning. Catchiest of all was “17 Miles” which we learned was inspired by his aborted escape from his hometown. I have the sense this guy has quite a few albums’ worth of stories from his unique life.
Jim Lauderdale had plenty of Guy Clark songs to choose from as he consulted with the bands on a good Nashville Jam salute. They went with one of the few light and breezy ones. But who doesn’t love singing “Home Grown Tomatoes,” especially on the cusp of summer? We’ll miss Guy terribly, and we’ll continue to turn that incredible body of nourishing work over and over like rich soil in a garden. We all take sustenance from it.