Guy Clark - "A Nickel For The Fiddler" (Old No. 1)
Guy Clark was one of a handful of singer-songwriters featured in the terrific 1975 country music documentary Heartworn Highways. If you've never seen the film, and you're even remotely interested in country music, I suggest that you drop everything and rent the DVD. Right now. It really is that good, in particular the scenes with the legendary Townes Van Zandt, most of which were reused in the recent documentary Be Here To Love Me.
Clark, a luthier from Texas, befriended Van Zandt in the late ’60s and soon became inspired to take a crack at songwriting. It took him a hell of a long time to get his first record released, apparently because he was a stubborn, fiercely-independent, heavy-drinking pain-in-the ass. His first attempted album was scrapped when he bought back his own master tapes and refused to let the label release anything. Finally in 1975, with little to no fanfare, came Old No. 1, the first of Clark's two RCA albums. Both of them were produced by Neil Wilburn, a veteran engineer who'd previously worked with The Byrds, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Clark is fairly well-known among country music aficionados, and those first two albums have seen several CD releases in the past. But the new reissues from DBK Works are the first since Clark's profile was raised significantly among the hipster set by his prominent appearance in the aforementioned Townes Van Zandt documentary.
Old No. 1 is easily the better of the two albums. Clark's voice may be a little too nasal and gravelly for some, but the songwriting is strong throughout. While they never quite reach the level of Van Zandt's work, the best songs get admirably close. The lonesome ballads, notably "That Old Time Feeling" and "Desperados Waiting For The Train," are quite a bit better than the honky-tonk stompers. The chord progression of the closing track "Let It Roll" has always reminded me of "Don't Let The Sunshine Fool Ya," one of my favorite songs from The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt. I recently pulled out my copy of that album and was surprised to learn that the song was actually penned by Clark, hence the similarity. Other tracks sound more like Kris Kristofferson or Mickey Newbury, and "She Ain't Goin' Nowhere" actually wouldn't sound out-of-place on John Phillips' Wolfking Of L.A. LP. I know of a few people with pretty respectable taste in country music who are ambivalent about all of Guy Clark's work, even the first album. But if you ask me, Old No. 1 is a mighty fine record. I wouldn't call it one of my all-time favorites, but it's an album I come back to on a fairly regular basis.
Texas Cookin' is more of a mixed bag in my opinion, but it does have its fair share of great songs. And overall, it's quite a bit better than any of the later Guy Clark albums I've had the chance to hear. Waylon Jennings, Jerry Jeff Walker and Hoyt Axton all make guest appearances, and the duet "Anyhow I Love You" with Emmylou Harris – whose voice can be heard throughout both albums – is particularly wonderful. But the hollering and yodeling on up-tempo numbers like "Good To Love You Lady" are a little much, and some of the other tracks are a little heavy on the keyboards and electric bass for my taste. The more stripped-down and acoustic songs, like "The Last Gunfighter Ballad" and "Brown Haired Boy," are much more to my liking.