It’s not unusual for there to be a song stuck in my head for days, where that temporal tape recorder keeps running the same loop. But it’s usually a rock or pop lyric.
Recently, though, what I can’t get out of my head is lines from a song by a musician who was mostly covered by country artists. They’re from Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues”: “So forgive me all my anger/Forgive me all my faults/There’s no need to forgive me/For thinkin’ what I thought/I loved you from the get go/And I’ll love you ‘til I die/I loved you on the Spanish steps/The day you said goodbye.”
It’s a song I don’t think I’d ever heard, until I watched the Austin City Limits episode “A Tribute to Guy Clark.” Steve Earle and the Dukes, who perform most of the music on the special, open the show with it — its opening line: “Well, I wished I was in Austin,” getting unsurprising cheers from the audience in that Texas city.
That song may have been unfamiliar to me, but I knew who Clark was, and some of the songs he had written. In particular, “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” one of my favorite cuts off Jerry Jeff Walker’s Viva Terlingua album. And it turns out that another of my JJW faves, “L.A. Freeway,” was also written by Clark.
Those were a few of the nearly 60 songs that Clark penned, if not the best known of them. Perhaps the best-known is “Heartbroke,” a C&W No. 1 for Ricky Skaggs, the country-artist-turned-bluegrass-revivalist. Steve Wariner also had a country chart-topper with a Clark tune, “Baby I’m Yours,” as did Rodney Crowell with “She’s Crazy for Leavin’.”
Other C&W artists, including Bobby Bare and John Conlee, had high-charting hits with Clark’s work. But so did more crossover acts like Vince Gill; other artists that strayed into pop and rock, among them Jimmy Buffett and Johnny Cash, recorded his songs, which were also covered by the likes of Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett.
But in between the lines of the work that moved country music plasticware were lyrics that pierce your heart. “Desperados” always got me, reminded me of my father — not because he was a man who “taught me how to drive his car when he’s too drunk to/And he’d wink and give me money for the girls.” No, it was about seeing a loved one growing old and dying, and being together with him, waiting for that train.
“Randall Knife,” another song Earle and his band perform during the concert, is also a paean to a departed father, concerning a family heirloom with an edge so sharp it cuts to the heart. “The Last Gunfighter Ballad” — covered by Cash, who named an album after it — deconstructs the legends of the Old West.
“Texas – 47” is a vignette that captures the allure of the railroads to rural America. “Old Friends,” which concludes the show, brings back Crowell and Joe Ely (who accompanied Earle, respectively, on “Heartbroke” and “Desperadoes”) back to the stage, joined by Texas music notables Terry Allen and Jo Harvey Allen.
The finale underlines Earle’s between-songs narrative throughout the concert about his relationship with the man who was his inspiration and his mentor. He and the Dukes perform a couple of Earle’s songs, the understudy explaining that he needed to prove that his teacher had taught him something about songwriting.
“Copperhead Road” was one of those examples, but it underlines that Earle perhaps didn’t learn everything he needed to. Earle, an avowed socialist — with a net worth of $5 million, it could be noted — has often leaned into his politics in his writing. Guy Clark, on the other hand, seems to have understood that the story comes first.
That said, Earle’s performances of his mentor’s songs are heartfelt, his band is solid and the concert is a memorable watch. (He and the Dukes and other artists recorded a tribute album around the same time.) And if he hoped to introduce Guy Clark’s work to a broader audience, as well as pay tribute to the artist and songwriter, he accomplished that goal. At least in my case.