The critical failing of pop culture is that it is, by definition, focused solely on what’s hot right now. As an inevitable result, it is further always only present for an instant and then – poof! – gone. Replaced by the next big thing. Methadone for the masses, ameliorating perhaps the immediacy of life’s chronic pains, yet incapable of any true healing. Much less any growth.
Yet pop culture pervades the miasma of our existence, exuding an odor of its own, and blocking from view the truest and most valuable lessons which life can bestow.
For decades now Guy Clark and his music have been the antithesis of pop culture. The man is a poet and a songwriter’s songwriter, yet his powers extend far beyond even that formidable pale. With Clark, it’s about observation and learning. It’s the little things, and the things unsaid in between the lines. Which means ultimately that it’s about essence and the materiality of the human spirit, the lessons passed out by the disparate lives we bang into and bounce off of and at times orbit during our time on this earth. Said differently, it’s about all the truth and wonder and resolve required for living well, yet obscured and denied by pop culture.
It’s been near four years since Clark last released an album, and during that span he experienced the exuberant high that must come when fellow artists collaborate and release a tribute album. This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark was a monumental effort. But he also experienced one of the lowest of lows, losing wife Susanna in 2012. A powerful songwriter and artist in her own right, she was in many ways Guy’s muse and certainly his most treasured friend. To carry on and continue to release legitimate art in the wake of such loss is no easy task, as Johnny showed us when he lost June. Yet as with Cash before, Clark proves that it can indeed be done with My Favorite Picture of You.
We’re back to the topic of substance, see, and the materiality of lives well lived as opposed to lives floated through on a cloud of the mundane and easily accessible.
From the very opening strains of this album, as “Cornmeal Waltz” intros via an intoxicatingly beautiful acoustic guitar, it’s clear there’s something here. Nearly forty seconds in before Clark’s vocals begin. Yet a stage has been set, a resplendently pastoral and welcoming stage. One can smell a campfire, see the fireflies, feel the soft wind rustling through the live oaks. It’s intoxicating. The lyrics deliver fully on the promise, to boot.
Way out on Ranch Road 17
There’s a dancehall in the live oak trees
Yellow lights strung up all around
So all the little kids can see
Pickups are parked from here to the road
The beer is so cold it might freeze
The stars are all out
The band is in tune
And it smells like a barbeque breeze
As Guy’s weathered voice ambles easily through the rest of the evening, a scene plays out reminiscent of Luckenbach and similar old dancehalls and really any country gathering where the hard working folks who do it right when they twist it off come together to let out some steam. The kids are welcome, the atmosphere’s light, and an undercurrent of thankfulness and hard earned satisfaction permeates every conversation. Lovers with forty-odd years together in their wake steal kisses like they’re still teenagers, then hand in hand take the cornmeal-covered floor and waltz the evening away. It’s a vision intoxicating in its vividness, and familiar to anyone who’s had the pleasure of attending such a soiree. It’ll seem real enough though to any who’ve not had the chance. And therein lies a foundational component of Clark’s artistic power. Within the simplest of frameworks, using the sparest of arrangements, with equal care used on which words to include and which lines to leave out, he paints us a masterpiece. A snapshot of a better world, a moment in time when the cares are put away and the wolves have been held off for another week. He reminds us that it’s important to take the breaks that we earn, and that’s a lesson far too often forgotten in our increasingly corporate world.
The antithesis of pop culture, where the momentary escapes are treated as if they’re eternal.
Inestimable beauty abounds throughout this record, but there’s more to it, just as there’s more to life than its transcendent moments of peace. Sometimes we hurt ourselves, perhaps because we know we’re the ones who can do it best and we trick ourselves into thinking that self-destruction somehow offers a defense against those who would tear us apart.
Hellbent on a heartache
Should know better but I guess I don’t
I keep on learning the hard way
Every time I turn around
I make the same mistake
‘Cause I’m hellbent on a heartache
Don’t get me wrong
I believe in love
But sometimes that’s just not enough
I’m hellbent on a heartache
Yeah. You’ve been there. Me, too. We’ve got friends, you and I, who are putting themselves through that endless cycle of passion and pain, stuck on repeat and in a fashion just addicted to the pain as a barometer to remind them that they’re still alive.
But they’re no longer living, not as they could, not as they should. The hard part is that they know it and choose not to change.
There are others, however, who in their thirst for living well empower those with ill intent to derail lives and dreams. “El Coyote” (co-written with Noel McKay) tells this story in resonant fashion, reminding us vividly that the national discussion on immigration has a human side which cannot be ignored. But in typical Guy Clark fashion, the commentary is left out. Unlike a Steve Earle, who prefers a mailed fist as delivery mechanism for his beliefs, Clark simply paints a snapshot with endless implications yet absent any rancor or judgment. It’s incumbent on the listener to determine what comes next. Art as a manner of forcing life to account for reality, yet absent the pontification so rampant in this social media cyber connected world.
My Favorite Picture of You is a masterwork, the product of an old master at the height of his powers. Clark’s aged and at times brittle voice now carries an authenticity and a power undeniable in its impact. Wielded effectively and agilely, as is the case throughout this record, it’s an instrument of astonishing yet understated might.
The masses can have their pop culture, the immediacy of their material desires, and the mindless panorama the pretty shiny moving pictures they focus on provides. The anesthesia of escapism may work for them.
I’ll take the substance and the learned observations of a peerless songwriter any time. Guy Clark delivers exactly that here, and the barebones framework of his art once again morphs into a fantastic
3-D worldview reminding us that there’s so much to see and so much to learn if only we’ll take the time to pause, to observe and ponder, to apply what we’ve learned and then forge on ahead until the next opportunity to learn presents itself. In that sense, Clark’s work carries a gravitas anathema to the throwaway what’s-hot-now world we’re forced to inhabit.
Thankfully, he reminds us that while we’ve no choice about being here, we’ve every opportunity to abstain from the senseless and channel ourselves instead into the things which are timeless and worth the journey.
~ Dave Pilot
Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.
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