Steve Earle: GUY

Steve Earle & The Dukes
(New West)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Steve Earle continues to repay the songwriters who meant the most to him by bringing their music to fresh ears. A few years ago, he did a tribute album in honor of Townes Van Zandt. This time around it’s Guy Clark, who passed away in 2016, who gets the spotlight courtesy of Earle and his longtime backing band, the Dukes. It’s no surprise to find that Guy is accomplished, spirited, and utterly complimentary to Clark’s unique songwriting gifts.

It is also a great credit to Earle that he made the decision to do the material justice by not doing anything too fancy to it. Other than perhaps a stray psychedelic guitar solo on “Out In The Parking Lot,” the arrangements play it fairly close to the vest. And that’s just fine, because anything on the experimental side would only have steered the attention away from Clark’s telling details and evocative similes, which would have been a travesty. 

What this album does so well is emphasize the vast breadth of material Clark produced. There are foot-stomping character sketches (“Sis Draper”), dusty Western poetry (“The Last Gunfighter Ballad”), and aching heartbreak (“She Ain’t Going Nowhere.”) Earle is now at the point in his career to give each of these songs the weighty interpretations they deserve. And his newcomer-mentor relationship with Clark adds poignancy to his take on “Desperados Waiting On A Train.”

Earle also does a special job on “The Randall Knife,” grunting and groaning his way through one of the ultimate father-son songs in the history of music. And when he brings out ringers like Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell on the album-closing “Old Friends,” you’ll likely be wishing that you had Clark around to give a pitch-perfect description of the bittersweet feeling inside. What Steve Earle and the Dukes make clear with Guy is that these songs are old friends as well, somehow truer and purer today than when they were written by one of the masters.