Even in the midst of the losses that made 2016 such a sadly memorable year, Guy Clark’s death last May seemed particularly painful. Yet like Leonard Cohen, his worn, dusky narratives always appeared as a kind of ill-fated prelude to an inevitable demise. His was a pervasive sadness that summoned both hope and heartache all at the same time. Indeed, it was a voice that spoke to the desperation and longing within all us. While it didn’t always emphasize optimism, it did make us feel like none of us are not alone, even in our bleakest moments.
As the man responsible for such classics as “Desperados Waiting for a Train” and “L.A. Freeway,” Clark saw his songs recorded by a veritable who’s who of Americana elite: Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney among them. He also mentored any number of up and coming artists, like Steve Earle and his pal Townes Van Zandt, singer/songwriters whose no-nonsense style makes their debt to Clark all too obvious.
Yet, there was always something singular about Clark’s delivery, an Everyman struggling to make sense of the lopsided world that surrounded him. In a career that spanned nearly two dozen albums recorded over the course of four decades, he wrote and sang songs that never failed to touch our emotions and pierce our souls. And while this sampler doesn’t begun cover the whole of his efforts, it does boast enough essential songs to qualify it as an adequate introduction.
Consequently, his most immortal classic, “Desperados” isn’t even included, and the equally iconic “L.A. Freeway” is rendered in a live performance. Still, that doesn’t diminish the quality of what is included. It’s nearly impossible to listen to the testimony of “The Randall Knife,” “My Favorite Picture of You” or his heartfelt take on Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You,” and not feel the onslaught of a proverbial lump in one’s throat.
The completist gets three bonus tracks in the form of unreleased demos at the end of the disc, and in these spare renditions, his cracked cadence finds a natural fit. A fitting requiem for a legacy so movingly and lovingly pursued.