Mickey Clark, |
"Country-folk" got its name in the latter 1960s. The phrase denoted folk-revival artists who knew country music -- in other words, didn't share the then-widespread folknik detestation of Nashville -- and incorporated its sounds into their recordings and performance styles. The genre, which has proved a durable one, survives in the music of John Prine, Ian Tyson, Jerry Jeff Walker, James Talley, Steve Young, Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, Robin & Linda Williams, and others. (You could make the case, by the way, that Johnny Cash was the first country-folk singer.) It's no surprise that Prine, Walker and the Williamses are presences on Mickey Clark's charming Winding Highways. It's also worth noting that one of the pioneering shapers of the style, Jim Rooney, who started out on the Boston folk scene of the early 1960s and has worked in Nashville for many years, sits in producer's chair.
The Kentucky-born Clark -- we are not related, by the way -- was a minor Greenwich Village folk singer in the 1960s, both as a solo act and as a member of commercially oriented groups. After folk's bright lights faded, he took to the road and toured the coffeehouse circuit, meeting others who were working the same, including Prine, the Williamses, Walker, Leo Kottke (to whom he taught Paul Siebel's "Louise," which Kottke subsequently recorded), the late Steve Goodman and more. A move to Nashville brought him a songwriting gig and modest hits covered by the Oak Ridge Boys and Jerry Lee Lewis.
In the late 1980s he left the music business to return to his native Louisville. On Highways, he picks up where he left off, bringing along a few of the songs he learned decades ago. These include Michael Burton's often-recorded "Night Rider's Lament," which Clark caps off perfectly with a Western yodel, as well as Siebel's "Louise," a beautifully depressing song more than capably interpreted, with a shatteringly stifled yodel at the end. Dwain Story's eerie "Wendigo" evokes a legendary monster known in the mythology of the Northern Indian tribes and sometimes theorized to be a folk antecedent of Sasquatch. The late Utah Phillips's "Goodnight-Loving Trail," the equal of any untraditional cowboy song not written by Ian Tyson or Bob Nolan, concludes the proceedings.
The other 10 cuts are Clark originals, composed alone or with collaborators. Except for "Tijuana Tequila," exemplifying a little-noted but ubiquitous subgenre of songs about what happens when a gringo parties too heartily in Mexico, these are not country songs. The melodies are neo-folk, and the lyrics tend toward ballad-like narratives. Clark is an able storyteller, capturing persons and situations in succinct, well-chosen words. Simple but effective, the tunes stick in one's head, and Clark sings them in a pleasantly conversational light baritone. Winding Highways feels as warm and comforting as an old, beloved flannel shirt.
11 April 2009
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