When Steve Earle’s sometimes-mentor and friend for decades, Guy Clark, left this world in 2016, Earle commemorated the passing with one of his finest elegies, “Goodbye Michelangelo,” on his So You Wanna Be an Outlaw record. Now, Earle has followed that sweet and succinct tribute with something more expansive: a full album tackling the Guy Clark songbook, Guy (New West Records). This new album serves as a bookend to Earle’s other full-length tribute to a friend and mentor, 2009’s Townes, in honor of Townes Van Zandt. But Guy is neither sequel nor footnote; the record reminds the audience that these songs live and breathe, and so does Steve Earle.
Earle uses the supple muscle of his current band of Dukes to power songs unbeholden to time and age, but firmly of the moment, in both his life and the world. This becomes most apparent on tunes with the largest deviation in arrangement. “Out in the Parking Lot” turns a wistful scene of post-show melancholy into a rave-up, teenage eyes drinking in all the life happening outside and after “the show.” Earle sings this later deep cut with a grin and snarl worthy of his classic ‘80s work, with gritty guitar riffs and Brad Pemberton’s dancing drums trading with Ricky Ray Jackson’s steel.
The takes on the classics feel like that favorite leather jacket of many years. Earle and the band sink in and appreciate they’re still here. “She Ain’t Going Nowhere” has one of Earle’s most beautiful ballad vocals, aided by stunning harmonies from Eleanor Whitmore (who shines throughout) and interlocking textures from Jackson’s steel and Whitmore’s fiddle, letting new light shine through cut-glass lines like, “The wind had a way with her hair, and the blues had a way with her smile. And she had a way of her own, like a prisoner has a way with a file.”
Earle and band turn “Dublin Blues,” an insular portrait of a hungover morning missing a lover who may not come back, into a defiant stomp. Earle’s vocal tears into this taking-stock like a prize fighter, shuffling back and bounding up to deliver knockout blows on key lines like “Forgive me all my anger, forgive me all my faults. There’s no need to forgive me for thinking what I’ve thought.” A hypnotic bass line from Kelley Looney plays thickening shadows behind Jackson’s pedal steel as it slips from dawn’s light to neon and back again, leading band through the joyous explosion on the final verse. Earle sings, “I have seen the David, I’ve seen the Mona Lisa too, and I have heard Doc Watson play ‘Columbus Stockade Blues,’” like someone who knows just how lucky he is.
Guy Clark treasured other people: a look at the credits list on any of his records or his countless co-writes over 30 years, attest to that. The bookend to that “Dublin Blues” is Earle rallying many of these friends on, of course, “Old Friends.” Earle uses the power of his special guests here to highlight the intimacy and fragility of the song, as stars as big as Emmylou Harris, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Rodney Crowell (plus Terry and Jo Harvey Allen) take verses like putting goodbyes in a bottle and sending them to sea.
Earle also uses many of Clark’s longtime collaborators on “Old Friends.” Two of Clark’s favorite co-writers in his later decades, the man Clark introduced on stage as “Verlon God Damn Thompson” and Gary Nicholson lend beautiful, subtle guitar and vocals. Shawn Camp, another go-to writer and player in Clark’s orbit, plays 3am-smoky mandolin and sings (Camp also enlivens “Sis Draper” and “New Cut Road”). Jim McGuire stitches the track together with hints of dobro, and Mickey Raphael’s harmonica is a precision scalpel right to the heart.
Steve Earle’s music has always thrived on synthesis; his limitless appetites absorb everything that piques his curiosity and transmute them to the gold only he can mine. He turns what could have just been a deserved pause and salute to songs he’s loved for many years with his touring band into something that stands tall in an almost unparalleled catalog.