This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark
Icehouse Music 

Tribute albums usually fall into one of two categories. The more dubious variety usually come with considerable hoopla, bankrolled by major labels and stuffed with big-name acts hot off the charts but with tenuous-at-best ties to the artist being honored. A track or two might occasionally stick out as genuinely inspired, but most of these projects invariably feel like Frankenstein cash-grabs, as soulless and scatter-shot as the soundtrack to a summer blockbuster.

And then, there’s the other kind — the ones that work. You can usually spot ’em by the list of participants alone, when not a single name sticks out like a sore thumb and makes you go, “Huh?” They read like a who’s who not of who’s hot, but of who the honoree might have handpicked himself, ranging from close friends and peers to kindred-spirit chips off the old block. That still doesn’t always guarantee a great album, but it does herald a true tribute with heart and intentions in the right place. This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark, lovingly assembled by co-producers Tamara Saviano and Shawn Camp, falls squarely into the second category, and it’s the best of its kind since 2001’s Poet tribute to Townes Van Zandt (to which Clark himself contributed a sterling cover of “To Live’s to Fly.”)

Van Zandt isn’t around to repay the favor, but his son John Townes Van Zandt II is, contributing a solo acoustic reading of Clark’s “Let Him Roll” in a hauntingly familiar voice. The younger Van Zandt has performed and recorded before (including a track on his father’s tribute), but he’s never made music his profession; he’s included here because he just belongs on a record where bonds of kinship — by blood, spirit or shared experiences — are given precedence over lip service and star power.

That’s not to say there aren’t “stars” on This One’s for Him, which spreads 30 tracks (and 33 artists) across two hour-long discs. Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and of course Willie Nelson — among many other notables here — are all bona fide legends in their own rights. The post-Heartworn Highways generation is represented here, too, from Lyle Lovett to Clark’s longtime guitar sidekick Verlon Thompson and on down to Austin up-and-comers the Trishas. But icons and young guns alike all come together here as equals, each taking a page from the Clark songbook not to try to assert themselves and outdo each other but rather just to honor the handiwork “and make old Guy proud of us,” as Crowell quips before kicking the whole thing off with “That Old Time Feeling.”

Eight of the songs here come from Clark’s timeless 1975 debut, Old No. 1, but the rest of his catalog is also represented, right up to selections from 2009’s Somedays the Song Writes You and even one brand new song. Most of the tracks were recorded with one of two Camp-led studio bands (in Austin and Nashville), lending the entire album a stylistic cohesion that’s rare on projects featuring so many different voices. The arrangements for the most part stay true to the spirit of the originals, with every melody and sometimes — most notably on Vince Gill’s “The Randall Knife” — even some of Clark’s signature vocal inflections kept intact. Of course a case could be made — and every artist on here would probably back it up — that nobody sings Clark songs better than Clark; still, there’s something about hearing a different voice (or voices) on every track here that makes each song stand out in a way they might not on a standard Clark “best of” anthology. No matter how familiar you might be with Old No. 1, hearing a song like “Instant Coffee Blues” sung by a woman (Suzy Bogguss) reveals a whole new level of palpable loneliness. Also on disc one, Lovett lifts “Anyhow I Love You” high up on a majestic pedestal, Nelson puts his distinctive Trigger-and-Mickey Raphael stamp on “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” Ray Wylie Hubbard’s wearied but personable rasp seasons “Home Grown Tomatoes” like cracked pepper, and James McMurtry’s steely voice lends extra chill and conviction to the poet’s lament of “Cold Dog Soup.” Meanwhile, “Magdalene,” “All She Wants Is You,” “Worry B. Gone” and “Baby Took a Limo to Memphis” — all lesser-known Clark songs of relatively recent vintage overshadowed by stronger songs on their respective original albums — are given vibrant new life here by Kevin Welch, Shawn Colvin, Rosie Flores and Hayes Carll.

The lineup on disc two is just as strong, with Americana stalwarts Earle, Joe Ely, and Radney Foster tackling Clark standards “The Last Gunfighter Ballad,” “Dublin Blues” and “L.A. Freeway” with faithful reverence. But here again, it only takes a pinch of fresh perspective to really make some of these songs jump out and sound brand new. Prine and Harris transform “Magnolia Wind” into a heart-achingly beautiful duet, and Terri Hendrix’s wistful harmonica lights up “The Dark” while still respecting its mystery, her expressive vocal escalating from hushed awe to restless, childlike wonderment as Camp matches her note for exhilarating note on mandolin. Elsewhere, Patty Griffin’s gorgeous, soaring “The Cape” and Kristofferson’s croaky and weathered “Hemingway’s Whiskey” are compellingly paired like beauty and the beast, while Robert Earl Keen nails the boyish, giddy rush of “Texas 1947” and Jack Ingram reminds just how good he really can be given “Stuff That Works.”

Jerry Jeff Walker, who was covering Clark long before anyone else here had probably even heard of him, provides the perfect endnote. Coming after the stately reflection of Terry Allen’s “Old Friends” and the Trishas’ exquisitely harmonized “She Ain’t Going Nowhere,” his breezy, laid-back delivery of the previously unrecorded “My Favorite Picture of You” feels more like a casual visit with a tried and true compadre than the unveiling of a new masterpiece. But on this kind of tribute, that’s exactly as things should be. — RICHARD SKANSE