GUY CLARK at Hugh's Room (2261 Dundas West), Sunday (September 30). $20 advance, $22.50 at the door. 416-351-1323, 416-531-6604. Rating: NNNNN
leading the field of texan sing-er/songwriters, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt were always alone, way ahead of the pack. But when Van Zandt's heart finally gave out on New Year's Day 97, Clark lost his lifelong sidekick and his pacesetter. There were other writers coming up -- Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen and Steve Earle -- who might inspire a periodic shoulder check, but no one really gave Clark a run for his money like Van Zandt.
"He was my best friend for 35 years, and I was his," explains Clark from his Nashville home. "We were really more like brothers than anything. Our songs were a regular topic of conversation, and I'd pick on his and he'd pick on mine, heh, heh, but it was always a good-natured thing.
"But since he died, I no longer have anyone to play my songs for. He was the only other songwriter whose comments really mattered to me."
You get a sense of that friendly rivalry on the forthcoming live disc Together At The Blue Bird Café (American Originals), which captures Clark, Van Zandt and Earle in a comfortable song-swapping session before contemporaries at the intimate Music City songwriters' nightspot.
The evening starts off cordially enough as Clark opens with his lighthearted Ruby Took A Limo To Memphis, but when Earle ups the ante with the aching Valentine's Day and Van Zandt raises the stakes with the loving assurance of Ain't Leavin' Your Love, Clark has no alternative but to play his trump card, the throat-lumping reverie Randall Knife.
Now that Van Zandt's no longer around to present unspoken challenges and raise the bar, it remains to be seen whether the quality of compositions by the writers he inspired will suffer.
"I continue to write -- hopefully as well as ever, but I don't know," concedes Clark, pausing to consider his own recent progress. "Townes gave everybody a yardstick to measure their work. At least, most writers I know took his songs like that."
A number of those singer/songwriters who share Clark's admiration for Van Zandt's fearlessness, economy of language and profound commentary on the human condition pay homage on the fittingly titled Poet: A Tribute To Townes Van Zandt (Free Falls/Navarre).
It's just part of a sudden downpour of Van Zandt-related albums, including the excellent two-disc overview of his early work Anthology 1968-1979 (True North) and the horribly produced duets set Texas Rain (see sidebar). Give that mess a pass and go straight to the fabulous Poet tribute.
Along with spellbinding performances by Lucinda Williams (Nothin'), Willie Nelson (Marie), the reunited Flatlanders (Blue Wind Blew), Guy Clark brings a special poignancy to Van Zandt's farewell, To Live Is To Fly.
"That was one of my favourites of his, and I think it's the best song Townes ever wrote. But everything he put down was very literate. You can see how his songs work on paper just as well as when they're sung -- that's real poetry."