There's a scene in Heartworn Highways, the late Jim Szalapski's 1975 documentary on singer/songwriters, that takes place around Guy Clark's kitchen table on Christmas Eve. It's a "guitar pull" -- a term used to describe an informal get-together of songwriters to test new material on each other, play each others' songs and party. Among the pickers, there's Clark and his wife Susanna, Steve Young, Rodney Crowell, and a barely legal Steve Earle. It's obvious from the clip that these folks are having fun, and that the bond forged by making music together is a strong one.
The same can be said for the modern-day mix of legends including Clark, Joe Ely, Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt, who got together for a short tour back in 1989 and are still at it 18 years later. The original format was an on-stage guitar pull, and the four artists -- who could each fill an auditorium on his own -- enjoyed it so much, they continue to do it every year or so. That's a strong bond. According to Joe Ely, "We have been doing these shows for a while now. They used to be just for two or three gigs, but lately we have been doing entire tours. This one is 35 dates."
While Lovett is considered the informal master of ceremonies, Guy Clark is clearly the elder statesman of the group. Considered by many to be the quintessential singer/songwriter, Clark is currently supporting his newest release, Workbench Songs, which has been receiving great critical acclaim and is nominated for a 2006 Grammy as the Best Contemporary Folk/Americana album. He is also a recent recipient of the Americana Music Association's Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting, and a member of the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame. His status among his peers is legend.
The shows are multifunctional for these artists. It gives them a chance to hang out with old friends, play their favorite tunes in an informal setting and to try out new music in front of both their peers and an audience. "I tend to look at my new songs differently after these tours, and usually go right into the studio to record while the new ideas are fresh," Ely says. "Sitting and playing songs for someone in a room gives you so much more feedback than just listening to it through speakers."
Their no-holds-barred approach makes for some genuinely spontaneous collaborations. "The one unspoken rule we have is 'anything goes,'" Ely says. "Often we get on themes, and we will all do a food song or a dog song, but sometimes following a Guy Clark song like 'Randall Knife' is impossible. So I just flip it and do something completely different."
Not only do the artists work on their own new material, but sometimes a song by another artist can trigger them to do something different, Ely says. "We sometimes do a segment where we sing 'songs we wish we had written.'" And one time Lyle Lovett did a song called 'Step Inside This House,' which was the first song Guy Clark had ever written. It inspired me to go back and dig through my oldest tunes; and in February I'm releasing an all-acoustic CD of songs I wrote in the late '60s and early '70s, called Silver City."
February is a big month for Ely. He turns 60 on Feb. 9, and plans a big celebration at their show in Denver. "I'm paying my bail in advance and we are gonna have a big time," he jokes. On Feb. 6, Ely will also celebrate the release of his newest album on his own Rack 'Em Records label, titled Happy Songs From Rattlesnake Gulch. And on that date, the University of Texas Press is releasing Ely's first book, Bonfire of Roadmaps, which is a collection of his journals written in the style of an epic poem over his last 30 years on the road.
Lovett, whose body of work stretches far beyond the expected range of most singer/songwriters, has been keeping himself busy, touring with his jazzy Large Band. Without a new record to promote, his participation in the traveling guitar pull is clearly an exercise in enjoyment for him. Known for his eccentricities, Lovett imposed the only order and structure that has any bearing on this group. "Lyle insisted that we sit in alphabetical order," Ely says. "So we do that, and have ever since the first show. We recently noticed that not only are we alphabetical in one direction, but we are in chronological order in the opposite direction."
Born in Indiana, John Hiatt's status as the only non-Texan in the group doesn't diminish his contributions in any manner. His excellent wordplay and quirky themes fit right in with the other players. And his up-tempo material provides a complementary contrast to the darker, slower tunes. Along with Lovett, Hiatt has utilized the guitar pull concept to raise funds for his favorite charities and all the participants are happy to help each other out.
Ely sees these performances as an opportunity for the fans to hear songs at their most rudimentary level. "These shows are so intimate, and you don't have to fight through a band to hear the songs. It can be very lowdown and dirty and you have nothing to hide behind," he says. "Anyway, there is only one love song in the world and we are just trying to say the same thing in as many different ways as possible."
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