april 2009

The Long and Winding Road

Mickey Clark Makes An Eloquent Case For Wanderlust On 'Winding Highways'

By David McGee

Photos by Audrey Harrod

Mickey Clark: 'I fall into those loving-and-leaving songs; I don't know why that it is, but it seems like that's the love bag that I'm in.'

A recognized and respected name in the folk world, dating back to his early scuffling days in New York's Greenwich Village scene in the mid-'60s, it wasn't until the fall of 2008 that Mickey Clark had put together a collection of his songs, new and old, plus a few choice covers that he's made his own, gone into a studio with a dedicated focus and a skilled producer, and laid them down for an album proper. Let it be said that when his moment arrived, Clark seized it with a vengeance. The resulting album, Winding Highways, released in February on the ear-X-tacy label, based in his home base of Louisville, KY, is one of the most engaging long players of the year, truly a record that came out of nowhere to make its mark by way of graceful, soothing rhythms and literate, wise storytelling emanating from a sprawling zone bounded by the '60s folk revival and today's alternative country and folk scenes. This from an artist who in his time has befriended the likes of John Hartford, Steve Goodman, John Prine, Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker and been praised by no less than Bob Dylan.

In fact, Winding Highways is Clark's coming-out party. For several years he's been inactive on the circuit, having left behind the wandering minstrel's life for the presumed stability of the workaday world and more time to spend with his wife (the couple is celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary this year) and young son, Brennan. He took a job in telecommunications with a company that became WorldComm, and you know the rest of the story: he lost his job in 2003, but, "as they say, I found my life again," he said by phone from Louisville. "I was playing music through those years, just not very often."

Reactivating his music life, he got to reflecting on how other artists had recorded his songs—the Oak Ridge Boys cut two songs, one a Christmas number, the other, "She's Gone to L.A. Again," being included on the group's double-platinum Fancy Free album; and Jerry Lee Lewis is among the many other artists who have recorded Clark-penned tunes—but that his only album was a piecemeal effort, titled Late Arrival (which included the single, "When I'm Over You," which peaked at #54 on the Billboard country singles chart). "So I said I was going to find the perfect producer, wherever he is in this country, to produce this, somebody who's got the folk roots but leaning toward country, or somewhere in between."

Through his friend Barry Drake, he connected with the veteran producer and artist Jim Rooney, whose production credits include work with Clark's friend John Prine, an old acquaintance Clark met when both (along with Steve Goodman) were young upstarts playing at Chicago's Earl of Old Town in the late '60s, as well as evocative singer-songwriter types such as Iris DeMent and Nanci Griffith. Clark tracked down Rooney in Galway, Ireland, where the producer lives part of the year, and convinced him to give a listen to his material. Then both Jerry Jeff Walker and Sam Bush, another couple of Clark's artist buddies from back in the day, bent Rooney's ear with praise for Clark's songs, and Rooney signed on. The upshot?

"The same week Jim agreed to take on the project I finished the song 'In the Blink Of an Eye' and also 'Don't Piss On My Boots,'" Clark says, adding with a laugh: "That was an exciting week."

Despite his domestic bliss, Clark's song betray his wandering troubadour years, giving the album a pronounced theme—whether it's in upbeat country shuffles such as the beautiful "Bound To Lovin' You" or in somber, reflective musings such as "Night Rider' Lament" in which a cowboy contemplates his chosen path while reading letters from friends and family (including "the perfect professional's wife"), who can't understand his purpose in enduring his lifestyle's privations, and by implication, inflicting them on others—of leaving, coming back, being compelled to leave, or being compelled to stay right where they are, even when common sense dictates a prodigal return to someone who loves and needs you. To this Clark offers a wry, and very knowing, chuckle. "I've written a lot of songs that have that loving-and-leaving syndrome," he admits. "My wife and I, come March 29, we'll be married 40 years. I don't know, I fall into those loving-and-leaving songs; I don't know why that it is, but it seems like that's the love bag that I'm in."

'Now I sort of feel like I've painted my canvas, so whatever happens from here is gravy.'

And he's been in it for a while. A basketball star in high school, the Louisville native attended St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer, Indiana, where he majored in math and played varsity ball—"I was a forward, very slow, non-jumping white guy"—in the Indiana Collegiate Conference, which included then-national powers DePaul, Butler and Valparaiso. But music was always there, pulling on him, from the time he heard Hank Williams' records in his childhood years. After graduation, he decided to test the waters as a professional musician, and he headed east, to New York City, arriving in 1964. "I figured if I was going to do music and really excel, I needed to go where the best were, so I went to New York. I was impressed with all the great songwriters, and was inspired by those people. It definitely seemed like something special going on; it was an amazing time."

In '65 he was part of a folk trio, the New Village Singers, that plugged into folk-rock when that became the rage and was managed by Barbra Streisand's manager, Marty Erlichman. Two singles recorded for the Kapp label failed to ignite, then one of the trio was drafted in the service, and to replace him one of Erlichman's assistants wanted to bring in "this freshman at Harvard," Clark recalls. "Turns out that was Gram Parsons. Probably just as well it didn't work out; I'd probably be dead in the desert somewhere."

Still, in the brief lifespan of the New Village Singers, Clark crossed paths with artists who made more than a local impact and who most certainly influenced his own sense of the song. He recalls a trip the group made to Toronto in 1965 as being especially memorable: "We were the first group to play the Riverboat in Toronto, which got to be a pretty famous club where Gordon Lightfoot played often. That trip we met both Ian Tyson and Lightfoot. At that time nobody had heard of Lightfoot. 'Four Strong Winds' had been a hit for Ian & Sylvia, and I loved his writing. Every song didn't have the same melody and he was a great craftsman with the lyrics. I think I worked up most of the songs on Lightfoot's first album before anybody down here had ever heard of Gordon Lightfoot. So I was hearing those guys before I even started writing; I didn't start writing until '68. I'm not what you'd call a prolific writer—they come every so often."

Then the female member of the New Village Singers decided to drop out of the business altogether, and Clark, suddenly at large, enrolled in Indiana University to work towards a master's degree in quantitative business analysis, a two-year program. After one year, music was exerting its inexorable pull again.

"It was summer in New York and I decided to go there and play some gigs in the Village, make a little bit of money and play some music. So I went up that summer, and along about August it came time for me to make a decision. I decided I was not going to go back and do my second year of the masters at IU, and stayed on in New York and continued playing music. Stayed there till the end of '70. The folk-rock movement had died; everybody was moving on to acid rock, so I said, 'Well that's certainly not me.' I remember hearing 'Gentle On My Mind' playing on the radio, and thought, If they're writing songs like that in Nashville, I need to see about going there."

In Music City, he was first signed to a publishing deal with the Glaser Brothers' firm, which had published Hartford's "Gentle On My Mind"—"it was a stupid deal I signed, for no money, a five-year exclusive thing, but it got me out of New York"—then moved to Combine Music, where he landed those Oak Ridge Boys cuts and released some singles. Eventually the road led back homeward, to Louisville. In 1982 some rabid University of Louisville basketball fans had rewritten "The Battle of New Orleans" to tell the story of the Cardinals roundballers' journey to the Final Four championship game in New Orleans. The school's athletic director asked Clark to sing the song at a pep rally in the Crescent City, in front of 20,000 fans; it went over so well that Clark recorded and released the song locally, and "all the stations were playing it—black stations, white stations, country stations—sold a few records." Thus began a tradition that continued through the 1997 season, of Clark doing a U of L pep song every year when the team went to the NCAA tournament. The perks were nice, too: "They would take my wife and I on the trip, I'd sing at the pep rally, they'd give us tickets to the game, put us up—it was like dying and going to Heaven. I love music and I love basketball."

Once a troubadour always a troubadour, it seems, because Clark may have shared another Clark's mild-mannered demeanor by day when he was in the corporate world all those years, but the musician in him was always lurking about, waiting for the moment to use his super powers for good. So when he jumped into the project that became Winding Highways, he looked at his catalogue and realized he could offer an accounting of, essentially, his entire career, in songs new and old. The song "Wendigo," an enigmatic ballad centered on the Native American legend of a gigantic spirit, more than fifteen feet tall, that had once been human but had been transformed by magic into a feared creature of the night, was penned by Dwain Story, and dates back to 1964, when Clark heard Story perform it in New York. The plaintive country lament "Wyoming Child" was written in '74; "Shanty Boat Bill," the John Hartford-like story-song inspired by a real-life character Clark met, dates from a'79. "Sarah," a sweet, lilting country plea for reconciliation, was born in '76 and comes complete with Clark's wry backstory: "Back then Peter Yarrow was producing a group called Jericho Harp, and 'Sarah' that was their first single. He told me, 'Mickey, this song's gonna break open your career, just like John Denver's 'Leaving On a Jet Plane.' Well, it never got out of the airport."

The very existence of Winding Highways as a summation of the circuitous path Mickey Clark has traveled is in and of itself a personal triumph. The sense of accomplishment, and of an accounting of his time, is complete.

Perhaps the most telling indication of the continuing pull of his former (and present) life comes in the songs centered on the rodeo life and set in the wide-open spaces out west. The twangy "Rodeo Fool" probes the existential angst of a cowboy 15 years on the hustings, knowing it's time to go home to his ever patient bride, but simply unable to ride off into the sunset—"say a prayer for me darlin'/this ol' cowboy loves you," Clark sings in a resigned, weary tone that says everything about his decision to push on. The abovementioned "Night Rider's Lament" finds the cowboy contemplating his solitary existence in light of his friends' puzzlement over his reasons for staying with it. "Wyoming Child," with a heartbreaking fiddle line right out of George Strait's "Amarillo By Morning" and a mise-en-scene ranging from Santa Fe to the north country, turns the tables on Clark's male narrator, who somberly recounts a restless gal's hold on his memory and feelings, as he's recalling how she left him behind to follow her own muse. And it's entirely fitting that the album should end with a true gem among cowboy tunes, U. Utah Phillips's "The Goodnight-Loving Trail," so named after the 2,000-mile cattle drive from Texas to Wyoming in 1866 that inspired Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, and which references the physical hardships and soul searing loneliness of the odyssey, with additional atmosphere courtesy Jerry Jeff Walker's shimmering harp solo and knowing vocal. To hear Clark tell it, this is all in the blood.

"I've always enjoyed playing out west. I almost moved to Jackson Hole, in fact," he says. "I just love the west and the cowboy themes. Even though I grew up in Kentucky I've always been enthralled with cowboy songs. The guy that inspired 'Rodeo Fool' was a neat guy; he won the Silver Buckle one summer when I was out there and he really struck a nerve, and that song came out of that period of having met him. And Utah Phillips' 'Goodnight-Loving Trail,' I had done the Smithsonian Folk Festival with him back in the '70s. Always loved that song."

The songs always loved him, too. The old ones have aged gracefully, losing none of their relevance and actually being timelier than ever, given their cast of rootless, searching characters. And the new ones have both heart ("Bound To Lovin' You") and raucous good humor going for them (such as, "Don't Piss On My Boots," which features Clark and his old compadres Kinky Friedman, Jerry Jeff and John Prine all pitching in on a raggedy chorus, demanding a little truth be told all around in this world). He hopes to follow it up with more live shows, beyond his regular Louisville haunts. But the very existence of Winding Highways as a summation of the circuitous path Clark's traveled is in and of itself a personal triumph. The job's not done yet, but the sense of accomplishment, and of an accounting of his time, is complete.

"I'm really excited to have the record out there," Clark states. "I just wanted to try to get these songs down; I didn't know what would happen. But now I sort of feel like I've painted my canvas, so whatever happens from here is gravy."

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
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