march 2009

Mickey Clark: Wandering minstrel putting his insider's savvy to good use (Photo by Nick Mills)

A Palliative For Troubled Times

By David McGee

Mickey Clark
ear-X-tacy Records

Mickey Clark knows a thing or two about the wandering minstrel's life, and he's put his insider's savvy to good use on the appropriately titled Winding Highways, an album of graceful, soothing rhythms and literate, wise storytelling that, apart from, say, the contemporary country thrust of the lilting ballad "Sarah," comes from a sprawling zone bounded by the '60s folk revival and today's alternative country and folk scenes. That is to say, this album would fit right in at pretty much any moment in the past 40-plus years of our country's history, but happens to sound right on time for the moment at hand. And what a moment, surely one Clark did not envision when he was assembling his collection of finely detailed original songs concerning love and wanderlust, and a clutch of compatible covers: hundreds of thousands of Americans out of work, cut loose from their moorings, feeling adrift, struggling to find themselves anew, perhaps even realizing, at long last, the insignificance of the material world when it's no longer so easily accessible, and how good it all was once, world without end, amen. Take a long walk, or a long drive, and absorb Winding Highways; see if it doesn't come across as a palliative for troubled times. When you finish listening, you'll find the world hasn't changed, but you might feel better about your odds of making it to the other side.

Although now a dedicated family man, Louisville native Clark lived the wandering troubadour's life long enough to have befriended John Hartford, Steve Goodman, Jerry Jeff Walker, Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson, Kinky Friedman and John Prine, among many others over the years, and to have been praised in print back in the early '70s by Bob Dylan. If anything is obvious about the aforementioned artists, it is their shared storytelling bent, which might be the reason Clark found common ground with them. He certainly does all these truth tellers proud on his album, and Prine, Kinky and Jerry Jeff put an amen to it by joining Mickey on a couple of songs. As personal as his own songs are, though, you can hear something like an homage to his compadres surfacing in Clark's work. Feel the warmth of steamboat captain John Hartford's crooked, knowing smile when Clark lopes through the backcountry milieu of "Shanty Boat Bill," a character study probing the mysteries of "a muddy water river man" whose bloodshot eyes "ain't telling the secret he keeps," told against a backdrop of howling harp lines and a briskly plucked banjo. That could be Goodman fighting his gypsy urges as he struggles with domesticity in the steel-drenched country shuffle, "Bound To Lovin' You," in which Clark offers, "I traded your lovin' for my freedom/but you knew I'd come back home," a quintessential Goodman-style lyrical twist that Clark sings in a warm, soothing, low-register tenor much like the man himself might, were he still with us. Songwriter Dwain Story's "Wendigo," with its haunting, Spanish flavor, is a Dylanesque, and Willie-ish, 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, constantly seeking to satiate its rabid hunger ("I fly where the forest meets the sky/I race the northern wind to where I go/My feet are on fire as I run and I cry/My name is Wendigo"). And how perfect is it that Prine, Kinky and Jerry Jeff are all on board to dole out some bottom line wisdom on Clark's fiddle-fired, honky-tonkin' frolic, "Don't Piss On My Boots," about which nothing more need be said after referencing the title, although one must note how Prine delivers the line, "I could tell the politician was lyin'/'cause his lips, they were a-movin'," with one of his classic sardonic attitudes, and how these old dogs' raggedy blend of voices on the chorus is a sheer delight—there may have been an attempt at harmony, but the fellows gave up on it after a couple of breaths and instead stagger through it with Rat Pack bonhomie.

But the overarching theme of Winding Highways centers on wanderlust and homecoming, the lure of the former, the ache of the latter, especially when it involves returning to someone you love and who loves you in return. It's unsurprising that the old west and western settings—wide open spaces and the call of the wild—should figure prominently in these musings. Two songs about rodeoing address the metaphysical pull of nature, positing the longing for same as an incomparably fulfilling and deeply spiritual one-on-one encounter resistant to all rational arguments for domesticity. The twangy "Rodeo Fool," probing 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 (think The Wrestler in chaps). Even better, and doubly poignant, is "Night Rider's Lament." Set to a laconic arrangement rich in dobro, mandolin, guitar, fiddle and harmonica, 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. "Why does he ride for his money/and why does he rope for short pay/he ain't gettin' nowhere/and he's losin' his share/Well, he must have gone crazy out there," goes the beautifully harmonized rhetorical chorus, until, at the end, he explains it all in a strong, rising voice: "But then they've never seen the Northern Lights/they never seen a hawk on the wing/they never seen the spring at the great divi-ide/they've never heard old Camp Cookie sing." When he breaks into a rich yodel, it sounds like a victory cry. It gets better when the tables are turned: the sturdy, plaintive country lament of "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, finds Clark's male narrator somberly recounting a restless gal's hold on his memory and feelings, as he recalls how, in one of many beautifully rendered metaphors he fashions, "one Cheyenne day she slipped away/like a rainbow 'cross the pass."

Thus the heart of Winding Highways. Which is not to discount the elegance of the heart tugging bluegrass album opener, "Red Velvet Cake," a piercing reminiscence of childhood, home and mama, the sights, sounds and smells rendered vividly in Clark's downhome lyrical poetry, aided and abetted by the creamy harmonies of Robin and Linda Williams, with Sam Bush adding propulsive mandolin solos; or the majestic heartbreak and homesickness articulated in "Where The Green River Flows"—another instance of a man realizing that "freedom" means having someone who loves you waiting at home after you've done your best to throw it all away—sung to a thumping bluegrass beat with the Williamses once again raising their voices in angelic sweetness. 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 ("it's easy to look like an old torn out page/all faded and cracked, with the colors of age"). Jerry Jeff Walker blows a shimmering, evocative harp and steps out with an atmospheric vocal turn as well, while the Williamses enhance the cinematic atmosphere with their haunting harmonies, but in the end it's Clark's deep immersion in the song that carries the day emotionally, putting the capper on an amazing journey that began with a yearning for home and ends away out there, at the edge of nowhere, with big sky and open desert looming, a song rising, and a woman back home ever lonelier as the days grind on. Get in there, and blow out the light. You'll make it to the other side.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024