in performance: steve earle and the dukes

Steve Earle. Photo by Tom Bejgrowicz.

“Pork.” That was Guy Clark’s last word before his passing in 2016 to longtime friend and protégé Steve Earle. The latter relayed the confession during a performance Saturday evening at Renfro Valley Entertainment Center that called heavily upon Clark’s masterful songs and spirit.

The farewell, as it turned out, referenced the prime ingredient of a catered barbeque feast delivered to Clark’s quarters following cancer treatments. A Texas native who migrated to Nashville, as Earle did, the thought of pork being favored over beef as a base for barbeque was apparently abhorrent. No doubt, Clark would have looked far more favorably on the heavily reverent tributes Earle gave to his music and memory.

The basis for Earle’s current tour, of which Renfro Valley was the final stop, was a 2019 album called simply “Guy” that offered takes on a series of thematically and stylistically varied songs from throughout Clark’s career. Earle and his long running Dukes band performed 11 of the album’s 16 tunes during the two hour show, from the familiar (“L.A. Freeway,” “Desperados Waiting for a Train”) to the comparatively overlooked (“The Ballad of Laverne and Captain Flint”), as well as from the whimsical (“Rita Ballou,” which was decked out with proper Texas dance hall charm) to the very stark and dark (a chilling solo acoustic reading of “The Last Gunfighter Ballad”).

Perhaps the most absorbing was a 1981 Clark delight titled “New Cut Road,” which dealt with a family of revelers bound for Texas from their native Kentucky because they felt the later was too populated. The delivery was a mash-up of bluegrass, Cajun and even Celtic accents led by the husband and wife team of fiddler Eleanor Whitmore and guitarist Chris Masterson. The two also opened the evening with a fine set of original material as The Mastersons highlighted by a striking call for social empathy titled “In the Name of God.”

Earle eased the performance away from Clark’s songs to his own work several times, but not from his mentor’s spirit. He offered the antique, war-worn snapshot “Mercenary Song” because it was a Clark favorite and “Fort Worth Blues,” a stoic tribute to mutual friend Townes Van Zandt, because Clark recorded it in 1999. Earle termed the occasion of Clark cutting one of his songs instead of the other way around as “the greatest accomplishment in this work I do.”

A brisk run through music from several recent Earle albums – the unexpectedly jazzy “Baby’s Just as Mean as Me” (from 2015’s “Terraplane”), the eerily topical “That All You Got?” (a tune from 2013’s “The Low Highway” penned for a post-Katrina New Orleans but stoked with new urgency given the impending arrival of Hurricane Dorian) and the metal-esque country requiem “Fixin’ to Die” (from 2017’s “So You Wannabe an Outlaw”) – brought the show down the home stretch. But it was back to Clarksville for the finale of “Old Friends,” a solemn affirmation of alliance that underscored the humanity of Clark’s writing and the devout fellowship of one of his most prized disciples.

The lone gripe about the performance: a sound mix that regularly buried Earle’s vocals. Admittedly, at age 64, some the firepower to his singing has decreased while the Dukes’ instrumental potency has remained constant. Regardless, a more capably balanced mix would have helped. Every word of these songs, whether they came from the pens of Clark or Earle, needs to ring loud and clear.

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