Tower of Song

Simone Felice looks like a grizzled road dog as he makes his way into our office the morning after his Nashville show. He’s still wearing the striped black-and-white pirate shirt he donned onstage the night before at the Cannery Ballroom, where he opened for the L.A. folk-rock band Dawes to a spirited and packed house. Felice may be in need of a shower, but he seems genuinely excited to be here despite the early hour. We’re setting up the mics and discussing Levon Helm, whom Felice got to know as a fellow Woodstock resident. Our talk drifts from the subject of the old masters to artists of a more recent vintage.

“People always talk about the great old stuff, but in Bristol we were saying how much great music is coming out now.” Just a few days before, Felice had played the Gentlemen of the Road stopover, in Bristol, Virginia/Tennessee, with Mumford & Sons, Justin Townes Earle, Dawes and others.

 The tour, which was put together by Mumford, boasted some of the best young songwriters in the folk and Americana worlds. Some of these groups – in particular, The Apache Relay of Nashville – are kindred spirits of the London-based folkies. Ever since they formed as a band in 2007, Mumford has sought to foster a sense of community, of shared brotherhood, among simpatico artists. It’s not so much about competition as it is about getting together with like-minded musicians and having fun.

This was part of the appeal of the Gentlemen of The Road affair, a mini-tour that stopped at various small towns and hamlets that don’t crop up on a band’s normal tour circuit. The stop in Bristol was especially appropriate as it befit Mumford’s obsession with American roots music. The Virginia – Tennessee border town produced the historic 1927 recordings of a handful of the region’s “hillbilly” singers. Often called the “Big Bang of country music,” it was these sessions that introduced Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family to a national audience.

Notwithstanding their deep and abiding appreciation for roots music, Mumford & Sons is not a revival band but very much a new kind of entity. Their fan base is now legion – and was acquired in the span of just a few years.  In its first week of release, their new album – Babel – solda whopping 600,000 units (420,000 of which were digital), giving them the best-selling debut sales week of 2012 for any artist. And the record logged more than 8 million plays on the streaming service Spotify, a company that has come under significant fire recently for not paying artists what they’re allegedly owed. Mumford’s sales success – in spite of the album’s availability on Spotify – could alter the way big-time artists approach streaming services.

In our cover story, Mumford discusses the evolution of the album and says much of its inspiration grew out of various Nashville picking parties. The band clearly has an affinity for Music City and has spent ample time here during the past few years, even playing two special shows at the Ryman earlier this year. Mumford further cemented their Nashville connection when they joined forces with Emmylou Harris for a performance on the CMT Crossroads series, a format where the two artists trade off on one another’s respective songs. “They’re making the banjo respectable again, which is no easy feat,” Emmylou said of the group. “And they’re great harmony singers and have this great, driving groove with minimalist instrumentation. They just sound good.”

 We cap this issue with an interview with Emmylou, who sheds light on what makes a good duet. She should know. She’s contributed to a lot of them over the years, including Ryan Adams’ “Oh My Sweet Carolina” from the album Heartbreaker. We look at the early days of Ryan’s seminal alt-country band Whiskeytown in these pages, via an excerpt from David Menconi’s new book Losering. We also interview Dwight Yoakam about his album 3 Pears, and review a bounty of great guitars, amps and mics for your X-mas wish list.

Happy holidays.


John Panther Mellotron, “Gold Grammys (Ain’t That Americana)”

“Gold Grammys (Ain’t That Americana)”
By John Panther Mellotron

There’s a white boy, wearin Ray Bans
Living in a hip neighborhood
He sings about hopping trains, picks a pricey banjo
He thinks man, I got it so good

There’s a young girl, in the kitchen
Smoking up a big fat bowl
And he looks at her and says I remember when Robert Plant was rock and roll

But ain’t that Americana, you and me
Ain’t that Americana , something to see
Ain’t that Americana, J.T.E.

A little gold Grammy for you and me.

There’s a young man, in suspenders
Listenin to a AAA station
He’s got pomaded hair and a pomaded smile
He thinks the Ryman must be his destination

Someone told him
When he was younger
Said, boy, Cash should be president
But just like everything those dreams just kinda came and went

But ain’t that Americana, a wagon wheel
Ain’t that Americana , a genre to steal
Ain’t that Americana, no layers to peel
Three or four chords, for you to feel!

And there’s string bands and more strings bands
And what do you know?
They go to work at their coffee shops
And then sing about the fields they gotta hoe

And there’s losers and there’s losers
But darlin don’t you know
That Buddy Miller wins all the awards at all the damn shows

But ain’t that Americana….

Music That Grows From The Ground

We tend to think of songwriters as fitting into certain molds: coffeehouse types who smoke American Spirits and scribble words on legal pads. Music Row scribes who bang out three chords and the truth over coffee by daily appointment. Gypsy troubadours in search of the muse who fancy themselves modern-day Kerouacs.

Too often we think of songwriting as an art form that must be written down, in the form of chords and lyrics. But the term “songwriting” can be applied to any form of musical composition – whether it be lyric, melody, rhythm, groove, jam, etc. Bob Dylan is credited as the sole writer of “Like A Rolling Stone,” but would that song be the classic it is without Al Kooper’s opening blast of B3 organ? (Kudos to the bands out there that split songwriting credits.)

In this issue, we honor the life and legacy of Levon Helm, the scrawny Arkansas drummer who helped create some of the most enduring songs in the rock canon as a member of The Band.

Helm was not a “songwriter” in the Music Row sense of the term. But he certainly thought himself a songwriter of one kind, as evidenced by his long-running dispute with guitarist Robbie Robertson over authorship of the Band’s wholesale catalog. In spite of their long-running differences, Robertson visited Levon on his deathbed and had kind words to say about his former mate in our cover story. Whatever personal differences came between them along the way, one cannot deny their musical brotherhood.

Though Helm is not credited as a writer on any of The Band’s tracks, it’s well assumed that his deep knowledge of blues, soul and country formed the bedrock of the Band sound. Helm soaked up his musical influences while growing up in Helena, Arkansas (also the home of Conway Twitty). It was in Helena that he was introduced to Walcott’s Rabbits Foot Minstrels and other traveling minstrel shows. Helm was the only Southerner – or American, for that matter – in a group whose sound drew heavily on a cross-section of Dixie roots music. The Band now stands as the unofficial godfathers of a “genre” of music that has become known as Americana. And it was Helm who held the keys to the devil’s music, so prevalent in his neck of the woods, where the roots of those sounds seemed to spring from the land itself.

In addition to his vast musical legacy, Levon’s legacy as a man will endure as well. Shortly after Levon’s death in April, Bob Dylan released a statement calling the drummer “one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation.”

Levon’s spirit truly was palpable: it translated through his music, and whatever footage was captured on camera. You can see that glint in his eye when he’s talking about the roots of rock and roll in The Last Waltz(a film that Helm openly disparaged for much of his life.) For Levon, the music came honestly. As Bruce Springsteen has said: “We’re so used to seeing versions of the thing, Levon is the thing!”

Rolling Stones saxophonist Bobby Keys, who was Helm’s roommate in Los Angeles in the ‘60s, once told me that Levon’s good guy image was wholly genuine, saying, “He was just the salt of the earth.” It was Levon who turned Keys on to a bevy of blues harmonica players, and recommended that Keys incorporate their styles in what he was doing on the sax. “It turned out to be good advice,” Keys said.

Levon Helm taught musicians of his generation the importance of reaching back into America’s musical past. It certainly worked for The Band: the musical stew they cooked up at Big Pink, in the mid-‘60s, was unlike anything else at the time.

In our Role Models interview, Don McLean suggests that much of today’s “computer music” doesn’t help anyone. Even decades later, the music of Levon and The Band still helps people.

It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry

Songwriter country teems with lonely hearts. We know. We read your words of agony and loss month after month when judging the lyric contest. We hear tales of unrequited love, adultery, bad grades, and emotional wounds that have lasted ages. We hear elegiac songs about dead pets named Wiggles, and listen to murder threats delivered in rhyme. It takes a toll on our judges. One poor soul recently cracked up and had to self-medicate with bath salts after an all-night judging bout.

We love sad songs – don’t get us wrong. Our record library is lined with the complete discographies of Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt and Morrissey – sad-sack songwriters whose music should come with a warning label and SSRI prescription. But we also appreciate tunes that crack with real humor from time to time. And we get these, too, for our lyric contest. We’ll never forget “I’ve Got A Crush On Sarah Palin, I’m Gonna Rock Her Like Van Halen.”And the lyrics for “Grab Your Balls, We’re Going Bowling!” (which may or may not fall in the unintentional comedy department) still hang on the wall of our Intern lair. “Deeper Shade Of Red,” a song submitted recently by one Jim McKay, explores the varying degrees of redneck-hood. “All my friends are between jobs/I just don’t go to work … That makes a deeper shade of red.” Indeed.

In this special “comedy” issue, we raise a glass to the performers who make us laugh in rhyme. Our cover subject, Late Night host Jimmy Fallon, has left millions of Americans in stitches with his parodies of famous rock stars – and seen his own star power catapult as a result. The Tebowie meme, a combination of Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie and quarterback Tim Tebow, was one of late night television’s brightest moments last year. And Fallon’s impression of Neil Young performing the theme song to “The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air” turned a lot of heads, including that of Neil himself, who discussed Fallon’s impression when we interviewed him for our 2011 cover story.“I’d like to see him do [the current version of] me now,” Young said. When told this by AS, Fallon says the challenge is on.

The comic’s new album, Blow Your Pants Off, features parody songs from his show, and a few new ones he wrote with a high school friend. Fallon wrote “Cougar Huntin’”with country singer John Rich, who tells AS that Fallon has the chops to write professionally on Music Row.

Also featured in this issue is Tenacious D, who discuss their influences in the realm of comedic rock, citing Spinal Tap as the first example of “aggressively stupid” writers. Several songwriters take part in our comedic roundtable, including Dan Bern, whose songs offer incisive social commentary with a shot of laugh-out-loud humor.

Of course, some songwriters can write tunes that live on the razor’s edge between humor and sadness – and still throw in an emotional truth or two. The more skilled among us (John Prine, Warren Zevon, David Berman) can even do it within the same line.

“Humor may be one of the best delivery mechanisms for the truth,” Kinky Friedman tells us. “It really is about sailing as close to the truth as you can without sinking the ship.”

The Secret Gardens Of Music Row

Todd Snider is only a few minutes late for his American Songwriter recording session. He walks in sporting dark sunglasses and an old pair of Chuck Taylors, his hat cocked at a rakish tilt. It’s just after 11 a.m., but we’re impressed the man is even awake, given his reputation as a late-night bard of the gonzo variety.

“You know Elvis once stayed in this room,” Snider says matter-of-factly of his manager’s office, located in the old Spence Manor Hotel, at the tail end of Music Row. It’s an interesting bit of Nashville lore, and a bit surprising, due to the utter drabness of the building itself. From the street, it looks more like a place where Nashville Metro might run a sting operation through Craigslist.

But Elvis did in fact stay here (as did The Beatles), according to numerous historical accounts, when he’d come to record at RCA Studio B, just a block away.

Today, the old hotel now functions as a condominium and office complex. Beside it sits a swimming pool in the shape of an acoustic guitar – a curious bit of Nashville kitsch from the late ‘70s, when the Country Music Hall of Fame ran its operation across the street. The pool was a popular tourist attraction back then, modeled after the pool at the Belle Meade mansion of Webb Pierce, a country singer from the ‘50s with a serious flair for pomp and excess.

Snider tunes up his classical guitar (“a gift from a friend,” he says) and sound checks with Dylan’s “You’re A Big Girl Now.” He says he lived in this building in the early ‘90s, when he first moved to town. This singer of “agnostic hymns” seems like he’d be a fish out of water living on Music Row. Today, Snider could be dubbed the unofficial poet laureate of East Nashville, a weird province of Music City popular among artists and made up of working-class neighborhoods and housing projects. He can often be found holding court at Drifters, a local bar in the Five Points area of East Nashville, chatting it up and collecting song ideas.

Sitting in on this session with Snider (which you can watch on our website), learning about the room’s Elvis connection and seeing the guitar-shaped pool for the first time, you realize there are still some secret gardens on Music Row, and a few lost tales lurking in the shadows, despite the “office” feel of the whole area.

For instance, down the road from Spence Manor is the old Hall Of Fame motel, where Tim McGraw first lived (and drank) when he came to town. In that hotel bar he first met Craig Wiseman, who would go on to pen many of the singer’s greatest hits. In our cover story, McGraw also discusses palling around with Tracy Lawrence and Kenny Chesney during his early days in Music City, noting that Chesney at the time was trying to make it as a songwriter (and never talked about becoming a recording artist).

Dierks Bentley, another artist profiled in our country issue, says he rediscovered country music by catching bluegrass shows at The Station Inn. Located a half-mile from Music Row in an area called The Gulch, The Station Inn is one of Nashville’s musical treasures, a sure bet to witness great musicianship any night of the week. It was here that Bentley became a fan of The Del McCoury Band, who appear on his last album, Up On The Ridge, a string-band effort that features original songs as well as cuts by Dylan and U2.

We also look at the legacy of Gram Parsons, who to this day in still not in the Country Music Hall Of Fame. A Georgia boy who never had his sights set on Nashville, Gram’s influence reaches far and wide, beyond the scope of country music. He’s inspired more than one generation of artists with his mythic poetry, sense of style, and deep, blue-eyed soul. We hope he inspires you as well.

The Boss at South-By

Woody Guthrie would have been 100 years old this year, and his ghost seemed to hover closely over the week’s events, especially where matters of Bruce Springsteen were concerned.

Springsteen and the E Street band played a near three-hour “intimate show” Thursday night at the Austin City Limits Moody Theater to a crowd of about 2,500. It was only their second show in connection with the Wrecking Ball tour, and the lucky entrants on this night were badge-holders who gained access to the show through a lottery system, and a who’s who of younger guns  at SXSW like Todd Snider and Glen Hansard.

Just after 9 p.m., Springsteen and his 15-piece ensemble strode onto the stage and broke into “I Ain’t Got No Home,” the Guthrie standard that gels nicely with the themes of loss and alienation that permeate so much of the Boss’s new album.

The show was heavy on tracks from Wrecking Ball, along with classics like “Thunder Road,” “Badlands,” “The E Street Shuffle” and “The Promised Land.” It was also notable for showcasing the saxophone work of Jake Clemons, nephew of recently departed “big man” Clarence Clemons, a long-time pillar of the E Street sound.

At one point in the show, Springsteen kept repeating the refrain, “If you’re here and we’re here, then they’re here,” a gripping salute to his fallen comrade and presumably to Danny Federeci, the longtime E Steet keyboard player who died back in 2008.

The night’s most explosive moment occurred when Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine, The Nightwatchman) joined Springsteen onstage for “The Ghost Of Tom Joad,” another variation on the Guthrie theme.  Springsteen’s live version came off as an exceedingly angry and apocalyptic update to Woody’s “Tom Joad” ballad, a song Woody wrote after watching John Ford’s film adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath. Morello, equipped with a guitar that bore the inscription “Arm The Homeless,” took the song to new chaotic heights with that progressive metal wail.

We had heard Morello play that very song with his band The Nightwatchmen just a few hours before at the New West Records party, and he introduced the tune by calling Springsteen a “link in the long chain of musical freedom fighters.”

Thursday night’s show was an encore of sorts for the Boss. Earlier that afternoon, he delivered the keynote address at SXSW, where he took a giddy and attentive crowd through the history of rock and roll, and his personal relationship with it. In his speech, he sought to unravel the interconnected relationship of his own musical fathers, from Woody to Hank to Bob Dylan and a bunch of others in between.

He said Hank Williams represented the “grim recognition of the chips laid down against you,” a sentiment that he said heavily influenced the writing of Darkness On The Edge Of Town. But, within Hank’s body of work, and country music in general,  he detected a toxicity that he found fatal. Woody’s music, in his mind, sought to answer Hank’s question of “why his bucket had a hole in it.”

The speech was also something of a personal manifesto, complete with a bevy of zingers, and it articulated the grand hopes and ambitions that Springsteen has for his own art. He challenged Lester Bangs’s famous declaration that Elvis Presley marked the last time that we, as a people, would know a shared musical identity.

Thursday night’s show was consistent with the keynote theme of a shared musical past, with several guest performers taking the stage. Reggae icon Jimmy Cliff played three songs, including “The Harder They Come.” Eric Burdon of The Animals showed up for “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place.” Springsteen paid homage to Burdon in his speech, saying that the above-mentioned tune was the first time he’d heard “full-blown class consciousness” represented in song form. “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” he said, informed every song he’d ever written. The Animals were also important, he said, because they proved that a rock musicians could be ugly, adding that Burdon looked like “your shrunken daddy with a wig on.”

The night closed with a rendition of “This Land Is Your Land,” with Morello, Arcade Fire, The Low Anthem, Alejandro Escovedo and others joining the E Street Band onstage. It was the third time we’d heard the song performed that day. During the keynote, Springsteen talked about playing it on the steps of the Capitol with Pete Seeger during the Obama inauguration. He realized then, at that very moment, that Elvis was not the last time we’d all agree. Thursday night’s show affirmed that.

Alabama Pines

I’ve been stuck here in this town
If you could call it that, a year or two
I never do what I’m supposed to do
I don’t even need a name anymore
No one calls it out, kind of vanishes away.

– Jason Isbell, “Alabama Pines”

North Alabama is hardly considered a breeding ground for cutting-edge music. It’s not often that you hear of a band making waves there, and the only reason a touring musician might stop in the area is to fill up the tank or grab a steak and beer at Logan’s Roadhouse.

All of which makes the story of the Alabama Shakes, our cover subjects for this issue, all the more exciting. The band springs from Athens, Alabama, a small, rural town of about 20,000 just off of I-65, about 20 miles south of the Tennessee line. Like most of small-town America, there isn’t much to do there when you’re growing up, except “drink, set things on fire and have pre-marital sex,” as lead singer Brittany Howard would put it. 

But despite its limitations in the world of entertainment, the region boasts a rich and profound musical legacy that has shaped the course of rock and roll. The Muscle Shoals area near Florence – which is about an hour’s drive west of Athens – is renowned for the records cut at F.A.M.E. recording studio, and later Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. F.A.M.E. alumni include acts like Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, while the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio has housed sessions by The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and, more recently, The Black Keys.


For the Alabama Shakes, it’s clear that the region’s musical past is not dead – in fact, it’s not even past. Ben Tanner, a former recording engineer at F.A.M.E., now plays keys for the band, and he talks about the Muscle Shoals legacy in our cover story.

It’s worth noting that North Alabama’s other great band, Drive-By Truckers, also came out of the Shoals area, with frontman Patterson Hood’s father David Hood having been an original member of The Swampers, the house band for F.A.M.E. during the ‘60s and later at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. DBT brilliantly assessed the region and its complex history – musical, political and racial – with the 2001 album Southern Rock Opera.


And Jason Isbell, a former Trucker and now an esteemed solo artist in his own right, still resides in the Shoals area. His song “Alabama Pines,” off of last year’s Here We Rest, is a haunting portrait of personal dislocation in a small town.

For our annual business issue, writer Adam Gold interviews a host of artists and industry insiders about how to succeed in today’s topsy-turvy music biz. It’s a grim picture, to be sure, and one that is littered with broken dreams and broken hearts. The upside, Gold writes, is that if you do in fact succeed, it will likely be on your own terms.


Some of the lessons to take away are to tour constantly, and build a dedicated fan base through a steady marketing effort. “Your music itself is a marketing tool. Before figuring out how to monetize it, work on figuring out how to get it heard,” he writes. “Then let the market decide what your worth is as a live draw, what your catchiest tune is worth to an advertiser, or how much self esteem a fan can get from wearing your T-shirt.”

The recent explosion of the Alabama Shakes seems to defy the conventional wisdom of the music business. They have not tried to fashion any kind of rock star image, or fit into anyone’s mold of what a rock band should look and sound like. As this issue hits newsstands, the band will likely be taking South by Southwest by storm, having been asked to play every showcase under the sun in Austin. So far, they have handled the buzz well, having just delivered a riveting performance on Conan in what was their national television debut. They are one of the few recent bands that actually live up to the “hype.”


One Of Us Must Know

I’ve seen one Dylan concert in my life. It was at Bonnaroo, back in 2004. The day was a scorcher. Bob wore a white cowboy shirt, dark sunglasses, and played organ most of the show, serving up covers of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho And Lefty” and Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” – two of my personal favorites in the American songbook.

Maybe he played these songs because he was in Tennessee and then again maybe not. I remember getting vaguely emotional during the performance of these tunes: my endorphins and ketone bodies were kicking hard that day, as I was undernourished, dehydrated and had been imbibing for what seemed like a month of Sundays at the time.

In that fevered dream I stood by myself and took in the show. I tried to attach weighty significance to the experience. I half-convinced myself that I was in the presence of a quasi-religious figure and that the show transcended mere entertainment … Of course this sounds ridiculous now, but it was my first Bonnaroo.

A friend marred the sanctity of my experience later that day when he said: “God that Bob Dylan show sucked! You couldn’t understand a thing. I didn’t even know what songs he was singing.” My face colored but I held my tongue. I felt like he’d just insulted my granddad or something.

Looking back on that show, the fact that I remember cover songs and not Dylan originals is a bit ironic, given that Dylan’s generally regarded as the cream of the crop when it comes to songwriting. But in a way it’s fitting.

In this issue, Ruth Gerson tells a great story about a private jam session she had with the maestro. “Don’t let them call you that [a songwriter],” he says, pointing to a critic’s blurb on the back of her album. “You’re a song performer, not a songwriter. You don’t write the song to sit there on a page. You write it to sing it.”

An interesting take by a man responsible for elevating songwriting to the level of high art. Most of the songwriters that have been featured in these pages throughout the years are indebted to him, if only for the fact that he created the pathway, as it were. Other artists interviewed in the issue, like Joan Baez and T Bone Burnett, have a long, intertwined history with the man. The Avett Brothers and a host of other young artists weigh in on Dylan’s influence and stature. The White Buffalo, an ascendant California singer-songwriter, says that “Dylan set the possibilities of songwriting free. To an utterly limitless level. He dissolved the notion of song structure even before it was discussed.”

Tracking Dylan down for an interview is no easy task. But Senior Editor Paul Zollo managed to do it back in the early ‘90s, when he was working for SongTalk magazine. The circumstances surrounding the talk were as cryptic as one might expect. Zollo was told the interview would happen sometime in the middle of the week, at a hotel somewhere in the wilds of Los Angeles.

We publish the interview here in its entirety for the first time, in honor of Dylan’s 70th birthday. In the wide-ranging discussion, we hear Dylan expound on a multitude of subjects. He declares that Hank Williams is the best songwriter that ever lived, and speculates that Jim Morrison may still be alive, riding piggyback on a donkey in the Andes. Some classic lines for sure. And his thoughts on songwriting are priceless.

And don’t miss Stephen Deusner’s thought-provoking essay on the modern Dylan albums, “The Reawakening Of Bob Dylan,” in which he argues that Dylan has redefined “how a legendary figure can age and grow and become more human without sacrificing quality or mystery.”

It’s that mystery which still keeps us listening – and guessing. How he’s managed to maintain it for fifty years is beyond me.

Buy the issue.

That Old Time Feeling

Guy Clark rolls another cigarette, fires it up, and then proceeds to spread his poison across the room. We’re sitting in his workshop at his Nashville home, where he’s agreed to play a few songs for us on camera.

For the last decade or so, the workshop has served as his sanctuary, so to speak, the place where he writes songs, builds guitars (which he marks with his own blood thumbprint), and gets down to the business of being Guy Clark.

It’s a surprisingly small space, given all that he does in it, but it’s not unlike the way he dreamed it, he says. A library of cassettes blankets one wall, with numerous offerings by Rodney Crowell, Tom Waits, and Mance Lipscomb, among others. At the other end sits his guitar work-station, where his tools are arranged neatly on the wall and in coffee cans. There’s also a poster that details the specs of a flamenco guitar. The first guitar Clark ever built, back in the mid-60s, was modeled after a flamenco model designed by esteemed Spanish luthier Domingo Esteso, and he’s made several like it since.

During our visit, the West Texas native plays three new songs, because “ya’ll need to hear them and I need the practice,” he says. He talks and smokes between tunes, tamping his cigarette into an ashtray decorated with skulls, a gift given to him by his friend Emmylou Harris.

One of the songs, “My Favorite Picture Of You,” is based on an old Polaroid of his wife Susanna. He pulls the picture out to show us. “Me and Townes were in that house drunk on our ass, being totally obnoxious,” he says, pointing to the pic. “And Susanna had finally had enough, and said ‘I’m leaving.’ I think John Lomax was outside and he took that picture. And for some reason, that has always been my favorite picture of her.”

The fact that Townes was complicit in this episode is not surprising. A long-time compadre of Clark’s and a fellow outlaw spirit, Van Zandt is a constant theme this afternoon, constantly cropping up in conversation. A black-and-white photo of the late Texas songwriter, taken in the early ‘90s, hangs high on the wall and looks out on the whole scene. “Townes always said he wanted to die here in this house,” Clark says. (Rodney Crowell is also referenced constantly. An oil painting of Crowell that Clark did hangs next to his own self-portrait in another room.)

Sitting here, listening to the songs and stories amid the heavy smoke and old photographs, you can’t help but feel the magic –especially if you’re steeped in the mythos of the Texas songwriting canon. We’re still smack in the suburbs of Nashville, to be sure, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. The plasticity of Music Row feels worlds away.

Clark turns 70 this month, a milestone that has birthed a double-disc tribute album, with guest turns from Crowell, John Prine, Hayes Carll, and many others. Willie Nelson serves up a great rendition of “Desperados Waiting For A Train,” a tune Clark wrote in his 30s about an old-timer of 70 years with a tobacco-stained chin. Talk about full circle.

It’s already been a pretty good year for the songwriter. On this day in late summer his new live album, Songs And Stories, recorded at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, is the number one seller in Amazon’s mp3 store. But he doesn’t seem to be too impressed by it. “My record label called to tell me that … I said, ‘Great, send me the check.’”

In his later years, Clark says he’s turned to co-writing more, due to the fact that “he got stuck and ran out of shit to say.” He says the last song he wrote completely by himself was “Dublin Blues,” back in the mid-90s. Instead, he now collaborates with whatever young gun he can.

Even at 70, Clark refuses to quit. He’s still lighting out after inspiration.

Buy the issue.