Dale Watson; Guy Clark 

Live in London ... England!; The Dark

Texas hick music is alive and well, flourishing in the hands of independent musicians such as the rough-edged honky-tonk troubadour Dale Watson and master songwriter Guy Clark. The self-proclaimed savior of "real" country music, Watson is perhaps the most powerful and convincing honky-tonk singer alive. While the Top 40 Nashville hat acts that he loves to mock merely pepper their albums with a traditional-sounding song or two, Watson is hard-country personified, leading his kickass band from town to town, paying heartfelt homage to Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, and any other hillbilly legend who never met a string section they ever liked. Watson's latter-day Merle Haggard routine plays pretty well with the UK crowd, who fill his new concert album with appreciative whoops, hollers, and whistles that would be entirely out of place in the too-cool hipsterbilly scene that prevails back here in the States. Watson opens this album with his anthemic "Real Country Song," and follows up with several like-minded laments for country's fiddle-filled glory days.

Guy Clark, a grizzled Texas old-timer who has penned hits for the likes of Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris, is no stranger to the floor-stomping honky-tonk shuffles that Watson loves so well, although for Clark they were just the musical starting point for his innovative brand of Panhandle poetry. Clark's latest album, The Dark, is his best in years, revealing the intelligence and whimsy of a craftsman at his peak. In the past, Clark has fallen into the perfection trap, oversculpting and studio-tweaking his songs so that their weather-beaten warmth gets sidelined by tightly-arranged music. On this new, acoustic-based album, Clark lets his hair back down and loosens up, so that once again you can hear the smile behind his gruff, gravelly voice. He offers his usual sideways, slice-of-life observations in tunes that sound alternately playful and forlorn -- on "Magnolia Wind," he pens one of his most touching, plainspoken love songs since "Anyhow, I Love You," while on "Queenie's Song," he pays an anger-filled homage to a beloved dog that was killed by an unknown yahoo gun freak. Clark's latest batch of rough gems rivals anything written during his 1970s heyday -- intelligent, soulful songcraft that should have fans lined up around the block to hear what the old coot has been up to lately.


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