Hardly Strictly Bluegrass wins a special spot in history for being the first festival to put Will Oldham and MC Hammer on the same bill. That's almost as good as Jimi Hendrix opening for the Monkees. But between those extremes is a lineup boasting many of the most revered and regal voices in American roots and country music. Guy Clark, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Iris DeMent, Jerry Jeff Walker, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle (and son Justin Townes), Ralph Stanley, and Earl Scruggs are all performing this weekend. Set up some chairs and the drinks to go with them, and you'd have yourself an Algonquin roundtable of … well, what would you call it?
Country? Hillbilly? Outlaw? “Real country,” as per writer Nicholas Dawidoff? Or maybe just music a little “further on the edge,” says Guy Clark from Kerrville, Texas, where he was recently holed up waiting for Hurricane Ike to piss itself out. Whatever you tag it, that roundtable really existed for a bit. It was in Clark's Nashville kitchen on Christmas Eve, 1975. You can see it yourself in the landmark documentary Heartworn Highways: Clark and Earle and Rodney Crowell and Richard Dobson and Steve Young and Bill Callery, having an old-fashioned hootenanny around smashed packs of smokes and empty whiskey bottles.
Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson might have found themselves at the front of the outlaw gang, but more than a few of the folks who passed time in that kitchen ended up contributing important chapters to the American songbook. And after 35 years, they're still at it. Bad-boy Walker (once punched out by Nelson onstage) is on a writing tear, singing brand-new ballads over the phone to this writer. Revolutionary Earle, whose songs sometimes feel like Joe Strummer transplanted to Texas, just played Letterman one week and Farm Aid the next. And Clark is still a songwriter's songwriter. He has a tune waiting at home right now called “My Life Was an Empty Bar Napkin Till I Met You.” Maybe not quite Dorothy Parker, but Clark is a Hemingway man — “That guy had a way with the language!” — and his Nashville home felt a little more like Paris anyway, he says.
“That's an easy comparison to draw,” he says of the two cultural zeitgeists. “It was a group of people of a like mind, but totally individuals. They all had something they did better than anybody. Those kinds of people wind up in the same room at midnight, playing songs and drinking wine!”
What defined “those kinds of people”? Well, they were wild, as in Clark's “L.A. Freeway,” a tune written in the backseat as he hoped to get home “without getting killed or caught.” And they were bold, like Walker's “hairy-ass hillbillies” from the song of the same name, shouting down the guy onstage if he wasn't delivering just what they wanted. And they knew just where they came from — descending from the side of history that goes back to Woody Guthrie (and his fascist-killing guitar) and Hank Williams.
The same maverick spirit surrounds the stage this weekend as hovered around Clark's Christmas hootenanny. Clark, however, laughs good-naturedly at the idea of his home graduating a generation of country's resuscitators. But he remembers well the lesson he learned from the folks sitting beside him: “Try not to write bad shit,” he says, slowly, so the point doesn't get lost. As a manifesto for a movement, it's not very elegant. But it's not wrong, either.