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New Label, New Attitude, Same Soul PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 29 June 2004 18:00
W.C. Clark is something of a legend in his native Austin, Texas, having been a key player in the integration of the blues scene, giving a boost to artists such as the fiery guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. But it wasn’t until 2002 – after Clark dedicated himself to his music in a new way – that he started to get his due.

The late 1990s were a difficult time for Clark. His label, Black Top, went under, and a 1997 car accident killed his drummer and his fiancée. Those two events were key components in Clark finally climbing near the top of the blues heap.

The accident was a defining moment for Clark. All the negative things his family said over the years about being a musician returned, and he questioned whether he wanted to continue with music. “That shit came back to you,” he said.

Although he was uninjured in the accident, he remained idle for a while. Then he had an epiphany – while “sitting on the commode,” he said. He realized that “I hadn’t paid any attention to my hands … since the wreck.”

And then he decided to get back into music, with both feet and both hands.

The loss of his label would seem to be a minor inconvenience, especially considering that Black Top was already being distributed by Alligator, the pinnacle of blues labels. But when he signed with Alligator – his 2002 release, From Austin with Soul, bore that imprint – the shift seemed to have bolstered his confidence.

“A musician needs some kind of pride,” Clark said last week. “My name has been floating around for a long time, but it didn’t have the force behind it until it had the Alligator name.”

Clark’s emergence on Alligator coincides with a new attitude. “I’m more serious with my artistic values,” he said. “I’m coming more from my secret place.”

That doesn’t mean that Clark is channeling his personal tribulations into song. “I never really completely write a personal song without disguising,” he said. “I did that one time, and I didn’t want to record it. It’s not the type of song I wrote for people.” He compares it to a person who collects stamps and refuses to let anybody look at them: “Don’t even open the drawer,” he said.

The main difference in his music and his approach, Clark said, is that he cherishes things more. “You’ve got to stop throwing stuff in the trash can,” he said.

The 64-year-old Clark’s newest album, Deep in the Heart, hit stores on Tuesday, and it’s not destined for any scrap heap. The singer-guitarist’s clean, soulful voice dominates the 14-track collection. The slow grooves are rooted in the blues, but they also have generous doses of gospel and soul.

The highlight is “Jaded Lady,” one of four Clark-penned songs. The idea came from a picture in his head, Clark said, and horns build up to his perfect vocal phrasing on the chorus.

He’s also starting to have some crossover success; Clark’s delicate cover of John Hiatt’s “Tip of My Tongue” is getting some airplay on country radio. “Country needs that kind of soul right now,” Clark said.

And he’s comfortable in the idiom. “I was raised on country music,” he said. “I could make a country album and it would be another Charlie Pride thing, or Ray Charles.”

When he got his start, Clark only played in the black areas of Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston. But then white kids started coming to the main black club in Austin, and integration started through music. With no standing band, Clark gave a lot of white musicians their starts, including playing with Stevie Ray Vaughan. “I did grow with the city,” Clark said.

But like many musicians, Clark worked other jobs full-time to make ends meet. About 25 years ago, he said, he worked 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for the state health department, played in a mariachi band from 6 to 7, and was on stage with his blues at 8 or 9 p.m. “I was a complete zombie, an idiot,” he said.

So he told his wife, “I’m going back to music full-time,” and suggested she’d need to get a job to support the family. “She told me, ‘Fuck a job,’ and everything just turned into mustard inside me.”

They split up, and Clark dedicated himself to the pursuit of the blues: “I’m going to the highest peaks or the lowest depths.”

That didn’t include records, though; stories of the exploitation of musicians kept him away. “I was scared to get in there,” he said. That hesitancy matched with a general lack of ambition. Clark dipped his toes in with a self-released album in 1987, and then made a proper debut on Black Top with Heart of Gold in 1994.

And it seems as if the Alligator prestige has rubbed off a little on this modest Texas bluesman; ambition is starting to creep in. Of Deep in the Heart, Clark said, “All the songs are good. There’s wisdom and meaning to the words. That record needs to be heard.”
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