What is it about west Texas that inspires such good songwriters? Is it the flat land? The relative lack of cultural activities? Something in the water, even? Who knows. But West Texas has given the music world the likes of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Don Walser, Angela Strehli, the late Buddy Holly, and Patsy Cline, and the list goes on.
Four singer-songwriters from the Heartland - Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, Guy Clark, and John Hiatt - bring their music to McCarter Theater, Thursday and Friday, February 17 and 18. Lyle Lovett and Joe Ely were both raised in west Texas, as was Guy Clark. Lovett comes from Klein, Texas, a little town named after his great-grandfather, a Bavarian weaver; Ely comes from Amarillo, a city, and Clark was born in Monahans, Texas, raised mostly by his grandmother.
Even John Hiatt, who was raised in Indianapolis and is highly regarded by the critics - but has never sold a whole lot of albums - is described as "a Hoosier with a West Texas soul." His songs have been recorded by a wide-ranging array of musicians including Bonnie Raitt, the Neville Brothers, Iggy Pop, Dr. Feelgood, Ronnie Milsap, and Three Dog Night.
Singer-songwriters are all about the guitar, the song, and the stage - a simple formula that yields powerful music. At the McCarter concerts, each performer will bring an acoustic guitar on stage, and the four will trade songs and stories together. And stories they have - dating back to when Ely met Clark and Hiatt in the 1970's, then Lovett in 1986.
The banter is a kick for both the performers and the audience - as the four singers show obvious respect for one another through humor and heart-felt compliments about their abilities as songwriters. At a recent show in the San Francisco Bay area, Lovett (arguably the most famous of the four) told a theater crowd: "It's just a fact growing up in Texas that everyone would like to be as cool as Guy Clark."
The genesis for this tour of "mostly Texas"-raised singer-songwriters came about in 1989, at the now-closed Bottom Line nightclub in New York. These four prolific, poignant songwriters were first assembled there, in a "songwriters-in-the-round"-style evening of music. Despite the fact that they all have had some measure of success on FM radio, especially Triple A-formatted stations like Philadelphia's WXPN-FM, this is not a "greatest hits" tour. Lovett is perhaps best known for his songs "She's No Lady," and "I Loved You Yesterday," both
of which made it into the Top 30 on the pop charts. Hiatt is best known for Raitt's cover of his "Thing Called Love," while Clark is best known for Ricky Skaggs' version of his song, "Heartbroke." Ely, long a favorite of Texas radio programmers, perhaps got his biggest exposure on a tour of England in the early 1980's with punk-rock pioneers the Clash.
Whether it's the water, the winds, the endless flat landscape, or the rural lifestyle, west Texas inspires and nurtures exceptional songwriters. Lovett, Hiatt, Clark and Ely are considered by critics to be among America's best.
Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Joe Ely, and Guy Clark, Thursday and Friday, February 17 and 18, 8 p.m., McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. $46 to $60. 609-258-2787.