guy Clark, an eclectic Texas singer-songwriter often slotted in country, is haunted by two facts: Other folks (Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill) have had bigger hits with his songs than he has, and he can never seem to escape the shadow of his marvelous first record, "Old No. 1," now 22 years old. While that album was praised, if a bit lost, in the swell of outlaw country records from the middle '70s, it now sounds wiser and more subtle than the era's supposed masterpiece, Willie Nelson's "Red Headed Stranger." Consciously or not, Clark presents a cycle of songs about time and its displacements -- of generations, relations, societies and more. Shifting from L.A. freeways to the remote plains of Texas, some characters move on gratefully, some yearn for the past, a few make all the moments flow together. "Keepers" is Clark's only live album, and its core is still songs from "Old No. 1," but it's his first collection you might buy instead of that debut.
Clark has said silly things about the new recording, such as that it wouldn't be "a big studio record," as though intrusive producers had spoiled his early albums -- his most "overproduced" '70s records sound like field recordings next to, say, U2's "Pop." His true problem is that he writes very slowly, and since putting out a single every two or three years will not sustain a career, he has released bales of sketchy or maudlin filler tunes. That is not an issue with "Keepers." All the material hangs tough, and with a relaxed yet spry quintet behind him (including dobro, accordion, and son Travis on bass and vocals), Clark can highlight his voice, richer with dry, dusty creaks than ever.