It’s a warm May afternoon out in Rockford, and Jay Clark needs to cut his grass, but he’s thinking about a nap first.
Down in the bowl of a little valley nestled between Gravelly Mountain and High Top, a couple of dogs roam the sloping yard, nose-to-grass, ready to dig up an errant gopher. White moths flitter over a garden rich with kale, lettuce and heads of cabbage; the tomatoes and peppers and squash will be producing soon, and there’s work to be done with it all. He’s committed to playing the Memorial Day “Jammin’ at Hippie Jack’s” festival in a couple of days, and somewhere in there, he’s got to find time to pick up freshly pressed copies of his new album, “Mountains and Heartbreak.”
But he’s just back from a morning visit with his doctor, where he’s undergone treatment for a constantly ailing back, and that nap sounds mighty fine. Because if there’s one thing the past few years have taught him, he told The Daily Times, it’s that sometimes you can try too hard, and in the end, nothing gets accomplished. That’s the main reason it’s been six years since his last record, 2010’s “Live at Jammin’ at Hippie Jack’s,” and eight since his last studio album, 2008’s “Progress.”
“I had four records come out two years apart, between 2004 and 2010, but then I had some family issues come up that occupied about a year of my time, and then my back problems, and to be honest, I was trying too hard,” he says, sitting on a bench in a small pet cemetery on a nearby hill, a place where he and his wife, Stacy — both devoted animal lovers — have buried upwards of two dozen pets, some their own and others the remains of pets belonging to family and friends, over the years.
“I felt pressure there for a little while, and I always said I would let the pressure to get a record out be the reason I do it,” he adds. “I tried a year and a half ago, but it just wasn’t happening, so I said screw it.”
It was an impromptu meeting with Nashville session ace and respected roots multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott that helped kickstart the process that lead to “Of Mountains and Heartbreak,” which will be celebrated tonight (June 2) with a “Behind the Barn” performance at Barley’s Maryville and next Thursday, June 9, on the WDVX-FM “6 O’Clock Swerve” at Scruffy City Hall in downtown Knoxville. He was at “Hippie Jack’s” in Crawford, Tenn., this time last year, he says, when he decided to go for a walk and get a little peace and quiet. (He’s big on solitude, he adds; there’s nothing better, he believes, than the loneliness of being on a mountain by one’s self to forge a spiritual connection with the land he loves so much.)
He and Stacy had struck up a friendship with Darrell and his wife a few years prior; Scott owned a house near the festival grounds, and as Clark walked down the road, Scott’s wife happened to drive by and pull over.
(Editorial aside: Jay Clark and his band will be on the bill with Darrell Scott on July 30 at Dancing Bear Lodge in Townsend.)
“She said I should go by and see him, or he’d be mad if I didn’t, so I walked on to his house,” Clark says. “He said to me, ‘So when’s that record going to happen?’ I told him I had a bunch of songs, but I’m not sure what I was going to do with them. He said, ‘Why do you want to record?’ I told him that I guessed because it was time, but he said, ‘That’s not why you should record. If I were you, I would come up with a theme and try to write to that theme. Take songs from your library that fit that theme and run with it.’
“I left his house and was a little frustrated, but I had about a mile walk back to Hippie Jack’s, and it occurred to me what I needed to do. I called up and cancelled a CD release show I had scheduled for November, and I talked to Greg (Horne) and Daniel (Kimbro), the guys who have played with me the last couple of years as the Tennessee Tree Beavers. They were real supportive, and they encouraged me to just relax and make it happen.”
And so began the journey of Clark through some of his most intimate, detailed and personal songs to date. He’s always been the sort of songwriter who doesn’t skimp on details; like the old piece of wisdom goes, he writes what he knows — but how long, he wondered, can you keep going back to that well?
“The way you handle that is to become more detailed, in such a way that you can listen and visualize a song as well,” he says. “I still want to tap into all those themes I’ve tapped into before, but maybe look a little deeper and apply them to real world situations. If I can’t sell every song on a record to myself, I can’t sell them to anyone else. I want to stand up there and sing every song on the record at every show and feel like I’m going to make a connection.”
More than that, Clark wants his listeners to make a connection to the things he’s passionate about as well — primarily, the land itself. The son of a Cumberland Presbyterian minister, he grew up loving the outdoors and music. He started out at Maryville College and transferred to the University of Tennessee in 1994, where he played in a band called the String Beans with Robin Ella Bailey — a.k.a. Robinella — and Cruz Contreras, now of the Black Lillies. He and his wife both have doctorates — Stacy in forestry, Jay in wildlife — and they’ve both dedicated themselves to environmental preservation. He’s involved with the Foothills Land Conservancy and extremely passionate about preserving rural areas of East Tennessee from development; he’s president of the Citizens Against the Pellissippi Parkway Extension and performs various benefits for the organization; he’s a member of the Council for Americana Roots Music, a nonprofit organization that oversees “Hippie Jack’s,” among other events. He’s also an adjunct professor at Maryville College, teaching in the biology department, and the joy he gets in teaching non-major science courses to business, religious studies and art majors is infectious.
“I’m very much inspired by nature, especially mountainous terrain, and I just kind of wanted to make sure every song on (the new album) had something to do with that whole nature or mountain theme,” he says. “Even the heartbreak songs, they’re related to that feeling of loneliness or whatever that you feel when you’re on the mountain. Me personally, I love that feeling, and you can only experience it if you’re there, without a damn cellphone or computer.”
There’s also a good bit of reflection on the album — some of it somber, like the song “Wheatcroft,” about the small Western Kentucky community where his father’s parents lived. He travels back once a year during the holidays, and the song is so vivid, so achingly beautiful that the town rises from the blank slate of imagination with ease. Then there’s a song about his mom’s side of the family, “Seeds of Love,” recalling how he used to follow his grandmother around her garden, listening to her sing “Amazing Grace” while young Jay played in the dirt at her feet. And while there’s nothing quite as visceral as “I’m Confused,” the title track to his 2006 album (subtitled “A Christian’s Lament of How the Right Wing of the Republican Party Has Distorted My Faith”), there are still cautionary tales, like “The Last Hemlock.”
“People who go to the mountains ask what all these dying trees are, and they’re hemlocks,” he points out. “They’re my generations chestnut tree. They’re going to disappear from Southern Appalachia because of an exotic pest that we’ve introduced.”
That’s about as political or socially conscious as Clark gets on “Of Mountains and Heartbreak,” but fans needn’t worry. He may enjoy a good nap every now and then, but he’s still up for stirring the pot, and it may not take nearly as long to do so as it did between “Progress” and his new record.
“I really want to do a gospel record, because I love hymns and always have,” he says. “Also on that same record, I have some songs that are either almost written or ideas in my head dealing with some of the social issues today that really bug me. There’s one song I’m almost done with that I’m really excited about called ‘Who You Gonna Hate Today,’ and another one called ‘Cast a Stone,’ based on the story of the stoning of the prostitute and what Jesus said. I already see what my album cover’s going to be — a big ol’ stone with the number one written on it.”