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  • Writer's pictureKate Clarke

A Stranger To My Birth

I've been listening to Honky Tonk Masquerade. It is one of those albums I hadn't dared to approach since Terry died. He was so into Joe Ely. And heaven knows he liked to convert people to great music they didn't yet know about, so I was an Ely fan within a fortnight of being with Terry. 'Convert' is the wrong word. Terry would present great artists to people he valued as if he was offering them a rare, undiscovered gift. And, if he felt you were resisting their charms, he would present the case again, frequently, subtly, tailoring his song choices carefully and backing them up with critiques of their singular talents, their special magnetism and, often, their personal character, too. This is the reason I'm now as vocal a champion of Champ Hood and Uncle Walt's Band, Dion, Ronny Elliott, Joe, Eric Taylor and Willy DeVille as Terry was. Clearly, I had no intention of resisting Joe Ely's charms. After all, I grew up listening to Marty Robbins. Also, I'm female. And I'm not made of stone. Never mind that voice and those songs, who can resist Joe's perpetual glint in the eye?

I'm not much of a singer, and I'm certainly no performer, but there were two songs I was always happy to sing at our dining room table while Terry accompanied me. Joe's Because of The Wind, and Walter Hyatt's Going to New Orleans. Terry and I would often sing The Streets of Baltimore together, too. If Terry's son was around, TC would take a back seat by simply playing the chords, giving Joseph space to shine on the fancy notes. Terry always wanted me to sing more on his records and with him at gigs. I did a little, but the microphone scared the bejesus out of me, frankly. My legs would shake so hard I had to cross my ankles to anchor myself to the floor. And the harmonies I found so easily when I sang in the car or in the house, flew from my head when I was in a recording studio. There were some long-suffering producers.

During gigs, if I shared a mic with Terry, any charming fantasy I might be enjoying about us cutting an irresistible John-and-June tableau together up on stage, was soon punctured by the tense looks on some of the faces in the audience. I could actually see some people worrying for me: 'is she going to hit that note she is about to reach for?'

It had to stop.

Still, it was always a bit of a thrill to be beside Terry while he did his thing. Not because I was a hopeless fan (although I was a hopeless fan) but because Terry was such a powerhouse of encouragement. He willed me to succeed. He glowed with approval. That is a very powerful force to be around. It always stunned me and bolstered me. To be with someone whose work you respect so much, who is eager to open the door and invite you into their professional life is a very powerful thing. He would tell anyone who would listen that I was a great writer and singer. Terry loved to praise people. He saw no downside to it at all. He saw nobody as a rival, or a potential rival. He wanted to keep nothing of beauty to himself.

I know I can write. I'm steeped in Rodgers & Hart and Cole Porter, so I know where the bar is set. I wouldn't embarrass myself by presenting Terry with a shoddy lyric. And I'm proud of the songs we wrote together. He was too. But it is something, isn't it, for a performer to give their partner access to their working life? There are risks attached.

He didn't hesitate. I’m realising how much encouragement Terry gave me in all aspects of our life. Wholehearted approval, in fact. All the time. He approved of my work, my view of the world, my style, my character, my values, my tastes. If there was anything about me he didn't like much, he never made it known. I did the same for him, I know. It wasn't difficult. The more I knew him the more I liked him.

He was, of course, a big Jesse Winchester fan. That line from Yankee Lady: 'Now, when I find myself a stranger to my birth, Yankee Lady's memory reminds me of my worth.' held special weight for Terry. I'm sure it speaks to many artists and writers. Theirs is a tough gig with few and fleeting rewards. Encouragement might be the only payment on offer. The line speaks to me now, loud and clear. I wish he was still here. But what he gave me was invaluable. It will stay with me.

(Photos by Arthur Wood and Terry Clarke)

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