The title of Workbench Songs — ¬the 11th studio album of Clark's three-decade career — offers an unimprovable idea of Clark's idea of himself: a craftsman, a worker, a toiler. As has often been the case with Clark, and possibly always the reason he has never quite accrued the popular recognition of a Kris Kristofferson, he is being too modest by half. The 11 songs here — nine Clark co-writes, one traditional, one cover of a tune by his longtime compadre, the late Townes Van Zandt — represent, at the risk of making Clark cringe, gleaming songwriting artistry.
Clark's exquisitely wrought country ballads usually contain many words, but not one of them is ever wasted. Like all great country songwriters, Clark excels at both the terse character sketch (of the heartbroken rodeo clown who stars in "Funny Bone," he mourns "Tears and greasepaint will not mix") and the deadpan punchline (on "Tornado Time in Texas," there's a master comedian's timing between "Now when pigs fly" and ". . . no, I mean really fly"). Clark's weatherbeaten growl delivers these against a backdrop of acoustic guitars, fiddles and mandolins, played by a cast of equally unassuming virtuosi.
Country performers are blessed in that they work in a genre which, unusually for popular music, rewards the effects of age — voices get deeper, worldviews bleaker, experience richer and all of this is audible on Workbench Songs. Clark, ambling towards his 70s, has rarely sounded better.