Ain’t Nothin’ Better

When one thinks of Guy Clark, the chiseled Texas songwriter, it is usually the grandeur and brio of “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” the wry romantic failure of “Rita Ballou,” or the gravitas and despair of “The Randall Knife.” Rarely did Clark opt for mirth, and yet, even in mirth, the Grammy-winner managed the same spare language perfection that defined his more famous work.
     “Homegrown Tomatoes,” which first appeared on 1983’s Better Days, felt like a jig in a fresh breeze. Beat-bopping along, acoustic guitar picked just so, with that oak-y voice, he celebrated life’s essence in the form of a juicy red orb. Because when you strip away the elegance of his word choice and the exactitude of his work, the most striking thing was the deep humanity in even Clark’s grandest work.
     Dignity defines Guy Clark, but not in the frumpy etiquette school way of diplomats and socialites. To him, it’s the beauty of a hippie mother making do (“Madonna w/Child ca. 1969”), the wino elevator man who never fell out of love (“Let Him Roll”), the awkward morning after table talk (“Instant Coffee Blues”) that gilds his songs with a grace that makes real life compelling. Even the steamroller hard work homage (“Heavy Metal”) and the tale about smuggling mexicans (“El Coyote”) imbue the margins of who we are with a sense of distinction.
     And it’s contrasting that for a seemingly little song like “Homegrown Tomatoes” that lifts the whimsy to genuine celebration.
     Opening with the enjoinder “Ain’t nothing in the world that I like better/ than bacon & lettuce & homegrown tomatoes,” this is a song that revels in the literal and metaphoric deliciousness of what a tomato provides. Beyond the obvious — how good they taste — there’s also the satisfaction of cultivation. Get your hands dirty, smell the soil, pull the weeds, watch the plants shoot up! And in these days of Lord-knows-what pumped on to so much produce, even the stuff they say is organic can be hard to trust. Farmers stretched to make ends meet often pick before prime, knowing they need to transport with minimal bruising and waste.
     How many times have we left a tomato on the window sill or counter to finish ripening? Watching, waiting, hoping it will turn into the peak perfect, slightly tart, marvelously juicy, just firm enough flesh to make that first bite almost shudder-inducing.
     What Clark affirms with “Homegrown Tomatoes” is our ability to create our own magic. No guess work, no potential. Just walk out into the garden, poke among the stalks and leaves, then identify the most ripe and ready. Like a big red heart, it dangles, heavy with promise, waiting to be plucked and turned into something yummy.
     You can almost hear the saliva pooling when Clark hits that first chorus of “Homegrown tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes, what would life be without homegrown tomatoes?/ Only two things that money can’t buy — that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.”
     The first time I heard Clark sing this song, it was McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, Calif. The storied acoustic instrument haven with the performance space in back was legend on the West Coast. John Chelew, who ran the place, had a master’s sense of talent, especially post-folk songwriters. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Peter Case, Townes Van Zandt, Gil Scott-Heron, Richard Thompson, the Knitters, Ralph Stanley, Shawn Colvin, X, David Lindley, Chris Hillman and Herb Pederson, John Hiatt, Harry Dean Stanton, as well as outliers from Pere Ubu to Huun-Huur- Tu: the Throat Singers of Tuva, are among the many who raised songs in that cramped wooden building on Pico Boulevard that always felt like one bad spark could set it blazing.
     A long way from where I grew up in Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida, I missed that rustic home cooking with vegetables so fresh they popped with flavor. It wasn’t anything fancy, and it wasn’t anything expensive, but you could taste the earth, the sun, and the care that went into every bite.
     I won’t say I was a little sad, but there was a distinct vein of homesick running through me, a real sense of how pretty people never seemed to reach beyond the surface for the stuff where things got good. Because it’s not the picture perfect that moves your heart (or palette), but the things where you can taste the essence, the depth, the flavor at its peak.
     “Homegrown Tomatoes” tickled me. While I’d known about the plucky “Texas Cooking,” I’d missed this song about a simple vegetable. And where “Cooking” felt like a novelty, “Tomatoes” was clearly a love song. Unabashed and unashamed, Clark rolled out three and a half minutes of pure homage to one of those vegetables — or is it fruits? — that defines summer. Here was a song that understood, far from all that gorgeous hydroponically grown perfection at Mrs. Gooch’s (the health food grocery store) or even the California abundance at the Gelson’s Grocery down the street, nothing supplanted the feel of squeezing a tomato on the vine, or taking that first slice off the top, knowing as the juice ran through your fingers, heaven was a bite away.
     And it didn’t matter how you ate it! Right there at the sink, slice by slice with a little salt. Laid on a platter with fresh mozzarella and fresher basil. In salsa or pasta sauce. Or on squishy white bread — never toasted — slathered with Hellman’s mayonnaise and a shake of dill, basil, or thyme. Num num num.

I’ve been out to eat, and that’s for sure
But it’s nothing a homegrown tomato won’t cure
Put’em in a salad, put’em in a stew
You can make your very own to-mah-to juice
Eat ’em with eggs, eat ’em with gravy
Eat ’em with beans, pinto or navy
Put ’em on the side, put ’em in the middle
Put a homegrown tomato on a hotcake griddle.

     Guy Clark had a shock of hair fall across his brow when he tipped his head during the song. The meticulous man in the suit coat and crisp white shirt didn’t bother to flip his head back, he just smiled and kept going. The song had a trajectory of its own, and something like a hair out of place wasn’t going to stop its momentum.

When I die don’t bury me
In a box in a cemetery
Out in the garden would be much better
I could be pushing up homegrown tomatoes

     There was a glint in his eye when he sang it. Not because he was fixing to check out, but because Guy Clark was a man who knows what he likes — and wasn’t afraid to put it in a song. Like “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” he slung down low into a double chorus, relishing the fact that his song had become what the best campfire moments embody: a singalong. Raising their voices in a dog-patch howl, the mix of hipsters and folkies, the ones who came because McCabes was cool or Clark was someone they should know and the people who just might go to the Kerrville Folk Festival were on the same ground: “Only two things money can’t buy — that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.”

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