It took Jay Clark a long time to write the title track to his new CD, I'm Confused. The song itself is subtitled "A Christian's Lament of How the Right Wing of the Republican Party Has Distorted My Faith" and falls in the not-very-large category of liberal Christian folk/gospel protest song. The timing of its release, on the eve of the presidential election, further defines it as an opportune reminder that the evangelical right doesn't hold a monopoly on faith. "Well, I'm proud to be a Christian/And I love Jesus Christ," Clark sings. "So my beef ain't with Him/But the people on the right/That distort my faith for their political gain."
"I'm a Christian," Clark says. "My dad's a Presbyterian minister, so I grew up in the church. Every time the doors were open we were there. But I was also encouraged to have an open mind, and I was always much more Democratic-minded than Republican.
"I guess it started back in 2000. I was frustrated that the Christian right drove the boat in that election. Abortion and homosexuality seemed to be the main ticket items, and that made me mad. In the last election, in 2004, the Christian right still drove the election. So that's where that song came from. I thought about it for a couple of years and then wrote it about this time last year.... I struggled with what the title of the album should be, but all along I think I knew what it would end up being. I've been conscious about getting too political, but I finally got pissed off enough to say, ‘I don't care.' I don't think I'll lose many people over that. And I don't make enough money from this to let that influence me."
Clark's Christianity—and the ways it informs his politics—can be found throughout I'm Confused, on the Christmas song "Happy Birthday Baby Jesus" ("I stare at the lights decorating the tree/Surrounded by presents and material things/Have I forgotten what it really means?") and "Anna Lee," a song about a single mother working in a strip club ("She takes her clothes off/To keep the lights on"). But Clark also explores traditional country on the disc. There are a couple of classic barroom ballads, "Lifetime of Drinkin'" and "Another Round," and songs about going home ("Reflectors" and "Where's All the Love Gone").
Home, in fact, is a tricky situation for Clark. He grew up in Winchester, Tenn., about halfway between Chattanooga and Nashville. He attended Maryville College for a couple of years in the early 1990s, then transferred to the University of Tennessee. He stayed long enough to get his master's degree, spent four years at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Okla., while finishing his doctorate, then moved back to Knoxville. He's been living in Hazel Green, Ala., since 2005, but he's back up here frequently for recording sessions, shows, and personal trips—especially during football season.
"I've kind of adopted Knoxville as my hometown," he says. "It's cost me a lot of trips up I-75, let's put it that way."
Clark's Knoxville connections show up all over I'm Confused, which was recorded in Knoxville over several weekends this summer at Eric Nowinski's Rock Snob studios. His primary backing band is made up of Cruz Conteras on mandolin, keyboards, and acoustic guitar, bassist Taylor Coker, and drummer Derrick Dickens. The special guests on the album make up an all-star lineup of Knoxville's acoustic music scene—pedal steel guitarist Tom Pryor, banjo player Wade Hill, and vocalists Sarah Pirkle and Robinella. (Clark played in the String Beans, a late-'90s string band that featured members of what would later become Robinella and the CC Stringband.) Following a recent trip up for the UT/Alabama football game, Clark's coming back this weekend for a Blue Plate Special show at the WDVX studio and a CD release show at the Laurel Theater. At the Blue Plate Special, he'll be paying for a recent bet he made during the station's most recent fund-raising drive by performing dressed as Elvis Presley.
"[WDVX radio personality] Red Hickey and I made a deal with [WDVX general manager] Tony Lawson that he'd dress up as Red for the show if we raised so much money in a certain amount of time," Clark says. "The only way he'd agree is if I dressed as Elvis."