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Music inspired by art of imprisoned drug dealer

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Grant Wallace Band will put its spin on the life of a low-level Houston street hustler at Chatter on Jan. 7.

Slated for the Las Puertas Event Center, “The Magnificent Pretty Boy” is a song cycle inspired by the life and work of Henry Ray Clark. Convicted for drug dealing in 1977 under Texas’ “three strikes” law, Clark was sentenced to 25 years in Huntsville State Prison. Behind bars, he developed his own artistic world on paper scraps and Manila envelopes. Clark drew clocks and figures; he sketched the planets he said he visited in a spaceship in his dreams.

He said, “I am never imprisoned as long as I can draw.”

“The Magnificent Pretty Boy” was Clark’s street name.

Clark built a following, drawing increasing public recognition for his work. Members of the Grant Wallace Band – named for a California outsider artist – were inspired by Clark’s story as they explored themes of creativity and imprisonment.

“He had these visions of other worlds; he also incorporated celebrities,” Albuquerque-based pianist/guitarist Luke Gullickson said. “A picture of Frank Sinatra was enfolded in these abstract patterns.”

Band members Gullickson, Ben Hjertmann(voice, pedal steel) and Chris Fisher-Lochhead (viola/banjo) interviewed Clark’s Houston friends and acquaintances as they developed the piece. All three are classically trained composers who met in Chicago.

“Usually we write scraps and sketches and hand them off to each other,” Gullickson said. “Most of the individual songs we wrote on our own. There’s a whole brew of influences.”

The lyrics reference Oscar Wilde’s letters from prison, as well as a poem by the jailed and executed Roman senator Boethius. he musical tapestry includes the spiritual and artistic revelations of the British poet William Blake as well as the American jazz composer Sun Ra. The project was originally developed in 2015-2016 as part of a Houston Grand Opera series commissioning new works based on stories of contemporary Texas.

“Classical music is a state we come from and we like to travel,” Gullickson said.

Time Out Chicago said of the Grant Wallace Band band: “If Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt had gone on a triple date with John Fahey, Dock Boggs and Bill Monroe to an Anton Webern (12-tone composer) concert, you’d be somewhere in the neighborhood of the Grant Wallace Band.”

The group released its second full-length album, “By This Time Tomorrow,” this month.