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Dave Clark is a lighthouse for Southern Illinois country music fans, protecting them from a tidal wave of unfamiliar pop-country fodder and leading them safely into the harbor of a timeless traditional sound.

In an era when it’s difficult to differentiate between mainstream pop and mainstream country on FM radio, Clark is a virtual human Wurlitzer jukebox when he takes the stage, ready to wear out the grooves on your favorite Vern Gosdin, Merle Haggard, Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks tunes.

“I had this lady come up to me the other night and ask me if I knew any Luke Bryan. I asked, ‘Who is she?’ I was just ribbing her a little bit, but I think she got the point. The young guns like Luke, Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett sing pop-country,” Clark says. “Those old honky-tonk songs have been my bread-and-butter for a long time.”

The most dominating area country performer for more than two decades, both as a solo performer and Jackson Junction lead singer, the 49-year-old Herrin native shows no sign of slowing down.

He will perform from 8 to 11 p.m. Friday at the Dotty Event Center in Herrin, moves down the street for a four-hour gig starting at 9 p.m. at the J & J Time Out Sports Bar on Saturday, then teams up with “The First Lady of Southern Illinois country music” Deanna Freeman for a 3 to 6 p.m. show Sunday at the Honker Hill Winery on the outskirts of the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refugee.

“We’re gonna rip it up,” he says of the rare appearance by Freeman, who advanced to the national finals of the True Value Country Showdown in 2000 and 2001. She stepped away from the local music scene to raise her family.

In November, Clark will team with former Quarter Moon lead singer Juli Ingram for a duet show at the Blue Sky Vineyard in Makanda.

“I’m booked solid and having more fun playing music than I ever have in my life,” he says. “People are starving for real country music, those good ole beer drinking songs that tear your heart out. One of the things that has kept me working so much is that I’ve stayed the course. After I got established as a honky-tonk singer, I never changed. The music never gets old to me.”

Clark says one of his career highlights occurred just last month, when he opened for Mark Wills at the Marion Cultural & Civic Center.

“I sang a Merle Haggard song at sound check and as I was walking around backstage Mark came out of a dressing room and told me he loved Haggard,” Clark says.

“Mark is one of the nicest artists I’ve ever had the pleasure of opening for. He sat down with me and Wes Bennett from WDDD and we just talked about music. We lost track of time and I went on stage 10 minutes late. I ask him if he wanted me to drop a couple songs from my set list. He told me he wanted to hear them all.”

Clark says Wills’ drummer, Brice Williams, a Marion native, played with him in the band Crenshaw Crossing for 6 to 9 months. Greg Clutts and Greg Drury were also in the group, that eventually morphed into Last Resort.

Another unbelievable event for Clark was being invited on the tour bus of Daryle Singletary at the Du Quoin State Fair. They discovered they both were huge fans of gospel singer Kenny Hinson, who died in 1995. They started passing a guitar back and forth and sang songs like “Two Winning Hands” and “Call Me Gone.”

“That was one of the highlights of my life,” Clark said.

One of the biggest names in traditional country music, Singletary died in February.

Clark has deep roots in Christian music. He started singing in his family’s gospel band in 1986.

“I’m going to start recording a Southern gospel album in November and will dedicate it to my mom and dad. They got me started. I would be nowhere musically without them,” he says.

Clark says John DeNosky has agreed to produce the album. Banjo picker Kyle Triplett of The Bankesters has agreed play on the record and Clark will include a duet with Freeman.

After 26 years of playing local clubs, Clark is going strong.

He still plays shows with Jackson Junction and had been in the local all-star band The Deplorables, but dropped out when he started back to work full time. The band continues with Greg Clutts on lead vocals and now plays much more rock and very little country.

“I’m proud of the career I’ve had,” Clark says. “There hasn’t been any record deals or hit singles, but I’ve done some pretty cool stuff.”

There will be a 50th birthday party for Clark Dec. 8 at Teddy’s Sports Bar & Grill in Herrin.

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VINCE HOFFARD can be reached at vincehoffard@gmail.com or 618-658-9095.

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