Archive for July, 2013

Guy Clark Story from 2008

July 29, 2013

No Lonesome Tune

Committing Guy Clark to the air

By Jim Caligiuri, Fri., Sept. 12, 2008

No Lonesome Tune

Photo by John Carrico
  • No Lonesome Tune

    Retiring the dean of Texas songwriters? Fat chance.


  • Guy Clark Reviewed


He hasn’t lived in Texas for decades, but Guy Clark is still considered the dean of Texas songwriters. A Mount Rushmore of Texas troubadours would slot his granite face, as well as the sharp features of his best friend, Townes Van Zandt. The reason, besides the fact that he’s been doing it better and longer than almost anyone else, is his weave of lyrics and melody, which strike at the heart of the matter more consistently than anyone else. A lifelong lover of poetry, Clark’s songs are painstakingly built until there’s not a word out of place.

“The words need to work on paper as well as with the music,” he explains from his home in Nashville. “So you don’t get a lot of ‘ooh wah, ooh wah, baby’ in my songs, because it may sound good onstage, but it sure doesn’t hold up on paper. Townes and I would sit around, and anytime we thought we were pretty smart, we’d get out a recording of Dylan Thomas reading his own work, and it would bring us back to earth.”

The results are tunes that have become part of Texas folklore: “L.A. Freeway,” “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” “Texas, l947,” “Dublin Blues,” “Heartbroke,” “Oklahoma Borderline,” “She’s Crazy for Leavin’,” “Boats to Build,” “Randall Knife.” A pantheon of country music stars including Jerry Jeff Walker, Johnny Cash, the Highwaymen, Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, and Brad Paisley have paid their respects through Clark’s compositions.

Born in Monahans, between Pecos and Odessa in West Texas, on Nov. 6, 1941, he moved to Rockport, on the Gulf Coast, at 16. Instructed by his father’s law partner, he learned to play on a $12 Mexican guitar, and the first songs he learned were mostly in Spanish. Clark began his career during the folk revival of the 1960s in Houston. There he had his first exposure to greatness, learning at the feet of folk/blues mavens Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

“Mance lived up the road in Navasota,” recalls Clark in his trademark gravel tones. “Lightin’ was always playing around in bars in Houston, sometimes bars that white kids couldn’t go into without his permission. He’d give folk-type concerts. Mance wasn’t a bar player like Lightnin’ was, but I actually went over to his house for a folk-music group, and we sat in his living room and played some songs. He wasn’t really known that well at the time. He was very influential to me. The thing about him and Lightnin’ both was that they were songwriters. They weren’t doing other people’s songs, and I think that was more appealing to me than I knew at the time. I figured that out later.”

Clark shifted between San Francisco and Houston for a time later in the decade, before settling in Los Angeles, where he began working in the Dopyera brothers’ Dobro factory building guitars. In 1971 he signed a publisher’s deal with RCA’s Sunbury Music and moved to Nashville, where he has been ever since.

Déjà vu again: Guy Clark and Ramblin' Jack Elliott at the Cactus Cafe, 2004

Déjà vu again: Guy Clark and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott at the Cactus Cafe, 2004
Photo by John Carrico

Around the same time, Jerry Jeff Walker was settling into Austin, and his recording of “L.A. Freeway” on a self-titled 1972 release became a hit on FM radio. A year later, Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train” was part of Walker’s now historic ¡Viva Terlingua! LP, which set in motion the “progressive country” movement.

The move to Music City forged many fruitful relationships. A group of like-minded singer-songwriters – Van Zandt, Crowell, Mickey Newbury, Billy Joe Shaver, Steve Earle, David Allen Coe – coalesced around Clark and his wife Susanna’s dining-room table, where recurring guitar pulls translated into songs that reverberate to this millennia. Even Susanna Clark, a talented painter, put down her brushes and began writing hit songs.

In 1975, Clark released his first album, Old No. 1, on RCA to critical acclaim. In the intervening years, he’s penned 11 more, hardly a blistering pace. While some are better than others, each is filled with exquisitely crafted lyrics and melodies. His most recent, Workbench Songs (Sept. 15, 2006), found him writing with Nashville veterans Crowell, Gary Nicholson, Lee Roy Parnell, Darrell Scott, and Verlon Thompson, while never losing sight of his meticulous song construction.

“Sometimes you just get stuck,” admits Clark. “I’ve been doing this for 35, 40 years, and you finally run out of your own bullshit. I still write by myself, but [writing with others] is something I actually enjoy. When you’re throwing stuff back and forth between two people, you actually have to say the words out loud. I can sit here and look at something I’ve written and mumble it to myself for weeks and think, ‘Oh man that’s just wonderful,’ and all of a sudden you sing it out loud, and it doesn’t hold up. There’s something about committing it to the air.”

He pauses for a few seconds.

“You can fool yourself a long time thinking something’s really good without singing it.”

Workbench Songs also contained a cover of Van Zandt’s “No Lonesome Tune.” Clark’s included one such reworking per album since his friend’s death in 1997. Talking to Clark, it’s inevitable the subject of Van Zandt will not only come up but will jog memories, too. Like the celebration of Van Zandt that was taped for Austin City Limits not long after his death. It still chills this writer’s bones thinking of the love and sadness that was present that evening as Clark led a Van Zandt-themed songwriters in the round with Willie Nelson, Earle, Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Lovett, and others. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

David Byrne, Clark, and Marcia Ball during the glory years of Liberty Lunch

David Byrne, Clark, and Marcia Ball during the glory years of Liberty Lunch
Photo by John Carrico

“I always loved his work, his sense of humor, and his intelligence,” says Clark, recalling the occasion all too well. “He did what he did. I’m surprised he lived that long. He was really good. Crazy, but really good. I’m trying to learn one of his songs right now. I usually do one of his songs on the records I’ve been making, and I’m learning ‘If I Needed You.’ He wrote it in my house. He said he had a dream, and he woke up and wrote it down. Then when we all got up in the morning, he played it. It’s actually pretty simple.

“I’m getting pretty close to having a new record. I don’t really have a reason to make a new record unless I have 10 or 12 new songs. I like to have ’em finished and performed for a while before I go into the studio. It eliminates a lot of unwarranted costs.

“I’ll do some new songs at the shows coming up.”

Clark battled lymphoma, a cancer that attacks a part of the immune system called the lymphatic system, a few years back and says it’s now in remission. Those that saw him recently at the Paramount with Lovett, John Hiatt, and Joe Ely (“Live Shots,” May 9) might be wondering about that boot he wore and the crutches he brought onstage.

“I broke my leg in a silly household accident,” he explains. “I was on crutches for three months. It was not fun. It seems to be healing well. Life’s a crapshoot to begin with. I just don’t have the time to be sick. I’ve got some shit to do.”

Now that he’s approaching 70, one wonders if there are any thoughts of retirement. He lets out a big, crackling laugh.

“Retirement? Good one. There’s an oxymoron: retired songwriter.”

Another Guy Clark interview

July 29, 2013

from Peter Cooper in the Tennessean

Clark is a Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer who has been in Nashville since 1971. He and his wife, songwriter and painter Susanna Clark, who died in 2012, were at the center of a Nashville songwriters’ scene that included Mickey NewburyTownes Van ZandtRodney CrowellBilly Joe Shaver and other greats.

Guy Clark is also 71 and a cancer survivor who has thrived in Nashville, not by writing hit songs, but by writing remarkable ones. His “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” “L.A. Freeway,” “Randall Knife” and “Dublin Blues” are considered among the most eloquent and emotionally compelling songs ever written in Nashville.

Here are some highlights of a recent talk:


Coming to Nashville

“Well, I’ve been sick and laid up, and my sinuses are driving me crazy. Susanna always said that’s the way they got the country sound: singing through their noses, with Nashville allergies. I’ve had a sinus operation, but it didn’t take on me. I’m carrying a heart defibrillator around now.

(photo: Sanford Myers/The Tennessean)

(photo: Sanford Myers/The Tennessean)

“Mickey Newbury was the reason I came here. Same for Townes. We wound up in Nashville because of Newbury. I was in Los Angeles, and I got a publishing deal, and the publisher said, ‘Where do you want to live?’ Susanna and I decided on Nashville because we knew Newbury. When we first got here, we stayed on Mickey’s houseboat for, like, three weeks.

“Mickey was a giant help to me. I’d be in the middle of figuring out what to do about song contracts or record contracts. He’d just hand me his Elektra Records contracts and say, ‘Here’s what mine says.’ Being pretty smart, and a lawyer’s son, I got the hang of it right quick. The first thing I did was rewrite Mickey’s contract in my own handwriting and send it to RCA. They offered me a job instead of a record deal.

“Mickey was a unique, one-of-a-kind son of a (gun) to sing as well as he did. Crystalline. Pure. And to do those guitar and vocal arrangements in his head, and play that all out loud. He could do anything musical. He could whistle like a bird. Then he’d go and make records and put so much echo on them that you couldn’t even listen. I’d go to the studio when he was mixing, and I’d be screaming, ‘No! No!’ It grated on my nerves. It’s hard to imagine sitting in a room with him and listening to him play those songs, just him and a guitar, and even harder to even come close to imagining why he would drip that beautiful sound with such obnoxious echo. Every time I put one of those records on and listen, I get (annoyed) and turn it off. The only one he did that wasn’t like (the others was) the live one he did at San Diego State (‘Live at Montezuma Hall’). But in Nashville at that time, Newbury was a big influence on all of us.

“We lived for a while on Chapel Avenue in East Nashville. It was a weird little place. Solid concrete block. It was like a little jail cell or something. Townes stayed with Susanna and me there a lot. He wrote ‘If I Needed You’ in that house. One afternoon, I was (annoyed) at Townes and Susanna over something, and I went off into the front room, picked up a big, 10-penny driving nail and nailed myself in there. Well, that was all fine until I had to pee. Then I couldn’t get out. The hammer was big enough to drive that nail, but too small to pull it out. … It took me all day to get out of there, but I wrote three songs that day: ‘L.A. Freeway,’ ‘Let Him Roll’ and a goofy one I never recorded called ‘I Can’t Make This Flat Pick Work.’”

The making of ‘Desperados’

“I’d get obsessed with stuff. I’d work for days and days, usually making no progress. I couldn’t quit until I finally got it right. ‘Desperados Waiting for a Train’ was like that. I finished that in an old log cabin we had on Old Hickory Lake. I think I’d always known that was going to be a song. It’s about Jack Prigg, a dapper old guy who was so important in my life. My grandmother’s boyfriend, you could say. I’d stay with them in Monahans, West Texas. When I was 15 or 16, I had started playing guitar. Jack was big buddies with the guy that owned the pawn shop, and we’d borrow a guitar from him. We’d sit around the kitchen in my grandmother’s hotel, and he’d get these big tears and say, ‘Can you play the ‘Red River Valley’? That was his favorite.”


‘The Waltzing Fool’

“Lyle Lovett is a real intelligent, well-educated gentleman. He knocked me out the first time I heard him. A friend of mine left Lyle’s tape in my office, and one afternoon I listened and then I just could not put it down. There was enough material on that tape for two albums, and it was all good. After that, everybody that walked into my office had to listen to Lyle’s tape. It was, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a hit song for you, but, first, listen to this!’ One day I was walking across the street, and (record executive) Tony Brown was sitting outside of a restaurant in the courtyard. I said, ‘Tony, I’ve got something you’ve got to hear. Wait right here.’ I went back to my office, got a copy of that tape for Tony, and the next thing I knew, Lyle had a record deal.

“My favorite song on Lyle’s tape was ‘The Waltzing Fool.’ I liked the rest of them, too, but ‘The Waltzing Fool’ just stuck in my head. There was something so charming and so Texas and so elegant in the writing of that song. Last year, ASCAP was giving Lyle a big award, and he asked if I would do a song of his at the awards. This was when I was in the middle of recording this album, ‘My Favorite Picture of You.’ I worked up ‘The Waltzing Fool,’ did it at the awards, and then the next morning we went into the studio and recorded it.”

Putting his foot down

“When I got my first record deal, with RCA, I made a whole record with the producer they assigned to me, and by the end of it I said, ‘Man, if you put this record out, I will change my name. I will not be associated.’ Rodney (Crowell) heard what was happening, heard the record and said, ‘Guy, this ain’t you. Let me help you, and we’ll get another budget, go into the studio with Neil Wilburn and beg, borrow and steal pickers and studio time until we get something you can live with.

“This was not an easy decision to make. I had no power, other than to put my foot down and scream, which was what I did. I said to RCA, ‘No, man, you are not going to make me put this out. It’s not what I do.’ They’d say, ‘Oh, it’s OK. Wait’ll you hear the mix.’ ‘No, I’ve heard the mix. I’m not going to do it.’ I had to argue with everyone involved. I had a manager, and the only good thing he ever did for me was back me on this. He put his foot down and said, ‘No, Mr. Clark is not pleased, and he will not be associated.’

“Rodney and I and Neil Wilburn stole the master tapes out of the vault at RCA, went to some studio, remixed and overdubbed some things and cut some things and recorded some new things, and there it was: ‘Old No. 1.’ When we were done, you really couldn’t argue with it. They were great songs. Playboy magazine reviewed mine in the same issue as Willie Nelson’s ‘Red Headed Stranger.’ My review was better than his. Willie recovered.”

Through sickness

“It was really nice to get this new record done. I was really sick when I was doing it, the whole time. I was barely making it into the studio, and thinking I might have to re-record all those vocals. But it wound up that the vocals have a certain character to them, a gravity that I really like. I’ve always been trying to get to that, and I guess I never was sick enough to get it.

(photo: Sanford Myers/The Tennessean)

(photo: Sanford Myers/The Tennessean)

“Shawn Camp and I have another one on here about Sis Draper. She was a woman who traveled around Arkansas and played in bands, and Shawn’s family was friends with her. She’d stay with them, and she’d play and they’d dance on the living room floor: roll back the rugs and have at it. That’s how Shawn learned to play the fiddle. We were trying to write a song one day, and he was telling these stories about Sis, and finally I stopped him and said, ‘Shawn, that’s the song we’re looking for.’ It had never occurred to him to write about his life like that. … We had ‘The Ballad of Sis Draper’ and then one song after another about her. We had a wealth of material. Finally, it got a little tedious, so we decided we were gonna kill her off with the song on this record, ‘The Death of Sis Draper.’ But then the other day, another thought came to me: ‘The Ghost of Sis Draper’!”

Like yesterday

“I didn’t want to be a publisher. … Didn’t want to have my own record company. I just wanted to write songs and play them for folks. That’s what I do, and what I did. Anytime you tried to spread that out, it seemed to me you were in some deep (trouble). That’s just common sense.

“People come up and say, ‘What was it like back then?’ Well, how would I know? I was (messed) up. I don’t remember. Things change, and you’ve got to be true to yourself. You’ve got to do the work. But when someone asks what that was like … it was like yesterday.”

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Another well done Guy Clark Interview

July 27, 2013

Guy Clark channels ‘a rough two years’ into a masterful new album:
My Favorite Picture of You

The man I am interviewing sits facing the calm summer afternoon that shines outside his window, and I have just forced the conversation into an unexpected moment of asperity. You’d think I would have known better than to parrot a Nashville songwriters’ cliché to Guy Clark, who has been answering my questions with good humor and better grace. With his deadpan comic timing, Clark reminds me of a laconic character from a Howard Hawks movie about cooled-out professionals, and I’m already a little in awe of him, since Clark is one of the world’s greatest songwriters — definitely a professional, but subtler than that appellation may imply.

So here I am, calling Guy Clark’s new song “El Coyote” — one of the 11 mostly co-written songs that compose his new album My Favorite Picture of You — a “good example of his craft,” as if I know what that means. Uttering the word previously, I had noticed a tiny wince pass across Clark’s noble face. As a songwriter, Clark has no peer, and any new Clark collection is another reminder of his pre-eminent position in a city where there is no shortage of great, ambitious writers. Clark’s way of writing profoundly changed Nashville, but he’s an artist for the world. Like any student of songwriting, I know this, but sometimes you get sloppy.

“Well, I just want to interject this,” Clark says. “You’ve used that word twice, and I find that word a little offensive when it’s applied to songwriting. I really think it’s poetry and it’s art. I let it get stuck on me when one of those small record companies that puts out all the — what’s their name?”

I fumble around in my memory, and finally I get it: “Rounder.”

“Right, Rounder had bought some masters of my three Warner Bros. albums and wanted to put it out, and I said, ‘That’s fine, put it out, whatever you wanna do,’ ” Clark explains in his Texas-to-Tennessee half-drawl. “And the cover came out with Craftsman as the title of the album. And it rubbed me wrong right then. My life was crazy, and everything was goin’ on, and I said, ‘Yeah, shit, I don’t care,’ and the more it stuck, the more I grew offended by applying that to the art and the poetry of writing songs. At least, my approach.”

The moment passes, and I explain that my use of the word “craft” was misguided — what I meant was “technique.” But the point sticks, and if there’s one thing that should stay with any listener who sits down with a great Clark song such as “Dublin Blues” or “Broken Hearted People,” it’s the way that his words and music avoid overt displays of technique.

In the bright early-summer afternoon, as I bring up topics that range from irrelevant to weighty — songwriting, the influence of Texas bluesman Mance Lipscomb on his work, chord transposition — Clark seems willing to talk shop. He doesn’t really throw me when he bristles at “craft,” but it’s an essential point about his work, and I’m happy to be corrected. He is unquestionably an artist, yet one who discusses his art in concrete, unpretentious terms of tools and work. The artist has the vision, while the craftsman gets the job done: maybe so. But Clark’s most enduring music uses language in a double role: His words are pigmentation and points in a narrative, and that’s craftsmanship in the service of an artistic vision, just as he tells me.

It is impossible to think of Clark’s work without the work ethic that informs it. For one thing, only a man with serious resolve could have made it through his past few years.

In Guy Clark’s songs, poetry never precludes psychological penetration. But his work has achieved poetic density over his 40-year career as singer, songwriter, painter, teacher, performer and guitar maker. Clark has brought his sure touch to bear on everything he’s essayed, and it’s his ability to create the illusion of equanimity amidst turmoil that comes through in My Favorite Picture of You.

Clark describes the mid-’90s period that saw the release of Craftsman as a turbulent time. More demanding, though, have been the past five years. After breaking his leg in 2008, the songwriter got back on his feet to play a series of live performances with a group featuring his longtime collaborator and friend Verlon Thompson. Since 2011, Clark has had knee replacements and an arterial bypass. As he says, “It’s been a rough two years — I’m startin’ to get tired of this shit.”

But Clark’s biggest loss was the death last year of his wife, Susanna, to whom he had been married 40 years. The influence of Susanna Clark is everywhere in Clark’s world. Hanging in the house is her painting of a blue shirt — the one featured on the cover of his 1975 debut, Old No. 1.

In fact, it’s a photograph of Susanna that gives My Favorite Picture of You its title. As Clark explains, Susanna was angry at him and their friend Townes Van Zandt that day — no telling what antics they were perpetrating. He expands on the story of that frozen moment, and the “Polaroid shot someone took on the spot,” in My Favorite Picture‘s title track.

“She never had to do anything but be an artist,” he says of Susanna, who painted album covers for Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris and was herself a talented songwriter. (Her composer credits include “I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose,” a 1975 hit for country singer Dottsy, and “Easy From Now On,” written with Carlene Carter and recorded by Emmylou Harris and later Miranda Lambert.) You can see her grinning with Clark on the back of his 1976 Texas Cookin’ album, where she looks like a woman who knows her own mind, and your mind too.

Written with Gordie Sampson, “My Favorite Picture of You” is about love that burns hot — Susanna’s angry gaze contrasts with the “winter squall” Clark and Sampson introduce into their narrative. With a spare arrangement featuring Bryn Davies’ cello, the song develops like a Polaroid. The music and words match perfectly, in songwriting so evocative and exact that it captures a moment, and a love, for the ages in just the single word “click.”

Clark has always been a minimalist with a canny sense of what stuff works where. My Favorite Picture was written and recorded with a variety of virtuoso instrumentalists and accomplished tunesmiths, including Shawn Camp, Jedd Hughes and Ray Stephenson. The collaborations introduce a new level of complexity to his music, but Clark is such an astute self-editor that it’s never obtrusive. For example, a song written with Camp, “Cornmeal Waltz,” sports a chromatic melody that mirrors the tension lurking beneath Clark’s painterly lyrics.

“I was talkin’ to Guy about when I was a kid, I used to work in these VFW and American Legion Halls in Benton, Ark.,” remembers Camp, an Arkansas-born multi-instrumentalist who is also a fine performer and a superb post-rockabilly singer in his own right. “I was tellin’ him about this old man who used to come in there right before the dance every Friday night, and he had him a two-and-a-half pound bag of cornmeal that he’d scatter around on that old dance floor.”

While the title song may be the centerpiece of Clark’s new record, he examines various corners of modern American life with equal precision. “El Coyote” is an account of a border crossing effected by means of cash and a smuggler’s semi. “Rain in Durango” takes an amused look at a modern-day hippie who travels very lightly around the festival circuit. Written with Camp, it employs a Newgrass style appropriate to the song’s subject matter.

“I’ve gone to festivals all my life, and you see these little hippie chicks out there noodle-dancin’ in the mosh pit, snakin’ around, probably eating mushrooms,” says Camp, who brings finesse and creative insanity to My Favorite Picture of You. He’s been working with Clark for 20 years, even though their first meeting was inauspicious.

“I used to work at this vegetarian restaurant in Nashville, and I was like a host there,” Camp recalls, laughing. “I seated Guy at his table one day, and it was like, ‘Man, Guy Clark, he wants red beans and rice.’ ” Signed to a major label in 1992, Camp began writing with Clark, and he’s contributed songs and licks to recent Clark albums such as 2006’s Workbench Songs and the 2009 Somedays the Song Writes You.

The list of songwriters influenced by Clark comprises such country and Americana performers as Camp, Thompson, Hughes, Rodney Crowell, Lyle Lovett (whose “Waltzing Fool” Clark covers on the new record), Steve Earle and Hayes Carll. I hear Clark in the work of Old 97’s songwriter Rhett Miller, while former Go-Betweens singer and songwriter Robert Forster namechecks Clark and Van Zandt at the end of his 1991 song, “Dear Black Dream.”

Clark has been honored with this year’s Academy of Country Music’s Poet Award, and he’s been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. Nominated for a slew of Grammys himself, he’s the subject of the 2011 Grammy-nominated full-length, This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark. Yet for all the praise heaped upon his head, Clark is a master who lauds his followers.

“A lot of these young guys who come over here and write with me are just monster guitar players,” Clark says. “Gordie [Sampson] is a young writer here in town, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, a really good guitar player and singer and writer. So we’ll sit and write something and they’ll play and sing it, and I’ll record a work tape of it and then I have to go back and learn it. I would never think of that shit.”

As My Favorite Picture of You demonstrates, Clark is an intelligent collaborator. But the method — the gently nudged narrative that reveals its point of view as it introduces details and moves in controlled cadences — remains his. “My songwriting is pretty much what it is, and usually, if I’ve been co-writing with someone and someone leaves, I heavily edit those songs to suit my sensibilities,” he says. “They’re my songs by the time they get on the record.”

On his most recent work, Clark works within severe stylistic parameters — the performances are mostly drumless and almost all acoustic. But there’s nothing constrained about his new music, though it clearly passes the rigorous tests Clark gives himself. Oklahoma-born songwriter and guitarist Verlon Thompson is another long-time Clark associate who has learned from Clark’s example, having played with him on stage and produced him in the studio.

“He doesn’t approach the studio a lot differently than his live show,” Thompson says. “He goes in, he sits down, he performs the song, and everyone plays along until he’s happy with his performance. He’s been pretty consistent about not trying to add too much to the songs, you know. If it doesn’t really lend something, it doesn’t end up on the record.”

For Rodney Crowell, the Texas-born songwriter who hung out with Clark in Nashville in the ’70s, as Van Zandt and Clark helped reinvent Nashville songwriting along literary lines that would have been unthinkable a decade earlier, Clark synthesizes folk and country.

“Lookin’ for that definition of what makes a Guy Clark song, you gotta start with that folk tradition,” Crowell says. “It’s where the clarity of your language is very important. At the same time, reality had been shattered by Dylan’s apocalyptic imagery. Artists are constantly reassembling, and I think Guy just reassembled all the images that were floating in a very concise, literary way.”

As Crowell says, Clark came from the folk tradition, but he was also a singer-songwriter. If part of what makes Nashville songwriting unique is its ability to ride the folk-country-pop cusp, Clark and company had one foot uneasily in pop and the other foot stuck in a bucket marked Tradition. The pull of country music and the old ways — the old-time feeling he parsed in one of his greatest ’70s songs — was strong, and it led him to mastermind his revolution in song-obsessed Music City, where determining the difference between craft and art has always been difficult.

The Nashville songwriters’ scene that James Szalapski’s 1981 film Heartworn Highways documents features Clark in 1975 and early 1976, after the release of Old No. 1. The sequences with Steve Young, Clark and Van Zandt catch them as they attempt to deal with the reality of Southern heritage. Young’s rueful song about those old Alabama highways is illustrated by prosaic highway footage, while Clark sings “L.A. Freeway,” a song about falling asleep in a car and remembering how his friend “Skinny” Dennis Sanchez once performed the old songs in the old, comforting way. In fact, Heartworn Highways is dedicated to Sanchez, who died in March 1975.

Heartworn Highways catches Nashville songwriting as it evolves from genre production into a malleable, hybrid form. For these songwriters, the sticking point was the impossibility of returning to the past and its ways. Nashville sold genial mirages, but Clark and the other songwriters sometimes skirted sentimentality in the classic folkie manner as they turned folk-country-pop into elegies for the irretrievable past. Clark’s genius was to give this romantic quest the bones to walk, ridding it of flab without losing the dramatic backdrop that seethes in his songs.

Clark had come to Nashville in November 1971, just as he had turned 30. Born on Nov. 6, 1941 in Monahans, Texas, Clark grew up in a literature-loving household. “We never had a record player around the house, but we were encouraged in the arts from day one,” he says. “My mother was kind of theatrical — she would always be puttin’ on little readings and plays. After dinner, we’d sit around and read poetry out of a book.”

Clark’s father’s law partner — a woman named Lola Bonner — was among the group of doctors and lawyers whom the young Clark heard playing folk music, and these informal song sessions inspired Clark to become a performer. The family had moved from Monahans in West Texas to Rockport, not far from the Gulf Coast. Clark’s father had returned from World War II and had decided to go to law school in Houston.

“He got a law degree and passed the bar with the highest grade in the state,” Clark says of his father. “He was one of those brilliant guys, and he practiced law in Houston for six months, and then, I remember, we drove all around Texas and he really liked the hill country, but he couldn’t find the right situation.”

Clark’s father settled in Rockport, where he took over the practice of a lawyer who was ready to retire. At this stage, the family moved back and forth between Monahans and Rockport. As Clark remembers, “We spent the winters on the Gulf Coast and the summers in Monahans, and I mean, it was hot. Out there, it’s flat, but in the distance there’s always a mountainscape, and it’s high and dry.”

After graduating from high school, Clark went to college in Kingsville at Texas A&I, where he played basketball and majored in physics. “It was way too ambitious,” he says. “I couldn’t do well academically and play basketball and feed my growing guitar habit.”

Clark began playing Texas folk clubs, performing a standard folkie repertoire circa 1960. “We liked ‘Tom Dooley’ and Woody Guthrie,” Clark says. “I don’t even think Bob Dylan was in our repertoire at the time. We learned ‘Black Land Farmer’ — what a great song. And Jack Clement’s ‘Miller’s Cave.’ ”

He wasn’t writing songs during this period, he says, and he continued to hone his skills in clubs in Houston, where he had moved to attend the University of Houston. He had already met Van Zandt around 1964 (“I think he had written two or three songs, but we just became great friends”), gotten married and divorced, and had worked as an art director for a television station before he moved to San Francisco late in the decade. Returning to Houston, he got an art-director job with the local CBS affiliate.

“I did it really well, but what finally got to me was the fact that TV waits on no man,” says Clark. “The pace is incessant, and if you don’t have your shit ready, TV keeps tickin’.”

Having already met the Oklahoma-born Susanna Talley, Clark decided to go to Los Angeles to pursue his songwriting career. “If I didn’t do something about it, it was gonna be too late,” he says. “Susanna said, ‘Man, why don’t you get the fuck out of here and go do what you wanna do?’ I had 100 percent support, and she was painting.”

Working at the Dopyera Brothers’ guitar factory in Long Beach, Clark hustled. “I would make an appointment, jump in the old VW bus, and drive through the smog into L.A. But all I had was a guitar — I didn’t have any tapes,” Clark says. “One day the publisher that I had been seeing called me and said, ‘Look, the president of the company is comin’ in tomorrow’ — this was RCA’s publishing company — ‘and why don’t you come down and play him some songs?’ ”

Clark passed the audition. He came with Susanna to Nashville in 1971. The only people he knew in town were Mickey Newbury and Townes Van Zandt. He and Susanna were married the following year, on Newbury’s houseboat, and Clark lived in East Nashville for a while before renting a log cabin on Old Hickory Lake.

The first Clark cuts were by Harold Lee, who did a talking blues about a con man titled “The Old Mother’s Locket Trick,” and by The Everly Brothers, who recorded “A Nickel for the Fiddler” in 1972. The same year, Jerry Jeff Walker turned “L.A. Freeway” into a minor hit single.

But it was Clark’s Old No. 1 that established him as a post-Outlaw Nashville songwriter. In the year of such singer-songwriter monuments as Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Clark’s debut added the playing of Nashville studio players to his snapshots of Texas myth and reality. The artistry of Old No. 1 sneaks up on you, from the built-in pause that Clark uses in “L.A. Freeway” — an objective correlative to the song’s push-and-pull narrative — to the way “Rita Ballou” works off Clark’s repetition of the word “fool” in different contexts. Meanwhile, “That Old Time Feeling” is chilling — a song for winter days with old cats and steam hissing from radiators.

Clark followed up Old No. 1 with 1976’s Texas Cookin’, which may be his funkiest, easiest album. The clavinet-driven “The Ballad of Laverne and Captain Flint” is like a Nashville-ized version of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s recasting of a Dylan song — only here it’s Clark himself and a band of local session players doing the reconfiguring.

As his career developed, Clark garnered renditions of his songs by such hitmakers as John Conlee, Ricky Skaggs and Kenny Chesney. Perhaps the greatest of all the country versions of his songs is Gary Stewart’s 1977 take on “Broken Hearted People,” in which Stewart’s tortured vibrato gives Clark’s barroom lament an edge of desperation missing in the original.

Clark’s recorded output is consistent, even though there are moments on such later records as Dublin Blues where the production becomes obtrusive. Still, Dublin Blues contains “Hangin’ Your Life on the Wall,” a song he wrote with Thompson about losing your grip on things. Listen to this, and other of Clark’s finest songs, and you may come away musing upon the precise relationship between seemingly uninflected music and seemingly straightforward words as you immerse yourself in the deep pool of his art. His knife cuts different ways on different days.

Clark’s recent records have their gentle, gnomic side. But the collaboration with Rodney Crowell that closes out My Favorite Picture of You is a portrait of a nasty human being who has delusions of artistry and grandeur, all fueled by alcohol and self-pity. Featuring a chromatic blues guitar lick, the song shows aspiring artists how not to be an artist. It’s very easy: Do nothing.

Crowell says “I’ll Show Me” is about “the audacity of vanity,” which sums it up nicely. The result, however, is Clark at his most compelling. As Crowell says, “Guy is a great song actor. He can write a wonderful song, but his delivery of it is very well-acted.”

Even so, for Clark, who will forever be associated with Texas and the Texan genius for self-invention, creating music hasn’t been about assuming a persona.

“It’s easy to invent yourself in Texas,” Clark says. “After the Civil War, there were all these signs on old log cabins that said, ‘Gone to Texas.’ I just tried to be what I was, and I don’t think I invented a persona any more than anyone else does. Certainly not as much as David Allan Coe.”

What about going back to Texas?

“I like Texas — if I ever break even, I’m goin’ back,” he says, a little ruefully. “At this point, I don’t have the energy to move back to Texas. I could do it. I don’t know if it’s money or energy. But if I ever break even, I’m moving back. I’m still in the red with publishers, and I don’t like that, the psychological thing of, I just want to earn every penny I get, and I’m workin’ on it, but I’m not there. That’s something I feel strongly about: I promise you you’re not gonna lose money on me, unless I die or something.”

Guy Clark – Nice article/interview from Doug Freeman

July 18, 2013

We Were From Texas

Guy Clark and the high price of inspiration
Texas Triangle: Guy Clark, Susanna Clark, Townes Van Zandt

by Doug Freeman – Austin Chronicle July 19,2013

Guy Clark pushes a fading, black and white photograph across the table.

In it, a man leans against a 1939 Packard, foot propped up on the bumper in the dusty streets of Monahans, Texas. “Jack Prigg” reads the inscription on the back. He’s smiling and sharply dressed in a black suit, a gleam of success in his grin. The image is striking for its sheer contrast to the portrait of Prigg immortalized in Clark’s “Desper­ados Waiting for a Train,” the old, busted oil-driller crying at the kitchen table to broken memories and songs.

“Well, that must have been a Sunday,” laughs Clark, looking at the photo as he carefully takes a toke from the last vestiges of a joint and lets loose a rattling cough.

The workshop in the basement of Clark’s west Nashville home collects such memories. His father’s Randall knife sits on the workbench alongside his tools for making guitars. Behind him, shelves of cassettes with handwritten labels display a country songwriters hall of fame. A black and white photo of Townes Van Zandt, his haunted eyes somehow tracking around the room, stares down from the wall.

Clark pinches a clump of tobacco and begins rolling a cigarette. The 71-year-old songwriter’s eyes sharpen as he takes in the room, his lips pursed together between the faint stains of yellow on his white mustache and goatee.

“Shit, I’d go back to Texas in a second if I could break even,” he says. “But the music business is here, and if I could just pay back what they’ve given me, or advanced me, I would love to live in Texas. At this point, though, I don’t know. I’m too fucking old to move back, pack all this shit up.”

Clark’s lack of sentimentality is deceiving. What the songwriter submerges in person surfaces in the deeply personal poetry of his songs, from “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” to the elegy for his father in “The Randall Knife,” and the title track of his new album, “My Favorite Picture of You,” an ode to his wife Susanna, who passed away last year after an extended decline from cancer.

Guy and Susanna’s marriage stands as one of the great relationships in music. As strongly devoted as it was tumultuous, their union and the art it produced became the locus for a new community of songwriters that emerged in the Seventies, a wave of scrappy expatriate Texans overtaking Nashville that included Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, and most notably, Van Zandt, whose lifelong friendships with both Clarks remain inextricable from the couple’s relationship.

Those days feel impossibly far away in the quiet of Clark’s house as he draws slowly on his cigarette.

“If you want good friends, they’re gonna cost you,” he notes as he exhales a thin line of smoke.

The South Coast of Texas

“The first guitars I got were in South Texas,” remembers Clark. “You go over the border and buy a cheap Mexican guitar, and the reason they’re $12 is because they’re not worth a shit. They’re hard to play and they don’t play in tune. So to me, the first thing to do was to fix it: ‘Let’s just fix this son of a bitch.’ I’ve always had an easy relationship with wood. The first thing you get in West Texas is a pocket knife. You make your own toys.”

Clark grew up splitting time between the West Texas desert of Monahans, where his grandmother ran a boarding house, and the southern Gulf Coast town of Rockport, home to his father’s successful law practice. Music wasn’t an immediate influence on the boy, but those formative years provided continuing fodder for his songs via known characters like Prigg and the subjects informing “Boats to Build” and “Texas 1947.”

“My father took on a new law partner at one point, and she played the guitar and sang in Spanish,” Clark recalls. “The first time I heard people passing the guitar around and singing in Spanish, I was hooked. That became the focus of my whole life after that.”

Arriving in Houston in the early Sixties, he quickly fell in with fellow troubadours Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury, and Jerry Jeff Walker in a scene forming the vanguard of new Texas songwriters amid legendary blues and folk of artists like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. Guy moved Susanna there from Oklahoma City after dating her sister.

“Her sister blew her brains out,” he says bluntly. “We were sitting together at the funeral. We eventually packed up her Volkswagen and drove it to Houston.

“Sure there were reservations,” he adds. “We weren’t fooling ourselves. We knew it was going to be weird, and it was. Still is. It was just time for a change in everybody’s life, and you just have to catch it as it goes by.”

The two eventually relocated to California in pursuit of a record contract, with Guy working at a Dobro factory while Susanna taught art classes. Their time in L.A. was short-lived and unhappy, but Guy left with a publishing deal in Nashville and inspiration for one of his first hits, the Seventies escape anthem, “L.A. Freeway.”

The couple married in 1972, with Van Zandt serving as best man. He stayed with the newlyweds for the next eight months. In Nashville, the trio’s home became a hub for songwriters, with nightly rounds of guitar-picking parties that served as the catalyst for a new scene of songwriters, captured in the classic documentary Heartworn Highways.

“We just wanted to go play music and not have it cost an arm and a leg, that was the initial impetus,” offers Clark. “But it was fucking Nashville, Tennessee, home of Johnny Cash, and you’re a songwriter from Texas. It was top of the world, like Paris in the Twenties. Me and Townes, Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell. Some serious raw talent.

“We were absolutely ballsy. We were from Texas.”

Comfort and Crazy

At Townes Van Zandt’s funeral in 1997, Guy began his eulogy with typically wry humor.

“I booked this gig 37 years ago,” he told the mourners.

Guy, Susanna, and Townes formed a bond that held together amid the contentiousness that would inevitably develop between the three uniquely stubborn artists.

“In the early years we were always together,” says Clark. “She and Townes were best friends, and Townes and I were best friends. He knew he could always count on me to take him in, or take care of him, or try to.

“And he was always in love with my wife,” he adds with a rasping laugh.

The buddies often exasperated Susanna with their rowdy, all-night binges, while the secrets she shared with her confidant could grate on her husband. Yet all three were forging their creative paths, and by the mid-Seventies, Van Zandt was already celebrated with six albums. Guy began gaining national attention as a progressive country pioneer after Walker cut “L.A. Freeway” and “That Old Time Feeling” for 1972’s eponymous MCA debut, and “Desperados Waiting for a Train” appeared on the seminal Viva Terlingua a year later. In 1975, Clark finally released Old No. 1, an album still heralded as one of his best collections of songs.

Susanna, meanwhile, garnered notoriety for her paintings, including the cover of her mate’s debut, Willie Nelson’s Stardust, and albums by Emmylou Harris and Nanci Griffith. She also began writing songs, penning the 1975 hit “I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose,” as well as Kathy Mattea’s 1989 single “Come From the Heart,” and with Carlene Carter, “Easy From Now On,” the first track on Harris’ Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town.

“They were really just in this artistic life together, and even any money that came in, they were pooling it,” notes Tamara Saviano, who’s writing Guy’s official biography. “Susanna told me of one time Townes got a check for a couple hundred bucks – a royalty check or something – and they were all excited because it meant meat for dinner. They were going to go out and buy groceries, but Townes said the first thing they were doing was buying Susanna some paint.”

Even as their success grew and Van Zandt continued to eschew it, the bond between the three artists remained steadfast.

“Anytime he’d write a new song, he’d come over and play it to me or call me on the phone and play it to me from Montana or wherever he was,” recalls Clark. “We’d play gigs together all the time, and they were always fun or a disaster. Usually both. Neither one of us had a reason for it to be any different.”

Susanna and Townes were similarly linked by a more emotional and spiritual connection sustained through a regular regimen of morning phone calls. When the latter finally succumbed to alcoholism on New Year’s Day 1997, it triggered a descent for Susanna from which she never recovered.

“She was killing herself with cigarettes and pills,” says Clark. “Everybody tried to tell her, everybody tried to help her, but she didn’t give a shit. The big thing that really happened to her, that put her over the edge, was Townes dying. God, they were just so close, and I don’t think she ever got over it.

“She just didn’t like being in this world without Townes being in it. There just wasn’t anybody she could talk to. It was dark.”

Somedays the Song Writes You

On the workbench in the basement, a fiddle lies smashed to pieces inside an equally battered black coffin of a case.

“I broke it over the mantle piece one night, 40 years ago probably,” Clark acknowledges as he smokes another rolled cigarette. “I wish I could remember why. All I know is I never forgot it and saved it ever since – just to teach myself a lesson: Never break instruments.

“One of these days I’m going to glue it back together.”

Clark’s accomplishments as a luthier have reinforced his reputation for songwriting as craftsmanship, but he bristles at the comparison between the two.

“Songwriting is art, it’s poetry, and craftsmanship in that sense is kind of a denigrating term,” he declares. “They can work with each other in a sort of symbiotic relationship, but one is right brain and the other is left brain. I think they feed off of one another. You get tired of being spiritual, and you just go over there and sharpen the tools and cut some wood. It clears your head.

“I edit myself quite a bit before I commit it to a record, and I’ve gotten better at it,” he says. “I don’t write as much as I used to, and if I do, I fix it. If it’s already recorded, well, the next record I’ll re-record it. But I’ve got to do it every day. I don’t have a bunch of songs already written just waiting for me to take a day off tomorrow. You have to reinvent yourself every day.”

Clark’s songwriting is honed on details, moments carved from a visceral reality. They’re uniquely personal and often autobiographical, yet distill into such universal truths that they remain equally powerful in the hands of other performers. Over five decades, his songs have turned hits for Johnny Cash, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Bobby Bare, John Conlee, Steve Wariner, and Asleep at the Wheel, as well as contemporary country superstars Brad Paisley (“Out in the Parking Lot”) and Kenny Chesney (“Hemingway’s Whiskey”).

And across all 15 of his albums, Susanna remains the constant thread, not simply as muse, but frequently as the direct recipient of the song. Whether on “L.A. Freeway,” when he coaxes, “Oh Susanna, don’t you cry, babe,” and Cold Dog Soup‘s “Red River” as he pleads, “Susanna when it comes my time, bury me south of that Red River line,” or even just in the yearning of separation in “Dublin Blues,” her presence is the inherent anchor to Guy Clark’s songwriting.

My Favorite Picture of You

In the photograph, Susanna Clark stands defiant with her arms crossed. The Polaroid is yellowing and faded, stained in the bottom corner and frayed along the edges.

“It was in front of John Lomax’s house, probably in the late Seventies or early Eighties,” surmises its owner. “Townes and I were in the house, just drunk on our asses being jerks, and she had finally had enough. She put on her coat and walked out the door. I remember it being cold. And somebody snapped that picture.

“From the moment I saw it, that was my favorite picture of Susanna, and always has been. It says everything. Boy, she’s absolutely beautiful – beautiful – and in an experienced kind of way in that picture. And she’s so pissed off. It’s in her eyes, and her stance. Stuff only I would see, maybe. But that picture always reminded me of Susanna.”

In true Guy Clark form, “My Favorite Picture of You,” the focal point of his new album, is a startlingly direct song, rent with raw feeling sprung from the subtleties of the scene. It’s the encapsulation of a life together caught in the flash of a single moment.

“There were parts of [the marriage] that were really good and parts of it that were really hard,” he says. “But she loved me, and I loved her. It was that simple. For whatever reason, and however hard it was, that was the bottom line.”

Written a few months before Susanna passed away, as the cancer progressed and she slipped further from coherence in the fog of pain and pills, the song suspends between a tension of clinging to memory and letting go. It’s among the most poignant songs its author has ever written.

“I knew it was coming two or three years ago, so it wasn’t unexpected,” he acknowledges. “She’s probably in a much better place. She didn’t want a service, didn’t want any kind of bullshit hoopla, and I have her ashes in a jug upstairs. If I ever get back to Atlanta, Texas, I’m going to drop them at the end of the street.”

He crushes out another cigarette and pushes himself heavily from his chair.

“The thing about writing songs is, everything is songwriting. All you have to do is remember.”