Archive for July 29th, 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
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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.”

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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.”

Reach Peter Cooper at 615-259-8220 or pcooper@tennessean.com.