Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark 1977. Austin Opera House photo by Scott Newton.
by Michael Corcoran, Sept. 2006
If there’s an overall theme to the songwriting of Guy Clark, Nashville’s ambassador to Texas music for more than 35 years, it’s that if you want to explore the poetry of life, go all the way. Duly inspired, a Texas A&M student got in his car one day in the early ’80s and, on a whim, drove eight or nine hours to Monahans, in West Texas, to wait for a train that never came.
That Aggie, Mayor Will Wynn, is such a Guy Clark fan that he wanted to feel like the 6-year-old Clark in “Texas 1947,” which Wynn calls the greatest train song of all time. In the song, the anticipation of a child is validated by a souvenir nickel, smashed flat by “a mad-dog, runaway red-silver streamline train.”
After several hours, Wynn headed back to the dorm, driving all night, his nickel still on the track. His friends said he was crazy, but Wynn just told ’em that he would’ve stayed all night if he’d had a sleeping bag.
“His lyrics speak to me like no other songwriter, author or poet ever has,” Wynn explained of his affinity for Clark, who makes his Austin City Limits Music Festival debut Saturday.
Townes and Guy
The deeply honest songs of Guy Clark, including the cosmic cowboy classics, “Desperados Waiting For a Train” and “L.A. Freeway,” both covered by Jerry Jeff Walker, can have that effect on people. He’s not easily accessible – when he’s called “a songwriter’s songwriter” it means he has a voice that will ensure cult status – and his gold records are sung by others (Ricky Skaggs’ version of “Heartbroke” helped kickstart the bluegrass revival in 1982), but Clark’s body of work and continued influence on newer singer-songwriters gives him a face on the Texas singer-songwriter Mount Rushmore.
Although Clark hasn’t lived in Texas since 1970, when he was based in Houston, he’s considered a Texas writer because so much of his material is set in his home state. Plus he’s most often associated with Texans such as Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle, whom he helped get signed to MCA, and, of course, Townes Van Zandt, the Sundance Kid to Clark’s Butch Cassidy (only in this one, Butch got the girl).
“Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt are the front axle and rear axle of the whole Texas singer-songwriter machine,” said Joe Ely, who was also helped by Clark early on. “It’s so weird that they gravitated to Nashville, because they were both really the antithesis of what was going on there.”
Ely said he was worried for Clark after Van Zandt died of a heart attack in 1997 at 52.
“Guy’s whole demeanor went into a slump for two years,” Ely said.
Concern intensified early this year when Clark, 64, played a few concerts looking worn and aged, his hair gone. The CD booklet for “Workbench Songs” – which has been pushed back to an Oct. 17 release – contains photos showing a very different Clark than the “Nick Nolte with a guitar” fans are used to seeing.
Diagnosed with lymphoma early this year, Clark underwent chemotherapy.
“Everything’s fine now,” he said in August from the basement workshop of the Nashville house he shares with fellow songwriter and painter Susanna Clark, his wife of 34 years. He’s rebounded visibly in recent months and the disease is reportedly in remission.
His workshop is perhaps the most productive 8-by-12-foot room in Nashville. It’s there, at a worn and sturdy work table that Clark makes guitars as well as plays them. This is also where he writes songs. Every stanza, every line, every word, every letter has to be perfect.
“Guy’s a masterful self-editor,” said songwriter Rodney Crowell, a close friend for more than 30 years. “I’ve seen him throw away lines that other writers would die for, because they didn’t serve the truth of the song.”
Even the best songwriters occasionally toss in a throwaway line to make a rhyme, but it would be difficult to find any pieces of Guy Clark songs that don’t ring true. Every song he’s written is based on his personal experience, or something that happened to a friend.
“He pays incredible attention to detail,” says Hayes Carll, one of many young songwriters who’ve come to Nashville to write with Clark. “He’ll make the most minute changes, but they’ll end up making a huge difference.”
It’s because of this meticulous process, as well as his skill as a woodworker, that Clark is often pegged as a song “craftsman,” usually in the first sentence of a review or profile. It’s a description, although fitting, that he has come to dislike.
“I think of my work as, like, poetry. I’m not building shelves,” he said.
The Clarks moved to Nashville in 1971 because they didn’t like Los Angeles and wanted to make a living as songwriters.
“I wanted to go where the best writers were, the best musicians,” he said.
Through the years, the Clark home has served as “an outpost for wayward Texas songwriters,” he joked. Van Zandt crashed with the Clarks for months at a time; Earle was also quite familiar with the guest room when he was starting out.
“You see, early on I decided that I wanted to be a songwriter, not a Texas songwriter,” Clark said, yet through the years he’s come to be referred to as “the dean of Texas songwriters.” He relishes his role as a mentor.
“I’m always interested in what newer writers are up to,” he said.
In 1983, a friend at a music publishing company gave Clark a demo tape of a new kid from the Houston area named Lyle Lovett.
“I listened to that tape every day for a week,” he said. “It was the best thing I’d heard in years.” He brought it by for MCA President Tony Brown to hear and Brown agreed. “I’ve gotta sign this guy,” Brown said halfway through the demo. And he did.
Lovett returned the favor by calling the tribute album to his early influences “Step Inside This House,” after the first song Clark ever wrote.
As he talked about his comfortable, yet not financially spectacular, career as a songsmith, Clark hand-rolled and chain-smoked cigarettes, seemingly as hooked on the process as the nicotine. Behind him was a wall of cassettes, their plain white covers tidily marked with inscriptions such as “Emmylou at Xmas,” “John Prine 11/4” and “Steve’s birthday.”
The first time he co-wrote with Clark, Carll said, he was mesmerized by all the incredible artists and songs that had been recorded, on the fly, in that little room. “There was one tape of Emmylou Harris singing ‘Fort Worth Blues,’ ” Carll said. “Let that sink in: Emmylou Harris singing a Steve Earle song about Townes Van Zandt to Guy Clark.” Sitting under a portrait of Van Zandt, no less.
Clark doesn’t speak easily about himself. He saves his insights for his songs. But he talks eloquently of Van Zandt, whose sets at Houston’s Jester Lounge in the late ’60s encouraged Clark to write deeper songs.
“We respected each other’s music immensely, but that’s not why me and Townes were such good friends,” Clark said. “He was smart – real smart – and really, really funny. Just a great guy to hang out with.”
Ely described the Guy-Townes relationship this way: “Townes came over for breakfast one day and it lasted 20 years.” Clark rarely does covers, but he records one Townes song on every album.
The biggest difference between the two, who could outdrink an Australian metal band, was spelled out by Crowell: “Townes wouldn’t share his genius. He was competitive with other writers, but Guy is incredibly generous. He showed me how the process worked. No one helped me more than Guy.”
Van Zandt was a notoriously private writer. He’d draw the blinds on a cheap motel and emerge three days later in a vodka haze with a masterpiece he couldn’t wait to play for Clark. But Clark likes to show his work in progress and has really taken to the role as collaborator. On his near-perfect 1975 debut “Old No. 1,” Clark wrote all the songs himself. On “Workbench Songs,” every cut is a collaboration.
“When you’re co-writing and you have an idea, you have to say it out loud, so you know right away if it’s a dumb one,” he said, with a laugh.
Although he started playing guitar at Aransas County High School in South Texas and came of age during Beatlemania, Clark has never been in a band. He didn’t want to rock with a Rickenbacker; he wanted to write songs that make people say, “I know exactly how that feels.”
He was drawn to a life playing music at an office party hosted by his father, a lawyer in Rockport, near Corpus Christi. A new associate at the firm, Lola Bonner, played a traditional Spanish song on the guitar, then passed it to someone who played another song, and a young Clark was fascinated.
“I thought, ‘This is won-der-ful,’ ” he said, his eyes wide open. Bonner taught Clark his first few songs, which he sang in Spanish.
When he started writing his own songs, Clark leaned on his memories of hanging out at his grandmother’s hotel in Monahans as a boy. The washed-up wildcatter of “Desperados Waiting For a Train” was based on Clark’s adventures with Jack Prigg, who lived at the hotel and filled the boy’s head with stories and life lessons.
“He wanted to have a home and a family, so he took me under his wing,” Clark said. “He was like a grandfather to me.”
Prigg was also the inspiration for “Let Him Roll,” a song about a man who falls in love with a prostitute, then goes on to destroy his life with wine when she chooses to stay in the street life.
“Guy will write lines that just rip your head off,” said Ely, who occasionally tours with Lovett, Clark and John Hiatt in a “guitar pull” format. “We always sit alphabetically, so I follow Guy, which is not always an easy thing. He’ll be singing ‘He always said that heaven/Was just a Dallas whore’ (at the end of ‘Let Him Roll’) and I’d have tears in my eyes, then it’s my turn to sing.” Ely laughed. “I’d look over at Guy and think, ‘Man, you got me again.’ ”