The stellar songwriter on music, modesty and his everyman mindset.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
For a man whose music is so expressive and whose words convey such intimate feelings of vulnerability and despair, Guy Clark comes across as remarkably reserved. Not that he’s unwilling to share his thoughts; far from it in fact. It’s just that he prefers to come quickly to the point, answering questions in such a way to make his responses almost seem a given. Or perhaps it’s the fact that after nearly two dozen albums recorded over a career spanning nearly four decades, his songs speak for themselves.
It’s no wonder really. As the man responsible for such classics as “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” “L.A. Freeway” and countless others, he’s seen his songs recorded by a veritable who’s who of Americana elite — Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Brad Paisley, Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, John Denver and Kenny Chesney among them. He’s also mentored any number of up and coming artists, people like Steve Earle and his pal Townes Van Zandt, singer/songwriters whose no-nonsense style makes their debt to Clark all too obvious.
Over the course of a phone conversation from his home in Nashville, Clark was both amiable and unassuming, speaking on a variety of subjects that spanned his entire career, from humble beginnings through his new album — his first in four years — the austere but revealing My Favorite Picture of You. Speaking slowly, with prolonged pauses between thoughts and an unmistakable rasp, he sounded like a true survivor, a man who, at age 72, has come to grips with his mortality while still struggling to cope with last year’s loss to cancer of his beloved wife and writing partner of 40 years, Susanna. Not surprisingly then, Clark’s comments were measured, but the discussion was revealing nonetheless.
BLURT: Who were some of your influences early on?
GUY CLARK: I started playing guitar in ’58 or something like that. I was into traditional folk music. There was Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Bob Dylan. He was making his name. Living in Houston, you could go see Lightning Hopkins or Mance Lipscomb just about any night you wanted to. So there was a songwriter right there, ya know? Mance wasn’t doing other people’s blues. He was doing his own. I didn’t want to be a white boy singing the blues, but those guys were songwriters. And that’s what I gleaned from them… just write your own songs. I mean, that’s what they were doing.
When did you know that you could do this for a living? Because here you were, writing songs for other people… Was there a definitive moment when you knew you wouldn’t have to take a day job?
I decided, I guess when I was about 30, to move out to L.A. and I just started doing it. Doing whatever it took. And I wound up with a publishing deal out there, and then I moved to Nashville and proceeded on, whatever I could do to further that approach to music.
Many people credit you with being among the forerunners of the so-called outlaw country genre. Did you find it tough going in Nashville due to the route you were taking?
Of course I did. I was never a hit songwriter in country music in that sense. I was trying to do it my way, whatever it took. I don’t know about being an outlaw…
That’s the standard cliché.
I know. I just did what I could until I was able to do what I wanted.
What made you decide to transition in the mid ‘70s into being a performer and singing your own songs?
I had always been a performer. I was always planning on that. I wrote songs for other people, and they were obviously out there to be done, but I had no reason to be writing songs unless I was going to play them for the folks, and no reason to go play them for the folks unless I had new songs. That was always in the mix to do that. Nobody could do those songs like I could.
It would seem your songs are inspired by real life circumstance that you’ve actually experienced.
Yeah. They are. If I didn’t see it happen, I know somebody that did. (chuckles)
That’s a contrast from some songwriters that divorce themselves from their material and create a storyline from their imagination.
Well, I do that sometimes. Not so much on this record. I mean, it’s not brain surgery. They’re just songs.
Ah, you’re being modest. You’re such a great storyteller. Have you ever thought about writing a book?
That’s a whole other discipline. It takes years and years to where you can do that. You don’t just write a book because you can.
It was four years between the release of your last album, Songs and Stories and this new one, My Favorite Picture of You. Were you writing the entire time?
How did you narrow down the material that you eventually decided to include?
Well, they weren’t all good. (chuckles)
Knowing your track record, that’s hard to believe.
Well, that’s true. When I make a record, I just pick the ten or eleven best songs I’ve got, and that’s when I make a record.
Do you ever go back and tap into some songs that might not have made the cut the first time around.
No, not really. I pretty much made that decision as they came up.I did all the good ones. (chuckles).
But have you ever thought of putting out an album of rarities, maybe as part of an anthology?
Not really. If I’ve got one good enough to record, I’m going to do it. It goes to the top of the list.
You’ve also been credited with nurturing so many great singer/songwriters who have come along in your wake.
Well, that’s true. Whenever I hear someone who I think is really good, I make sure they get heard. They should be heard.
What’s remarkable is that you are able to recognize these gifted individuals, like Townes and Steve Earle. They became legendary in their own right, and you were the one that helped them on their way.
Yeah. Steve Earle for sure. But Townes, he had it going on, on his own, ya know? (coughs) Sorry.
But how is it you’re able to spot this talent and know it’s worth recognizing?
Because I like it. (chuckles) I like what it sounds like. I think they’re doing good work.
You have an amazing track record.
Well… I have really good taste. (chuckles)
At the same time, the list of people who have recorded your songs is also quite impressive.
Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell… and yet given that your songs are so personal, how do like those other versions when you hear them?
I’m happy about it. I’m flattered that someone else would do one of my songs. I don’t always particularly care for their version of it — is not always the way I would do it — but for the most part, that’s what I set out to do, to be a songwriter and have other people do the songs.
When you write a song, are you ever thinking of how another person would do it?
No, I’m, thinking of me doing it, but if someone else wants to do it, that’s just wonderful.
If they happen to pick up on it?
There’s that common thread that runs through your music, that raw vulnerability, that poignancy. When you’re writing and recording these songs, are you in a state of mind where your sensitivity is given free reign?
Well, I’m just like that sometimes.
Maybe when you’re writing, it saves a trip to the psychiatrist’s office, we’re guessing.
That’s what I’m getting out of it. (chuckles)
So are you going to tour behind this new album?
I have a few health problems right now. I’ve had both knees replaced and I’m trying to get through rehab and get my body in shape to do that. It’s hard to do that. It’s hard work, you know? I’ve got to get a handle on getting my legs to work and remember some songs and remember how to play the guitar. I’m just starting from scratch, ya know?
But you build guitars, don’t you?
Yeah I do.
So it seems it would be an easy thing, if you build guitars, to know how to play them.
(Chuckles) I don’t know if it’s easy.
What do you think of your tribute album, This One’s For Him, that came out a couple of years ago? Did you have any part in the making of that album? Any oversight?
No. I knew it was being made, but I purposely stayed out of it. I didn’t want to color it in any way. The other artists that were covering those songs didn’t need my help, or they wouldn’t have been asked to do it. The production was in good hands with Tamara Saviano and Shawn Camp and they did a marvelous job. It was just better if I stayed out of it.
Were you pleased with the results?
Oh sure, man. It was great. It’s great to have other people do those songs.
You seem like a very straightforward kind of guy. No nonsense.
Well, I try.
Have you mellowed as you’ve gotten older?
Yeah, sure. I think so. I’m not as crazy as I used to be.
And yet, on the new album, there are also songs that are very topical and outspoken. “Heroes” finds you talking about the alarming rate of suicide among returning military vets and “El Coyote” touches on human smuggling.
Well, if you got something to say, say it.
That sounds like the perfect quote to end this article.
(Chuckles) Well, good. Thank you.
[Photo Credit: Senor McGuire]