From R2 Magazine – July 2013
The old saying that a bad workman blames his tools can never be levelled at Guy Clark. He also made the tools. A skilled luthier he regularly plays guitars he has made on his own workbench. Crafting a guitar from maple and rosewood, sawing, sanding and gluing are precise processes where small changes alter the tone and the quality of the sound. It is just this subtlety and precision that characterises Guy’s song writing and performing. In his hands a song is no mere entertainment, however entertaining it may be. A Guy Clark song is a thing of beauty created by an expert craftsman. The song, however, should not be considered a delicate work of art, more the work of a skilled artisan that, rather than being admired, should be sung and performed.
Guy released his first solo album, Old No. 1, in 1975 when he was 33. Although it’s been 38 years since then it still comes as something of a shock when I realise, as I am setting up my call to Nashville to discuss his latest album My Favourite Picture Of You, that he will be 72 in November. Hell, it wasn’t me, it was my step-daughter who always wants to know who I am interviewing now and rushes off to the internet to look Guy up on Wikipedia. It made me think: Guy is the same age now as Johnny Cash was when he died. The parallels began to pile up in my mind: the bass baritone voice, the championship of the individual; and the honesty and integrity in the work.
What Guy has never needed, however, is the Rick Rubin driven resurrection of a fading reputation. Guy has not needed to reassert the honesty and integrity of his work as no one would have ever thought to doubt them.
What saved Johnny Cash from an earlier death might also be what has kept Guy working steadily amassing an awe inspiring body of work. Behind the Hollywood jazz of the Cash/Carter love story June Carter did provide, in Shakespeare’s words, Johnny’s ‘ever-fixed mark’ and Susanna Clark seems to have done the same for Guy. Guy’s contemporaries have not fared so well. Townes Van Zandt’s personal life never achieved the same stability and throughout Steve Earle’s multiple marriages I wonder if even he kept track – I’ve just googled it to save you the trouble and it’s seven marriages and six wives, you do the maths.
It is a song to Susanna Clark that provides the title of My Favourite Picture Of You. The album cover places the ‘Polaroid shot someone took on the spot’ in direct centre, partially covering Guy’s face in the background. Susanna died from cancer in June 2012 and Guy has created in this song a fitting and blisteringly honest memorial to his wife, herself a writer of songs and painter as craftsman like as Guy himself. The song was inspired by an idea that co-writer Gordy Sampson brought to Guy one day and he was immediately drawn to the picture of Susanna on the wall. Typically of Guy this is no artistic portrait created in some photographer’s studio; this is rather a photograph that captures a moment, and not necessarily a comfortable one. “Townes (Van Zandt) and I were drunk again in that shack [in the background of the photo] and Susanna walked in on us, turned around and walked straight back out.”
I didn’t ask if the song was written before or after Susanna died. Somehow it didn’t seem appropriate – so much for your fearless reporter. But does it really matter? This is a song that reveals the depth of love and how it triumphs over the day to day frustrations of being with another person: ‘You never left but your bags were packed, Just in case.’ The song completely avoids sentimentality and even when Guy uses the metaphor of an angel he does so obliquely: ‘the one where your wings are showin’, Your arms are crossed and your fists are clinched, Not gone but goin’
A stand up angel who won’t back down.’
Guy’s voice is distinctive. Whether he is singing or speaking and the growl that I hear over a trans-Atlantic line from Nashville could be no one else. It sounds like gravel drenched in whisky and bourbon. Beneath that growl, however, you feel the warmth that comes through as he sings and a sincerity that assures you he will tell the truth; a greater capacity for truth and a more blindingly perceptive self-knowledge than even Johnny Cash. Just listen to Johnny Cash’s cover of ‘Let Him Roll’, Guy’s timeless song of the aging wino’s love for his ‘Dallas whore’. When Johnny reaches the line ‘He said, “Son”; he always called me son’ Johnny can’t resist the schmaltz of the line – in the video he virtually winks at the listener as he sings it; but when Guy sings it we know he is simply stating the facts – no sentiment, just fact.
It may be apocryphal but Guy has previously been reported as saying that he writes songs “to stop me blowing my brains out.” It certainly seems that he is driven to write, even when that writing can open wounds that a more careful person might keep closed. A song on the new album underlines the toil of crafting songs and the toll it can take personally on the writer. In ‘The High Price Of Inspiration’ Guy says how inspiration ‘always leaves me broken, But I keep comin’ back for more.’ “The song seems to suggest that the process of song writing is almost painful,” I suggest.
He hesitates for a moment and then his slow, precise drawl comes back down the phone line. “Pain?”
I quote another line from the song. “’Inspiration with no strings, Is what I’m looking for.’”
You can hear the chuckle in his voice at this line. “I thought that about caught it. I was really pleased with that.”
In ‘Desperados Waiting For A Train’ from Guy’s first album he presents his childhood friendship with his “grandmother’s boyfriend”, a ‘drifter, a driller of oil wells’, who runs ‘his fingers through seventy years of livin’’. The friendship between the young Clark at the start of his life and the old man approaching the end of his reveals something about the essential humanity contained in Guy’s songs. Now it is Guy himself running his fingers through seventy years of living. His role in the development of other artists from Townes Van Zandt to Steve Earle to Rodney Crowell has been well documented, although he tells me he “never wanted to be a mentor to anyone.” It’s the inequality of the word mentor that seems to trouble Guy and he settles on describing how they “collaborate,” a more equal relationship.
Over the last thirty years Guy’s writing has becoming increasingly a collaborative process. From the time he moved to Nashville in the 1970s his home has hosted, if that’s the right word for such informality, gatherings of musicians and songwriters as recorded in the 1970s documentary Heartworn Highways. On his last few albums every original song has credited other writers, a cast of the finest, mainly Texan, songwriters. Guy tells me that his favourite song writing partner is Rodney Crowell, although all those he writes with bring something different. I ask Guy why he favours writing with others. You can hear the smile in his voice as he answers: “You can sit by yourself in a room and work for hours on that lyric, but you will only know if it works when someone else hears it and tells you.” He tells me it is the process of shared song writing that he enjoys: the way that two or three people can be more creative than they ever would be individually. It is the interplay of ideas that create the song.
Guy says that collaborative writing can range from an equal working together to produce a song to inspiring each other or putting the finishing touches to an unfinished song. Songs on the new album have arisen from all these processes. ‘The Death Of Sis Draper’, for instance, was written with Shawn Camp and kills off the character of Sis Draper, the fiddle player who ‘fiddled way out west.’ I had assumed that Sis was a fictional creation, however Guy tells me she was the woman who taught Shawn Camp to play the fiddle. Even writing this now I wonder whether Guy was leading me on; Sis Draper is just the kind of character you expect to find in one of Guy’s vignettes and, therefore, as ‘real’ as the aging lift operator in ‘Let Him Roll’ or the woman leaving in ‘She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’.
Just reading Guy’s album and song titles tells you that he views song writing as a craft every bit as workmanlike as his guitar making: see 2006’s Workbench Songs and Sometimes The Song Writes You from 2009. Guy tells the story of how he built his guitar building workbench one day when he realised that his eight track home recording studio had not been switched on in a year and was “covered by a fine patina of dust.” The day he removed the recording equipment and replaced it with his guitar making workbench was “one of the best days of my life.” It’s not that Guy doesn’t see the value of the recording and production process, more that his interest lies in writing songs and performing them.
The care with which Guy crafts his songs can be seen in the releasing of new material. Since releasing Old No.1 he has released a further 12 albums of new material as well as a handful of Best Ofs and live recordings. A new record comes out every three or four years and when I suggest he seems to have picked up the work rate of late he corrects me, “It might seem like that. But the tribute record (2011’s This One’s For Him) wasn’t really me and the concert recording … well I didn’t even know they were recording that until afterwards.” There’s no rush with Guy. It takes time to craft a song.
Even when the song has been crafted he is very self-critical and the ‘keep’ rate of his songs is not high. The Keepers live recording from 1997 provides an insight: not only does the album title reference indirectly the many songs that haven’t been ‘kept’ but Guy also shares with the audience that ‘That Old Time Feeling‘ is the first song he wrote that he felt was good enough to keep. I ask Guy about his ruthless self-editing. Does he ever recycle the ideas and phrases he has excised from one song for another? “Well, if I thought that the words were good when I put them together then I thought that for a reason.”
No one chooses words with greater care than Guy Clark. I suggest that this love of words might arise from the part poetry played in his childhood: he has previously spoken about coming from a home where poetry was read aloud. He hesitates and then agrees. He tells me that the selection of the right word is the key to conveying precisely his ideas. This resonates; there is so much in Guy’s writing which suggests great crops of planted but unstated meanings, like the moment in ‘Randall Knife’, Guy’s intensely moving song about his father’s death, when we are told that the knife was made for ‘darker things’ and we sense the unspoken horrors that the knife may have been used for in wartime; or in ‘Rain In Durango’ on the latest album where we are told that we ‘can’t tell the tears from the rain, If you ain’t walked a mile in her boots’ and we need no more to know the entire heart-breaking back story. It’s no wonder he is due to pick up the ‘Poet’s Award’ at the Academy of Country Music’s Honors event in September; Hank Williams is the other recipient of this award.
When I ask about the poets he enjoys and the ones who have influenced his writing his first choice is Dylan Thomas. Initially the choice of a Welsh poet was surprising, but Thomas’ economy with language reflects the spare quality of Guy’s own writing. Language choices driven by the feelings generated rather than what the word means. Or maybe it’s the wildness of Dylan Thomas that attracts Guy: the drinker and bar stool raconteur. The final song on My Favourite Picture Of You, ‘I’ll Show Me’, is an ironic ode to the self-aggrandising drunk lurking inside too many of us. ‘I kinda see myself as a young Richard Burton, Readin’ Dylan Thomas to some Welsh coquette, Drinkin’ whiskey in a Swansea tavern.’
Guy’s experiences in the singer-songwriter milieu of the 1960s that canonised Woody Guthrie have generally been overshadowed by his role in the development of a country tinged Texan tradition. The honesty and integrity of his songs, however, leave us in no doubt his sympathies lie with the ordinary working men (and women) who populate his songs. On My Favourite Picture Of You are two songs that seem to channel more directly the spirit of Guthrie. Guy explains how both songs “started from news stories I saw on the TV.” ‘El Coyote’ tells the story of illegal Mexican immigrants abandoned in the back of a lorry under the baking desert sun by El Coyote, the human trafficker spooked ‘at the first sign of trouble’, who leaves them to die. You find many emotions in Guy’s songs but anger is rare; however you can feel the righteous anger in this song and in ‘Heroes’, written with Ray Stephenson and Jeremy Campbell, about the unspoken victims of America’s conflict in Iraq, the American soldiers who have killed themselves since returning from the war. “More soldiers committed suicide after returning than were killed in Iraq,” Guy tells me. You can hear the indignation in his voice, although whether it is shock at the number of deaths or at what his country allows to happen it is difficult to tell. But it is clear that it is the human suffering that moves him most; compassion for the soldier who ‘brought the war home with him’.
When I ask Guy if he ever thinks about the fact that his greatest success as a songwriter has been achieved when others have sung his songs, like The Highwaymen’s version of ‘Desperadoes Waiting for a Train’ and Jerry Jeff Walker’s version of the same song and ‘L.A. Freeway’ he seems to bristle a little over 2000 miles of satellite connection: “Well I think I can sing my own songs.” And with more honesty, integrity and soul than anyone else, Guy.