Still a work in progress

Guy Clark plays Club Helsinki on Saturday October 12

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., October 11, 2002) – He is one of the quintessential Texas singer-songwriters, but the truth is that Guy Clark has lived in Nashville for over 30 years.

“When I started out, I set out to make a living as a songwriter, and this is where it got done,” said Clark in a recent phone interview from his home in Nashville.

Clark – who performs at Club Helsinki on Saturday night, October 12, at 9 on a double-bill with singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier – is best known as the songwriter behind such modern country classics as “Desperados Waiting for a Train” and “L.A. Freeway.” His songs have been recorded by a who’s who of country music legends, including Jerry Jeff Walker, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Kathy Mattea, George Strait and John Denver.

Through his influence on the current wave of country singer-songwriters, including Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Robert Earl Keen and Steve Earle, he is often bunched in with the new Austin music scene, while in fact he has spent little time actually living in Austin.

“I think Austin is a wonderful place, and there’s a lot of good music, a lot of good stuff going on there,” said Clark. “But for me, I wanted to be where I could make a living doing it and where the business was. Weird as that might sound to me now.

“But if I ever break even, I’m moving back to Texas.”

Clark knows Texas. Born in the small West Texas town of Monahans in 1941, he grew up in a house without a record player and with little exposure to music until he was a teen-ager.

Neither of his parents was musical, although he says he had aunts and uncles in Kentucky who were fiddle players. But in the late 1950s, his father, Ellis Leon Clark, took on a young woman as a partner in his law office. She came with a guitar and sang Mexican folk songs.

“That’s what really got me into it,” said Clark. “A bunch of people sitting
around picking songs. I was smitten from that moment on.”

Clark got himself a guitar and learned all the Spanish songs his father’s partner could teach him. Then he learned the traditional folk songs by Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie that were available at the time from Folkways Records. He moved to Houston, where he met blues singers like Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins, and fellow songwriter Townes van Zandt, with whom he remained close friends and frequently performed until his death in 1997. He played around on the folk scene in Houston and Austin, but mostly had jobs working in guitar stores and in repair shops.

Clark says he didn’t take himself seriously as a songwriter until he was nearly 30. “I remember the first song I wrote that I kept -- ‘That Old Time Feeling’ -- I remember specifically the Saturday morning I wrote it,” said Clark. “I was living out in California, and I woke up and wrote the song, and all of a sudden I knew I could do it.

“I had quite a few songs written before that, but not one that I knew was really good.”

Jerry Jeff Walker was one of his first champions, recording “L.A. Freeway” and “Desperados Waiting for a Train” in the early 1970s. Johnny Cash’s hit version of his “Texas 1947” also helped to garner the singer-songwriter a record deal, and in 1975, just a few years after moving to Nashville, he made his own recording debut with “Old No. 1,” which included those three songs and seven other originals.

Clark’s songs are characterized by a strong sense of place – Texas, in particular, looms large in his work -- and a determined narrative form.

“I was born and raised in Texas, and one of the first things you learn about writing anything is to write what you know about. You can’t make that stuff up.”

It’s a rule he lives by to this day. His most recent album, “The Dark,” includes a song about a dog that gets senselessly and unnecessarily shot by a neighbor called “Queenie’s Song.”

Sure enough, the song came right out of real life.

“That’s a dead true story,” said Clark. “I was in Santa Fe, at Terry Allen’s house, staying out there with him during the holidays, and one day he came in and said, ‘Man, some son of a bitch just shot my dog.’ That’s where it started. That day we had most of it written.

“Most of them do come out of real life moments like that. There’s a certain
amount of theatrical or poetic license you have to allow yourself. But for the most part it’s about stuff that happened to me or I saw happen or happened to a friend of mine. That’s where most of it comes from.”

Even though he’s been at it now for over a quarter century, Clark says he still tinkers with his songs on a regular basis. Performing before a live audience is how he works out all the kinks and refines his material.

“Performing live you actually learn how they go,” he said. “They take on a life of their own before an audience. It’s a constant editing process. That’s how you really figure out how they go, at least for me. I’m always fixing my songs. Songs that are twenty years old, I’m still trying to figure out how they go. All of it, the tempo, the delivery, sometimes the lyrics, a line I was never quite satisfied with will come to me.

“It’s all a work in progress.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 12, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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