Deckle edge

Guy Clark
by Chris Flisher © 1996 /
(first published July 1996 Worcester Phoenix)

Guy Clark
Guy Clark speaks in a low, gravely voice that’s laced with the slow slang of the dusty West Texas plains. Like a hardened prairie traveler, he meanders through our conversation talking about his life and the often unnerving process of writing songs. Never one for trite flashiness, Clark ranks as one of country music’s true shining diamonds, far prouder of his outlaw fame than a list of charted hits.

Despite his stance, Clark, sports a roster of hits that rivals some of Nashville’s finest. Artists like million-selling hit-maker George Strait, country’s grand dame, Tammy Wynette, and oddities like Spanky and Our Gang have all recorded Clark’s songs. Not too mention Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, the Everly Brothers, and Willie Nelson, who have each sampled the Guy Clark songbook. Yet, he continually skirts the formulaic hit-machine himself and hovers on the border between new traditionalism and classic folk music.

Although, his stature looms large in songwriter’s circles, the songs of Guy Clark are not those of the country mainstream. Rather, artists come to Clark for songs that offer something more than filler—songs that impart a home-grown truth or recount an obscure aspect of American history. His eye for detail captures the raw and refined aspect of life in the West with rough-hewn charm and understated bluster of a cowboy novelist, yet, these stories are admittedly the work of a man with nothing more than a knack for living.

“All my songs are non-fiction,” he chuckles in a recent conversation, continuing, “I have found that drawing on personal experiences is far stranger than fiction. Of course, there is a certain degree of poetic license in it all, but for the most part my songs are drawn from my past. That’s always been the most basic thing for me. I just write what I know.”

What he knows is the life of a pioneering troubadour. Clark, along with Jerry Jeff Walker, Townes Van Zandt, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and others eked a living out of the country periphery by staying true to the roots of country music. And while Nashville was just waking up and smelling the boot polish, Clark and friends were well on their way to defining the shape of contemporary country music.

“Country music hasn’t really changed that much,” offers Clark, modestly, “It’s always been the same. There’s always the odd refreshing artist who comes along and then there’s the other 90 percent who try and jump on the wagon and copy it. I just try and pay as little attention to it all as possible.”

An infrequent writer, Clark adheres to none of the scheduled album releases required of the music business. About every two years he pulls together 10 songs and puts out an album; doing it his way; at his pace. “I could never write on demand,” he admits. “I wait until things hit me. The trick is to be ready when that happens. You got to always have a pencil and a piece of paper ready for when that happens, cause you know you’ll forget. When I think back on all the times I didn’t write something down that came to me, well, I just wish I wrote down all those times,” he laughs, continuing, “But, I’m gettin’ better and more disciplined as I get older and I always got a pencil.”

One of Clark’s most requested songs, “L.A. Freeway” came together while driving into Los Angeles. “We had just finished a gig in San Diego and we were drivin’ back to LA and I feel asleep for a while. When I woke up I looked around and said, ‘If I could just get off of that LA Freeway without gettin’ killed or caught,’ Well, I grabbed my wife’s eyebrow pencil and a Burger King sack and wrote the song right there.”

Clark’s last release, Dublin Blues finds him in top form, rarely varying from a style that’s uniquely his. Hollow, rough, and half-spoken-half-sung, his songs evoke America in every phrase. Whether singing about back-porch philosophy on “Hank Williams Said It Best,” or the homesick blues in the title track, Clark pulls in images of the country. “The Randall Knife” perhaps sums up Clark best. Based on a story of a knife his father brought back from World War II, the song juxtaposes the love of a father and son with the metaphor of a weapon. Although seemingly disconnected, Clark weaves his tale with love, grit, and history. “I was about 12 years old when my dad let me borrow his knife. I used it and broke it, but he never said anything to me about it, he just put it away. When he died, it was the only thing of his I wanted. Odd how a weapon was this symbol of love between us.”

Although his songs are personal and non-fiction, occasionally Clark draws on the events of others. One of his most evocative songs about the American experience comes from his 1988 Old Friends release. Listening to a friend recount the story of his immigrant grandfather, Guy found the germ for a song titled “Immigrant Eyes.”

“I was sitting with my friend Roger Murrah and listening to this story about this guy’s grandfather and how he met his grandmother on the ship coming over from Europe,” he remembers. “His story went on about Ellis Island their whole beginning and starting a new life in America and all. He went into all kinds of detail and the story was just so clear and so moving.”

“Finally, when he got up and left the room, Roger and I just looked at each other and said, Yes!”

Chris Flisher

Deckle edge