Texas Music
3:41 pm
Tue July 23, 2013

Guy Clark, Music's Master Craftsman, On Making Songs Last

Originally published on Tue July 23, 2013 5:16 pm

If you want to learn how to write a song — one that's built to last, with vivid characters and images that plant you squarely inside a scene — listen to Guy Clark.

Songwriters who revere Clark will tell you he crafts songs with the same precision and attention to detail he uses when he builds guitars. But Clark has a simpler, blunter explanation, as he told me with a glint in his eye when I visited him recently at his home in Nashville, Tenn.

"No bull- - - - means no bull- - - -, know what I mean?" Clark says.

I've been listening to and admiring Guy Clark songs for many, many years now: songs that make me feel I know the honky-tonk queen, wino or Texas wildcatter he's singing about.

Clark's first album, Old Number One, came out in 1975 and made true believers out of pretty much everybody who heard it. Among them was the Texas songwriter Lyle Lovett, who was in high school at the time. Now, he counts Clark as a close friend.

"In a big way, Guy's first record helped tell me what a song should, what a song could be," Lovett says. "A song that leaps to mind is Texas 1947: Immediately you're in the middle of a scene with a 6-year-old boy in West Texas, and you know something is happening. You're drawn in immediately, and you're waiting for that next line."

Clark is 71 now. He's a tall, imposing man with intense blue eyes; his hair's gone silver. He smokes hand-rolled cigarettes as we talk.

He's had health trouble in recent years: He has lymphoma and was treated with chemotherapy a few years back. He moves slowly now, unsteady on his feet, after two knee replacements and leg surgery.

"It affects your balance — just being able to do anything other than walk around with a cane and complain about it," he says.

Clark comes from the small West Texas town of Monahans. He made his name as part of the vibrant Houston folk scene in the late 1960s. He moved to Los Angeles to write songs, then got a songwriting deal. In 1971, he headed across the country.

"Without even thinking about it, I said, 'Nashville,' " Clark says. "You know, anyplace but L.A. And I knew I didn't want to live in New York, so — packed up the VW bus and moved to Nashville."

He's been in Nashville ever since. In the '70s, if you were a songwriter, you wanted to be sitting at the kitchen table of Guy Clark and his wife, Susanna: Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell and many others would gather around for guitar pulls and long boozy nights spent swapping songs. Crowell says Clark was the heart of that scene, the inspiration for lots of young writers — himself included.

"I had an audience of one, and that audience of one was Guy Clark," Crowell says. "If I could write something cohesive enough, powerful enough, strong enough, true enough that I could play it for Guy and look him in the eye while I'm doing it, then that's success. If he raised an eyebrow — or better yet, if he said, 'That's a good song' — then you could work off of that for six months running."

Singer Emmylou Harris also strongly admires Clark's work.

"It's hard to imagine the world of music without Guy, the world of language without Guy," Harris says. "He really embraces the human condition. There is no judgment in Guy's songs. ... You know that everyone has been on a rough road."

It's impossible to talk about Clark without also thinking about his late wife — a terrific painter and songwriter herself. Susanna Clark died last year after a long illness; she and Guy were married for 40 years.

On the cover of his new album, My Favorite Picture of You, we see Guy holding up an old Polaroid of Susanna. She's standing in front of a house in a letter jacket; her arms are crossed, fists clenched, her mouth firmly set.

"Townes and I were in that house, just absolutely, obnoxiously drunk — and she'd had enough. She just got up, put her jacket on and left," Guy says. "And that has always been my favorite picture of Susanna. From the moment I saw it that day, I had held on to it and saved it. 'Cause that was Susanna: 'Don't f- - - with me, 'cause you will lose.' "

Clark has remarked that when he's writing, what's not in a song is often as important as what is. A good example, he says, is a fairly new tune of his: "Rain in Durango," from My Favorite Picture of You, whose entire third verse he now considers unnecessary.

"It should just be the first two verses, with a little more instrumental music, and the chorus again — and it would be a great song," he says, adding that he's not above revising a flawed song after the fact: "I go back and fix anything I can find that needs fixing."

Clark says he doesn't write as much as he used to, but he remains no less committed to the craft.

"I know it's still there to be done," he says. "I haven't written my last song, for sure. Nor my best one."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. If you want to learn how to write a song - one that's built to last, with vivid characters and images that plant you squarely inside a scene - listen to Guy Clark.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESPERADOS WAITING FOR A TRAIN")

GUY CLARK: (Singing) Well, he's a drifter and a driller of oil wells and old-school man of the world. He taught me how to drive his car when he's too drunk to. And he'd wait and give me money for the girls...

BLOCK: Songwriters who revere Guy Clark will tell you he crafts songs with the same precision and attention to detail he uses when he builds guitars. But Clark has a simpler, blunter explanation, as he told me with a glint in his eye when I visited him recently at his home in Nashville.

CLARK: No bull (bleep) means no bull (bleep). (Laughing) You know what I mean?

BLOCK: I've been listening to, and admiring, Guy Clark's songs for many, many years now; songs that make me feel I know the honky-tonk queen or wino or Texas wildcatter he's singing about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESPERADOS WAITING FOR A TRAIN")

CLARK: (Singing) And I was just a kid that they all called his sidekick, it was like desperados waiting for a train...

BLOCK: "Desperados Waiting for a Train," from Guy Clark's first album, "Old Number One," which came out in 1975. That record made true believers out of pretty much everybody who heard it; among them, Texas songwriter Lyle Lovett, who was in high school at the time. Now, he counts Guy Clark as a close friend.

LYLE LOVETT: In a big way, Guy's first record helped tell me what a song should be, what a song could be. You know, a song that just - that leaps to mind is "Texas 1947."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEXAS 1947")

CLARK: (Singing) Being 6 years old, I had seen some trains before, so it's hard to figure out what I'm at the depot for. Trains are big and black, and smoke and steam; screaming at the wheels...

LOVETT: Immediately, you're in the middle of a scene with a 6-year-old boy in West Texas, and you know something is happening. And so you're drawn in immediately, and you're waiting for that next line.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEXAS 1947")

CLARK: (Singing) Look out, here she comes; she's coming. Look out, there she goes, she's gone; screaming straight through Texas like a mad dog cyclone....

BLOCK: Guy Clark is 71 now; a tall, imposing man with intense blue eyes; his hair gone silver. He smokes hand-rolled cigarettes as we talk. Clark has had health trouble in recent years; he has lymphoma - was treated with chemotherapy a few years back. And he moves slowly now, unsteady on his feet after two knee replacements and leg surgery.

CLARK: It affects your balance, you know - just being able to do anything other than walk around with a cane and complain about it. So... (Laughing) I love that part.

BLOCK: Guy Clark comes from the small, west Texas town of Monahans. He made his name as part of the vibrant Houston folk scene in the late '60s, moved to LA to write songs, then got a songwriting deal and in 1971, headed across the country.

CLARK: Without even thinking about it, I was heading to Nashville - you know, anyplace but LA; and I knew I didn't want to live in New York, so packed up the VW bus and moved to Nashville.

BLOCK: And he's been in Nashville ever since. In the '70s, if you were a songwriter, you wanted to be sitting at the kitchen table of Guy Clark and his wife, Susanna. Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, many others, would gather around for guitar pulls - long, boozy nights spent swapping songs.

CLARK: Like Paris in the '20s, you know, the people that were here making music and playing music and hanging out. It was far out, you know. It was the best in the world.

BLOCK: And Guy Clark was at the heart of that scene, the inspiration for lots of younger writers, including Rodney Crowell.

RODNEY CROWELL: I had an audience of one, and that audience of one was Guy Clark. If I could write something cohesive enough, powerful enough, strong enough, true enough that I could play it for Guy - and look him in the eye while I'm doing it - then that's success. If he raised an eyebrow or, better yet, if he said, "that's a good song," well, then you could work off of that for six months running.

EMMYLOU HARRIS: You know, it's just hard to imagine the world of music without Guy; you know, the world of language without Guy.

BLOCK: This is singer Emmylou Harris.

HARRIS: He really embraces the human condition. There is no judgment in Guy's songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET HIM ROLL")

CLARK: (Singing) It was white port that put that look in his eye, grown men get when they need to cry. And we sat down on the curb to rest, his head just fell down on his chest...

HARRIS: Everybody is equal. You know that everyone is - been on a rough road.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STUFF THAT WORKS")

CLARK: (Singing) I got a woman I love, she's crazy and paints like God...

BLOCK: Now, it's impossible to talk about Guy Clark without also thinking about his late wife, Susanna, a terrific painter and songwriter herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STUFF THAT WORKS")

CLARK: (Singing) I got a tattoo with her name right through my soul. I think everything she touches turns to gold. Stuff that works...

BLOCK: Susanna Clark died last year after a long illness. She and Guy were married for 40 years. And on his new album, titled "My Favorite Picture of You," we see him holding up an old Polaroid of Susanna.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY FAVORITE PICTURE OF YOU")

CLARK: (Singing) My favorite picture of you is the one where you're staring straight into the lens...

BLOCK: She's standing in front of a house in a letter jacket. Her arms are crossed, fists clenched; her mouth firmly set.

CLARK: Townes and I were in that house just absolutely, obnoxiously drunk. And she'd had enough; and she just got up, put her jacket on and left. And that has always been my favorite picture of Susanna. From the moment I saw it that day, I have held on to it and saved it 'cause that's - was Susanna. (Laughing) I mean, don't (bleep) with me 'cause you will lose.

BLOCK: And if you were to put that in a radio-friendly way...

CLARK: Don't ever try to (bleep) with me.

BLOCK: (Laughing)

CLARK: (Laughing)

BLOCK: Thank you.

CLARK: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY FAVORITE PICTURE OF YOU")

CLARK: (Singing) My favorite picture of you is bent and it's faded, and it's pinned to my wall. Oh, and you were so angry it's hard to believe we were lovers at all. There's a fire in your eyes, you've got your heart on your sleeve, a curse on your lips but all I can see is beautiful. My favorite picture...

BLOCK: I've seen you say before that when you're writing, what's not in the song is as important to you as what's in the song; not given too much information.

CLARK: Yeah, I mean, I'm - over the years, I've learned that less is more. It's like, don't clutter up the human condition - or don't clutter up the English language.

BLOCK: Is it also a matter, if it's story-song - which a lot of them are - of leaving gaps in the story, jumping over parts of the story to let the listener do some work?

CLARK: Yeah. Well, you want to leave people with the ability to become part of it without every little stitch in your jeans being delineated. And a good example of it is that song on the new album, "Standing in the Rain in Durango."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STANDING IN THE RAIN IN DURANGO")

CLARK: (Singing) He's a long way from Houston, long way from them old Texas greens. As she came down from Telluride on a steam train bound for somewhere new...

That song should not have the third verse. It should just be the first two verses, with a little more instrumental music and the chorus again. And it would be a great song, but I didn't see that. I didn't hear that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STANDING IN THE RAIN IN DURANGO")

CLARK: (Singing) So he pulled up in a Mustang. She got in, and they just rode away. And they headed west into the sunset, mascara running down her face...

BLOCK: So you wish that that last verse weren't there?

CLARK: Yeah, 'cause it's too much. It's not necessary. It clutters up the listener's imagination. You're trying to tell them too much. What you want them to do is imagine that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STANDING IN THE RAIN IN DURANGO")

BLOCK: Do you often find you're going back and editing songs way after the fact?

CLARK: Oh, all the time.

BLOCK: Really.

CLARK: I go back and fix anything I can find that needs fixing.

BLOCK: And that's a new song.

CLARK: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STANDING IN THE RAIN IN DURANGO")

BLOCK: I know you've had some health issues. You mentioned your knee.

CLARK: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

BLOCK: You've had lymphoma.

CLARK: I have lymphoma but, I mean, it's under control. I was talking to my doctor the other day about it; and I said, well, what - I don't want to have any more chemo, you know, and have all my hair fall out and be totally cosmetically appalled, you know. That's just something I don't really about, at this point. I mean, it could move to my liver or my kidney. But if it does, it does.

BLOCK: How different is songwriting for you now, at age 71, than it was before?

CLARK: Well, I don't write as much, I guess. But I know it's still there to be done. I haven't written my last song, for sure, nor my best one.

BLOCK: Well, Guy Clark, thanks for being so generous with your time.

CLARK: Oh, believe me, all I was going to do was take a nap.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, HELL BENT ON A HEARTACHE")

CLARK: Ain't love funny, ain't love strange...

BLOCK: Guy Clark, talking with me at his home in Nashville. His new album, out today, is titled "My Favorite Picture of You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, HELL BENT ON A HEARTACHE")

CLARK: ...Shows no mercy, has no rules. It's all the same for the kings and fools, hell bent on a heartache. I should know better, but I guess I don't... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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