Guy Clark

by Dan MacIntosh

On November 1, five days before his 70th birthday, Guy Clark will get the tribute treatment with an album of Country luminaries covering his songs - Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin are all on board. He's earned the adulation through famous songs like "L.A. Freeway" and "Desperados Waiting for a Train." A Nashville legend, Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell have cited him as not just an influence, but also a mentor.

To hear Clark in his element, check out his live album Songs And Stories, recorded at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville. It's an intimate performance where Clark is surrounded by his longtime musical partners telling tales and playing the tunes. Clark has lots of tales to tell and has no problem speaking his mind, which he certainly did when we spoke with him.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Where are you today Guy?

Guy Clark: I'm in Edmonton, Alberta.

Songfacts: Okay. Well, I'm in Los Angeles, and I fight that L.A. freeway every day. Since you wrote that song, have your feelings about Los Angeles softened at all, or are you still pretty much glad that you're not out here?

Clark: Oh, I'm glad I'm not there, for sure. I mean, who would choose that? It's just too maddening for my taste.

Songfacts: You kind of helped Steve Earle out and you've been longtime friends with Rodney Crowell. Do you see yourself in the role of a mentor?

Clark: Well, I never thought about it as being a mentor. If I see someone who I think is really talented and good, then I do all I can to make sure they get heard. But I don't mentor them in the way most people would think of it. I don't give them advice or tell them what to do. (laughs) I don't think they're looking for that. But if I see someone who could use a little leg up, then I'm more than happy to provide it.

Songfacts: When you first met Steve Earle, was there anything that struck you about him?

Clark: He's a good writer. I like the way he thinks. As far as writing songs, he's got a unique approach to it.

Songfacts: How did you meet him?

Clark: Somewhere in Nashville, some late night pickin' soiree.

Songfacts: And did he seek you out?

Clark: Nah, we just kind of wound up in the same place, as far as I know. He never said he was seeking me out. As far as I recall we just wound up in the same place one night.

Songfacts: One of the songs that you cover on this live album is Townes Van Zandt's "If You Needed Me," which you describe as something he dreamed and then he woke up and he wrote it down.

Clark: That's what he said.

Songfacts: Have you ever dreamed a song?

Clark: No, I haven't.

Songfacts: Have you awakened with something and had to go and write it down?

Clark: I'm sure I have, because I write in the morning.

Songfacts: Really?

Clark: What's so strange about that?

Songfacts: I don't think of musicians as morning people.

Clark: Well, you're wrong. I hope you don't put that blanket on everyone. That's when you're fresher and brighter and your brain's working better. I mean, I don't like singing at night. I'd much rather sing at 10 o'clock in the morning.

Songfacts: I guess you don't get much opportunity to do that unless you're in the studio, though, right?

Clark: That's right.

Songfacts: Do you think that songs come from another place in that you're sort of channeling something?

Clark: Well, I don't think they come from another place. I think they come from me. And it's whatever I choose to make a song about. Certainly not channeling them. It all comes from your personal experience and whatever news you do, if you have something you want to say. They come from everywhere.

Songfacts: Do you think you get better at songwriting as you get older? Is it something that you've been able to - like if you look at songs that you've written recently and compare them to songs maybe you wrote when you were younger, are they better? Do you think it's a skill that you've been able to improve up?

Clark: Yeah, I think so. There's a lot of stuff I wrote early that I wouldn't write now. But that's just growing up. It certainly doesn't get easier.

Songfacts: I didn't realize you had written Ricky Skaggs' "Heartbroke."

Clark: Uh-huh, I did.

Songfacts: I love that song and I just love the one-word title. Is there a story behind how that song got into Ricky's hands?

Clark: I was out in L.A. recording it and we were looking for a fiddle player - we couldn't find anybody who played fiddle like we wanted in L.A., and we called Ricky and he wasn't doing anything. And he came out and played fiddle on it. We were standing in the control room listening back to it and he said, "You know, if I ever get a record deal, I think I'll do that song." He said, "I like that."

Songfacts: So I guess it really helps to form those relationships with people that are on their way up, because it certainly was rewarding in that case.

Clark: It certainly was.

Songfacts: Well, the Highwaymen had a big song with "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train." Do you recall writing that song and what inspired you to write it?

Clark: Well, I recall writing it. It's a true song about someone in my life - I mean, you couldn't have made that up. It's just as true as you could make it. It was about a guy who was like my grandfather. And when I started writing songs, that was one of the songs I knew I was gonna write at some point.

Songfacts: I want to talk about what you have planned next as far as recording. Are you in the process of planning another album?

Clark: Always. I mean, every day I get up and I write and if it's something good, then it'll be on the next album. So I'm always writing for a new album. Just as soon as I get 10 or 12, that's when I go in the studio.

Songfacts: So you said you write every day?

Clark: Just about. Every day I'm at home - I mean, that's my job. That's what I do.

Songfacts: Do you look at it as a job or is it something that you feel like you need to wait for inspiration?

Clark: Oh, it's a job. Inspiration's a wonderful thing, and you have to be prepared for it. Sometimes you have a little flash of inspiration, and you'd better write it down, because you'll forget it if you don't. But the actual turning that into a song is work. You have to sit down and do it.

Songfacts: Do you prefer to work alone, or do you like to work with collaborators?

Clark: Oh, recently, I've been writing a lot with collaborators, because I enjoy it. I enjoy the give and take across the table. I like the idea that when you're writing with someone, you have to say the words out loud. You can't just sit there and mumble them to yourself and think it's great. But when you're writing with someone, you have to commit the words orally. You have to say them out loud. And sometimes just that will tell you whether you've got anything good or not. I mean, a good song, for me, I have to go out and play it on the road for a couple of weeks to find out if it's finished.

Songfacts: Do you test songs out and look for audience responses?

Clark: Of course. I mean, that's what I'm doing is writing songs to play for the folks. Why wouldn't I want to know whether it works or not?

Songfacts: Right. I'm always curious with songwriters, every time I hear the news now, it seems like things are getting worse economically with this recession. How does that affect your writing?

Clark: Well, I've never written about politics as such, and don't care to. It might creep in somewhere. I just wrote a song about coyotes on the Texas border, the coyotes who smuggle workers across the border.

Songfacts: Do you have hard and fast plans for the next album, or is that still kind of up in the air?

Clark: I have no plans other than getting 10 or 12 good songs, and whenever I get 10 or 12 good songs, I go in the studio.

Songfacts: So you're in Canada now. So you're touring for the summer, pretty much?

Clark: I'm touring for the money.

Songfacts: How do you feel about being the subject of a tribute album?

Clark: Well, it's flattering. And it's very nice that people would do those songs and come together like that. One thing it proves to me is how good the songs are, to have all those different people doing them. And they seem to hold up, the work does. And I've listened to it, I don't know if I would sit and listen to it all day long, but some of it's really good. So it's very, very nice that people would do that.

We spoke with Guy on August 5, 2011
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Comments: 3

  • Luke Thomas from Smyrna DeThat's awesome he was one of my heros
  • Mike Kemsley from Milton VtI'm not a song writer but I'm a song listener and I've been listening to Guy Clarks' song since the 70's. They just get better and better. Thanks a lot Guy.
  • Gary Elkintin from Medford, OregonMyself, being a novice songwriter, have learned a lot from listening to Guy Clark's songs. Songwriting is an art, and Guy surely is the teacher to learn from, if you want to succeed in making your songs enjoyable for others.
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