Guy Clark doesn’t say much.
That’s especially true in an interview situation, where Clark is definitely not one to go on about his work. He’s never been the type to indulge in public analysis of his music, his methods or his inner life.
And he takes a similarly economical approach to his songwriting. In fact, Clark subscribes to the same theory as John Prine, who once likened his work to that of a hedge-trimmer, observing that “my job is to figure out what’s not supposed to be there, and start trimming it away.”
That ethic of economy also informs Clark’s pace and output. He doesn’t churn out the industry-standard one-record-a-year. In fact, his upcoming disc, due for August release, will be his first since The Dark in 2002 — and he once went six years between studio albums.
“I’ve been at this a long time,” says Clark, who returns to the annual MerleFest blowout in Wilkesboro on Friday and Saturday. “I’m not 25 years old and on fire. I’ve written a lot of songs about stuff I know about, and now, hopefully, my standards are higher. So I don’t record as much — I’m hopefully more selective now about what I write. So it gets harder, not easier.”
An interesting observation …
“It’s a pain in the ass, is what it is,” Clark adds with a dry laugh. “I gotta get up every morning and do this. And I don’t set out for my albums to have any real theme. My theory of what an album should be is that, when I come up with 10 or 12 songs that I like, it’s time to make a record.”
Much has been made of the notion of Clark as a “crafter” of songs — especially after he chose “Craftsman” as the title for his 1995 compilation album. And in a way, it fits, especially since Clark is also a luthier who builds his own guitars. And the idea of Clark taking a craftsmanlike approach is certainly reinforced by the title of his upcoming disc — Workbench Songs.
“I guess there is a certain craft to songwriting, but I actually think of it as more of an art — which I guess is a step or two above a craft.”
Clark elevates the art of songwriting to a higher level than most. His incisive songs are alternately harrowing, heartbreaking and hilarious, and he writes with a plainspoken eloquence that often hints at volumes of subtext with a simple turn of phrase.
And if one measure of a songwriter’s greatness is how he’s perceived among his peers, then Clark occupies a rarified spot in the Tower of Song, as Leonard Cohen once called it. Clark’s songs have been recorded by the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker (“L.A. Freeway”), Johnny Cash (“The Last Gunfighter Ballad”), Mary Chapin Carpenter (“Jenny Dreamed of Trains”), and The Highwaymen/Nanci Griffith/ Slim Pickens — all of whom, among many others, have recorded his classic “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train.”
Clark has long been one of the stalwarts of Texas-country-folk, a genre unto itself that also includes Townes Van Zandt, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Robert Earl Keen, Billy Joe Shaver, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Jerry Jeff. (Leaving one to wonder how Clark gained admittance into that club, since he only has two names instead of three.)
In fact, Clark, Walker and Van Zandt were running buddies as far back as the 1960s, when they were all knocking around the Texas club circuit, playing their own, gritty variations on folk, blues and country music. Van Zandt, one of Clark’s closest friends, died on New Year’s Day of 1997, following a long battle with depression, alcoholism and schizophrenia.
In recent years, Clark has become fond of working with other writers instead of flying solo. On Workbench Songs, all of the tracks are collaborations with other writers, like Verlon Thompson, Darrell Scott, Ray Stevenson and Chuck Mead (of the neo-honky-tonk group BR5-49).
One of the highlights, “Cinco de Mayo in Memphis,” is a droll tune that sashays to a Tex-Mex groove and humorously details the commingling of cultures: “Cinco de Mayo in Memphis/ Mariachi singing the blues/ Southern belles and senoritas/ All sportin’ blue suede shoes/ Porkpie hats and sombreros … Swingin’ pool cues at pinatas … Jumper cables and limos/ Hell, they all came to rock ‘n’ roll …”
“Yeah, I was just sitting around on Cinco de Mayo, with Chuck, and that one popped out,” recalls Clark.
Another high point is “Analog Girl” — a gal who “goes online” when she hangs her jeans out to dry in the backyard, who has “a website in her garden, a mouse in her pocket, and spam in the can. … She’s an analog girl in a digital world.” So, is this old-fashioned gal a surrogate for Clark himself?
“Oh, by all means,” says Clark emphatically. “I’ve got a computer, but all I do is spit at it every time I walk by. I still can’t get past graphite on good paper. I guess computers are wonderful tools, but I just can’t seem to fit ’em into my life. I just try not to think about it.”
Another tune, “Out in the Parking Lot,” is an older song that Clark never recorded in the studio before now. The listener can just feel the boozy glow of the narrator when he sings about “Sitting on the fender of someone else’s truck/ Drinking Old Crow Whiskey with hot 7-Up,” hearing the muffled sound of the band playing through the wall, and seeing the “neon dancing across the gravel … out in the parking lot.”
“Oh, yeah, I’ve been there. Who hasn’t? Everybody’s seen that.”
Clark is prominently featured in the Van Zandt documentary Be Here to Love Me, released on DVD last month. His presence is an engaging and entertaining one: Fortified by numerous tequila shots, he ruefully recalls Townes’ infatuation with his wife, Susanna (to whom he’s still married), and other ’70s-era peccadilloes.
For print, Clark doesn’t offer up any specific memories of his friendship with Townes, but he has an interesting recollection about this quote, which has long been attributed to Van Zandt: “There’s only two kinds of music — the blues and zippity-do-dah.”
“Actually, the one who first said that was Rocky Hill, the brother of Dusty Hill [of ZZ Top],” reveals Clark. “Rocky was a blues guitarist, and he used to accuse me and Townes of being dilettantes. He’d say, ‘I play the blues, you guys just play zippity-do-dah.’
“But Townes repeated it well.”
[Writer and critic Kevin Ransom first interviewed Guy Clark in 1995.]
Guy Clark (with Verlon Thompson) plays MerleFest on Friday at the Creekside Stage (4:30-5:15 p.m.) and Saturday at Walker Center (1:30-2:15 p.m.) and at the Americana Stage (5:05-5:50 p.m.).
MerleFest 2006 happens Thursday, April 27 through Sunday, April 30, at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, N.C. General-admission day passes are $35/Thursday, $45/Friday, $50/Saturday and $40/Sunday. General-admission weekend passes are $115/Friday through Sunday, $130/Thursday through Sunday. For information about assigned-seating passes and passes with camping privileges, and to order tickets, get directions, or view a complete schedule, see merlefest.org or call (800) 343-7857.
Headliners on Watson Stage
6:45-7:30 p.m.: Darrell Scott
7:55-8:40 p.m.: Jim Lauderdale and his Bluegrass Band
9:15-10:15 p.m.: John Prine