Days from celebrating his 67th birthday, songwriter and alt-country singer Guy Clark isn’t resting on his laurels. Sure, he’s been dubbed a national treasure (“He remains a national treasure and folk icon,” lauds promotions agency Concert Wire; some 2,200 other Google hits confirm that portrayal) but he remains unaffected. “Of course it’s flattering, but you’ve still got to get up and write the next day,” Clark tells Xpress. “All that kind of stuff is nice but it doesn’t get the work done.”
With more than a dozen studio albums under his belt, Clark has proven himself as much a workhorse as an artisan, and he shows no signs of relinquishing his work ethic. “My approach to that is I make a record whenever I get 10 or 12 good new songs. Before that, I have no reason to make a record until I’ve got those songs,” he explains.
Clark’s most recent release, Workbench Songs (Dualtone, 2006)—the title a reminder that he is both a craftsman of notes and verses as well as an accomplished luthier—is a solid collection of 11 songs that showcases both the songwriter’s dexterity (“No Lonesome Tune” hints at cowboys huddled around campfires) and his wit (“Worry B Gone” is a cheeky ode to marijuana).
“However long it takes is however long it takes,” Clark says of his writing process. “I don’t really have any deadlines other than what I put on myself. I just try to get the work done.” So, when he had to cancel his summer shows this year due to a broken leg, he spent the time polishing a handful of unfinished pieces for a future recording.
Fans should look for more albums, but they shouldn’t hold their collective breath for hot-off-the-presses samples on Clark’s MySpace page. He insists he isn’t “a techno guy.” “I have the computer,” he quips, “but I’m still debating on whether or not to turn it on.”
The thing about Clark is that he doesn’t need to keep up with the times. When the songwriter says, “I have no idea what they’re playing on the radio or how they decide what to play on the radio or how you go about doing it,” it’s not because he’s out of touch. Clark, a native Texan who moved to Nashville in 1971, has always done his own thing and surrounded himself with people who understood. People like his protégé, Americana artist Steve Earle, and his best friend, the late Townes Van Zandt.
On his Web site, Clark describes 1970s Nashville as the equivalent of “Paris in the ‘20s” for singer/songwriters. “It was a lot of people of like mind writing songs and really on fire about it, really excited about doing it and willing to share their experiences with one another,” he recalls. “[There’s] nothing more fun than sitting around with a bunch of people writing songs who are like, ‘I got a new one! I got a new one!’ Wow, what a deal.”
These days, the musician says the same climate still can be found in Music City, though he admits, “I don’t hang out all night picking songs like I used to.” Nor does he need to. Though Clark claims he writes the songs that he feels like playing, an impressive roster of performers—Johnny Cash, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Bobby Bare and Asleep at the Wheel among them—have covered Clark’s tunes. Recently, beach-music maestro Jimmy Buffett recorded “Cinco de Mayo in Memphis” off Workbench. Ironically, Clark’s original version has a distinct Buffett tone—a quality he says comes from being a fan of Buffett’s work rather than writing the song with the king of the Parrotheads in mind.
“I never do that kind of stuff,” Clark maintains. “I’ve tried a couple times but it didn’t work out.”
He adds, “If someone else would like to [record my songs], that’s fine with me. I love it; that’s kind of the way I make a living.”
There’s a reason other musicians—many of them noted songwriters themselves—want to cover Clark’s work. As one Amazon.com reviewer of Workbench says, “There may be better songwriters than Guy Clark—but you can count them on one hand with fingers left over.”
That skill also translates into Clark’s live show. It’s the reason why he says playing at the Grand Ole Opry is “nice to be able to do” but is “not really my audience or my venue. My preference is 500 to 1,000 seats; good for listening.”
His band, he points out, is “not a dance band.”
But for those who take the time to pay attention, Clark crafts songs that resonate not just for an evening, but over decades. “I really take time with the songs that I write that I still like to do,” he says. “For the most part, there was a reason I recorded them in the first place—that’s because I thought they were good songs. The songs people really want to hear—“LA Freeway,” that kind of stuff—I do every night and never lose the original reason for why I wrote them.”
Read the complete interview with Guy Clark at www.mountainx.com.
who: Guy Clark
what: Iconic folk-country singer/songwriter
where: The Orange Peel
when: Sunday, Oct. 26. 8 p.m. ($25 in advance, $27 at the doors. www.theorangepeel.net or 225-5851.)