How does one prepare to interview a National Treasure? Turns out, if that National Treasure is alt-country singer-songwriter Guy Clark, pretty much anything goes. Clark, who jump-started the career of Steve Earle, was best friends with the late Townes Van Zandt, and has been covered by Johnny Cash, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Bobby Bare, Asleep at the Wheel and others, is open to all topics. His humble, no-nonsense approach applies to his song writing, his career and his take on fame. Here, Clark shares his thoughts on the best use of studio time, the direction of Nashville music and what makes a song worth singing for four decades.
Mountain Xpress: How are you today?
Guy Clark: I just got back from Texas where they have a really serious cedar allergy. I’ve never got it before, but we were out in the country for three or four days and man, my eyes are just… gooey. I’ve never had that happen before.
How is your leg?
Much better [sounds embarrassed]. Just one of those silly household accidents.
You have about a week’s worth of shows this month. How did you choose which places to play?
I don’t really pick it. I have a booking agent who arranges it and tries to make it make sense. In this particular case so we can drive. Take off from Nashville and drive around. A lot of times we have to fly to a destination. I just go where I’m told [laughs].
How was playing the Grand Ole Opry in April?
I think it went okay. That’s not really my audience, my venue. They call me once in a while and want me to do it. I don’t know why. But it’s very nice to be able to do it. For me, you can’t get warmed up doing two songs. You never start singing as good as you’re supposed to, or I don’t. It takes me awhile to build a rapport with an audience.
My preference is 500 to 1,000 seats. Good listening. I seem to communicate with people better like that.
Your music requires actually paying attention.
Yeah, it does. It’s not a dance band.
How do you feel about being called a National Treasure?
Of course it’s flattering but you’ve still got to get up and write the next day. All that kind of stuff is nice but it doesn’t get the work done.
Is song writing a lost art?
No! I know people who write every day. I don’t think it will ever be a lost art. I hope not. At least not the people I hang out with.
Are there any up-and-coming artists who you follow?
Yeah, there are friends of mine who I think are just wonderful. The fellow who plays guitar with me, Verlon Thompson. I could make you a long list. There are a bunch of young, really good songwriters.
Is song writing changing in Nashville?
I don’t pay attention to it that much. I kind of get a feeling it’s… it’s moved more in a pop direction; what used to be rock and roll. 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 [laughs]. It’s just something I quit worrying about years ago. I never really did follow it. I write songs for myself to sing. If someone else would like to do them, that’s fine with me. I love it; that’s kind of the way I make a living.
When you played “Cinco de Mayo in Memphis” on Workbench Songs it sounded like a Jimmy Buffet tune, and then he ended up covering it. Did you write it with him in mind?
I’ve known Buffet for a long time but I didn’t set out to write it for him. I never do that kind of stuff. I’ve tried a couple times but it didn’t work out.
It’s cool you can do what you like and other people cover your songs, too.
It’s wonderful. I write for a publishing company. It’s to their advantage to make sure those songs get out there to different parties that could do them. It’s kind of the best of both worlds.
How do you know that a song is a keeper?
You just kind of have a feeling. It makes the hair stand up on your arm or whatever. But as far as really knowing, you have to learn it and go out and play it on the road for a couple weeks and see how audiences react to it and how you learn to deliver it and play it. Some songs work and some songs don’t. You never know; it’s always a surprise.
Do your songs evolve?
Oh yeah. I change stuff all the time. They’re never written in stone. I’ve played songs for years and finally found a line a liked better and just fixed it right there. They’re always a work in progress.
Is it ever difficult to play same songs over and over?
No, because I really take time with the songs that I write that I still like to do. There’s obviously a bunch of them that I can’t remember or can’t do every night. But for the most part there was a reason I recorded them in the first place – that’s because I thought they were good songs. That hasn’t always turned out to be the case, but for the most part, especially the songs people really want to hear – “LA Freeway,” that kind of stuff —I do every night and never lose the original reason I wrote it.
Has the meaning of those songs changed for you over the years?
No, I don’t think so. Can’t imagine why it would. I kind of knew what I was talking about when I wrote the songs.
Has your recording process changed much, with all the new technology available?
Hopefully it’s gotten simpler. I find recording studios a necessary evil. A lot of people use the studios as a creative tool. I simply use it to get the song down; to make a recording of the song. I like going in the studio knowing exactly how the song goes. Of course you figure out different stuff and figure out how stuff happens. But I don’t go in the studio and learn the song. In other words, I preferable go out and play them on the road for a couple three weeks. That way – because it’s a very expensive proposition to start paying musicians and studio time and stuff and to just not be prepared just escapes me. How smart is that? To go pay that kind of money and not know what you’re going to do? I’ve done it. I’m really guilty of it. But at some point I stopped and looked at it and said, ‘This is stupid.’ Why not know what you’re going to do before you go in there? That way you do it once or twice and you’ve got it. It’s fresh and it’s live and it’s not worked to death. I don’t know… it just seems smart to me.
Do you do any home recording?
No, I’m not a techno guy [laughs]. I have a little DAT machine I make work tapes on, that’s it.
I have one. I have the computer but I’m still debating on whether or not to turn it on. No, I think they’re great tools. One day I might learn how to do it.
Will you be putting out a new record?
I’ve always been working on songs. With a broken leg you’re not exactly running around. So I got a lot of reading done and worked on a bunch of songs that weren’t finished. Tried to learn a couple guitar licks that I didn’t know how to do. I just tried to use the time.
Do you have a new album in the works?
Oh yeah, always. 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. And however long it takes is however long it takes. I don’t really have any deadlines other then what I put on myself. I just try to get the work done. I’m working at it.
In your bio you said Nashville, when you first moved there, was like Paris in the 1920s for song-writers. What was that like?
We moved here in November of 1971. It was a lot of people of like mind writing songs and really one fire about it, really excited about doing it and willing to share their experiences with one another. 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.
Do you think there’s any place with a similar climate these days?
I think it still happens in Nashville. I think there are still people coming to Nashville doing exactly the same thing. I don’t see it as much as I used to. That’s simply the way it is.
Are you still involved with a songwriter’s circle?
Sure, all my friends are songwriters. I don’t hang out all night picking songs like I used to…
Does it seem really cool to you that you’ve been able to make a living doing what you love for so long?
Sure it does. Of course it does. It’s exactly what I set out to do.
Guy Clark plays The Orange Peel on Sunday, Oct. 26. 8 p.m. $25 advance, $27 doors.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter