Clark is a songwriter’s songwriter. Though she was talking about fiction, the author Jhumpi Lahiri once told the New Yorker that “everybody writes their first book with a certain innocence, a purity of vision,” and “the writer’s writer writes every book that way.” That is how Clark composes, how he lives: a purity of vision and constant quest for truth. Though he may not be a household name amongst the Spotify set, he’s often mentioned in the same breath with Bob Dylan, John Prine, Warren Zevon, even Woody Guthrie. With Van Zandt, of course, but even he has only been experiencing an uptick in pop-culture-trendiness in recent years, and still mostly amongst the Americana community. Yet these are the artists that drive the artists; and Clark is as true an example of this as it comes.
In a few days, he’s scheduled to receive an honor from the ACM awards, hosted by Luke Bryan. He’s getting the “Poets Award,” along with Hank Williams. Needless to say, he’s not going. “They sent me a very pointed letter which read, ‘You and Hank Williams are not required to be here.’ Well, ok, good!” It’s not too surprising that whoever wrote this letter isn’t aware that Williams might not actually be alive – this awards show, after all, features pyrotechnic versions of country where trucker hats trump cowboy boots and pop-infusions truly reign supreme. Bryan, who sings in a Kermit-the-Frog nasality and presents himself as a God-fearing fratboy, is the antithesis of anything close to Clark, who personally relates much more to the folk tradition than country – particularly modern country – anyhow.
“It’s like the Grammys,” he says, moving the can of tobacco closer. “I’ve been nominated for one five times. And every year I am nominated, so is Bob Dylan. I went a couple years, and I didn’t like it. Probably because I haven’t won. I’d be going back every year if I’d won.” He laughs. “Oh dear…”
Of course, for fans of Clark’s music, it seems quite strange that these accolades are few and far between – but it’s also what makes up part of his mystique. He’s been depicted as many things by the press: a “craftsman,” a master, a country original, a folk legend. In person, he comes off as a complete artist; a renaissance man in Western shirts. He reads (multiple books at once), he paints, he writes, he makes guitars. He has guilty pleasures, too – he likes television, particularly the Big Bang Theory, but mostly because he was a physics major in college. “Shit, I’ve gotten six or seven songs out of that show,” he says. He also likes the History Channel, and when I mention that he ought to try Breaking Bad, about a chemistry teacher turned methamphetamine impresario, he says, “Hmm. Meth makes me feel weird – too jangled.” He prefers really good cocaine, but hasn’t done it in ages.
Clark is the type of person that has taken inspiration from every moment in his life – every occurrence a meaning, a learning experience, something to build character on. Drugs, sadness, happiness, all of it. Even the graph paper has a raison d’être. “I used to be a draftsman for structural steel, and that was an influence,” he says. “But I’ve always enjoyed this kind of paper. I can always tell something I have written because no one else uses this stuff. Maybe it keeps my lines straight.”
“Guy Clark is always taking in everything that’s going on around him,” says longtime friend Lyle Lovett, whose song “Waltzing Fool” Clark covers on the new record. “He’s in a creative mode whether he is writing or painting, he’s in a creative mode when he is speaking to you. Just to be with him, to be in his presence, is a lesson first in humanity, but in art for sure. To be around Guy makes you want to be a better person, much less a better songwriter or painter or anything else. All that is just an extension of Guy.”
Lovett echoes a sentiment you’ll hear often when talking to admirers or peers of Clark: that he is a bearer of ultimate truth in song. They’ll often speak first about his character, and then about his art. “He’s upright, he’s forthright. He’s absolutely honest in terms of his take on the world and how he lives his life. He’s good through and through,” adds Lovett.
“He’s like my Ernest Hemingway in a lot of ways. Guy Clark taught me how to be a man,” says Justin Townes Earle, whose father Steve was a young disciple of Clark’s. “He taught me the beauty of simplicity, and to not be afraid to say something is beautiful, to say ‘I love you,’ to say your love for your wife or a woman or anything else.” He recalls being a young boy and hearing his mother play “Homegrown Tomatoes” around the house – Lily Hiatt, whose father is John Hiatt, also recalls a similar moment when she first fell in love with the straightforward humor in his lyrics.
“The first Guy album I remember listening to is Boats To Build,” she says. “My mother was playing it constantly … it started off with “Baton Rouge,” which made me giggle as a nine-year-old at the line about alligator shoes. I thought to myself, ‘This guy is funny, and he is warm.’”
It’s the dual ability of being able to write about food, shoes or instant coffee at the same time as composing songs like “Desperados Waiting For A Train,” “The Randall Knife” and “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” that gives Clark his incomparable footprint.
“I don’t think there are too many people that can write songs about homegrown tomatoes and rainbow pie and not sound like a cheese stick,” says Earle. “I think that guy has somehow found a way to explain those little things to us, and give them to us in a way where we don’t necessarily laugh.”