Guy Clark: The High Price of Inspiration

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These days, and for this new record, he’s taken to co-writes to help find that voice or humor. “I used to write exclusively by myself, but I just got stuck,” Clark says. “I couldn’t write, and so I started co-writing with people I liked, friends of mine and bright young songwriters, and found I really enjoy it. There is something about sitting in a room with someone and committing.”

He collaborates frequently with younger writers like Shawn Camp, and is constantly looking to partner with more, well-known or not; and for both what they can offer him and what he can pass along. He co-wrote the title track for Ashley Monroe’s LP, Like A Rose, and Drake White, an up-and-coming Nashville singer-songwriter, recalls a recent session with Clark and Channing Wilson. “He’d sit there and be like, ‘nah, nah, nah,’ [as we were writing] and suddenly it was ‘yep.’ What I learned is that you don’t have to think outside of the box. You don’t have to do anything too quickly.”

“He’s so underrated. If you are a writer and you don’t know about Guy Clark then well …” White’s voice drifts off before he can finish the sentence. Trying to be polite, one can only guess, but you can imagine how that thought should end.

“I’ll try writing with anybody, just about,” Clark says. “Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. John Prine came over here and we sat for two days and all we got was ‘the train that couldn’t swim.’ We still talk about that. ‘Hey John, you finish that song?’”

Clark grew up in Monahans, Texas, with parents whom he describes as “very bright. We read poetry at dinner because there were no TV sets. We were always exposed to good literature or prose or poetry.” After an infamous detour to California that spawned the song “L.A. Freeway,” Clark moved to Nashville, which, in the ’70s, he describes as “like Paris in the ’20s.” He reconnected with the Texas crew – Van Zandt, Earle, Rodney Crowell, Billy Joe Shaver, a collective of artists not unlike what the Beat Generation was to New York in the fifties.

“Everyone was supportive,” says Clark. “I don’t know how supportive Picasso was to Ernest Hemingway … but it seemed like there was this really good sense of the work. Of just getting it done.”

Clark was best friends with Van Zandt for “four years,” and his wife Susanna, even closer – they used to talk every morning at 8:30 am on the telephone. At Van Zandt’s funeral, Susanna read a eulogy. “It was a moving little piece of writing,” Clark recalls. “She was talking about the fun they had, and how they’d talk every morning at that time. And the last line was ‘8:30 came, and the phone didn’t ring.’ Everybody was in tears. It still gets me.” It’s a story that Clark’s told before, but what isn’t as known is what happened in the moments following.

“After Guy made sure Susanna was okay, he came up on stage,” recalls the younger Earle. And he said, ‘Well, she wasn’t quite prepared for this. But me, I booked this gig thirty years ago.’ We all laughed. The room turned right back around.” Wit, levity and a pure sense of honesty about the inevitable – that was, and is, his gift. (Van Zandt, incidentally, “was so pissed that he outlived Hank Williams.”)

“People mention Guy and Townes a lot in the same breath, and they were certainly two sides of the same coin,” says Lovett. “Guy being poetic, too, but I always think of Guy as more prose-like and Townes being more poetry.”

Their interplay and dual nature even bred collaborations of a sort. “I’m always fixing someone’s songs, even Townes’. I changed ‘To Live Is To Fly,’ which Townes thought is the best song he ever wrote. He wanted to start with ‘you’re soft as glass and I’m a gentle man.’ Are you kidding me? I said, ‘man, what are you thinking? That shouldn’t start the song.’ He grumbled around, but he wound up agreeing with me. And even Steve Earle – he said I shouldn’t have changed Townes’ song like that. But it’s better! The silly shit …”

Clark takes the craft of writing as serious as ever – it is both a profession and a sacred art form. “It’s a really tough thing to get up every day and write, and come up with something that is really good work. And it doesn’t always happen. But some days, there it is. All you gotta do is have your pencil sharp. And a big eraser.”

There are tools he credits – first and foremost the habit of constantly writing everything down (a line he said to himself in the back of a car cruising down the highways of Los Angeles and scrawled in Susanna’s eyeliner on a paper bag became “L.A. Freeway”), discipline, pure inspiration, natural-born talent. Even drugs. “They can free you in a way from how you always think, or think straight. About getting the rent paid or the car fixed,” he says. “I don’t have anything against doing drugs and drinking and writing. I got a lot of songs I wrote under the influence, and I got a lot of songs I did really straight. It’s what you do with it. I’m not sure Shakespeare wasn’t taking methamphetamine all day, or something.”

He doesn’t use much these days – he likes “really good marijuana,” but quit drinking five or six years ago after he finished chemotherapy for Lymphoma and never got his taste for liquor back. He still keeps a nice bottle of tequila around the house, though, but is mostly relegated to cigarettes and coffee – when he gets up to refill his cup, he hands me a steel-string guitar that had been resting on a stand next to him. “Play this while I’m gone,” he says, and I sit there, paralyzed. I’m out of practice, not to mention intimidated: holding a guitar that Clark made, in his studio, that he regularly plays himself. When he returns I timidly ease out a couple of chords, and mention that I’d love to dedicate more time to learning the instrument.

“Well,” he laughs, “it’s good fun.”

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