I was supposed to leave an hour ago, but it’s okay, he assures me. His only commitment for the day is a visit from a Flamenco musician who is supposed to drop by in a bit, but “flamenco players are notoriously late.” Clark has a connection to the Spanish language – more specifically, to Mexico, garnered from growing up near the border in Texas. On My Favorite Picture Of You, there’s a song called “El Coyote,” about the men who smuggle immigrants into the United States, often to violent outcomes and for monetary gain. “I knew I needed to write that song,” he says. “I can’t get over man’s inhumanity.” Another track, “Heroes,” was composed as a reaction to the escalating number of suicides amongst veterans returning from the Middle East.
“It felt like something that needed to be addressed,” he says, but more importantly, it turned into a good song with a resonating chorus. “I want it to be something you want to hear again. And a lot of times, it’s not really a chorus, its just ‘desperados waiting for a train.’ And that’s all the chorus there is. Just that. Like how ‘my favorite picture of you’ is the only thing that repeats.”
Another standout is “The High Price Of Inspiration,” which charts both the emotional and technical costs of finding a muse: “inspiration with no strings, I’d like that even more,” is how the lyric goes, evoking “writing just for the money, or for the deal.” He sang this song in front of a group of music industry executives with as straight a face as they come.
“I really work hard at being true,” he says. “And that’s where the uniqueness of the songs come out. I couldn’t have made them up.”
Now, for the master of truth, there is one more difficult reality to face: his own future. As the talk shifts to performing, his heavy sighs begin to outweigh the laughs; there is little humor in his fears over not being able to continue as he’d like, to tour. A few years ago he broke his leg, and that, coupled with recovering from cancer, has taken its toll.
“I’m having a hard time playing and singing like I used to. I’m so crippled up, I walk with a cane, and I need someone to carry my bag and my guitar. So I’m just a broke down old songwriter,” he says. “I don’t have trouble getting gigs, but I will, because people are not going to pay to sit and watch me just be befuddled by what I do.” He looks down, still stuck in thought, clipping off the end of a cigarette but not relighting it just yet. “I’m really concerned about it. I’ll write, and I’ll continue to think about those songs being on another album but…” he takes a drag, followed by a deep breath. “So I guess we’re going to see what I’m made of.” Finally, he cracks a smile again.
We finish up talking, and on the way back up the stairs I notice a few things I hadn’t before – particularly the automated lift that Clark says he no longer has to use. He follows me with the help of a cane, albeit slowly. Brogdon has prepared some lunch for the two of them, and he sits down at his kitchen table, lowering himself carefully. I walk through the living room, past stacks of framed pictures of Van Zandt, posters, records, memorabilia of all kinds. The entire place feels very much alive; matched much more to Clark’s mental condition than to his physical one. But, bidding me goodbye, there is a sadness that cannot be denied from the man has “always tried to have a little ray of hope in the end result” of his music. That old time feelin’ rocks and spits, and cries.
“Guy is the kind of writer who is too strong to fade out,” says Hiatt. “His songs will remain long after he does. They get in your heart and mind, and they become a part of you.”
As I sit in my car, it has started to rain again, and my clothes, permeated with the scents of Clark’s workshop, have taken on the odor of burning tobacco. I repeat over and over in my head one of the last things Clark told me before we left the basement: “I always say, Look, I was trying to save my own life, not yours. If you get something from my songs, all right. Tell me what it is.’” I can’t let this go, because it’s the one time I think he was not being entirely truthful: Guy Clark has always been trying to save all of us with song, and always will.
Correction: In our article, we incorrectly stated that Clark was scheduled to receive an honor during this year’s ACM Awards. In fact, he is slated to receive the “Poet’s Award” at the ACM Honors in September. We regret the error.