Guy Clark: The High Price of Inspiration

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(Photos: Jim McGuire)

Guy Clark’s house is tucked away off a main road in Nashville known to most for its Target, a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant and fast food chains. It’s not the prettiest part of town by any means, but once you take the turn, a bit past a gas station, you find a little enclave of mostly brick homes in an area that’s nicer than it ought to be, dictated by stop signs and little curvy roads. Down a short and steep little hill that I’m not sure my ancient hybrid car with cheap tires will have any luck getting back up, lies his home: modest, and obscured by a couple of trees leaking water from a passing rainstorm.

When I get there, Clark is waiting for me in the basement – though to call it that is to call a penthouse an attic. Not that it’s luxurious or decked-out by conventional standards, but it is a place full of enough musical relics to make your head spin: the walls covered in racks stacked with hand-labeled tapes and demos, notebooks, CDs, instruments, lyrics, tools and anything else that Clark has held on to over the years – he describes himself as a packrat of sorts, but it seems more archival than that. This is his workshop, where he used to make guitars (two at a time) before it got too painful for him to stand for hours on end. Joy Brogdon, his friend with Emmylou-Harris-silver hair and wearing a black Johnny Cash sweatshirt, leads me down the beige-carpeted stairs before offering me some coffee and disappearing again.

The Teachings Of Guy Clark

Clark, 71, is sitting at a wooden table in a denim shirt and jeans, which are torn and shredded at the knees like a pair Kurt Cobain might have owned – lighter in color than his iconic ensemble from the cover of Old No. 1, but denim just the same. In front of him is a tin of tobacco, a lighter, an ashtray, small scissors, a bag of what seems to be some kind of generic brand of cheese snacks and lots of scraps. His palms are resting on a pad of graph paper, with a few paragraphs written neatly on it in pencil. He lifts his hands to roll a cigarette, something he’ll continue to do throughout the remainder of my time here, snipping off the ends and relighting each again when they burn out.

“Ask me anything you want,” Clark says. “If I know it, I’ll tell you. If I don’t, I won’t.” He laughs, a hearty chuckle that is at once boyish and weathered; a laugh to tolerate the years, roughed by smoking and singing and cancer; by death and life.

It’s been a difficult year for the native Texan, but at the same time it has been a fruitful one. He finished his new 11-track record, My Favorite Picture Of You, the title song of which is about his longtime wife, Susanna, who passed away in 2012. The photograph, the one that Clark is holding on the cover art and also sings about, is of her, young, arms-crossed, looking angry and beautiful all at once.

“It was pinned on that wall right there,” he says of the Polaroid, pointing to a small space to my right. There’s a gap there, a toothless smile – he’s not sure where the photo is now. “It was always my favorite picture of Susanna because she was so pissed at me and Townes [Van Zandt]. We were just being drunk assholes, and she’d had enough … from the minute I saw it I said, ‘Yep, that’s Susanna.’ She was livid.  It’s probably thirty years old.” He pauses to take a drag, a slow exhale. “But subsequently she died, so I don’t know if that made it better or worse,” he adds, laughing again, something he does frequently. He sighs frequently, too, deep ones that pull long and strong from his diaphragm and raise his chest up and down again, heavy and slow.

“Is this album a tribute to her?” I ask.

“Nah,” he says. “I just try to write the best songs I can, and they didn’t follow that theme. I never tried to write a thematic concept album. This one just happened uniquely, as much of them do.”

Watch Guy Clark Perform “My Favorite Picture Of You”

Like most of his work, the lyrics are a brilliant mix of imagery, prose and down-hard honesty. “The camera loves you / And so do I,” he sings, punctuating the last line with a spoken “click.” The production is bare, his voice softly matched to the cadence – it’s heart wrenching, really, mostly because it touches on truth, not manufactured moments or emotions. “I wrote the song about her while she was alive and I knew it was going to happen,” he says of her passing, and now he’s dreading having to relive those details in every upcoming interview. “That’s a lot of glue to unstick, you know. Forty years.” Still, he’d never think about removing the track from the record: good songs should be heard, shared.

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