GUY CLARK: Walkin’ Man In A Digital World

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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For Guy Clark, the necessities of narrative provide a way out of the excesses of allegory. No other contemporary songwriter has written so movingly-and so amusingly-about travel’s dislocations, the ravages of time or the simple joys of eating chili and fried okra in Texas.  His work is akin to that of Hemingway and the Irish novelist/short-story writer William Trevor; like those artists, Clark is a master of the deftly sprinkled detail, the tall tale that turns out to be true and the casual story that conceals a world of heartbreak and joy.

Workbench Songs, the album to be released in September on Dualtone, might seem like the work of a man who loves to stay home and tinker with songs-the way Clark, who turns 65 in November, loves to fashion guitars in the cozy shop located in the basement of his Nashville house.  Yet Clark’s songs don’t stay at home, even if the songwriter finds it next to impossible to write on the road.

“I don’t write when I’m traveling,” Clark says.  “It just never suited me; there’s always just too much going on..soundchecks and too many naps to take, and you’re moving all the time.  I write where I can sit and get totally irresponsible.”

He’s renowned for his finely crafted flamenco-style guitars and for the painstaking effort that goes into his songwriting.  The comparison between handcrafts and songwriting is, of course, an obvious one, and Clark describes how his mind percolates during his creative process in a manner that isn’t always as exalted; for example, he’s fond of setting up a dartboard and losing himself in that simple yet absorbing activity.

On Workbench Songs, Clark collaborates on every song  (the one exception is a cover of his friend Townes Van Zandt’s “No Lonesome Tune”), and he describes the process in straightforward terms.

“It’s different every time you collaborate,” he says.  “If you have an idea, you bring it with you.  But you know, if you can’t think of anything, you just hope for the best.”

You get the idea that Clark lives by the words of Dublin Blues’ (1995) “Stuff That Works.” His artistic credo makes room for “the kind of stuff you don’t hang on the wall” and transmutes the quotidian into living, breathing art that neither shouts nor judges.  It’s clear he appreciates both the craft and the human qualities of collaborators like Verlon Thompson, Chuck Mead and Rodney Crowell.

“Stuff That Works” was co-written by Crowell, who shows up on Workbench as collaborator on “Exposé,” a song that holds up old-school virtues against contemporary culture’s tell-all mentality.  As does “Analog Girl,” it presents the funny, relaxed side of Clark.  “They’re meant to be humorous songs,” he says. “Analog Girl” came out of a casual conversation between Thompson and Clark.

“Verlon and I were sitting here talking, trying to think about something to write about,” Clark recalls.  “I think I had written that down; ‘analog girl in a digital world’and Verlon thought that was real good.  We just proceeded to sit here and write it.”

The album’s opener, “Walkin’ Man,” seems a bit more substantial.  “Yeah, that’s the most political thing I’ve ever written,” Clark says.  A collaboration with Steve Nelson, “Walkin’ Man” came out of an idea Nelson brought. “He had this idea for a song about the walking man,” Clark says.  “Kind of like the Wandering Jew, who goes through history.  It’s the Trail of Tears, it’s Woody Guthrie, its Chuck Berry…it’s Ghandi.  It’s yourself, going down with Martin Luther King to Birmingham.”

“Walkin’ Man” stands as one of the finest songs of Clark’s long career, and as with many of his compositions, its musical conception is deceptively simple.  As lyricist and as musician, Clark believes in nuance that gradually reveals its secrets.  “Walkin’ Man” benefits from the understated playing of Thompson, guitarist Shawn Camp and mandolin player Jaime Hartford.

Sporting a false ending and a jokey “all the do-dah-day” refrain that seems tacked on yet turns out to be integral to the song’s complex tone, “Walking Man” illustrates Clark’s American minimalism.

“I’m not preaching to anybody,” he says.  “I’m not telling you how it goes or how it should be.  I’m just telling you what happened to me.  I’m not trying to save your life, and I’m not trying to help you.” What Clark does achieve is an enlargement of our ability to see past events into a timeless space that is neither mythical nor solipsistic.

“Magdalene,” which follows “Walking Man,” is a superb example of Clark’s finesse. You get no real sense of the singer’s identity, and Magdalene herself isn’t described.  But when Clark drops the lines, “There’s a Greyhound leavin’ at midnight/If you came with me it’d be like a dream,” you get a sense of where the narrator stands in his life; he’s the kind of man who takes the bus-and a sense of suppressed desperation.  It’s as full of tension as early Clark songs like “That Old Time Feeling,” itself a harrowing account of old age.

Clark is immensely sly, and likes to affect indifference to interpretation.  “Anything that happens after I write a song-that’s fine with me.  It’s up to the listener to read into it what they need from it.  And thats part of the reason I write like I do, so I can leave the holes in the right places so people can say, ‘Yeah, that happened to me,’ and they’re able to have their own little fantasy about it.”

Early Clark records like 1975’s Old No. 1 and Texas Cookin’, provide a glimpse into a specific countercultural moment. Clark seems to have been both hooked into and slightly removed from the utopian fantasies of the era. Like fellow Texan Doug Sahm, Clark took a bemused view of California in the late ’60s.  Sahm’s classic statement of where-the-hell-am-I was “Lawd, I’m Just a Country Boy in This Great Big Freaky City,” while Clark simply wanted to escape the L.A. freeway without getting “killed or caught.”

Moreover, Old No. 1 was recorded when Clark was over 30, so there’s a maturity to his debut that makes it a fitting companion to, say, Robert Altman’s myth-busting film The Long Goodbye.  For Clark, who was born in the West Texas town of Monahans and grew up in Rockport (on Texas’ Gulf Coast), Los Angeles was a proving ground.

“I was working in a dobro factory in Long Beach, and there were several folkie joints up and down the coast,” he remembers.  “I would try to get on writers’ nights, just like they do today in Nashville. I would take my guitar into L.A. and play for publishers like Almo/Irving. I would call and make an appointment, and there might be one guy who would help me get to the next guy.  It was a tough process, but it was what I had decided I was gonna do-one way or another.”

Clark made the move to Nashville in late 1971.  “There was what they now call the Americana music element, and there were straight-down-the-line radio and record company deals,” he says.  “I tried to do that, and I’m just not good at it.  I had the deals, but I didn’t pay attention,” he laughs.

Still, performers began to pay attention in a serious way. The Everly Brothers were the first Nashville act to cut one of Clark’s songs;  “A Nickel for the Fiddler” appeared on their 1972 Pass the Chicken and Listen album.  Produced by Chet Atkins, Pass the Chicken stands today as a showcase for an emerging generation of singer/songwriters that included Clark, Mickey Newbury, John Prine, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson.

Listening to the Everlys do “Nickel,” you see why singers have found Clark’s songs congenial.  It describes an event that appears simple but conceals dissension and hard times. “It’s old ones and it’s young ones,” the lyrics go.  “And it’s plain they have agreed/that it’s country music in the park/as far as they can see.” Even though Don and Phil Everly outdo Clark in the singing department, Clark’s Old No. 1 version gets over on his sly, subtle vocal and an arrangement that features well-placed drum rolls.

The list of singers who have covered Clark songs is impressive.  Jerry Jeff Walker had a minor hit with “L.A. Freeway” in 1973, and Johnny Cash, David Allen Coe and Ricky Skaggs have all done memorable versions of his compositions-with Skaggs taking “Heartbroke” to No. 1 in 1982.  Clark praises Skaggs’ version, even as he laughs about the cultural collision between Skaggs’ somewhat conservative worldview and Clark’s more raffish one.

“I thought it was great,” he says.  “I mean,  [Skaggs] changed words.  He had to change my ‘pride is a bitch to ‘cryin’ when you’re rich.’ He said, ‘I just couldn’t stand it if mama and daddy heard me say that on the radio!’  I said, ‘Change anything you like!'”

As do Clark records like Dublin Blues and Cold Dog Soup, Workbench Songs succeeds in both the music and the lyric-writing.  Part of this is attributable to Clark’s longstanding musical partnership with Verlon Thompson, who makes a perfect foil for a performer, often more concerned with the song than with the recording process itself.

“I like hearing a good story, and I like telling a good story,” Clark says. “Verlon…he’s been playing guitar with me for years.  Over the years, he’d go out and play with me, and it was just the most fun I’ve ever had playing music, just he and I and no band.”

A ruminative but sometimes sublimely silly record, Workbench contains some of Clark’s darkest writing.  “Out in the Parkin’ Lot,” written with Darrell Scott, describes a typical American scene. Cowpokes vomit while listening to a band “playin’ right through the wall,” couples neck and “pick-up trucks come unraveled.”  What makes “Out in the Parkin’ Lot” more than a genre piece is the way Clark plays on the contrast between human activity and its absence; Clark has a point of view, but the listener has to work to get at it, and this means paying attention to the way Clark inflects his details.

“A string of details is something I can very easily get wrapped up in,” Clark says.  Like one of his favorite songwriters, Chuck Berry, Clark revels in the minutiae of everyday life. “I love detail…I like metaphors, I like describing stuff in weird ways and I like the way words sound.  I mean, I like songs-it’s not brain surgery. It’s having fun and trying to express whatever it is on your mind.  Sometimes you don’t have anything on your mind, but the song comes out OK.”

Probably the best example of this quality on Workbench, and perhaps the record’s best song, is “Cinco de Mayo in Memphis,” co-written with BR-549 frontman Chuck Mead.

“Chuck, he came over said he wanted to get together and write, but he didn’t have an idea,” Clark says.  “And I didn’t have an idea what to do, and that day was Cinco de Mayo. We came up with ‘Cinco de Mayo in Memphis,’ which had a certain ring to it…a certain alliteration.”

Clark says “Cinco” has already been cut by Jimmy Buffett  (“We’re just waiting for it to come out,” he says), and although they might make the song seem a bit insubstantial on the surface, lines like “Jumper cables and limos/Hell, they all came to rock and roll” suggest a deeper understanding of the American political landscape.

“There’s all this Mexican culture and there’s all this gringo culture, all of this coming together in Memphis on Mexico’s Independence Day,” Clark explains.

But, I ask, isn’t there a whole world of deeper truths, things left unsaid, political resonance…behind a song like “Cinco de Mayo in Memphis?” He looks at me for a second and then says, simply, “Of course there is.  Of course there is.”

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