Jerry Jeff Walker, Shawn Colvin, Jack Ingram and more band together forall-star, birthday tribute to Guy Clark
I was lucky enough to be present at the creation of a Guy Clark song during the course of a long and very liquid night at the Driskill Hotel, during which Guy, folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and former world champion cowboy rodeo star Larry Mahan held forth.
Guy got a great song (“Ramblin’ Jack and Mahan”) out of the deal; all I got was a hangover. That is only one of the differences between Guy Clark and me.
Here’s another—no one is offering to throw me a bash like the one planned for the Long Center to honor the birthday of the man often described as the songwriter’s songwriter.
Set for November 2, Wish I Was In Austin: A 70th Birthday Tribute to Guy Clark stars a veritable Murderer’s Row of Texas-bred-and-based singer/songwriters, including Jerry Jeff Walker, Shawn Colvin, Rodney Crowell, Terry Allen, Rosie Flores, Joe Ely, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jack Ingram, James McMurtry, Radney Foster, the Trishas, Kevin Welch, Terry Hendrix and a host of others, including Clark himself. The show is also a fundraiser for the Center for Texas Music History at Texas State University. (The event, by the way, takes its title from the memorable opening of Clark’s "Dublin Blues:" “I wish I was in Austin/At the Chili Parlor bar/Drinkin’ mad-dog margaritas/And not carin’ where you are…”)
It also serves as a celebration of the release of This One’s For Him, a two-disc set of Clark’s songs, performed by many of the artists noted above, as well as Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris and John Prine, Steve Earle, Patty Griffin, Kris Kristofferson and Rosanne Cash. The album is set for a December 6 release on the Icehouse Music label.
Even if you’ve never heard of the man himself, you’ve certainly heard of the stars who’ve reached for a Guy Clark song over the years. Kenny Chesney is only the latest to take one of Clark’s songs (“Hemingway’s Whiskey”) to the top of the charts. The list also includes the likes of Willie Nelson, George Jones, Jimmy Buffett, Alan Jackson, Johnny Cash, George Strait and…well, you get the idea.
Clark is a master woodworker who builds his own guitars and composes in his workshop. This has led to inevitable and overworked references to carpenters and craftsmanship among those who write about Clark and his music, but there’s an element of truth to all the metaphors. There is an effortless craftsman’s economy to Clark’s storytelling. How many other songwriters could make a compelling tale out of material as thin as a honky-tonk parking lot (“Out In the Parking Lot”) or the anticipated arrival of a train (“Texas 1947”)?
“There’s no dead meat,” said Jerry Jeff Walker, who was the first artist of any note to cover Clark’s songs, including definitive versions of “L.A. Freeway” and “Desperados Waiting For the Train."
“That’s the greatest example of what Guy does,” he continued. “It’s whittled down to the bone—lean and mean.”
Walker recalled seeing a draft of Clark’s song “Like A Coat From the Cold” in the author’s handwriting. “I’m looking down at it as he read off the words when he played the song, and there were only two words crossed out. I said, ‘You copied this down from somewhere, right?’ And he said, no, that was it. He only changed two words!”
“In Clark’s best songs,” noted the Village Voice many years ago, “he climbs right into a moment, sits down, looks around and describes it without the heavy hand of judgment.” He is a superb minimalist, as spare and affecting as a Hemingway short story or a Dorothea Lange photograph.
"Guy's greatest strength is that he is the best self-editor in the business," said Rodney Crowell, no slouch behind the songwriter's pen himself. Crowell has, over the years, sampled Clark's songbook. "Our sensibilities are an easy match. Guy writes great melodies and pays close attention to the language." If he has a weakness as a writer, added Crowell, it lies in his "co-writing with too many songwriters that don't come up to his level." Crowell's favorite? He won't touch it. "I have too many favorites to go there."
Oddly enough Clark, who grew up bouncing between Rockport, on the Texas gulf coast, and the desolate West Texas town of Monahans, didn’t start off as a composer. In the late 60s he was playing the same folk club circuit as Jerry Jeff Walker and Townes Van Zandt, singing the same folk canon as everyone else. “But he knew how to finger pick—which amazed us all,” Walker recalled.
He went on. “Guy had moved to Nashville from Los Angeles, and I ran into him there. I asked him what was going on and he said, ‘I’ve always wanted to write something like you and Townes, and I think I have.’ And he played me ‘That Old Time Feeling.’ And then he said he got so excited that he went back and wrote ‘L.A. Freeway.’ I cut both of them.”
Ray Wylie Hubbard recalled meeting Clark at a late night pickers party. “Through the smoke and Lone Star Beer haze, we heard Guy sing ‘Coat From the Cold’ and everyone knew no one was gonna sing a better song that night,” he said. He went on to describe “Desperados Waiting For the Train” as “a John Ford movie set to music.”
“Writing is not magic,” Clark told yours truly 20 years ago. “There’s a certain amount of discipline involved in it, loose as it might be. When I go in the studio, I know exactly what ten songs I’m going to do. Hopefully I’ve become a little bit more discerning about what I write and what I keep.”
Musician and visual artist Terry Allen recalled the first time he heard Clark’s “Let Him Roll,” an elegiac tale about a wino and the “Dallas whore” who comes to mourn him at his grave site.
“Somebody gave it to me on a bootleg tape and I sat down on the floor and played it over and over,” Allen said. “Not just because I loved it, but because the structure and the story were about as perfect as anything I had heard up until then. Every word counted.”
As Mark Twain once noted, the difference between the right word and any other is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.
Or, as Clark sings in "Somedays You Write the Song:" "Searchin’ for a melody to sing my soul to sleep/Reachin’ for some harmony down deep inside of me…Some days you know just how it goes/Some days you have no clue/Some days you write the song/Some days the song writes you."