A legendary Texas troubadour
If you grew up in Texas, you most likely can find something to which you can relate, deep down in your soul, when you hear songs written and sung by the legendary Guy Clark. The very word “troubadour” was coined in the 11th century to define “a class of poet-musicians.” Clark is that songwriting legend, “the poet-musician,” who projects images and characters in his writing that have earned him a reputation as a literary master, who has won the admiration and respect of his peers, and whom young artists and seasoned writers study and attempt to emulate.
Many of Clark’s songs flow with memories of his days growing up in the small West Texas town of Monahans, where he was raised by his grandmother, who ran the town hotel. (His mother worked, and his father was in the Army.) One of Clark’s most famous songs, “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” tells the story of an oil-well driller who stayed in the hotel. Many of his other songs, such as “Texas 1947” on his debut album Old No. 1 and the 1992 song “Boats to Build,” recount in vivid detail and with emotional fervor his formative years in Texas.
Clark describes those early days in Monahans as “bleak, desolate … you had to learn how to amuse yourself. I lived in a pre-TV house, where we all sat around and read. My mom and dad were bright, well-read people, and I was exposed to good literature. Mom would pass around a book of poetry, and we all read. I remember hearing a 16-year-old girl playing the guitar and singing Mexican songs … all border songs, nothing in English. I was stunned and absolutely hooked; I knew then I had to learn to play the guitar.
“We moved to Houston in the ’50s, when my dad went to law school and later worked as an attorney,” he says. “I went to a couple of colleges and, finally, to the University of Houston. I loved all kinds of music and was very interested in John Lomax (the folk music historian), his American folk songs and the Texas Folklore Society. But, Chuck Berry was my favorite. If you ever listen, really listen, to his songs and pick them apart, you know it’s poetry … extremely well-written poetry.”
In the ’60s, Clark worked as an art director for KHOU Channel 11 during the day and began writing and performing his special brand of folk- and blues-influenced country music by night, playing the Jester Lounge (on Westheimer and Post Oak), the Sandman Coffee House and the Old Quarter downtown. It was in Houston that he met a lifelong friend, fellow songwriter and performer, Townes Van Zandt, who toured with Clark until Van Zandt’s death in 1997. Clark credits Van Zandt with being a major influence on his songwriting.
After a brief sojourn to San Francisco, Clark returned to Houston, where he met and married his wife Susanna, a songwriter and artist. A move to L.A. ended quickly, but not before Clark had penned one of his classic songs, “L.A. Freeway,” which Jerry Jeff Walker recorded and turned into a hit. Next, the Clarks made the permanent move to Nashville.
By the time Clark’s first album premiered in 1975, he was considered one of the most promising young writers in country music. Many of his albums reflect his Texas roots, and all of his songs are masterfully crafted with honest, folksy lyrics and melodies that he has devoted his life to writing. For decades, he’s put out a steady stream of music, with albums such as Texas Cookin’, The South Coast of Texas, Guy Clark, Better Days, Old Friends, Boats to Build, Dublin Blues, Keepers, Cold Dog Soup, Together at the Bluebird Café (with Townes van Zandt and Steve Earle) and The Dark.
Additionally, many of Clark’s songs have been hits for other artists, such as Johnny Cash, Vince Gill, George Strait, David Allen Coe, Ricky Skaggs, The Highwaymen, Jimmy Buffet, Steve Wariner, Rodney Crowell and Lyle Lovett, who recorded Clark’s first song, “Step Inside This House,” that had never been recorded before.
When asked if one of his songs is his favorite, Clark insists, “I like ’em all!” But, after a brief hesitation, he says, “‘She Ain’t Goin’ No Where.'” On the same track, Clark has a hard time putting his finger on his current favorite artist. “Oh, I have so many,” he admits. “But, there are two sisters, The Waifs, from Australia: full of enthusiasm and energy.”
Skilled at working with stringed instruments, Clark’s music mastery goes beyond the notes. “It started with my ability to work with wood and my love of guitars,” he says of his luthier skills. “Most of it was by trial and error: I’d take ’em apart and put ’em back together.”
With so many songs on the charts, Clark keeps a schedule to produce all the hits still to come. “Well, I start early in the morning when I’m brighter, quicker, funnier,” he reveals. “I sit in my guitar shop at my writing desk and just start writing. I never write at night. I’m still thrilled when it comes together; it’s very rewarding when I think I’ve done good work.” He even advises novice song writers to “write with a pencil and a big eraser.”
“The feeling I get from performing: Sometimes it’s perfect … you hit a hole-in-one … and that’s an awesome feeling,” he says. “It’s a really hard job, what with the travel, all the airports, maybe 10 or 12 hours to get there. It’s a lot more involved that you might think and can get pretty tedious. Obviously, I love doing it. What I do is the best that I can … play and sing my best — and have some fun while I’m at it.”
Known as an Americana legend, Clark reveals that it’s simply all in a day’s work. “I like what I’ve done with my life. You never get to be the best; you never get there. It’s always the next song; I’m always working on the next song. I like good work! Nothing matters more than the quality of the work! I feel responsible for that.”
Hard work has obviously paid off for Clark as he has been recognized by the public and peers alike for creating masterful, poignant melodies and insightful lyrics that touch the heart. In 2004, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Foundation’s Songwriters Hall of Fame and was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Songwriting by the Americana Music Association in 2005. “I’m flattered, and I do appreciate it,” he says of the recognition. “But it didn’t change my life; it didn’t make me a better writer. I’ve got to get up in the morning and work.”
His latest body of work is in his 11th studio album, Workbench Songs, that was released last September. Warm and cozy, Clark has collaborated with other writers on most of the songs. “I’m proud of it,” he says frankly. “When I get 10 or 12 good songs, I’m ready to do a new album. I really like the upbeat ‘The Walking Man’ and ‘Magdalene.’ ‘No Lonesome Tune’ by the late Townes Van Zandt is included. I miss my friend of 40 years; I miss his brightness and his humor.”
Again, harking back to memories of Texas, “Tornado Time In Texas” paints a vivid picture that is indelible in the minds of most Texans and almost lets you smell the Texas dirt.
Well, the sky was blacker than a funeral suit. Hotter than a depot stove.
Hide in the cellar — here comes Amarillo. Blowin’ up the road.
You got ya hailstones, big hen eggs, boys. Clouds as green can be.
Ol’ Mother Nature’s raisin’ hell. She parked the pick-up in a tree.
Tornado time in Texas. Take the paint right off of your barn.
Tornado time in Texas. Blow the tattoo off of your arm.