No Lonesome Tune

Committing Guy Clark to the air

No Lonesome Tune
Photo by John Carrico

He hasn't lived in Texas for decades, but Guy Clark is still considered the dean of Texas songwriters. A Mount Rushmore of Texas troubadours would slot his granite face, as well as the sharp features of his best friend, Townes Van Zandt. The reason, besides the fact that he's been doing it better and longer than almost anyone else, is his weave of lyrics and melody, which strike at the heart of the matter more consistently than anyone else. A lifelong lover of poetry, Clark's songs are painstakingly built until there's not a word out of place.

"The words need to work on paper as well as with the music," he explains from his home in Nashville. "So you don't get a lot of 'ooh wah, ooh wah, baby' in my songs, because it may sound good onstage, but it sure doesn't hold up on paper. Townes and I would sit around, and anytime we thought we were pretty smart, we'd get out a recording of Dylan Thomas reading his own work, and it would bring us back to earth."

The results are tunes that have become part of Texas folklore: "L.A. Freeway," "Desperados Waiting for a Train," "Texas, l947," "Dublin Blues," "Heartbroke," "Oklahoma Borderline," "She's Crazy for Leavin'," "Boats to Build," "Randall Knife." A pantheon of country music stars including Jerry Jeff Walker, Johnny Cash, the Highwaymen, Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, and Brad Paisley have paid their respects through Clark's compositions.

Born in Monahans, between Pecos and Odessa in West Texas, on Nov. 6, 1941, he moved to Rockport, on the Gulf Coast, at 16. Instructed by his father's law partner, he learned to play on a $12 Mexican guitar, and the first songs he learned were mostly in Spanish. Clark began his career during the folk revival of the 1960s in Houston. There he had his first exposure to greatness, learning at the feet of folk/blues mavens Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin' Hopkins.

"Mance lived up the road in Navasota," recalls Clark in his trademark gravel tones. "Lightin' was always playing around in bars in Houston, sometimes bars that white kids couldn't go into without his permission. He'd give folk-type concerts. Mance wasn't a bar player like Lightnin' was, but I actually went over to his house for a folk-music group, and we sat in his living room and played some songs. He wasn't really known that well at the time. He was very influential to me. The thing about him and Lightnin' both was that they were songwriters. They weren't doing other people's songs, and I think that was more appealing to me than I knew at the time. I figured that out later."

Clark shifted between San Francisco and Houston for a time later in the decade, before settling in Los Angeles, where he began working in the Dopyera brothers' Dobro factory building guitars. In 1971 he signed a publisher's deal with RCA's Sunbury Music and moved to Nashville, where he has been ever since.

Déjà vu again: Guy Clark and Ramblin' Jack Elliott at the Cactus Cafe, 2004
Déjà vu again: Guy Clark and Ramblin' Jack Elliott at the Cactus Cafe, 2004 (Photo by John Carrico)

Around the same time, Jerry Jeff Walker was settling into Austin, and his recording of "L.A. Freeway" on a self-titled 1972 release became a hit on FM radio. A year later, Clark's "Desperados Waiting for a Train" was part of Walker's now historic ¡Viva Terlingua! LP, which set in motion the "progressive country" movement.

The move to Music City forged many fruitful relationships. A group of like-minded singer-songwriters – Van Zandt, Crowell, Mickey Newbury, Billy Joe Shaver, Steve Earle, David Allen Coe – coalesced around Clark and his wife Susanna's dining-room table, where recurring guitar pulls translated into songs that reverberate to this millennia. Even Susanna Clark, a talented painter, put down her brushes and began writing hit songs.

In 1975, Clark released his first album, Old No. 1, on RCA to critical acclaim. In the intervening years, he's penned 11 more, hardly a blistering pace. While some are better than others, each is filled with exquisitely crafted lyrics and melodies. His most recent, Workbench Songs (Sept. 15, 2006), found him writing with Nashville veterans Crowell, Gary Nicholson, Lee Roy Parnell, Darrell Scott, and Verlon Thompson, while never losing sight of his meticulous song construction.

"Sometimes you just get stuck," admits Clark. "I've been doing this for 35, 40 years, and you finally run out of your own bullshit. I still write by myself, but [writing with others] is something I actually enjoy. When you're throwing stuff back and forth between two people, you actually have to say the words out loud. I can sit here and look at something I've written and mumble it to myself for weeks and think, 'Oh man that's just wonderful,' and all of a sudden you sing it out loud, and it doesn't hold up. There's something about committing it to the air."

He pauses for a few seconds.

"You can fool yourself a long time thinking something's really good without singing it."

Workbench Songs also contained a cover of Van Zandt's "No Lonesome Tune." Clark's included one such reworking per album since his friend's death in 1997. Talking to Clark, it's inevitable the subject of Van Zandt will not only come up but will jog memories, too. Like the celebration of Van Zandt that was taped for Austin City Limits not long after his death. It still chills this writer's bones thinking of the love and sadness that was present that evening as Clark led a Van Zandt-themed songwriters in the round with Willie Nelson, Earle, Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Lovett, and others. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.

David Byrne, Clark, and Marcia Ball during the glory years of Liberty Lunch
David Byrne, Clark, and Marcia Ball during the glory years of Liberty Lunch (Photo by John Carrico)

"I always loved his work, his sense of humor, and his intelligence," says Clark, recalling the occasion all too well. "He did what he did. I'm surprised he lived that long. He was really good. Crazy, but really good. I'm trying to learn one of his songs right now. I usually do one of his songs on the records I've been making, and I'm learning 'If I Needed You.' He wrote it in my house. He said he had a dream, and he woke up and wrote it down. Then when we all got up in the morning, he played it. It's actually pretty simple.

"I'm getting pretty close to having a new record. I don't really have a reason to make a new record unless I have 10 or 12 new songs. I like to have 'em finished and performed for a while before I go into the studio. It eliminates a lot of unwarranted costs.

"I'll do some new songs at the shows coming up."

Clark battled lymphoma, a cancer that attacks a part of the immune system called the lymphatic system, a few years back and says it's now in remission. Those that saw him recently at the Paramount with Lovett, John Hiatt, and Joe Ely ("Live Shots," May 9) might be wondering about that boot he wore and the crutches he brought onstage.

"I broke my leg in a silly household accident," he explains. "I was on crutches for three months. It was not fun. It seems to be healing well. Life's a crapshoot to begin with. I just don't have the time to be sick. I've got some shit to do."

Now that he's approaching 70, one wonders if there are any thoughts of retirement. He lets out a big, crackling laugh.

"Retirement? Good one. There's an oxymoron: retired songwriter."

Guy Clark and Ramblin' Jack Elliott bring their lessons to the Cactus Cafe in the Texas Union Thursday, Sept. 18, 8pm.

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Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, ¡Viva Terlingua!

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