By Richard Skanse
There’s a scene in director James Szalapski’s 1981 singer-songwriter/“new country” documentary Heartworn Highways in which Guy Clark is filmed in his Nashville workshop, fixing a guitar. As he goes about his work — filing down the frets, squatting down to get eye-level with the newly repaired bridge — it’s clear that it’s a labor of love to him. Or at the very least, an immensely satisfying form of meditation. The appeal, Clark explains to the off-camera interviewer and film crew, is all in the meticulous details of the craft and the subtleties of the instrument itself.
“That’s the whole thing about guitars,” he says. “That’s why I like them … You can count on mathematics as far as the scale is concerned, but once it comes down to making them play right, every one’s different. You know, they’re really unique things, so you wind up treating every one of them different. And then when you work on them, you don’t get bored. Which is one of my main aims.”
The whole scene, of course, is a metaphor for the man’s songwriting. The word “craftsman” is never spoken, but it might as well be scrolled along the bottom of the screen in flashing letters. But that’s OK. It’s a great scene, as memorable as the one in which Townes Van Zandt brings a grizzled old blacksmith to tears by playing “Waiting ‘Round to Die” — or at least on par with the scene of Van Zandt pretending to be yanked down a hole by a ravenous, man-eating rabbit. And Clark of course knew what the filmmakers were going for, just as he surely knew just about every review or feature timed to the release his new album would contain the world “craftsman” — again — even if he hadn’t named the record Workbench Songs. He’s just plain stuck with it.
Granted, there are worse words a songwriter could have to live with. When people call Clark a craftsman (or, perhaps, the Craftsman), it’s intended as a mark of respect, in recognition of the not-a-single-wasted-or-misplaced-word perfection in pretty much every one of his songs. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than just craft: the word “poetry” comes immediately to mind. But the fact is, you don’t just slap together a song like, say, “The Randall Knife” … or “Desperados Waiting for the Train,” “That Old Time Feeling,” “Stuff That Works,” “Dublin Blues” or “The Dark.” You work on those. You work and work on them until they seem like they’re just about right, and then you work on them some more until “just about right” is whittled down to perfect. And like guitars, no two songs should ever be alike, and every single one of them deserves the same time and attention to detail.
What this means is, Guy Clark albums don’t just pop out every year or even every other year. Clark doesn’t crank ’em out near as fast as say, Willie Nelson. He doesn’t even think about making a new album until he’s got about 10 new songs he deems not only worthy but finished. In the case of Workbench Songs , the magic number was 11 — including the traditional “Diamond Joe,” a sterling cover of Van Zandt’s “No Lonesome Tune” and a long overdue (even by Clark standards) studio version of his own “Out in the Parking Lot.”
And the other eight tunes? We could tell you they’re good, but that’d be redundant, wouldn’t it? Guy Clark doesn’t put out stuff that doesn’t work. Because that just wouldn’t be the craftsman’s — or poet’s — way.
Congrats on Workbench Songs. Guy Clark fans have to be patient, but when you put a new record out, it’s always worth the wait.
Well good. I’m glad you like it. It came together, finally.
I really like the new songs, but I was especially pleased to finally have a studio version of “Out in the Parking Lot.”
Yeah. When I did that song before (on the live album, Keepers), I didn’t really know it, and I didn’t really want to record it, but I kind of got snuckered into it. But from that night I had always planned to do it again sometime in the studio.
Well I thought the live version was great, but there’s just something about hearing it committed to tape in the studio that makes it seem, I dunno, complete.
Yeah. And plus, it was just a matter of knowing it. I do that song every night, but when I did that version on the live album, I had never sung it out loud before. And that always makes a difference.
Are you real fussy in regards to really nailing a song like that in the studio?
Well, I try to go in knowing the song. In other words, being able to play the song. And lately, I’ve always made sure that I’ve got a live vocal – in other words, the whole song being played live with me on guitar and maybe a couple of other people. It’s not all pieced together. Other than that, everybody’s got good equipment, and you just play the song, and that’s the way it was played that day. As long as it feels good. It may change. My songs kind of evolve — they’re not static once they put them on tape. Or whatever they put them on now — ones and zeroes.
Well they just always sound so relaxed and natural on record. But does it take like, take after take after take to get it just right?
Oh no. It’s usually the first or second take, always. Just sitting there in the studio doing a song over and over will sour you on it as far as any kind of inspired performance. It’s usually the second take: one time just to go through it, and then one more time to get it.
What about playing these songs night after night; some you’ve been playing for more than 30 years now. What keeps them fresh for you?
They stay fresh because I really thought about that when I wrote them. You don’t write half-assed songs you wouldn’t like playing later, you know what I mean?
Do you write a lot of songs that people never hear?
Oh sure. I think that’s always the case with everybody. They don’t all turn out right. Sometimes it’s a crapshoot, sometimes it’s not a very good idea, and sometimes it just doesn’t work out. But I don’t ever throw anything away. I’m always fiddling with stuff. If I was interested enough to start a song in the first place, maybe it’s just not time to write it. But I’ll go back and go through old stuff, try and work on it.
The title of the new record really plays off this, but I’ve always wondered if you ever get tired of the “craftsman” tag, at least in terms of your songwriting.
Yeah. That’s not really my favorite tag. I mean, there’s a certain amount of that in there, but you know, I … the reason I use that title — Workbench Songs — is because I’d sit here in this room, at my work bench, writing songs. And they all came to fruition in this room. So that’s why I called it Workbench Songs. But, hopefully it approaches art, you know? I mean, there is a certain amount of craftsmanship once you get a little inspiration, and figure out something to write about — it takes work to wrangle the words around. So it’s some of each.
What is it about that term, “craftsman,” that doesn’t sit right with you? Is it just that it implies …
That it’s by rote, instead of inspired. That’s it’s just … crafty. [Laughs]
But there is a quality of your songs that suggests a painstaking attention to detail — they never sound like you just pluck them from the air. Is the process that meticulous, or do they ever come from just bursts of inspiration?
Both, hopefully. A burst of inspiration is obviously a lot easier than having to really work on one! So those are always my favorites. But you know, I’m a pretty careful editor of the songs. I don’t know … I just like wrangling words around. I like the process.
Are you able to turn that editor off when you listen to other people’s music, or is it constantly going?
Yeah. Well, you know, every once in a while I’ll hear something — a friend will come over to play a song for me, and I’ll say, “Oh man, if you just change this line …” [Laughs]
And then you get a co-write.
No, not at all. [Laughs] It’s just a bad habit. I try not to do that anymore. At least not as much.
The bio that came with the new record makes it sound like co-writing is a new thing for you, but you’ve actually been doing that for years.
Yeah, I’ve been doing it for a while. Somebody just asked me about it, and that’s kind of what I’d come up with [in the bio] — that I do enjoy sitting in a room with someone to write, because you have to say the words out loud; you can’t just mumble them to yourself.
Has that process — co-writing — gotten easier for you over the years?
Co-writing? No. It doesn’t get any easier. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s just like writing by yourself. It’s hard.
I know you’ve written with Verlon Thompson and Darrell Scott for years. And you’ve also written songs with friends like Rodney Crowell, and of course with your wife, Susanna. But do you also do a lot of writing with young up-and-comers who are sent to you by the publishing companies?
I do. And sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve been writing lately with this young guy who’s just amazing. A guy named Jimmy Stewart. He’s from Louisiana. He’s Brooks & Dunn’s fiddle player, and has been for years, but he sings like a bird, man, and plays the shit out of the guitar and dobro, and just has these incredible stories to tell. I’ve been writing with him, and it’s been really fun.
When you write with a younger writer, is it hard to keep it equal and not just drive the boat? Or is that what they usually want you to do?
It just evolves. Sometimes it’s very comfortable, and sometimes you have to work at it. There’s no rule.
Did you ever write anything with Townes?
No. Other than just being silly, but nothing serious.
Where does an idea for a song like “Cinco de Mayo in Memphis” come from? That’s such a unique scenario.
Yeah. Well, it was Cinco de Mayo, and I was sitting here in my writing room with Chuck Mead, who’s the lead singer with BR5-49. And he said, “Man, it’s Cinco de Mayo today.” And I don’t know why, but it just popped out of my mouth: “Cinco de Mayo in Memphis.” It just had this ring to it, you know? And kind of a contradiction. And I just got this picture of these Mexican deckhands coming off a towboat into Memphis on Cinco de Mayo. Just totally imaginary.
I love how the song opens with “Meanwhile …” It just cuts right to the chase!
Yeah! [Laughs] Yeah, the song’s funny. Jimmy Buffet’s already done it — he jumped right on that.
Another fun one on there is “Analog Girl.” Are you an analog guy yourself?
Boy howdy! Am I ever. I wrote that with Verlon. It was just fun to do. It’s kind of the way I feel about it.
Do you ever check e-mail?
No. No, no, no. Don’t even say e-mail. My computer broke down about two months ago, and it’s still just sitting there.
You didn’t even realize it was broken, did you?
I just didn’t care. Somebody told me it was broke.
What’s the single greatest song you’ve ever heard? Is there one that has everything going for it that you think a perfect song should?
Woody Guthrie wrote one called “The 1913 Massacre.” That’s pretty close to being that one.
What is it about it?
Do you know the song?
I’m afraid I don’t.
You’d have to listen to it. I mean, it’s a long story song. But it’s just the way … the person that he’s speaking in, when he’s singing the song, it’s like he’s invisible but he’s in the room. There’s something that’s just really unique about the perspective that you get. And it’s about a true story: some miners went on strike, and the copper boss guys hired a bunch of thugs to straighten them out. It’s long and involved, but you should listen to it. It’s the best-written song I’ve ever heard.
What do you think is the best one you’ve ever written?
I don’t know. I don’t. Some of them are real good, and some nights they’re not. I like a bunch of them. It used to be, I always answered that with “She Ain’t Going Nowhere.” Just because it was so cleanly written, so succinct and on the money to me. It still is.
What’s the first song you wrote that’s still part of your repertoire? What was your first keeper?
My first keeper, for me, was “That Old Time Feeling.” I still do that song. That’s the first song that I wrote that I kept.
That’s a hell of a start.
Yeah. And of course, the first song I ever wrote was that thing Lyle did, “Step Inside This House.”
Why did you never record that? That’s such a great song.
It was just the first song I ever wrote. I didn’t think it was that good! Lyle sings it much better than I ever could, of course — he’s just such a great singer. But I don’t know … it was just the first song I ever wrote.
How old were you when you wrote that?
Hmmm, 28, 29, somewhere around there.
You got kind of late start writing then.
Yeah. I didn’t start until maybe ’67.
What were you doing before that?
Just traditional folk songs. And, you know, the odd Bob Dylan song. And I was the art director for the CBS affiliate television station in Houston. Just different stuff.
After you started writing, how long was it before you jumped into it and decided that that was what you were going to do?
It took a couple of years. Because I really needed some songs, some good songs. So it took a little while. But I just decided to do it. I was 30-something, and just finally decided that if I didn’t get started doing it, it’d be too late.
You said you named the album Workbench Songs because you wrote the songs in your workshop. I imagine you were probably working on a guitar or two in there, too, during the writing process. When did you build your first guitar?
My first guitar, growing up in South Texas, was a Mexican guitar. And the first thing I did was take it apart.
Were you successful in putting it back together?
I can’t remember! But working with wood has always appealed to me, and been a real comfortable thing to do. Satisfying. It was just a natural thing to have it go into building instruments, building guitars.
How long does it take to make one?
It just depends. I mean, if you’re doing it every day, doing nothing but building guitars, then … just the way I do it, building flamenco guitars, I can build two in about two weeks — strung up, but with no finish on them. Just strung up and playable. And that’s total 19th century technology — you know, how hard can you make it?
How do you rate your guitars?
A couple of them are really good. And then I’ve made some that aren’t so good, and I have no idea why. I’ve got one steel-string that I’ve made, and I think it’s the best guitar I’ve ever played. That makes it all worth it. I mean, all I do is sit and play and hold it.
Do you play your own guitars onstage?
No. I’ve recorded with them. I don’t play the nylon strings onstage — that’s just something I don’t really have the right touch for, even though I love the building process of them, and because it was the first kind of guitar I had — a Mexican guitar in South Texas. And it’s just the purest form of the instrument I think. But I’ve got … this steel string I built —12-fret, slotted head — it’s just my favorite guitar.
How many have you built?
Total, I’ve built 10 guitars: nine flamencos and this one steel string. But it’s just a hobby. That’d be a real hard way to make a living, making guitars.
You — along with Townes Van Zandt and lots of other kind of “underground” songwriters from the ’70s — were prominently featured in the 1981 documentary Heartworn Highways . That film was pretty hard to come by for years, but it kind of got a new life recently when it was released on DVD, followed by a soundtrack album. I’ve always thought it was essential viewing for fans of this kind of music. But what was your reaction to that movie the first time you saw it? And what do you think of it now?
Oh, I think it gets funnier the older it gets. There’s some interesting, funny stuff in it. Townes is absolutely brilliant. I mean, he scared those guys (the filmmakers) to death! That giant rabbit hole thing he did? He did that off the top of his head, and those guys from New York didn’t know what to think!
What’s the craziest thing you ever did with Townes?
Luckily, I probably don’t remember. [Laughs]
That scene of the Christmas Eve party at your house, with all of you songwriters — including a very young Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell — just jamming around a table, trading songs or singing Christmas carols, and everyone pretty much drunk as skunks … it seemed like such an idyllic songwriter’s paradise.
You say it “was.” Does that scene still exist in Nashville?
I’m sure it does. I’ll get out and play with friends. Not as much as I used to. But surely it exists. I know it does.
But it’s not at Casa Clark.
It just doesn’t happen at my house, no. But I know somebody’s doing it. I have faith.
You’ve been doing a number of shows over the last couple of years with Joy Ely, Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt. When a group of guys like the four of you are on the road together, are you really on the road together, or do you just hook up in the different cities?
Well, some of each. We’ve been doing that actually for several years now, and we’re doing it again in January. At first, we weren’t doing that many of them, and basically we’d just show up for the soundcheck. But then when it got to be so many nights in a row, like real touring, I had to ride on Lyle’s bus — out of the kindness of his heart. The fact that you’re doing so many of them, you can’t do it by yourself, you have to have somebody to get you there. It’s not the kind of touring I normally do. I usually take a night off every other night.
After those shows you do together, do you all end up trading songs all night, or is it just back to the hotel and to sleep?
It’s usually back to the hotel, or back to the bus. I mean, because the song swap is actually on stage. There’s no set list, there’s no rules, it’s different every night. You just do it in front of a microphone.
What’s kept you in Nashville for so long?
Just business. It’s easier to get things done here than it is long-distance. I make a good part of my living as a songwriter, and having other people do the songs. And that happens here. I mean, you can do it long distance, but I just figured I’d have a better shot if I was here. But if I could ever break even, man, I would move back to Texas in a second.
Where would you settle in Texas?
Anywhere! Just get me overboard. [Laughs]
Speaking of coming home to Texas, I gotta tell you, as a Guy Clark fan and a Taco Cabana fan, I’ve defended your Taco Cabana commercials more than once. I just thought they were pretty fun.
I thought it was cool of them to seek you out for those.
They did seek me out, because they did know what they wanted, and it was what I do. And, they’re really good tacos. I thought, what the hell? Why not? All I did was sit down with them and wrote something that would work, that I thought was funny and good. But it wasn’t any kind of sell out. I mean, the money was nice, but I did it because I wanted to.
So you’d eaten at Taco Cabana before.
Did you catch any hell for it? I mean from your peers and such?
Nah. Well, nobody would say it to my face. But I don’t care. [Laughs] I’m not selling soap. But, it’s like Kinky Friedman said: “No sell out is too small.”