By Chad Raney
Born and raised in West Texas, Guy Clark has always stayed true to his Lone Star roots when it comes to songwriting. In this rare interview, Chad Raney, president of LoneStarMusic.com, gets the chance to chat with the Godfather of Texas Songwriting. Clark talks about his personal inspirations and shares his secrets to writing songs. Everyone who is anyone in Texas music today has been inspired in some way by this writing genius and musical trendsetter. Clark talks about his friendships with Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle and Verlon Thompson and reveals how his wife’s brutal honesty has helped him write many of his amazing songs. [Intro by Sunny Sweeney]
Would you mind answering a couple of questions for LoneStarMusic.com? We are an online community for Texas music. We are a website that brings Texas musical artists together by providing such information as concert dates, artist bios and artist pictures.
Yea, cool, that would be good.
Though you haven’t lived here in years, Texas consistently maintains a narrative in the songs you’re putting out. Why do you think your home state still looms so largely in your work even today?
It just does. It’s part of me. It is something that will always be with me in my head. [Laughs]
You were born in Monahans, a small West Texas town. You have a song, “Texas 1947.” Wasn’t that written about your life as a child?
Yes, sir. Growing up as a kid in that part of the country is pretty exciting, even though there isn’t much to do. All my memories from childhood are so vivid, and I think that’s mostly because West Texas is such an austere part of the world.
You moved to South Texas years later, right? Tell me about that.
Yeah, my daddy went back to law school in Houston in the ’50s. When I was in 6th grade, we moved to Rockport, where he set up his law practice.
Did your South Texas upbringing on the coast play a major role in helping you build your career?
Oh yea. My summer job in high school was in a shipyard as a carpenter’s helper. I built 80-foot shrimp boats. That’s what changed my life.
As far as you can tell, working as a carpenter’s helper, is that where you started working with your hands and crafting so much?
Well, I remember, as a kid in West Texas, the first thing you got was a pocketknife and a wet stone. You sharpened your knife and made your own toys. It (being crafty) has always been something very natural to me.
A lot of people look at and admire the way you write songs. It is also said that you don’t just write the songs, but you whittle them down, or craft them. There seems to be a parallel to woodworking and songwriting.
Yes, There probably is. Probably is.
Let’s shift gears. On the Austin City Limits tribute to Townes Van Zandt, I appreciate what you said about the song “Don’t Take It Too Bad”: “This is absolutely seamless if you are a writer, and this is what you need to be copying.” Could you please elaborate on what it is about a song that makes the writer inside you take notice?
Well, that song is one of Townes’ second or third songs he ever wrote. That’s what snapped me into loving Townes right when we first met. In that song, there’s no chorus. Its almost like one sentence, and it’s a breathtaking use of the English language. At least that’s what I think. I always found that song very inspiring.
What do you think it was about TVZ’s songwriting ability that stood above and stood apart from other writers?
Well, like I said, he just had an absolutely amazing way of using the English language. It wasn’t just songwriting, it was poetry more than anything else, and still is. He had a unique way of saying smart and funny stuff and putting his words down on paper. His songs were really a wonderful thing, and still are. Those songs are timeless.
How much of his personality do you think came across in his songwriting?
All of it! [Laughs] What a lot of people forget is that Townes was one of the funniest guys you’ve ever met or heard. Those funny songs or talking blues songs are just absolutely priceless. He was pretty um, um, well rounded.
How much of your personality makes it through the writing process and onto your owns songs?
Hopefully as much as possible. You just try to write what you know about ’cause most of that stuff you couldn’t make up even if you tried. So, I try to get as much of myself in the songs as possible. I mean, I try not to eliminate any of that.
I know you have said in the past that you are not one that can sit and rhyme the words tune, spoon and noon all just to make a buck. You are not one to crank out “cookie cutter” songs.
Whooh, boy, I wish I could! [Laughs] You know I’ve tried. Shit, I’d do it in a second if I could, but that just doesn’t appeal or come naturally to me. Like Kinky (Friedman) always said, “There is no sell out too small.”
What’s one of your favorite songs that you’ve written? Maybe one that sums you up.
Well, as far as just pieces of writing go, would have to say, “She Ain’t Going Nowhere.” However, I like most of them. One of the rules is “Try not to write anything you don’t like,” because it might be a hit.
That’s kind of like what Ray Wylie Hubbard says, “The first thing to do when you write a song is to make sure you can sing it for 30 years. For example, look at ‘Red Neck Mother.’” He also says, however, that every once in a while, when he goes out to the mailbox, he realizes how much everything is paying off.
Yeah. Those royalty checks definitely help. That’s the great part of this whole deal.
In your songwriting, how important has your wife been? As I looked through the credits on your CDs, I was noticed that you have co-written songs with her in the past, and I know she is a writer and artist in her own right.
Totally. Oh, she is so important. I can’t imagine doing any of it without her. Everyone needs someone like her. She’s extremely supportive and a brutally honest woman, which is just what we all need, I will promise you that.
I think one of the most underrated, yet prolific public songwriters is your old buddy and Houston running buddy, Rodney Crowell. The two of y’all have always been champions of each other in various contexts. The song, “Black Diamond Strings,” looks to be loosely based on his life.
Well, yeah. It’s about his parents, his momma and daddy. They were just two wonderful folks who have both passed away now. His daddy had a country band that Rodney grew up playing with. His daddy had that band, and from the time Rodney was 9 or so, I guess, Rodney would play with them on the weekends at what they call icehouses. An icehouse is just like a little old beer joint.
Yeah, I’m familiar with icehouses. I live in New Braunfels.
Oh, then you definitely know what an icehouse is. Whoever didn’t show up for the gig, rhythm, bass, lead or whatever … that’s what Rodney played. So, he has this magnificent encyclopedia of country music that he grew up playing on any and every instrument you can imagine. I have always liked his parents so much that when they both passed away, I wrote that song for Rodney.
I know you wrote “Randall Knife” for your father. We don’t see you covering songs very often, but on your last album, you did a cover of Steve Earle’s tribute to Townes (“Fort Worth Blues.”) Is that a way of you giving back to those who have reflected in your life? Are there any others that have affected you or inspired you?
That’s about four different questions.
Yeah, I know that’s confusing. It was all just off the top of my head!
My wife once sat Steve Earle down and said, “You know, you’ve got to get down your one-liners!” [Laughs] Anyway, first of all, “Randall Knife” is a song I wrote when my father died. It was not meant to be a song, but rather a poem, sort of a cathartic thing. It turned out being something real special to me. It still surprises me that people will sit through it. It’s so inside, you know.
It’s a great song. For me, personally, I saw you sing that at Sons of Hermann Hall with my father sitting next to me. It stirs a lot of emotion in a father/son relationship.
Yeah, it does. Like I said, I only meant it to be for me and myself, and maybe that’s why it turned out so good. [Laughs] I don’t know. Who knows? As far as Steve writing that song about Townes, the first time I heard it, it just flipped me out. Emmylou Harris came over here to the house and taught it to me, and, I mean, I’ve got pages of the song, but Steve just did it so beautifully. Who wouldn’t want to learn it? It’s just very eloquently written.
I saw you last year at SOHH, and the room was totally packed. Everyone was hanging on to every word you sang. Peter Rowan did a wonderful job of opening for you. It was great to see you guys playing together. I was watching y’all, and as I listened to you play “Let Him Roll,” I looked back in the audience and everyone was just staring into the mystic. It was touching because I looked over beside me and saw all these people with tears in their eyes. How do you think you evoke so much emotion in people from a song? Do you think evoking that kind of emotion in your fans is considered an accomplishment of a goal as an artist?
Well, that’s a song about a guy in a Houston beer joint where Townes and I used to play. There was a certain amount of poetic and theatrical license I allowed myself, but it’s still pretty much just about that guy.
So, it’s not about a fictitious character?
Well, the name is fictitious. His real name was Sinbad, and I thought no one would believe that. [Laughs] He was an old merchant marine, but anyways, it was just a loosely based story on that guy. It’s just a song. It’s my way to communicate with people.
You recently played outside of Austin at Poodie’s Hilltop. It was a last minute show, and a lot of established artists and up-and-comers showed up to hear you and “learn from the master.” You’ve influenced a lot of musicians from Texas who are singer-songwriters such as Lyle Lovett, Kelly Willis, Bruce Robison, Jack Ingram, and others. What do you think about the songwriters of the next generation? Do you think they are trying to follow in your generation’s tracks? Do you have any favorites?
I like every one of those people you just mentioned. I think they’re all great. I hear that there are just so many new musicians from Texas, and that they are all very talented writers, singers and performers. It’s an amazing phenomenon.
Tell me about your relationship with Verlon Thompson.
He’s just a friend, singer, and songwriter of mine from Oklahoma. We met about 15-20 years ago. He had been living in Nashville, and we wrote for the same publishing company, just turning out songs together. I think he’s one of the best guitar players ever. Oh God. I know he makes me play better when I play with him, and I hope that I inspire him, too.
Apparently, you’ve been a great mentor to him.
Shit, I’m the one with so much to learn when it comes to playing with him. He’s just a great guy.
I noticed you play a lot with Darrell Scott, who is another great picker. He is one of the best in Nashville.
He’s phenomenal. He’s amazingly talented. He’s great fun to play with.
I saw a picture of you and Lyle Lovett after you won the ASCAP Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. How did it feel to be honored with that?
It wasn’t a surprise because I knew they had chosen me, but it was a surprise that they did choose me initially. I mean for God’s sake, seems like there are so many people to choose from. It’s very flattering and I really appreciate it, but it doesn’t change the fact that I have to get up tomorrow and write, write, write. I’ve got no fucking idea what I’m doing. [Laughs]
You say “get up tomorrow and write, write, write.” Do you get up and write every day or on a regular basis? Some people just sit down and methodically write. When do you get your inspiration? Driving? Thinking?
The inspiration is one thing, the writing is another. You wind up with a pocket full of bar napkins with one-liners, and that’s the only discipline that I really employ. When you have one of those hot little flashes of an idea, if you don’t write it down right then, you will forget it and at some point, you have to sit down and spread everything out and put it all together. That’s the work part of it — trying to write songs out of pieces of things.
When you say you get an idea for a song, you base your song on that one-liner. What is one specific example you remember?
The classic one is; I was living in Los Angeles playing in this little string band down in San Diego, and I woke up in the back of a car at three or 4 in the morning after we had been out. I looked out the window and thought to myself, “God, if I can just get off of the L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught.” [Laughs] So immediately, I got my wife’s eyebrow pencil and a burger sack and wrote it down. I carried it around for about a year, so that’s the thing to be aware of: Be ready to write the little strange ideas and don’t sit there and think, “God, I’ve got to come up with a hit song,” because that won’t work. The little strange things are what I love writing songs about.
I appreciate your time. Wait, one more question. I saw you play with Terry Allen in Bandera, and between songs when he was telling stories, I remember you would keep looking over at him, amused, like, “Where in the hell are you going with this one?” What’s it like to play with him?
Yeah. He’s a blast to play with. Our friendship has just evolved immensely over the past years. I don’t really know how it started, but we just decided one day to play together. All of a sudden, we had some tour dates. We’d get onstage and tell stories and switch back and forth. Neither one of us can really play, but it was just so much fun. It was more like theater than music. We just played and played.
Y’all were on stage, and at one point, you just looked away from Terry and started cracking up. I guess you were just laughing to yourself at some memory.
Specifically, I don’t remember what you are talking about, but, yea, he’s one of funniest people I have ever met. His stories are great.
Do you have any future plans or tour dates yet? Are you back into the writing phase now?
Yes. Well, I don’t have much luck writing on the road, so I come home and do just one thing at a time. The way I do it is, when I get about 10 or 12 good songs, I put it all on a record. There’s no reason for booking studio time when you just have five songs. However long it takes, I just do one thing at a time.
Well, we are all anticipating the next Guy Clark album. We hope to have you back to Texas soon. Thank you sir.
No problem, my pleasure.