By Brian T. Atkinson
(LSM Sept/Oct 2011/vol. 4 – Issue 5)
Lyle Lovett suddenly stops strumming, glances around at the other players assembled with him in Austin’s Cedar Creek Recording Studio, and cranes his head skyward with a curious look on his face.
“Have you noticed that the opening in ‘Anyhow, I Love You’ sounds so similar to Townes’ ‘Don’t You Take It Too Bad’?” the disciple of Texas songwriting icons Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt wonders aloud. “I wonder which came first?”
The Americana all-stars cutting Clark’s “Anyhow, I Love You” with Lovett — guitarists and longtime Clark collaborators Shawn Camp and Verlon Thompson, legendary instrumentalist Lloyd Maines, keyboardist Jen Gunderman, bassist Glenn Fukunaga and songbird Patty Griffin (on impromptu back-up singer duty) — immediately compare notes. After all, that’s a compelling question. Best friends Clark and Van Zandt were only beginning to redefine the Lone Star music landscape when they wrote those early classics. Whether they directly cribbed from each other remains debatable, but they certainly fueled each other’s creative fires.
“Townes was inspiring as hell and was the funniest guy I’d ever met,” Clark himself reflects a few months later, sitting for an interview in his Nashville home — specifically, in the basement workshop where he writes and builds his own guitars. “He was smart as a whip and had incredible use of the English language. I’ve always aspired to that. [Songwriting] is a continuing process. You don’t get smart and that’s it. You have to keep doing it.”
Forty years on, Clark effortlessly has restored nobility to the overused catchphrase “a songwriter’s songwriter.” The Monahans native consistently has shaped narratives so vibrant (“Better Days”) and vital (“Instant Coffee Blues”) that high watermarks simply transcend boundaries between song and poetry (“Dublin Blues,” “Homeless”). “Guy Clark’s songs are literature,” says Lovett, who was recording “Anyhow, I Love You” during a session for This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark earlier this year. “The first time I heard a Guy Clark song, I thought it made everything I’d heard up to that point something other than a song.”
An entire generation of songwriters agrees. Accordingly, friends and followers alike eagerly raised hands as word circulated about producer Tamara Saviano’s 30-song salute to the man’s unparalleled catalog, due Nov. 1 on Houston’s Icehouse Records. “Everybody [who did] this came in because they love Guy and because his songs are really important to them,” says Wimberley-based songwriter Kevin Welch, who cut a beautifully sparse version of Clark’s “Magdalene” for the album at the same Cedar Creek session as Lovett. “You have all these really great people singing some of the greatest songs written in America in the 20th century. This is a great body of work.”
When recording began at Nashville’s Blackbird Studio two Januarys ago, Clark’s more familiar songs were immediately accounted for: “L.A. Freeway” (Radney Foster), “That Old Time Feeling” (Rodney Crowell), “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train” (Willie Nelson), “Stuff That Works” (Jack Ingram). As the album’s initial blueprint nearly doubled from 16 songs, artists reached deeper into Clark’s songbook with Technicolor vignettes like “The Dark” (Terri Hendrix), “Cold Dog Soup” (James McMurtry) and “Magnolia Wind” (John Prine and Emmylou Harris). John Townes Van Zandt II, who initially joined the roster to sing his father’s “No Lonesome Tune” as a bonus track, doubled down with a solo acoustic version of the Clark masterwork “Let Him Roll.”
Better still, Jerry Jeff Walker, who made Clark songs popular back in Austin’s Cosmic Country heyday during the early- to mid-1970s, had the honor of recording the album’s one oven-fresh Clark submission. “Jerry Jeff was set to record another song [“Baton Rouge”], but then Guy called him after writing a brand new song,” says Saviano, also the creative force behind The Pilgrim: A Celebration of Kris Kristofferson (2006) and the Grammy-winning Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster (2004). “He asked Jerry Jeff to record ‘My Favorite Picture of You.’ Having a new Guy composition sung by Jerry Jeff on this tribute is a great gift.”
A frequent co-writer the past two decades, Clark came across that song’s idea during a recent one-on-one session. “A writer here named Gordie Sampson from Nova Scotia came over one day, the first time we got together,” he says. “Nashville writers have their ‘hook list.’ He said, ‘See anything in here that you like?’ I saw that line, ‘my favorite picture of you…,’ and this whole song just popped into my head. I said, ‘Yeah, I have that picture right there.’ That’s always been my favorite picture of [Clark’s wife] Susanna. Me and Townes were drunk off our ass [when the photo was taken], just roaring and acting up. She’d had enough and walked out the door. I guess [John] Lomax [III] took that picture of her because it was his house. It just has all of her qualities in it: ‘I’m not putting up with this shit anymore!’”
Saviano shared the album’s tracks with Clark as the project evolved. The humble songwriter, who scored his second Grammy nomination for 2009’s Somedays the Song Writes You and recently released a new live album, Songs and Stories (on Dualtone), admits that he’s flattered by the tribute, but prefers to focus more on friends than his own accomplishments. “I think it’s really nice, and I’m glad people like the songs enough to do them and [that it’s] people that I like and respect,” he says. “Shawn Camp [who served as the tribute’s sessions bandleader and was brought in as co-producer as the project expanded] is a really amazing player and singer. He’s really easy to get along with and likes to hang out and have fun and play music. That suits me fine. Verlon sparkles. He plays so good. Playing onstage with Verlon makes me play better, and the way I do that is [by] playing less. Verlon is inspiring.”
At close, Saviano held a double-disc tribute that took two years from inception to delivery. Imagine synchronizing this blood and sweat. “For this project, I worked with a record label for the first time and that brought its own challenges with the label wanting to have creative input, a say on which artists should be invited and the added stress of a label rep being in the studio much of the time,” says the Nashville industry veteran, who works with several Music City legends (Kris Kristofferson, Foster and Lloyd) and is currently at work on Clark’s authorized biography. “We ended up with 33 artists on This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark. The logistical work involved in producing a tribute record is staggering. That meant coordinating the schedules of those 33 artists, along with the musicians, studios and engineers and then getting them to cut the songs in the style I envisioned.”
Split between Austin and Nashville, the sessions were fluid yet focused, relaxed but reverent. Some tracks, like Jack Ingram’s “Stuff That Works,” were captured in a single take. Laughs abounded, as did stories — both about Clark himself and the songs. Kristofferson (“Hemingway’s Whiskey”) split sides with his about spooking Ernest Hemingway decades ago in Spain, and Saviano’s eyes practically went bloodshot as she described one Nashville night going drink for drink with Clark. The most indelible Clark anecdote, though, came from long time pal Terry Allen.
“Guy and Susanna had come to visit us over Christmas one year,” recalls Allen, who cut Clark’s “Old Friends” at Cedar Creek after Clark declined his request for a duet, uncomfortable participating in his tribute. “Our dog had been missing, and our son came in and said that he’d found a dead dog under a tree. I went out to look, and sure enough it was our Queenie, a really sweet little dog. Had an obvious bullet hole [in her]. I came back and said, ‘Guy, some son of a bitch shot my dog.’ He goes, ‘Let’s write a song about it!’ We sat down and wrote ‘Queenie’s Song’ [which Clark cut on 2002’s The Dark]. I call him Mr. Sensitive to this day.”
Others label Clark the “Dean of Texas songwriting” (“Texas Cookin’,” “Texas 1947”). Either way, one of modern folk music’s most influential songwriters reaches another milestone on Nov. 6: his 70th birthday. To mark the occasion, at least 14 artists featured on This One’s For Him — including Allen, Walker, Crowell, Hendrix, McMurtry, Ingram, Foster, Welch, Shawn Colvin, Joe Ely, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Rosie Flores and the Trishas — will convene at Austin’s Long Center on Nov. 2 to perform selections from his songbook at “Wish I Was in Austin: A 70th Birthday Tribute Concert for Guy Clark,” presented by the Center for Texas Music History at Texas State University in San Marcos. Clark himself will play a full set at the show.
“I like to pay tribute to these legends while they’re still with us,” Saviano says. Or, as Allen more bluntly put it: “Guy’s a real writer, a poet. I think it’s great to do this while he’s alive so he can listen and then give everybody shit about it.”
Early on during the recording of the tribute album, Saviano asked me to interview more than a dozen artists in the studio, both for the liner notes and for a documentary on the making of the album that may be released as a separate DVD in the future. Following are highlights from those conversations, with Crowell, Lovett and other contributors discussing their respective song picks as well as the indelible influence Clark has had on their own art and careers.
• Rodney Crowell, “That Old Time Feeling”
“I picked ‘That Old Time Feeling’ because it’s such an emotional song, one of the first I ever heard Guy play. Guy had already written it when I first met him. We were sitting around and he said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this song.’ He played it for me, and I was stunned at how beautiful it was. It’s a beautiful painting. I run into people here and there and we’re playing songs and I always pull that song out and go, ‘Have you ever heard this song?’ I’ve always used that as an illustration of what a really good song is.
“Guy Clark was the biggest influence on me. [His was] the most informative friendship or relationship I had as far as what it takes to make a good song. Guy was the guy who knew what a good song was. For years and years and years, I used Guy as an audience of one for my writing. In my mind, if this is good enough that I can look Guy in the eye and play it, this is good work. If I came to a line and I couldn’t look Guy in the eye and sing it and I’d rather turn away, I knew I hadn’t commanded the language.
“When we co-write together I try to carry my weight, so much so that he came over to my house one day and he said, ‘I have this song idea called “Dublin Blues.”’ He had, ‘I wish I was in Austin…’ It was so good, but I was on this kick about Guy doing all the work and giving up half the credit. I said, ‘No, man, you go write that song yourself,’ which he did. Later I kicked myself, going, ‘God, I could’ve been a co-writer on “Dublin Blues,” and wouldn’t have had to do anything except make coffee!’”
• Lyle Lovett, “Anyhow, I Love You”
“I’d go to Nashville to see if I could stir up any interest in my songs. I’d meet somebody, and they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, Guy Clark told me about you.’ I’d think, ‘That can’t be.’ Then I’d meet someone else and they’d say, ‘Guy Clark gave me your tape.’ I’d think, ‘This is impossible.’ He was just my strongest advocate. Guy gave my demo tape to Tony Brown at MCA Records. I know if it hadn’t been for Guy Clark putting in a word for me, they wouldn’t have had as much confidence in the decision to work with me. I really feel like it was because of Guy Clark that I have a career.
“Guy himself is a character, whether he’s an actual character in the song or if it’s what you’d imagine. His characters have a very strong presence. As you listen to a Guy Clark song and you look at Old No. 1, you see Guy standing there in that blue-jean shirt in front of that painting that Susanna did, you imagine that those characters are that person. When you’re an 18-year-old kid from Texas and you see a guy like that who says the things he says, you think, ‘That’s who I want to be, right there.’
“It’s his imagery, his subject matter and how he does it. It’s poetry. ‘Anyhow, I Love You’ has always been one of my favorite songs, though it’s not one I’ve ever performed. I’ve always liked the words. Really learning ‘Anyhow I Love You’ for this recording was just a revelation. You take more from Guy’s songs every time you listen to them and go farther into what he’s written about.
“A couple years ago, we were doing one of the guitar pulls at the Paramount Theatre in Vancouver. We were riding in the elevator after the show, which I had ended with ‘Step Inside This House.’ It was Guy, John Hiatt, Joe Ely and me. I went last because we went in alphabetical order — Guy, Joe, John, and me. So, Guy said, ‘Man, I wish you would stop doing that song. That song is too long. There’s a reason I never recorded it.’ I laughed. I think it’s a brilliant song.
“Guy’s role in those guitar pulls is whatever Guy wants it to be. I think that’s his role in life and what’s great about Guy: He’s always himself. Guy is one of the most honest people you’ll ever meet. He tells you just what he feels and what he sees and I think that’s what draws all of us to him. Guy Clark speaks the truth. I think we all want that. Whether Guy’s happy or not so happy on a given night, he steps onstage and he is how he is. There is something to gain from watching and listening to that every single time.
“I’m in awe of getting to talk to Guy. To get to sit onstage and watch him play one of his songs is incredible. To see his expression, to feel what he feels as he plays is really an incredible experience. You get that in the audience as well, but it’s quite an honor to be onstage. Guy’s so perceptive. It’s so much fun just to read his face, to see him look around and just look at his expression. Sometimes he doesn’t even have to speak and he tells you so much.”
• Hayes Carll, “Worry B Gone”
“Guy gave me a shot when I didn’t really merit one. My introduction to him was drinking and watching him play the whole The Dark album at a party. I’d seen people put records out and be proud, but I’d never seen them play it to a group of 10 people like we were sitting around a campfire. He ran out of smokes and ended up with most of mine that night. Three months later, I was in Nashville and I just called him up. I said, ‘You probably don’t remember me, but I had the Camel Lights. Can I come over and write a song with you?’ He said yes and changed my life in many ways.
“I’ve been over to Guy’s house a couple times to write. I have this very vivid memory of the last time. He was really excited about this guitar lick and was showing me the [lyric] changes he’d made behind the other writers’ backs. He starts playing [the ‘Worry B. Gone’] riff, and it was wicked. He’d written that song with Gary Nicholson and Lee Roy Parnell, I think, but it had been about alcohol initially. He seemed dissatisfied with that and had turned the lyric from ‘one sip of worry be gone’ to ‘one puff of worry be gone.’
“I don’t get high anymore, probably because of Guy. I smoked for 15 years and thought I could handle my marijuana, but I was totally unprepared. That first time I ended up at his house, we sat down and I realized that I was not in his league. I spent the first three hours just sitting there going, ‘Man, I’m in Guy Clark’s basement, and I’m too stoned to talk, let alone come up with any solid song ideas.’ He just kept staring at me, going, ‘What’ve you got, kid?’ I was like, ‘Nothing! I’m freaking out here!’ He was very gracious and tolerated me until I came up with a good line.
“His process is very deliberate and meticulous. Every word, every syllable, every letter has a point and a purpose. The first time we wrote together, I’d maybe written with two or three people, but no one of Guy’s caliber. It was really eye opening to me because all I’d ever had to go on was trying to rhyme stuff. There was no school for how you really craft a song, and he really is a craftsman. You’re sitting there in this room where he builds guitars on a work desk, and he’s writing on graph paper. Every letter has a square. It just blew my mind. That and the very strong weed he gave me.”
• Radney Foster, “L.A. Freeway”
“I thought about the melody to ‘L.A. Freeway’ and what an early influence that was on me as a songwriter. I thought, ‘That’s the one I want to do.’ When I was a kid and first started playing guitar, Jerry Jeff Walker’s ¡Viva Terlingua! had just come out. I’d heard ‘L.A. Freeway’ on the radio before, but that whole record and that live version just fascinated me. That was the first time that I was old enough to read in fine print who was actually writing the songs. I was like, ‘Who is this Guy Clark guy?’
“The first time I wrote with Guy, I was in Foster and Lloyd. Our attorney came up to us one day and said, ‘Would you guys like to write with Guy Clark?’ We were like, ‘Uh, yeah!’ Guy had this little attic office with a window section that had been walled off with an air conditioning unit. It poured in from the attic part instead of the window so it wouldn’t ruin the view, and it was blistering up there in the summertime, I’m sure.
“Guy had a big black phone. We’re sitting around writing ‘Fair Shake,’ which was a hit for Foster and Lloyd, and all of a sudden the phone rings. Guy says, ‘Yeah, I’m writing with those Foster and Lloyd guys.’ He has a couple-minute conversation and says, ‘You guys mind if Townes Van Zandt comes over?’ We were like, ‘Two of the world’s greatest songwriters are going to be in the room with us. How do we keep from sounding like idiots?’
“All of a sudden about 10 minutes later, we hear beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep. It’s this ruckus down on 17th Avenue. Guy throws open the window, and we all three look out like kids at Christmas looking for Santa Claus. Townes Van Zandt is cutting doughnuts on this cream Vespa with a matching Italian helmet in the middle of 17th Avenue. Pretty much the songwriting was over after that.”
• Robert Earl Keen, “Texas 1947”
“I always liked the opening. I love the whole idea of, ‘Now, being 6 years old, I had seen some trains before … .’ I thought it was so great that even as a 6 year-old, I’d been around the world and pretty much know what’s going on. That always caught me. I thought that was a great perspective. Also, I have a love for that immediate post-World War II period. All of a sudden we’ve changed from this time of the Depression and post-World War II to the jet age. There were so many things going on, but I don’t know any other songs that capture that idea.
“My favorite thing Guy says about crafting songs is, ‘Always use a pencil with a big eraser.’ Guy goes into tremendous detail and accuracy. It always lends so much credibility to his songs, and he sets a high standard. He creates a beginning, middle and end in a song, and I’ve always followed that format for the most part. When you create a story within a song you’ve got to have that exposition and that build and then some sort of commentary. I think ‘Texas 1947’ fulfills all those obligations. You buy into it. ‘Yeah, I’m all in. I’m 100 percent behind this story.’
“I always felt that Guy has a certain amount of self-confidence that no one else has. When I first played some shows years ago with him in Houston, I was just amazed when he stepped on the stage. He filled up the room playing solo. You knew: Here’s the person that’s going to be performing for you. There was no build-up like [shouts]: ‘And now, Guy Clark!’ He just stepped onstage and he took charge.”
• Rosie Flores, “Baby Took a Limo to Memphis”
“‘Baby Took a Limo to Memphis’ seemed like the right thing to do. First of all, the guitar, you know, that Memphis bluesy guitar sound, really captured me. That’s kind of the way I play anyway. I like the idea of relating to this girl that was taking a limo and going on a shopping spree and didn’t care what anybody thought and being real independent. That’s also me. I’m an independent girl.
“I loved the way Guy performed it. The way he plays has feel. That’s the most important thing — having the feel to back up the percussive-type lyrics he writes. He’s a very strong rhythm player, and he plays some cool licks, too. He asked me on [one] tour if I’d jump up onstage with him and his son Travis and play lead guitar for them, and I was totally honored by that. I felt like he appreciated me as a picker.
“I was actually with him on a show three days after my mom passed away. We were up in Colorado on a beautiful autumn day [when] the aspens were out. We ended up after the show at one of the presenters’ kitchens. I think the Morales sisters and their band were there and we sat around in the kitchen and passed the guitar around. It just made me feel so much better because I was kind of mourning my mom’s death. Just hanging out there with Guy and listening to him singing songs kind of set me straight.”
• Ray Wylie Hubbard, “Homegrown Tomatoes”
“I like the vibe of ‘Homegrown Tomatoes.’ Guy’s got so many great songs that are just like Greek tragedies, so it’s nice to see that he also can have such a sense of humor. That’s the mark of a great songwriter. You can write all these really dark, cool songs that have a lot of depth and weight, but something like ‘Homegrown Tomatoes’ also is a valid, well-written song. Songwriting is inspiration plus craft, and Guy is like a shark going through water. I learned mechanics listening to Guy’s songs.
“I hope these young [Texas singer-songwriters] are influenced by Guy. One thing I tell young songwriters when they come up to me is, ‘Read The Grapes of Wrath, don’t just listen to “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Listen to Guy Clark and what he’s doing. If you do that, hopefully you can tap into that songwriter consciousness and some of it will rub off.’ When you hear a Guy Clark song, they’re just so righteous. Even today he’s writing valid, incredible songs like that one about a guitar in the pawnshop [‘The Guitar’]. Phew!
“Guy [once] quoted a line of my song ‘The Messenger’ back to me, and that meant the world. It meant a great deal to be validated with a nod of approval from one of the best. Guy’s always treated me really well. Obviously I respect him as a writer — you aspire to the holy trinity: Billy Joe Shaver, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt — but also I like him. Every time I’ve been around Guy, we’ve just had fun. He makes me laugh. He’s a great hang.”
• Terri Hendrix, “The Dark”
“I like to walk around the neighborhood where I live and put ‘The Dark’ on repeat and listen to it over and over again. I knew it so well, I felt like I could really relate to it on a personal level. At first, I shied away from doing it because I couldn’t imagine a woman singing that. Then the more I thought about it, I thought, ‘Wait a minute — what woman do I know doesn’t listen to that kitchen sink and want it fixed at night?’ I feel like so many of his songs are unisex after really listening to his catalog, which makes me appreciate him even more.
“‘The Dark’ is such a vivid song. I had to think, ‘Is the song written from the perspective of being outside watching the night, or is it from the perspective of being in bed and you can’t sleep?’ There are two different moods there. Is it more whisper tone or maybe a milder tone? I just merged the two together and tried to get an accurate portrayal without getting in the way of those lyrics. The lyrics are like a Monet. He’s a poet, almost like a dancer with the way he talks and a photographer with the way he writes. That’s why he’s the epitome of American songwriting.”
• Verlon Thompson, “All Through Throwing Good Love After Bad”
“Guy was going to work on what became the Old Friends album. We had a little basement studio there at CBS Songs and Guy invited me to come down in the basement and work on that album with him. He wanted to keep it pretty stripped down. So, I went down there and before you know it we had finished an album. At the end of that, he said, ‘Why don’t you go out with me to recreate the album?’ I was in a place where I was ready to go on the road and I went out with him and it’s continued on for however many years, maybe 20 years.
“It’s a great honor and a privilege when Guy asks me to play my songs during our set. I don’t expect it every night and I tell him quite often, ‘Hey, leave me out tonight.’ That’s 10 minutes out of his set when he could be doing more Guy Clark songs. He’s always, ‘No, man, you do anything.’ It’s wonderful, priceless. That’s helped me a lot. I do a lot of solo stuff, too, now, and a lot of it comes from those opportunities I’ve had to play in front of those folks at a Guy Clark show and spin off from there. He’s wonderful to do that. He doesn’t need me to do that, but he does.
“There’s the craft of putting the melody and the words together and the structure, but normally what I’m caught up in is the theater of the show. Guy has such a [stage] presence. It’s not just a guy walking out there and playing this song and another song. Each piece is set up and lit and has the background and the characters are so vivid. It’s theater every night, every song. It might be on a crazy festival stage or it may be in a beautiful old theater with a spotlight, but for me it’s always fun.”
• Jack Ingram, “Stuff That Works”
“I’d never played that song on my guitar until two days [before the Nashville session in January 2010]. It speaks volumes to me and always has, ever since I became a fan of his, certainly as I was aware of placing myself as an artist or a man inside of his songs, which is what I’ve always been able to do with Guy Clark music as an adult. They almost become your own mantra. That song is one that I’ve always tried to hold onto. Keep it simple. Get the stuff that works and hold onto it and respect it and don’t let go.
“He writes like the music that comes from Texas. It’s certainly not pinned in that state stylistically or anything else, but when I hear his music it feels like Texas. It just feels like the truth to me. He’s never strayed from that. He’s always reaching for the truth. I was in a room with him a couple months ago when he was playing some of the songs from Somedays the Song Writes You, and it hit me that there are moments in almost every one of his songs where I find that I can’t breathe. [They] take the air out of the room.”
Brian T. Atkinson wrote liner notes for This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark. His book, I’ll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt, will be released in December (Texas A&M University Press).