“There’s a difference between being a star and being an artist,” says Guy Clark flatly. “I never wanted to be a star. That never was what I was about.”
Clark, perhaps the closest thing to Hemingway currently making music, isn’t prone to romanticizing. His songs are lean propositions, delivered in his granite-and-gravel, knowing voice. But what he captures—tiny details, small moments that stand out—speaks eloquently about life’s defining moments.
On the verge of 70, the iconic songwriter is on the phone from Helena, Montana, to talk about Stories & Songs, the live demi-survey of his career due out today. He’s also the subject of a two-CD tribute project—featuring fans John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Lyle Lovett and Joe Ely—that’s due Nov. 8.
“The only truths [about writing] are learning what to leave out,” Clark offers. “For me, it’s that thing where the listener can become involved. You can’t imagine how many people have come up to me to tell me about their father and a knife,” he continues, using his much revered “The Randall Knife” as an example. “It happened to them: You break it, you hide it so he won’t know, he finds out, and then he forgives you. For Vince Gill, it was his father’s seven-iron. But it’s universal.”
Guy Clark was born in Monahans, Texas, and his family moved to Houston when Clark was in the third grade so his father could finish law school. His grandmother owned a hotel, and the summers spent away from the city left plenty of room to dream. “There wasn’t a mountain to be seen, or a hill. You’d wonder why people would settle there, it was so desolate, but there was one word: ‘oil.’”
In his early thirties, Clark decided to go to California to see what kind of dreams his music might conjure. It was a different time, a different place. If a claim wasn’t quite staked, opportunity arrived. “That was when the air was actually yellow,” Clark remembers. “When you drove into L.A., your eyes burned. I’d met a couple guys who were traveling around, looking for talent, and they said, ‘If you ever get out that way…’”
Working at a dobro factory and living in Long Beach, Clark was making the rounds. “Gerry Tiffer, who was the head of RCA Publishing, had me come in and play him some songs. I didn’t have any tapes, just me and my guitar. I played him five songs, and he said, ‘That’s great! How much money do you want? And where do you want to live?’ They had offices in New York, L.A. and Nashville, and I knew I didn’t want to live in L.A., so I said ‘Nashville’ cause I knew Mickey [Newbury], and he was there.”
Clark chronicled his exodus with wife Susanna in the classic “L.A. Freeway,” and settled into his life as a songwriter in Tennessee. It was a magical time for the rogue creative community. “Kristofferson was still living there,” he says. “Mickey was there, too, and was my only connection to that scene; there were a lot of like-minded creative people around. I didn’t really know anybody. Shortly after I got there, Rodney [Crowell] arrived. He and Donivan [Cowart, a noted soundman and co-writer of “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”] had a duo that was playing Holiday Inns. Steve [Earle] moved, too. And everyone was just hanging out.”
They were doing more than hanging out. It was a highly charged creative community—and the writers fired each other up. The Clark home on Old Hickory Lake (“we lived 100 yards down a dirt road from Mickey, and Buck White was just up the street”) was a gathering point. But for all the camaraderie, there was still the business of songs.
“I came to Nashville to make a living writing songs—not songs I was expected to write, but songs I was meant to write. It was a different then: Johnny Cash’d call you up and say, ‘I’m cuttin’ tomorrow. Got anything?’ Waylon, too… You just never knew.”
Still Clark’s voice—as a writer and singer —was catching ears. “I got offered a record deal before I asked for one. Chet [Atkins] heard the songs, and said, ‘I think you’re an artist.’”
Guy Clark made Old #1, the record that introduced his split-rail eloquence and detail. Even that defied “the process.” “I ended up with a producer I didn’t like; hated every moment of it,” he explains in true down-low outlaw spirit. “So the record’s mostly demos we stole from the recording studio where we’d made ’em. We remixed ’em and turned ’em in… It was highly illegal.”
He laughs a bit. “It was one of those ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ kinda things.”
Following his vision has always led Clark forward. Considering his Crowell-produced The South Coast of Texas, poised to make Clark a star, he says frankly, “He was learning to be a producer, so that’s stuff I wouldn’t’ve done. It made me realize, I’ve gotta start over—and I didn’t do anything for five years it seemed like, then I got it as simple as I could.”
Old Friends reflected Clark’s elegance at its most essential. “Every one of those songs I can do 10 times better, but they are what they are in the moment. And those tracks hold up.”
That theme of leanness and honing emerges again and again. It’s not about getting fancy, but how pure honesty can be. The notion that it can be clearer, truer, even after a half-century of songwriting, is what still motivates him.
“All I want to do is write better songs than I did yesterday—and I think I can,” he says. “It gets harder every day ’cause I’m not 35 and on fire…and drunk…and coked up. But I’m not worried about there being songs out there. It’s about recognizing inspiration when you see it.
“Any time that little piece of inspiration strikes, I tell people, you better write it down. With all the years, that’s the one thing I can tell you: Write it down! I used to wind up with a stack of bar napkins at the end of the night. Heck, I’ve got a bar napkin that says, ‘My life was a blank bar napkin til I met you…’”
Clark laughs again, a low rumble like summer thunder. It’s a warm sound, comforting almost, the promise of rain coming. He’s been living his life in full—as a painter, a performer, a raconteur—since he was an art director at a Houston TV station in his twenties.
As he stares down seven decades, Clark—who’s had some serious health challenges over the past few years—sees no reason to stop. “It’s not a lot of fun to get on the road when you’re in a lot of pain. You know, this isn’t the way I envisioned it… I’m not bulletproof, evidently. Though you coulda fooled me.”