The man I am interviewing sits facing the calm summer afternoon that shines outside his window, and I have just forced the conversation into an unexpected moment of asperity. You'd think I would have known better than to parrot a Nashville songwriters' cliché to Guy Clark, who has been answering my questions with good humor and better grace. With his deadpan comic timing, Clark reminds me of a laconic character from a Howard Hawks movie about cooled-out professionals, and I'm already a little in awe of him, since Clark is one of the world's greatest songwriters — definitely a professional, but subtler than that appellation may imply.
So here I am, calling Guy Clark's new song "El Coyote" — one of the 11 mostly co-written songs that compose his new album My Favorite Picture of You — a "good example of his craft," as if I know what that means. Uttering the word previously, I had noticed a tiny wince pass across Clark's noble face. As a songwriter, Clark has no peer, and any new Clark collection is another reminder of his pre-eminent position in a city where there is no shortage of great, ambitious writers. Clark's way of writing profoundly changed Nashville, but he's an artist for the world. Like any student of songwriting, I know this, but sometimes you get sloppy.
"Well, I just want to interject this," Clark says. "You've used that word twice, and I find that word a little offensive when it's applied to songwriting. I really think it's poetry and it's art. I let it get stuck on me when one of those small record companies that puts out all the — what's their name?"
I fumble around in my memory, and finally I get it: "Rounder."
"Right, Rounder had bought some masters of my three Warner Bros. albums and wanted to put it out, and I said, 'That's fine, put it out, whatever you wanna do,' " Clark explains in his Texas-to-Tennessee half-drawl. "And the cover came out with Craftsman as the title of the album. And it rubbed me wrong right then. My life was crazy, and everything was goin' on, and I said, 'Yeah, shit, I don't care,' and the more it stuck, the more I grew offended by applying that to the art and the poetry of writing songs. At least, my approach."
The moment passes, and I explain that my use of the word "craft" was misguided — what I meant was "technique." But the point sticks, and if there's one thing that should stay with any listener who sits down with a great Clark song such as "Dublin Blues" or "Broken Hearted People," it's the way that his words and music avoid overt displays of technique.
In the bright early-summer afternoon, as I bring up topics that range from irrelevant to weighty — songwriting, the influence of Texas bluesman Mance Lipscomb on his work, chord transposition — Clark seems willing to talk shop. He doesn't really throw me when he bristles at "craft," but it's an essential point about his work, and I'm happy to be corrected. He is unquestionably an artist, yet one who discusses his art in concrete, unpretentious terms of tools and work. The artist has the vision, while the craftsman gets the job done: maybe so. But Clark's most enduring music uses language in a double role: His words are pigmentation and points in a narrative, and that's craftsmanship in the service of an artistic vision, just as he tells me.
It is impossible to think of Clark's work without the work ethic that informs it. For one thing, only a man with serious resolve could have made it through his past few years.
In Guy Clark's songs, poetry never precludes psychological penetration. But his work has achieved poetic density over his 40-year career as singer, songwriter, painter, teacher, performer and guitar maker. Clark has brought his sure touch to bear on everything he's essayed, and it's his ability to create the illusion of equanimity amidst turmoil that comes through in My Favorite Picture of You.
Clark describes the mid-'90s period that saw the release of Craftsman as a turbulent time. More demanding, though, have been the past five years. After breaking his leg in 2008, the songwriter got back on his feet to play a series of live performances with a group featuring his longtime collaborator and friend Verlon Thompson. Since 2011, Clark has had knee replacements and an arterial bypass. As he says, "It's been a rough two years — I'm startin' to get tired of this shit."
But Clark's biggest loss was the death last year of his wife, Susanna, to whom he had been married 40 years. The influence of Susanna Clark is everywhere in Clark's world. Hanging in the house is her painting of a blue shirt — the one featured on the cover of his 1975 debut, Old No. 1.
In fact, it's a photograph of Susanna that gives My Favorite Picture of You its title. As Clark explains, Susanna was angry at him and their friend Townes Van Zandt that day — no telling what antics they were perpetrating. He expands on the story of that frozen moment, and the "Polaroid shot someone took on the spot," in My Favorite Picture's title track.
"She never had to do anything but be an artist," he says of Susanna, who painted album covers for Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris and was herself a talented songwriter. (Her composer credits include "I'll Be Your San Antone Rose," a 1975 hit for country singer Dottsy, and "Easy From Now On," written with Carlene Carter and recorded by Emmylou Harris and later Miranda Lambert.) You can see her grinning with Clark on the back of his 1976 Texas Cookin' album, where she looks like a woman who knows her own mind, and your mind too.
Written with Gordie Sampson, "My Favorite Picture of You" is about love that burns hot — Susanna's angry gaze contrasts with the "winter squall" Clark and Sampson introduce into their narrative. With a spare arrangement featuring Bryn Davies' cello, the song develops like a Polaroid. The music and words match perfectly, in songwriting so evocative and exact that it captures a moment, and a love, for the ages in just the single word "click."
Clark has always been a minimalist with a canny sense of what stuff works where. My Favorite Picture was written and recorded with a variety of virtuoso instrumentalists and accomplished tunesmiths, including Shawn Camp, Jedd Hughes and Ray Stephenson. The collaborations introduce a new level of complexity to his music, but Clark is such an astute self-editor that it's never obtrusive. For example, a song written with Camp, "Cornmeal Waltz," sports a chromatic melody that mirrors the tension lurking beneath Clark's painterly lyrics.
"I was talkin' to Guy about when I was a kid, I used to work in these VFW and American Legion Halls in Benton, Ark.," remembers Camp, an Arkansas-born multi-instrumentalist who is also a fine performer and a superb post-rockabilly singer in his own right. "I was tellin' him about this old man who used to come in there right before the dance every Friday night, and he had him a two-and-a-half pound bag of cornmeal that he'd scatter around on that old dance floor."
While the title song may be the centerpiece of Clark's new record, he examines various corners of modern American life with equal precision. "El Coyote" is an account of a border crossing effected by means of cash and a smuggler's semi. "Rain in Durango" takes an amused look at a modern-day hippie who travels very lightly around the festival circuit. Written with Camp, it employs a Newgrass style appropriate to the song's subject matter.
"I've gone to festivals all my life, and you see these little hippie chicks out there noodle-dancin' in the mosh pit, snakin' around, probably eating mushrooms," says Camp, who brings finesse and creative insanity to My Favorite Picture of You. He's been working with Clark for 20 years, even though their first meeting was inauspicious.
"I used to work at this vegetarian restaurant in Nashville, and I was like a host there," Camp recalls, laughing. "I seated Guy at his table one day, and it was like, 'Man, Guy Clark, he wants red beans and rice.' " Signed to a major label in 1992, Camp began writing with Clark, and he's contributed songs and licks to recent Clark albums such as 2006's Workbench Songs and the 2009 Somedays the Song Writes You.
The list of songwriters influenced by Clark comprises such country and Americana performers as Camp, Thompson, Hughes, Rodney Crowell, Lyle Lovett (whose "Waltzing Fool" Clark covers on the new record), Steve Earle and Hayes Carll. I hear Clark in the work of Old 97's songwriter Rhett Miller, while former Go-Betweens singer and songwriter Robert Forster namechecks Clark and Van Zandt at the end of his 1991 song, "Dear Black Dream."
Clark has been honored with this year's Academy of Country Music's Poet Award, and he's been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters' Hall of Fame. Nominated for a slew of Grammys himself, he's the subject of the 2011 Grammy-nominated full-length, This One's for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark. Yet for all the praise heaped upon his head, Clark is a master who lauds his followers.
"A lot of these young guys who come over here and write with me are just monster guitar players," Clark says. "Gordie [Sampson] is a young writer here in town, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, a really good guitar player and singer and writer. So we'll sit and write something and they'll play and sing it, and I'll record a work tape of it and then I have to go back and learn it. I would never think of that shit."
As My Favorite Picture of You demonstrates, Clark is an intelligent collaborator. But the method — the gently nudged narrative that reveals its point of view as it introduces details and moves in controlled cadences — remains his. "My songwriting is pretty much what it is, and usually, if I've been co-writing with someone and someone leaves, I heavily edit those songs to suit my sensibilities," he says. "They're my songs by the time they get on the record."
On his most recent work, Clark works within severe stylistic parameters — the performances are mostly drumless and almost all acoustic. But there's nothing constrained about his new music, though it clearly passes the rigorous tests Clark gives himself. Oklahoma-born songwriter and guitarist Verlon Thompson is another long-time Clark associate who has learned from Clark's example, having played with him on stage and produced him in the studio.
"He doesn't approach the studio a lot differently than his live show," Thompson says. "He goes in, he sits down, he performs the song, and everyone plays along until he's happy with his performance. He's been pretty consistent about not trying to add too much to the songs, you know. If it doesn't really lend something, it doesn't end up on the record."
For Rodney Crowell, the Texas-born songwriter who hung out with Clark in Nashville in the '70s, as Van Zandt and Clark helped reinvent Nashville songwriting along literary lines that would have been unthinkable a decade earlier, Clark synthesizes folk and country.
"Lookin' for that definition of what makes a Guy Clark song, you gotta start with that folk tradition," Crowell says. "It's where the clarity of your language is very important. At the same time, reality had been shattered by Dylan's apocalyptic imagery. Artists are constantly reassembling, and I think Guy just reassembled all the images that were floating in a very concise, literary way."
As Crowell says, Clark came from the folk tradition, but he was also a singer-songwriter. If part of what makes Nashville songwriting unique is its ability to ride the folk-country-pop cusp, Clark and company had one foot uneasily in pop and the other foot stuck in a bucket marked Tradition. The pull of country music and the old ways — the old-time feeling he parsed in one of his greatest '70s songs — was strong, and it led him to mastermind his revolution in song-obsessed Music City, where determining the difference between craft and art has always been difficult.
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