Guy Clark rolls out a new album that's full of craft and feeling 

Songs from the Workbench

“I have seen the David, I’ve seen the Mona Lisa too,” a wise man once sang. “And I have heard Doc Watson play ‘Columbus Stockade Blues.’”

photos by Eric England 

“I have seen the David, I’ve seen the Mona Lisa too,” a wise man once sang. “I have heard Doc Watson play ‘Columbus Stockade Blues.’ ” Modesty alone must’ve kept Guy Clark from adding one more item to this list of the world’s wonders: watching Guy Clark roll a cigarette.

The craftsman spreads out the well-worn rolling pad on his workbench, a rough-hewn table he built himself, on the ground floor of his West Nashville home. From a pack of wispy rolling papers, he plucks a couple so softly the flap doesn’t even flutter. Fingers long and sculpted as whittled pine straighten the heap of rangy tobacco into a neat line. It’s the kind of thing Clark calls “right-brain-left-brain stuff,” something the hands can do without disturbing the mind. From the snip of the ends to the flick of the lighter to the first ropy exhale of smoke, there isn’t a wasted motion.

There’s not a lot of wasted motion in much Guy Clark does these days. Especially downstairs. If the upstairs of his home is cozy and warm, the line of West Nashville comfort stops at the entrance to his guitar shop. It’s where carpet ends and plywood flooring begins. It’s a little shrine to work, with pegboard taking up one wall of the small room and row after row of cassettes on the other. In the middle is the workbench, laid out with tools of the trade: guitar picks, pencils, an ashtray rimmed with skulls—the final destination for all those rolled cigarettes.

Overlooking it is a large black-and-white photograph of Clark’s close friend, the late Townes Van Zandt, whose penetrating stare can’t be avoided.

“The eyes follow you around the room,” Clark says.

It was under Van Zandt’s haunting gaze that Clark wrote the songs for his new album, his first collection of new material in four years and only the 10th studio record in his entire career. The album’s called Workbench Songs, a title that evokes craft, hard surfaces and workmanlike detail. It could have been the title for any of the records that preceded it—records that talk about songwriting in metaphorical terms of carpentry and building boats. “I am just a poor boy, work’s my middle name,” Clark sings on the epic title track of 1995’s Dublin Blues. “If money was a reason, I would not be the same.”

And yet Clark has managed something few singer-songwriters have been able to balance: earning the respect—and bucks—of Music Row without compromising his outsider cool. In that sense, little has changed since the early ’70s, when Clark and a passel of fellow Texas troubadours came to town brandishing a new kind of bohemian country more outlaw than the Outlaws. They brought story songs and remorseless ballads honed in the folk clubs and honky-tonks of Houston, and the establishment put up with their shaggy ways for a simple reason.

“We could write!” says Clark, chuckling, smoke curling past his wiry gray hair toward the guitar shop’s ceiling. “We could make ’em money.”

Now, in the past year alone, Clark has had his “Out in the Parking Lot” cut as a duet by the superstar pairing of Brad Paisley and Alan Jackson, and Jimmy Buffett covered his “Boats to Build.” He even turns up as duet partner on the closing track of Vince Gill’s acclaimed 4-CD opus These Days, a surefire weeper called “Almost Home,” where he gets the kind of stops-out supporting role that would nab an actor an Oscar. But it’s the imminent release of Workbench Songs—out this week in stores—that has Clark welcoming the press into his home on a rainy Wednesday morning.

“You all want some coffee?” Clark asks. He’s obviously a cup or two ahead: the kitchen counter is filled with cups of every make and model. The refrigerator surface is buried under strips and strips of magnetic-poetry free verse—sample line: “through | pain | and | suffer | like | some | model | after | monument”—and it occurs to at least one visitor that he could make a fortune selling the contents of Guy Clark’s refrigerator door to BMI.

But that would be a sorry way to repay the host’s hospitality. He leads the crew through the living room, as the guests gape at the album-cover art his wife Susanna painted for Emmylou Harris’ Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town and Willie Nelson’s Stardust. Above the mantel hangs the portrait of a denim work shirt that graced the cover of Clark’s very first record, Old No. 1, back in 1975. It looks remarkably like the one he’s wearing—faded blue, rolled up neatly at the elbow. “It might even be the same shirt,” he jokes.

From there it’s down the steps, past a dowel post hung with dozens of access laminates, past two portraits that tend to stop visitors in their tracks. One is of Townes Van Zandt; the other is of a young Rodney Crowell, wild-haired and mischievous. Clark painted both himself. You can’t get to the guitar shop without being raked by their gazes: they’re like a matched pair of bullshit-detector sentries.

For a moment, you’re reminded of a beautiful vignette from a little-seen documentary called Heartworn Highways, released briefly in 1981 but shot by director James Szalapski in Nashville in 1975. It shows a Christmas Eve at the home of Guy and Susanna Clark, back when they lived in an old house near Old Hickory Lake. Crowded around their kitchen table are the Clarks, Crowell, singer-songwriters Steve Young and Richard Dobson, and some whelp named Steve Earle, not even 21.

Tipsy, bleary and cheery, Crowell begins to sing “Silent Night,” and the assembled guests join in rambunctiously, with Clark himself hollering, “Oh, baby Jesus, we’re comin’ to ya!” For a moment, Nashville seems like the friendliest, loosest place in the world. The revelers at the table have talent and time to burn. For fans who have listened to the people onscreen for longer than they realize, the youth of everyone at the table brings a pang of vanished time.

“It was a time when the counterculture was starting to make itself known in the music and in the town,” says Liz Thiels, who first met Clark when she co-owned the Exit/In back in the early 1970s. “People were experimenting with everything from vegetarian food to drinking wine. And there was this egalitarian music scene with Guy and Susanna at the center. They had all this traffic in their house all the time, and Susanna couldn’t get any painting done, so she began to write herself.” Thiels laughs. “She had a cut and a hit before the rest of them.”

Thirty-one years later, when Clark was honored with a monthlong residency at the Country Music Hall of Fame in September, Thiels asked to introduce him. She told the sold-out crowd that growing up in Louisiana, she had always believed music was only for dancing; it was a shock to come to Nashville and find that people expected an audience to listen, not dance.

“Not until hearing Guy,” she says, “did I start listening for the music and stories themselves. They’re different from poetry. Read them by themselves, and they don’t have the same power.”

It was a grand occasion. The shows were studded with visits from artists who performed on Clark’s mid-1970s albums, including blues-country singer Tracy Nelson (who’s been co-writing lately with Clark), Emmylou Harris and Crowell, who sat in for an evening as Clark’s foil and bandmate. Clark himself was in powerful voice, stepping away from the microphone to deliver his ballad “The Randall Knife” without amplification.

But the shows served another purpose few wanted to acknowledge: they helped allay concerns among fans about Clark’s health. Before the final show at the Hall of Fame, Clark told the Tennessean’s Peter Cooper that he had undergone four months of chemotherapy treatment for lymphoma. It was the first public mention of any trouble, and it’s clear when a reporter raises the subject now that he’d hoped it would be the last. He shuts down a reporter’s timid inquiry with a polite but gruff, “I’m good. Don’t have time to be sick.” Asked later, he says, “That’s just…stuff. I don’t mind if people know, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about.”

What he’d much rather talk about is building guitars. In the guitar shop, before a poster showing a diagram of a flamenco guitar, he rests his cigarette between the skulls and hands across a guitar he built. It’s a honey—spruce body, the finish left rough and unvarnished. The curve is like a woman’s hip. A visitor asks how someone goes about learning to build guitars, and he chuckles.

“When I started doing it, you’d just get a guitar and take it apart,” Clark says. “Writing is so cerebral, and this is such right-brain-left-brain stuff that it gives one side of your brain a rest for a little bit.” To his right, above the photograph of Townes Van Zandt, guitar pieces stack up to the ceiling.

“The one thing I have learned about building these guitars,” Clark says, “is that I don’t think I can make a living building guitars.”

But people who’ve co-written with Clark say the guitar shop serves an almost Zen-like purpose. “He’s got that West Texas work ethic—you’ve got a job to do, you don’t stop ’til it’s done right,” says Verlon Thompson, Clark’s friend and collaborator for nearly 20 years, who co-produced Workbench Songs. “He gets down there in his guitar shop, rolls his sleeves up and goes to work, and I think he gets more enjoyment out of that than partying or whatever you want to call it.”

Thompson, who first worked with Clark on 1989’s Old Friends, says he’s had writing sessions with Clark arise out of repair work on his guitar. The two co-wrote one of Workbench Songs’ most playful numbers, “Tornado Time in Texas,” out of their childhoods among the twisters of Texas and Oklahoma. It’s a top-that game of meteorological hyperbole, in the tradition of a folk song like “My Oklahoma Home.” It started with a nugget Thompson borrowed in part from singer Melba Montgomery—“The sky was blacker than a funeral suit, hotter than a depot stove”—and before long Clark was upping the stakes with, “Blow the tattoo off of your arm.”

Ray Stephenson, who co-wrote two songs on Workbench Songs, says his sojourn in the guitar shop became a bonding experience. Several years ago, as a relatively inexperienced young writer at EMI, he asked for a session with Clark until he got one. They tried for a while until Stephenson, an art and sculpture major at Valdosta State in Georgia, mentioned that he’d always wanted to build a guitar. “Let’s build one,” Clark said. Stephenson asked how long it would take, and Clark told him if they worked every day it might take two weeks.

“It ended up taking us nine months,” says Stephenson, who spoke by phone from a songwriter’s festival in Florida. But as they worked together, he began to get insights into Clark’s method as both a songwriter and a luthier.

“I wouldn’t say he’s a taskmaster,” Stephenson said, “but when you’re building a guitar it has to be exact—there’s little room for error. As a songwriter, I think his main thing is being real. He won’t write it if he wouldn’t say it. The typical Nashville writer is trying to do the next hit—the rhymes have to be right, it has to be following a trend. [But] the songs [Clark] writes today are not much different from the songs he was writing 30 years ago. He knows who he is. If it’s a line Guy Clark wouldn’t say, I don’t want it in my song.”

The proof is in Workbench Songs’ finest moment, a song that had its peculiar origin in Stephenson’s dire choice of hangover food. “I had eaten two chili dogs before going to sleep,” he remembers, “and I had this dream the Mafia was after me. And I wanted my girlfriend to go with me.” He told Clark about the chili dogs and the dream, and that he wanted to write a song about a woman named Magdalene.

The result, “Magdalene,” is among the high points of Clark’s past decade of recording. Like previous classics such as “Dublin Blues” and “Desperados Waiting for a Train”—the stark, exquisitely detailed elegy that put Clark on the map back in 1975—it’s a spare, suggestive ballad that demonstrates his ability to tell a story in the ellipses between details.

“I ain’t lookin’ for trouble,” Clark sings, over the spare, urgent backing of his acoustic guitar, in a voice that sounds hushed so as not to draw any suspicion. “I can’t stay here tonight.” Entire short stories have been written in the space between those lines. From there, the singer tries to convince his girlfriend, Magdalene, that for reasons best left unsaid she should make a midnight run with him for Mexico. Why? Clark says the story is about a biker fleeing trouble; another listener might hear a Jim Thompson noir written between the lines. Whatever the case, the unspoken words embed the tale in the listener’s imagination, helped by the beautiful-loser weariness Clark brings to a line such as, “Let’s go down to San Miguel / Let’s go be somebody else tonight”—a line that offers absolutely zero chance of real escape.

Clark recently turned 65, but he says it didn’t mean much. “For some reason, it wasn’t some giant milestone in my head, other than, well, I guess I can get Social Security now,” he says wryly. “It’s just more paperwork.” A reporter suggests that he sounds somehow younger on the upbeat Workbench Songs—which features, among other things, “Worry B Gone,” the best and most brazen pot-smoking anthem to come down the pipe in ages—than he did as an upstart troubadour on death-driven songs such as “Desperados” and “The Last Gunfighter Ballad.”

“I never thought about that,” Clark says. “I guess I got over it.”

Anyone who parses Workbench Songs looking for clues to Clark’s mortality, his feelings about his recent health troubles, or anything else confessional is going to come up empty-handed. On that score, the album’s most revealing track may be “Exposé,” a jaunty Western swing co-written with Crowell and Hank DeVito—two verses and a chorus devoted to the idea that if anyone’s planning a kiss-and-tell memoir, he’d rather be left out. Verlon Thompson wonders what more people could want from Guy Clark than he’s already given.

“I’ve never heard Guy say this,” Thompson says, “but I think he wants his songs to speak for him.” Over the years, Thompson has heard people raise the idea of doing a documentary on Clark, who makes a natural camera subject. But he remembers attending with Clark a private screening of Be Here to Love Me, a brilliant documentary that examines Townes Van Zandt’s life in sometimes painfully candid detail. The idea “Is that what people are going to do to me?” hung in the air.

“He’s leaving us all these great songs,” Thompson says, “so why do we need anything else?”

Maybe we don’t. For an hour in the guitar shop, Guy Clark politely fields a reporter’s idiot questions, poses patiently for photographs from every conceivable angle, then escorts the group to the door. On the way, he offers one of his hand-rolled cigarettes to a guest.

“He just makes you want to smoke,” says Thompson. “He just pulls out that little pouch and starts rollin’ ’em, and they look so perfect, and he just clips those ends off, and before you know it you’re just standin’ there sayin’, ‘Hey, roll me one of those.’ ”

Indeed, Clark makes smoking look so cool it’s tempting. But it doesn’t work if you just have the cigarette. You’ve got to have the effortless dexterity to roll your own from a lifetime’s practice, the authority to hold it with style, or else it’s just a ticket to an embarrassing cough. One guest regretfully declines the offer, and another follows suit. Guy Clark takes a drag and laughs.

“You girls,” he says.

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