Guy Clark seems perfectly at home sitting down for an afternoon interview in his cozy basement workshop — a sanctuary that offers every tool he needs to write his brilliantly clear-sighted songs, build his acoustic guitars and hand-roll his cigarettes, the latter being his activity of choice at this moment.
"You know, I'm not rich by any stretch of the imagination," he says with a contented chuckle. "But I have a space where I can do what I love to do ... and do it in the same room. It's just like, 'Wow. There's a little dream come true,' you know?"
As dreams go, this one of Clark's seems fairly modest at first. He turned 70 on Nov. 6, and he estimates that he and his wife Susanna have been in the West Nashville home that houses his workshop for a decade-and-a-half or so, though he's at least made himself a workbench everywhere they've lived.
But 40 is the number that says it all. That's how many years Clark has been in town writing songs and making a living at it, while songwriting trends and lesser talents have come and gone. He's as true an embodiment of writerly dedication as you'll find in Nashville.
Says Clark, "The thing about it, I guess, that somehow attracts me is you don't get to be the best there is. There is no best there is. There's always a song to be written. And if you say you're a songwriter, well, where is it? I mean, it's that simple. Since I've been here, I've never thought about doing something else." Now those are the words of a man at home in his chosen city and career.
It's a small bit of irony that — as far as Clark was concerned when he signed his first publishing deal four decades ago — Nashville was merely the least of three evils. "It was a process of elimination," he says, "by which I knew I didn't want to live in LA. I knew I didn't want to live in New York." His lone friend in Nashville — fellow songwriter Mickey Newbury — let the Clarks crash on his houseboat when they first arrived in town. Once they rented a lakeside cabin of their own, the couple famously became the center of gravity in a heady, bohemian songwriting scene.
Then as now, Clark was simply writing the songs he wanted to write — like "LA Freeway," his wry, richly descriptive goodbye to California — and they were ending up on people's albums (Jerry Jeff Walker's, in that case, and soon enough Clark's own debut Old No. 1). That song also comes first on a live album released in August, Songs and Stories, which documents an insouciant Belcourt Theatre show Clark played a couple of years back with help from his picking and penning buddies Verlon Thompson and Shawn Camp, plus the crack rhythm section of Bryn Davies and Kenny Malone.
To hear Clark tell it, there was at least a nominal amount of advance planning involved that evening. "I knew the record company had said, 'Well, as long as you're doing this, you might as well have a good tape of it,' " he says. If he'd have headed into the studio instead, there's a good chance he wouldn't have engaged in any such conversation. As he's fond of saying, "Whenever I get 10 or 12 good songs, I go in and make the record, don't tell anybody, get it all done and then go to the record company and say, 'Here's what it cost.' "
In a way, the tables are turned on Clark by the upcoming album This One's For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark, which features Walker, Thompson, Camp (who co-produced it with Tamara Saviano) and 30 other formidable friends, admirers and beneficiaries of his songwriting gifts — from Rodney Crowell to Willie Nelson and Vince Gill — covering songs from each of his Nashville decades.
Clark is clearly flattered that they would, as he puts it, "go to all this trouble," but he also seems slightly at a loss as to how he's to be both the sort of songwriter who merits immortalization — and he does, unquestionably, deserve this lavish tribute, not to mention his spot in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame — and the sort of songwriter who's still pursuing his best songs. "I don't have time to look at what I've done," he says, with a knowing smile. "I'm trying to learn something new."
The only reflection Clark offers on the subject of his legacy this particular day has to do with wanting people to be clear on what really goes on in the workshop he's become so intimately associated with over the years — it's more than craft. "What I do is art," he says. "The craftsmanship on the guitar [building] is approached so it's art to me. They're individual art pieces, as are the songs. ... I'm offended by being tagged as a craftsman only." A moment later he's chuckling at himself. "I don't know. I'm just being too picky. Hopefully I'll outgrow this."
But Clark makes a point too true to dismiss. His enduring body of work isn't simply the result of his sanding away at ideas every day for all these years; he has an unparalleled gift to go with the tools in his practiced hands.
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