Guy Clark talked with Goldmine about songwriting

By Bruce Sylvester

guy-clarkWith the death of Guy Clark at age 74 on Tuesday, May 17, Americana music lost one of its best writers, a man who could create songs from everyday joys and basic items (“Home Grown Tomatoes,” “The Randall Knife”) and people around him (“Desperados Waiting for a Train”). On Dec. 5, 2002, I did a phone interview with him in which he discussed his craft. (His wife Susanna, whom he spoke of in our talk, died in 2012.) Here’s most of the article as printed in the April 4, 2003, Goldmine:

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Though he long has lived in Nashville, Guy Clark remains the dean of Texas songwriting. In Houston’s 1960s coffeehouse scene, he and the late Townes Van Zandt inspired newcomers like Steve Earle and Nanci Griffith. Jerry Jeff Walker’s recordings of Clark’s “Desperados Waiting For A Train” and “L.A. Freeway” helped to birth the Austin sound. Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, George Strait and Vince Gill too have covered Clark.

Quality, not quantity, is his style. Here Clark takes a break from his other interest—flamenco guitar making—to talk with Goldmine.

GOLDMINE: Your songwriting seems to be very economical and spare.

Guy Clark: Thanks. I try to do that. A good song allows the listener space to use his own imagination. If I spell out every little detail, then it’s my story, which is good. But if you leave holes in the right places, people can use their imagination and associate with the song in their own fashion and it will mean something to them.

Take “The Randall Knife.” Everybody has got something of their father’s that they broke. I broke my father’s Randall knife. People have even given me knives that they broke the tip off of. It’s metaphor for something. It allows people to make the song their own. Vince Gill loves the song because he broke his father’s seven iron.

Is there any consistent element in your songs?

Well, me. One thing I always try to do is, no matter how serious or dark the song, there’s a little chuckle in it. Humor or laughter is just as important an emotion as the blues. Most of the time you have them simultaneously. You’ve got to laugh at yourself.

Roy Orbison reportedly said that in Texas, there’s so little to see that you have to learn to use your imagination.

That’s true. Roy Orbison and I were from within about 30 miles from each other in West Texas. There ain’t a whole lot to do. You have to use your imagination.

Did you really grow up without television?

I was born in the pre-TV era, 1941. We had radio. Neighbors had TVs, but we didn’t until I was about 16. After dinner, we’d read poetry out loud around the kitchen table. We’d play Scrabble. We were encouraged to read.

Do your song’s characters stem from your youth?

They’re as true as I could possibly make them in “Desperados Waiting For A Train” and “Texas 1947.”

How about the delusional oldtimer in “The Last Gunfighter Ballad”?

It’s an old guy at my grandmother’s hotel who taught me to play dominoes. He said, and I believed him, that he was in the last real western, John-Wayne-style horse cavalry. He’d hung out at Belle Star’s saloon as a kid in New Mexico. A kid when he’s 15 or 16 wants to be a gunfighter, and I got to thinking about how he proceeds to do it and somehow lives through it, and winds up smack dab in the 20th century when he’s 80. I kind of made up the story around it, but I love those time-warp tales. My grandmother came from Kentucky to the Indian Territory in a covered wagon. Before she died, she saw men walk on the moon, live on color TV. Those things fascinate me.

What led you and Shawn Camp to create generations of Sis Draper’s family in various songs?

Shawn learned to play fiddle from a traveling fiddle player named Sis Draper. After we wrote “Sis Draper,” which is very accurate according to Shawn, it occurred to each of us almost simultaneously that we could write songs about each character in “Sis Draper.” The rest just sort of evolved. We’ve got three songs about them that I can actually sing and four or five more sitting around waiting to be tweaked on a little bit or be learned.

We were fantasizing about how fiddle playing got started in Sis’s family and created “Soldier’s Joy, 1864.” We decided that her great-great grandfather loses a leg in the Civil War. He can’t dance any more so he becomes a fiddle player. “Magnolia Wind” is a made-up song about some boy who’s in love with Sis. There are songs nobody’s heard yet about her Uncle Cleve.

Does being married to a painter impact your writing?

Of course. Susanna’s a marvelous artist. She’s a good songwriter herself. While Townes and I were sitting around being artistic songwriters, she wrote “I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose.” Dottsy made it a hit song, and we thought, “Wow.”

Most of her paintings are negative space. Once again, it’s the holes you leave. Take the cover she did for my first album, Old No. 1, where I’m standing beside a painting she did of my blue shirt. There’s a whole bunch of space with a finely detailed shirt. She calls that a portrait of me ‘cause I wore that shirt all the time. Still do. You use your imagination—whatever that shirt is to you.

Do songs come easily to you?

There’s hard work involved, and there’s luck. To actually sit down and do the nuts-and-bolts work is hard. When you have one of those old flashes of, quote, brilliance, the one discipline I’ve learned to employ is to write it down right then because you’ll forget it if you don’t. And at the end of the day you’ve got a pocketful of bar napkins, right. And then you have to sit down and see if there’s anything really there. A case in point is “L.A. Freeway.” I was in a string band, riding back from Mission Beach in San Diego about three in the morning. I was asleep in the car and raised my head up and looked around and said, “Man, if I could just get off this L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught.” And little light bulbs went off. I got Susanna’s eyebrow pencil and a burger sack and wrote it down. Had I not done that, that song would not exist. That taught to me to always write down an idea, because you will forget it.

You and Townes sort of became the grand old men of Texas songwriting.

Well, I’ve still got to get up and do it tomorrow.

 

 

About Bruce Sylvester

Bruce Sylvester is a regular contributor to Goldmine magazine.

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