Songwriting legend Guy Clark doesn’t merely compose songs; he projects images and characters with the kind of hands-on care and respect of a literary master. Clark works slowly and with strict attention to detail, and has produced an impressive collection of timeless gems, leaving very little waste behind. The emotional level of his work, as well as the admiration and esteem of his peers, consistently transcends sales figures and musical genres. Using everyday language to construct extraordinary songs for more than 35 years, Clark continues to be the type of songwriter whom young artists study and seasoned writers, as well discriminating listeners, revere.
Born in Monahans, Texas, on November 6, 1941, Clark grew up in a home where the gift of a pocketknife was a rite of passage and poetry was read aloud. At age 16 he moved to Rockport, on the Texas Gulf Coast. Instructed by his father’s law partner, he learned to play on a $12 Mexican guitar and the first songs he learned were mostly in Spanish.
Moving to Houston, Clark began his career during the “folk scare” of the 1960s. Fascinated by Texas blues legends like Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins and steeped in the cultural sauce piquante of his border state, he played traditional folk tunes on the same Austin-Houston club circuit as Townes Van Zandt and Jerry Jeff Walker. “It was pretty ‘Bob Dylan’ in the beginning,” Clark said. “Nobody was really writing.” Eventually, Clark would draw on these roots to firebrand his own fiddle-friendly and bluesy folk music, see it embraced as country and emerge as a songwriting icon for connoisseurs of the art.
Moving to San Francisco in the late 1960s, as social unrest was erupting through racial and generational fissures, Clark worked briefly in a guitar shop, returned to Houston for a short time, and then moved to the Los Angeles area, where he found work building guitars in the Dopyera Brothers’ Dobro factory and signed a publishing agreement with RCA’s Sunbury Music before pulling up stakes and relocating to Nashville in 1971.
The following year, country-folk singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker, then newly ensconced in Austin, released an eponymous album featuring the Clark composition “L.A. Freeway,” which became an FM radio hit. In 1973, Walker released Viva! Terlingua, recorded live in a Texas dance hall and including Clark’s ballad “Desperados Waiting for a Train.” As much as any others, these two Clark songs may arguably be said to have set the tone for a musical revolution that was first known as progressive country. By 1975, many of the revolutionaries would be defined as the Outlaws. Like the Bakersfield sound of the 1960s, the new sounds were a reaction to the formulaic rigidity and paternalism of Nashville’s record producers and label executives.
In this alternative musical world of the late 1960s, inspired by the storytelling poems of Robert Frost and Stephen Vincent Benet, Clark began to write what he knew “with a pencil and a big eraser.” “L. A. Freeway,” for example, blueprints his fish-out-of-water experience in Los Angeles. “Desperados Waiting for a Train” is based on his memory of an oilfield worker who was a resident of his grandmother’s hotel. Like almost all his songs, then and now, these two early masterpieces are expressions of personal memory and experience, further characterized by words that have a melody all their own.
Clark’s move to Music City, one of three cities where Sunbury had offices and where his pal Mickey Newbury would make him welcome, proved fortuitous. Clark and his wife, Susanna, would become the axis for a groundbreaking fraternity of singer-songwriters for whom Nashville felt like “Paris in the ’20s.” Among them were Newbury, Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, Billy Joe Shaver, Steve Earle, Dave Loggins and David Allen Coe. Bonded by their egalitarianism, the troupe’s favored sidewalk cafe was the Clark’s dining room table, where they gathered frequently for “guitar pulls” and show-and-tell song swapping sessions, and where they celebrated their successes and facetiously threatened to kill whoever had presented the best new song. Susanna Clark, a talented painter, tossed her brushes aside for awhile, joined the invasion and began writing hit songs herself.
In 1975, after using his big eraser on his first try at cutting an album, Clark made his recording debut on RCA Records with Old No. l, ten critically applauded originals built to last, including “L. A. Freeway,” “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” “Texas, l947,” “Instant Coffee Blues,” “Rita Ballou,” “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” “Let Him Roll,” “A Nickel for the Fiddler,” “That Old Time Feeling” and “Like a Coat From the Cold.” On the cover, the songwriter is pictured with his wife’s painting of his chambray “work shirt,” customary attire emblematic of his values. During the next 20 years, Clark would continue to record albums that worked like a stun gun on other artists in search of new songs. The weaponry included Texas Cookin’ (1976), Guy Clark (1978), The South Coast of Texas (1981), Better Days (1983), Old Friends (1989), Boats to Build (1992), Dublin Blues (1995), Keepers – a Live Recording (1997), Cold Dog Soup (1999) and The Dark (2002). The recordings include numerous collaborations with old and new friends such as Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Albert Lee and Rosanne Cash.
Nashville legend Johnny Cash, who then had been topping the charts for 20 years, was among the first Nashville recording artists to embrace Guy Clark’s music. His interpretation of “Texas, 1947” was a 1975 chart hit, followed in 1977 by Clark’s “The Last Gunfighter Ballad.” In 1987, Cash would also cover Clark’s “Let Him Roll.” In 1982, famed songsmith Bobby Bare made it to the country Top Twenty with Clark’s “New Cut Road.” That same year, bluegrass icon Ricky Skaggs escalated his mainstream trajectory with Clark’s “Heartbroke,” a #1 song that permanently established Clark’s reputation as an ingenious songwriter. Among the many others who have gilded their careers with Guy Clark songs are Vince Gill, who took “Oklahoma Borderline” to the Top Ten in 1985; the Highwaymen, who introduced “Desperados Waiting for a Train” to a new generation that same year; and John Conlee, whose interpretation of “The Carpenter” rode into the Top Ten in 1987. Steve Wariner reached the Top Five with the Clark cover “Baby I’m Yours” in 1988, and the same year Asleep at the Wheel charted with his “Blowin’ Like a Bandit.” Crowell was Clark’s co-writer on “She’s Crazy for Leavin’,” which in 1989 became the third of five straight #1 hits for Crowell. More recently Brad Paisley covered Clark’s “Out in the Parking Lot” on his Time Well Wasted CD, and parrotheads are listening to Jimmy Buffett’s interpretation of Clark’s “Boats to Build.”
Masterful and charismatic in live performance, Clark has built a devout U.S. and international following through years of touring prestigious clubs and concert halls. In 1990, Guy Clark was the catalyst for a series of Marlboro Music festival performances introducing the “guitar pull” to wider audiences. In various combinations of four singer-songwriters including Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Joe Ely, John Prine and Mary Chapin Carpenter, Clark and his colleagues mesmerized SRO audiences with their humor, spontaneity, storytelling and songs. As a result, guitar pulls became a new tradition in clubs like New York’s Bottom Line, and popular understanding of the depth and breadth of the music made in Music City has deepened. Clark, Ely, Hiatt and Lovett continue to perform as the Songwriter Tour, taking “guitar-pulls” to prestigious venues across the country.
Guy Clark remains a national treasure and folk icon, crafting masterful, poignant melodies and insightful lyrics. Tough, bare-boned and dryly sentimental, his beautiful songs reflect the man himself and display an old-fashioned masculinity that emphasizes honesty, integrity and carefully chosen words. His craggy, wistful story-songs, and plain-spoken delivery are also indicative of his persona. Inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Foundation’s Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004, Clark was honored with the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting in 2005. The following year, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum named Guy Clark as its prestigious 2006 Artist-In-Residence. Workbench Songs (2006), released to universal critical acclaim and the delight of his worshipful fans, was nominated for the 2007 Grammy award as Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album.