Writing A Song •
Introduction by Jim Liddane
Guy Clark, a luminary in the realm of American folk and country music, leaves an indelible mark on the industry and the hearts of those who have been fortunate enough to listen to his compositions. With a career that spans decades and a repertoire of soul-stirring songs, Clark's journey is a symphony of authenticity, storytelling, and emotional resonance.
He is of course the master craftsman when it comes to songwriting. His songs delve deep into the human experience, weaving tales of love, loss, longing, and life's trials. His lyrics are windows to the soul, offering a chance to peer into the raw, unvarnished truths of existence.
His ability to transform life's intricacies into poetic verses sets him apart as a poet of American music. Tracks like "Desperados Waiting For A Train" and "Dublin Blues" are lyrical masterpieces that capture the essence of storytelling through song. His talent for painting vivid imagery with words is a hallmark of his artistry.
His profound influence on the craft of songwriting simply cannot be overstated. He mentored and collaborated with many emerging talents, thus leaving an enduring legacy that continues to shape the genre. His dedication to preserving the authenticity of the songwriter's craft inspires countless artists today.
One could argue that Guy Clark might have reached even greater heights in terms of commercial success. His songs, though cherished by fellow musicians and discerning listeners, don't always achieve the chart-topping success of some of his peers. However, this could also be seen as a testament to his unwavering commitment to artistic integrity over commercial gain.
Guy Clark's career as a songwriter is a testament to the enduring power of authentic storytelling in music. His influence on the genre and his ability to connect with listeners on a profound emotional level are a testament to his enduring legacy. In the tapestry of American folk and country music, Guy Clark's work remains a shining thread, woven with sincerity, raw emotion, and authenticity, continuing to inspire and resonate with those who seek the genuine and the heartfelt in music.
Larry Wayne Clarke interviewed Guy for the International Songwriters Association's publication "Songwriter Magazine".
There’s a picture of Guy and Susanna Clark, taken by their friend Jim “SenÞor” McGuire back in 1975, that I
particularly like. It’s been hanging on the wall of the Bluebird Café for years since back when that strip-mall
songwriters’ haven still boasted an edgy mystique and the tour buses couldn’t find it and there’s something compelling about it. The two (“wherever you saw Guy, Susanna was right next to him,” remembers McGuire) seem more than simply married; they seem joined in some molecular fusion slim, denim-clad, unapologetically smoking (him a cigarette, her some breed of cigarillo), faces smooth-chiselled and determinedly unsmiling, captured in some shared black-and-white 30-year-old reverie that seems to brim with sweet promise. The Scott and Zelda of Nashville.
Today much has changed but much hasn’t. Guy and Susanna are still together, still creative, still
representing what’s everlastingly hip and worthy about this town. If she’s a respected songwriter he’s
something closer to a legend, a prime example of The Other Nashville the poets and storytellers who don’t
care a damn about the positive-uptempo-singalong dictates of commercial radio or the easy fortunes
promised to those who meekly obey.
More than a few of these rugged troubadours hail from Texas, and Guy Clark is no exception. Mickey
Newbury inspired him to move here. Townes Van Zandt befriended him. Steve Earle turned to him for
Now 63, Guy Clark Jr. looms as a master builder of songs that are conversational in language and
simple in form yet deep-running, like good short stories. Eschewing clever Music Row hooks or saccharine
feel-good messages, they draw inspiration from everyday things (“Homegrown Tomatoes,” “Stuff That
Works,” “Boats To Build”) and can be quietly funny or heartbreakingly real, such as the wonderful
“Randall Knife,” which of course ultimately isn’t about a knife at all.
A couple of them have even managed to be hits (uncommon for writers of Clark’s coffeehouse-folky ilk):
“Heartbroke” was a #1 country hit for Ricky Skaggs in 1982, John Conlee’s version of “The Carpenter”
went to #6 in 1987 and “Desperados Waiting For A Train” has become a staple of the Texas troubadourial
canon, recorded by The Highwaymen, Nanci Griffith, David Allan Coe and many others, not to mention
A luthier, carpenter, painter and photographer (Van Zandt called him “a genuine Renaissance man”),
Clark is a true artist who holds craft in the highest esteem. Perhaps that quality, a streak of plain
pragmatism amidst the tides of creative mercurialism, has helped to keep him grounded and robust while
so many of his peers have fallen victim to the demons of excess.
Craggier now and with plenty of grey in his still-full head of hair, Clark remains tall and slender and
still cuts a handsome figure.
He does 75 or 80 club dates and concerts a year, writes and co-writes regularly, puts out an album every
couple of years or so to critical acclaim and modest sales, and is perhaps happiest in his basement
workshop/writer’s room, surrounded by lyric sheets and cassettes, various slats and slabs of wood, tools,
glue, and probably a couple of half-complete guitars, the air tinged with sawdust and tobacco.
Call it the lair of a happy man.
So what do you think of the “Starbucks-ification” of Nashville? I wrote a piece recently for Music Row
magazine that mentioned the “new Nashville”: trendy new coffee shops and pubs on Demonbreun; the
traffic circle and Musica [a statue featuring male and female nudes that has ruffled many Bible Belt
feathers], bicycle lanes on 17th Avenue.
What’s it all coming to! [laughs]
When did you come here?
End of ’71, first of ’72.
So you must have seen enormous changes in Nashville?
Oh yeah. The biggest building down there was RCA. What used to be RCA.
And you came directly from Texas?
Well, I’d gone to California first. That was the only place I really knew anybody in the music business, and
we went out there and stayed for almost a year till I got a publishing deal and, subsequent to that, moved to
Do you still have a publishing deal? You were with EMI for years.
Uh-huh. Still am.
So you’re obviously quite different from your friend Steve Earle in being able to maintain that gig.
Some writers of the troubadourial mindset find publishing deals oppressive.
I don’t. One, I like having the songs all in the same place I mean I’ve only been with two companies in
the last 30 or so years and I have a very minimal commitment in the songs I have to turn in. And I have
access to a really good studio, and they pitch the songs. I don’t really want to be a publisher, you know. I
don’t wanna go out and pitch songs and take care of the business and do all that shit. I’d just as soon have
somebody do it and be paid for it.
So the years go by and it’s all working out for you.
So far. I mean, if I ever get out of the red with them I’m going to Texas. [laughs] If I ever break even!
That’s the way I look at it.
There might be a title there: “If I Ever Get Out Of The Red I’m Goin’ To Texas.”
Let’s look at this Texas thing. I’m from Canada myself and we have our troubadours up there, as I’m
sure you’re aware. We have Ian Tyson, Lightfoot. We had Stan Rogers who was tremendous…
Yeah, I knew Stan.
But Texas seems to have so many songwriters and novelists. Is it something in the water?
Well, that’s one answer.
At times I thought I knew the answer to all that; at other times, well, it just is. It’s not that long ago that
Texas was an independent country 1840s and there’s sort of this independent spirit about it: you can do
anything you say you can do, be anybody you wanna be. And there’s certainly a tradition of storytelling that’s
contributory to the songwriting over the last 150 years. And the kind of people that it took to go settle that
land were a pretty hardy breed, and that’s not over yet. That third, fourth, fifth generation of people that
settled that land are still there, and they’re brought up imbued with that attitude.
And it even happens in music. I mean, there’s two kinds of fiddlers, two kinds of fiddle music: there’s
Texas fiddlin’ and there’s fiddlin’, which includes all the rest of it. You go to any fiddle contest and they
have Texas fiddlin’ and fiddlin’. It’s just different.
Who are the great Texas fiddlers?
It’s just an approach. I used to know the exact musical definition of it. They play twice as many notes in
the same length of time or something.
You wrote a pretty damn good song about a fiddle player, you and Shawn Camp [“Sis Draper,” from
1999’s "Cold Duck Soup"]. I like that.
I do too. That was very interesting ’cause Shawn is a fiddle player and it was about the woman who taught
him to play, so it was kinda based in fact. My grandmother’s brothers and sisters were all fiddle players from
Kentucky and I’ve always been fascinated by it and have tried it, and will never do it, but… [chuckles]. I’m
still enamoured of it.
So your background is Texas and Kentucky?
Well, I’m from Texas and both my parents were actually from Oklahoma, and my mother’s family… My
grandmother came from Kentucky in a covered wagon to the Indian Territory when she was 12 years old. So
there’s that side of the family and the other is probably from, like, Virginia through Mississippi.
So there’s probably an awful lot of music in the genes. With Kentuckians I can almost ask that same
question there must be something in the air or water. Such great singers and players.
And it’s interesting: neither of my parents played anything nor sang. But the family did some.
But were you an artistic household?
Oh yeah. Both my parents. My father was a lawyer and my mother was very well educated and we were
brought up reading. I mean, after dinner we’d read poetry at the table, just for entertainment.
Kind of pre-TV days. Or read books out loud.
Do you do that still?
No. Not unless I just feel like it. But I guess basically I do, because I sit around pickin’. Singing songs.
There is something special about reading out loud.
Yeah, there is. It’s a wonderful thing.
That whole Walt Whitman “declamatory tradition.”
Yeah, and both my parents were evidently in that. When they went to high school in the late ’30s
declamation was a…a sport, kind of, and they would have choral reading groups, you know. Fifteen people
reading in unison with different voices. And I’ve always been a fan of Dylan Thomas “Under The Milkwood”
and that genre, Steven Vincent Benet, Robert Service and I just grew up with that stuff, and was surely highly
influenced by it.
This is something the MTV generation has to be made aware of!
Well, [chuckles] good luck.
Although and I’m not a fan of rap by any means but have you ever seen the movie 8 Mile?
No, don’t think so.
You’d remember it if you had. That’s the one with Eminem…
Oh, yeah. Yeah, I’ve not seen it.
Watching it with what you’ve described in mind, they’re kind of doing that. They’re rapping at one
another, often without music…
Yeah. I find that pretty fascinating. I mean, some of it’s bullshit but some of it is really, really good. Just
the chops they have.
Especially when it’s spontaneous and confrontational: I’m gonna rap you to a pulp. I’m not gonna hit
you with a baseball bat or shoot you…
And it comes, I think, from…oh, what’d they call it? In the ’30s and ’40s there was a thing called what’d
they call it? toasts. They were very off-colour humoured. John Lomax recorded a bunch of them and they were
kind of rap-like. There’s one called “Jody The Grinder.” All these incredible lyrical things. [Note: A bit of
Google research reveals that folklorist Lomax recorded Irvin Lowry’s version of “Joe The Grinder” in 1939.
“Jody The Grinder,” “Jody Grinder,” “Joe De Grinder,” “Joe D. Grinder” and “Jody’s Song” are other titles
given to this World War II-era chant about a draft-evading romancer preying on soldiers’ sweethearts.
“Grinder” is fairly obvious sexual slang.]
Who would be doing this? What would be the scenario?
Oh, I think it was mostly blacks. It was a black cultural thing, not unlike rap, and it was just, you know,
what was going on during the day: this is what happened.
That’s very tribal.
Is there much African-American influence in what you do?
Of course. I love the blues and, growing up in Texas, when I started playing around a bit I had access to
Lightnin’ Hopkins. He lived in Houston; we could go see him anytime we wanted to in his joints. And Mance
Lipscomb. It was a marvellous experience. I don’t actually try to play the blues because I’m not a black
sharecropper. I can’t be that but I was certainly influenced by the artistry of it, you know.
So when did you start picking and singing? How did that come about?
Well, it was late. I was 16 or 17 before I started playing. My father had taken on a young law partner, a
woman just graduated from the University of Texas, and she played guitar and sang Mexican music. And so
for about the first year I played I didn’t know any songs in English; it was all traditional border music.
Mariachi Norteno kinda stuff.
Are you bilingual?
Not anymore! I used to be able to speak Spanish pretty good but you gotta do it every day and I haven’t
been in that culture for too long.
So this was something that turned you on, something you wanted to do?
Yeah. The first time I saw six or seven people sit around in a room and trade songs, you know, I was just
dumbfounded and starstruck, or whatever. But, I mean, from that day on I was hooked.
What kind of a teenager were you?
Oh, I was the all-American captain of the football team, you know, wanted-to-be-a-jet-fighter-pilot kind of
You weren’t one of these nerdy types?
No. No, evidently not. I mean, like I said, we had all that background and were always encouraged in the
arts and literature and all that stuff. And that’s really my bent, I think.
Did you go to university?
Several. [laughs] I never did actually graduate. A lot of it was just the times, you know, early ’60s and not
really being too keen on going to Vietnam. Skating around it.
What was the official story on “what you were going to be when you grew up”?
My first major was physics. I was always good at that kind of stuff. And, you know, of course my father
wanted me to be a lawyer like him. But once I got away from home and started hanging out with the wrong
crowd and playing music…[laughs]
Where was home?
Well, I was born out in west Texas in a little town called Monahans, which is out between Pecos and
Odessa; just desert. I still consider that home. And then, my father had gone back to law school and graduated
from law school, and he set up a practice in a little town called Rockport, which is on the Gulf Coast just
north of Corpus Christi. So junior high and high school was on the Gulf Coast.
When did it happen that you looked in the mirror and said, “To hell with the rest of it, I’m gonna
make my living as a picker and singer”?
I was 30.
Oh, you waited that long?
Yeah. I had drifted around, done different [things]. At the time I was the art director for a CBS affiliate in
Houston just something that came easy to me and finally, at that time, just decided, “Man, if I don’t do it now
I’m gonna spend the rest of my life wishing I had.” So I did.
We first moved to LA where I knew a couple of people and then subsequently I got a publishing deal,
writing deal, and it was with RCA’s publishing company. They had offices anywhere you wanted to live and
I knew one person here I knew Mickey Newbury and I did not particularly like Los Angeles. So I just came
here, sight unseen.
But I came with a publishing deal. I had a little head start.
Who were the people who were inspiring you at that point in your life? You mentioned Mickey
Well, Mickey, yeah. He’s a big influence. And of course the blues players. I was never really a fan, or
performer, of country music. My background was always traditional folk music. Everybody was influenced by
Bob Dylan at that point, and traditional players like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. That kind of stuff. The
whole songwriter thing was just starting to happen in the early ’60s.
I ran into you at that Hall Of Fame showing of Heartworn Highways [a 1975 James Szalapski music
documentary filmed in Austin and Nashville, recently remastered for DVD]. I remember trying to put
myself in your shoes watching it. It must have been fascinating, and maybe a bit scary, to have 30 years
just evaporate and here you are and there you were with a bunch of people, some of them no longer
I found it interesting. I certainly remember it happening and even at the time it was like, “What the fuck
are these guys doing? I mean, they’re not gonna make any money off of us.” [laughs] But it was flattering
of course to have some New York film crew come down and come to your house to film everybody getting
fucked up and playing songs.
A lot of it was actually at your house, wasn’t it?
Yeah, that Christmas Eve scene with guitars and stuff.
And for me it kinda gets better the further away you are from it. I mean it becomes more of a document.
But at the time it was like: well, there was that.
Well, you were of an age at the time when you probably didn’t think in terms of legacy.
No, not really. But, like I said, I was thirty-two, -three or -four when that was done.
I guess you were probably one of the older people in that congregation.
How did your and Townes Van Zandt’s ages compare?
I was about ten years older than Townes. Something like that; I can’t remember exactly.
Talk a bit about him. I know he was a friend.
I dunno… We met in Houston and just kinda hit it off. He’d written about two songs, I think, when I met
him and I figured, “Man, if he can do this so can I!” [chuckles] And we were both playing the same joints
and we just hung out; we just became friends. Very bright. Very smart guy, very funny, which is what
attracted me to him. I assume it was mutual.
But so doomed. What was with that?
I don’t know; he just was. His father died at a very crucial time in his life, I think; he was 18 or 19.
Probably a lot of unresolved stuff there. But evidently, according to his family, he was always kinda like that,
you know. They had to send him away to military school ’cause he was so crazy and wild, and he had
electroshock treatments when he was 18 or 19.
His mother said one of the things she regretted her whole life was that she’d said okay to that. And he just
was bound and determined to have the blues! But still, the other side of that coin was that he was extremely
bright and extremely funny and most of what people remember about him is the dark side. But his funny
songs, his talking blues songs, are just absolutely brilliant.
Then Steve Earle came along, obviously very much a disciple of Townes, including all the bad parts.
How are you different? Here you are, you seem to be in pretty good health. You’ve survived Townes
and you’ve watched Steve Earle just about follow in his footsteps…
Well, I’m not that guy. You can’t be Townes. I mean, who wants to be that? I don’t. Maybe Steve does.
I loved Townes like a brother and, like I said, he was extremely bright and extremely funny, and his writing
is spectacular. I never wanted to be Townes but I was certainly inspired by his use of the language.
But there does seem to be that kind of person who embraces the mindset this Hemingwayan, Dylan
Thomas sort of concept that “I have to be as drunk as I can possibly get as much of the time…”
Yeah. I’ve certainly been through that. But there’s still the work to be done, you know. I mean, I made a
conscious choice to do this and one of the things about it is you never get through. You never get to be the
best there is. You never write the best song you’ll ever write. Every day I get up and there’s always
something left to do.
Describe what a day might be like for you. You get up and what’s the first thing that pops into your
head? Is it the guitar you’re building or…?
It kinda depends on what I’m in the middle of, you know. I go through periods of really concentrating on
the building, which I find really uses the other side of your brain from writing. Writing is very cerebral.
You’re just sitting there staring at a wall or looking out a window trying to conjure up some memory or some
thing that becomes a song. And building a guitar I mean, I do it in the same room for that very purpose, to
just be able to get up and walk over to the workbench and do this really nice hand-eye thing. I feel like they
feed off of one another. It’s right brain, left brain stuff; sort of a symbiotic relationship.
So everything happens in that room?
Well, pretty much, aside from the playing. You gotta go out and do it on the road. And that again is [a
symbiotic relationship]: I have no reason to go play for the folks unless I’ve got new songs and I’ve got no
reason to write new songs unless I’m gonna go play ’em for somebody.
What’s writing like for you? Do ideas arrive in a fairly solid lump?
There’s really no pattern to it. The only thing I’ve really disciplined myself to do is anytime, anywhere, if
I do have a little flash of an idea which we all do write it down immediately ’cause if you don’t you will
forget it. And at the end of the day you wind up with a stack of bar napkins, or whatever, and at some point
you have to get up one morning, spread ’em all out and go through ’em and see what makes sense.
Then, at that juncture, you have to go to work and flesh it out and have it become a song that you enjoy
Do you have some way of capturing musical snippets?
Sometimes. I don’t do it with a tape recorder. But it’s mainly based around the lyrics.
That does seem to be the driving force with you. What’s co-writing like for you? You do a fair bit of
I do now. I never used to; I just never wanted to. But I’ve been doing this a long time and there are
periods when I get stuck you know, I’ve gone a year without writing a song and it’s frustrating. Co-writing doesn’t always work; you know sometimes I’m writing with friends I’ve known for years, sometimes it’s somebody I’ve never met
but the thing I’ve come to enjoy about it is you actually have to say the words out loud.
You can’t just sit by yourself looking at something and run it over in your head and obsess about it and
everything. If you actually verbalise it with another person in the room you cut through a lot of bullshit real
quick. You know what I mean?
You have a listening post.
Yeah, and that works both ways. And sometimes that’s really valuable. Sometimes something really good
comes out of it. Not always; a lot of them just don’t happen. But, one thing, it keeps you doing something
as opposed to sitting around obsessing about, “Well, I wish I could write a song.”
So-and-so’s coming over today: you’re gonna write a song. At least work on it whether you get anything or
not. And I like the process of wrangling words around.
I think it’s a marvellous thing for someone like you to do because you avoid repeating yourself
constantly, which will happen after a dozen or 20 albums.
Yeah. Well, it’s just something that evolved for me. And like I said, I enjoy the process.
What do you think of Nashville as a songwriting town? Do you relate to that or just ignore most of it?
Well, I relate to it in that there’s a bunch or really talented, good writers here. Good players. Like I said,
I don’t write country music, but I’m here because this is where it happens a lot of it happens and I enjoy that
kind of community. That kind of creative bunch of guitar players and singers and songwriters.
So there’s a place in this commercially driven environment for someone like you?
Well, there seems to be. I don’t really relate to the commercial aspects of quote “country music” I mean
there’s good songs and not-so-good songs, and every once in a while one [of the good ones] gets to be a
number one hit. I don’t try to second-guess that. I write what I wanna write.
But there’s the occasion where some new artist comes over here: “Man, I need to write an upbeat song for
my new album.” “Okay, let’s go! Let’s have a run at it.” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
As long as you can have fun doing it.
Yeah, right. Supposed to be fun. I mean it’s not fucking brain surgery! [laughs] Smoke a joint, write a song.
There seems to be a very strong sense of craft in everything you do.
Well, I’m concerned with that. I work at that because I have pretty high standards about what I think is
good. It’s like, Townes and I, every time we started thinking we were pretty hot shit, you know hey man, we
are the shit! we would sit down purposely and listen to Dylan Thomas read his own work. And that’ll put
you straight in a hurry about the use of the English language.
Again, homework for the MTV generation! Have you ever considered writing a novel or short stories?
I really haven’t. I mean, I’ve been approached about it and asked if I was interested, but it really… Every
time I try to write prose it just starts rhyming. That’s just a whole ’nother thing to devote your life to. Like
I was saying before, you don’t get to the end of songwriting. There’s always something left to say and
hopefully a better way to do it.
And it’s the same with building guitars. There is no “best there is.” You just keep trying to get better.
Is it true that the logo on your guitar is indeed a thumbprint in blood?
Yep. Sure is.
Do you have to get drunk to do that?
Naw. Shit, no. It just occurred to me when I first started doing this. I decided, “Well, I’m gonna design my
label. Everybody has their own.” And I don’t know what made me do it but I just pricked my little finger
and smeared the blood on my thumb and put it in the middle of the label and signed my name through it.
And that was it.
I guess it proves you’re still able to bleed, and that’s good to know.
Oh, yeah. [laughs]
How many instruments do you figure you’ve made?
Oh, I’ve made nine so far, this little splurge. I built several in Texas, like, 35 years ago, and just always
said I was gonna get back to it, and carried my stuff around. Wood and all that stuff.
Then, about four or five years ago, I was sitting here in this room and I had a whole little 8-track studio
set up and everything, and looked up one day and realised I hadn’t even turned it on in a year. It had this
fine patina of dust on it. So I just packed it up, put it in the closet, built a workbench, ordered some wood
and started building.
And it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s really I don’t wanna sound too ga-ga about it but I mean it’s a
real spiritual thing to build a musical instrument out of wood and write a song on it, and play it. It’s really
I’ve long envied our mutual friend Michael Heiden [a superb Canadian luthier who first introduced me
to Clark]. I can definitely see the spirituality in what he’s doing and, on the other hand, I can see that
he’s an absolutely left-brained, very organised craftsman.
Oh yeah. He’s crazy! [chuckles]. You know, most guitar-makers are. I kinda approach it in a little looser
fashion you know, like most of these guitars don’t even have a finish on ’em.
I just build it and string it up. And I’ve got a couple that are, like, pretty world-class guitars, you know.
But you never sell them?
Not so far. Don’t have to. I have the luxury of building them and stringing them up and playing them
myself. I loan ’em out to people.
I put one in an art show in lieu of a painting. That kind of stuff.
Do you paint?
Used to, quite a bit. And this kind of took the place of that.
Who are some of your favourite painters?
Anybody more contemporary? You strike me as a Wyeth man.
Yeah. My wife is a student of one of his students. She’s really the painter in the family. She’s kind of
semi-connected to those guys and she paints like that.
You’ve been married for a number of years, a rarity among songwriters of your age group that I talk
Thirty-two…-three years. Something like that.
Does that amaze you?
It sure as hell does! Every day.
You have a lot in common. She’s also a songwriter.
She’s a very successful songwriter.
She and Richard Leigh wrote one of my favourite songs.
Oh yeah, “Come From The Heart.” She also wrote “I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose” and the title song on
Emmylou’s "Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town". And also painted the cover.
She painted Willie Nelson’s Stardust cover. She’s a very talented person.
Do you write together?
We have on occasion. We never did it on any kind of schedule. It was always just, “Hey, I got an idea
let’s work on this song.”
Is she writing a lot of songs?
Not much. Last four or five years she’s had some serious back problems. She’s got some ruptured discs in
her lower back and it’s pretty much incapacitated her.
She doesn’t really wanna have surgery so she’s trying to rehab it but when you’re in constant pain like that
it kinda dampens the creative spirit, I think.
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