Guy Clark: The High Price of Inspiration

Written by July 22nd, 2013 at 6:00 am

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(Photos: Jim McGuire)

Guy Clark’s house is tucked away off a main road in Nashville known to most for its Target, a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant and fast food chains. It’s not the prettiest part of town by any means, but once you take the turn, a bit past a gas station, you find a little enclave of mostly brick homes in an area that’s nicer than it ought to be, dictated by stop signs and little curvy roads. Down a short and steep little hill that I’m not sure my ancient hybrid car with cheap tires will have any luck getting back up, lies his home: modest, and obscured by a couple of trees leaking water from a passing rainstorm.

When I get there, Clark is waiting for me in the basement – though to call it that is to call a penthouse an attic. Not that it’s luxurious or decked-out by conventional standards, but it is a place full of enough musical relics to make your head spin: the walls covered in racks stacked with hand-labeled tapes and demos, notebooks, CDs, instruments, lyrics, tools and anything else that Clark has held on to over the years – he describes himself as a packrat of sorts, but it seems more archival than that. This is his workshop, where he used to make guitars (two at a time) before it got too painful for him to stand for hours on end. Joy Brogdon, his friend with Emmylou-Harris-silver hair and wearing a black Johnny Cash sweatshirt, leads me down the beige-carpeted stairs before offering me some coffee and disappearing again.

The Teachings Of Guy Clark

Clark, 71, is sitting at a wooden table in a denim shirt and jeans, which are torn and shredded at the knees like a pair Kurt Cobain might have owned – lighter in color than his iconic ensemble from the cover of Old No. 1, but denim just the same. In front of him is a tin of tobacco, a lighter, an ashtray, small scissors, a bag of what seems to be some kind of generic brand of cheese snacks and lots of scraps. His palms are resting on a pad of graph paper, with a few paragraphs written neatly on it in pencil. He lifts his hands to roll a cigarette, something he’ll continue to do throughout the remainder of my time here, snipping off the ends and relighting each again when they burn out.

“Ask me anything you want,” Clark says. “If I know it, I’ll tell you. If I don’t, I won’t.” He laughs, a hearty chuckle that is at once boyish and weathered; a laugh to tolerate the years, roughed by smoking and singing and cancer; by death and life.

It’s been a difficult year for the native Texan, but at the same time it has been a fruitful one. He finished his new 11-track record, My Favorite Picture Of You, the title song of which is about his longtime wife, Susanna, who passed away in 2012. The photograph, the one that Clark is holding on the cover art and also sings about, is of her, young, arms-crossed, looking angry and beautiful all at once.

“It was pinned on that wall right there,” he says of the Polaroid, pointing to a small space to my right. There’s a gap there, a toothless smile – he’s not sure where the photo is now. “It was always my favorite picture of Susanna because she was so pissed at me and Townes [Van Zandt]. We were just being drunk assholes, and she’d had enough … from the minute I saw it I said, ‘Yep, that’s Susanna.’ She was livid.  It’s probably thirty years old.” He pauses to take a drag, a slow exhale. “But subsequently she died, so I don’t know if that made it better or worse,” he adds, laughing again, something he does frequently. He sighs frequently, too, deep ones that pull long and strong from his diaphragm and raise his chest up and down again, heavy and slow.

“Is this album a tribute to her?” I ask.

“Nah,” he says. “I just try to write the best songs I can, and they didn’t follow that theme. I never tried to write a thematic concept album. This one just happened uniquely, as much of them do.”

Watch Guy Clark Perform “My Favorite Picture Of You”

Like most of his work, the lyrics are a brilliant mix of imagery, prose and down-hard honesty. “The camera loves you / And so do I,” he sings, punctuating the last line with a spoken “click.” The production is bare, his voice softly matched to the cadence – it’s heart wrenching, really, mostly because it touches on truth, not manufactured moments or emotions. “I wrote the song about her while she was alive and I knew it was going to happen,” he says of her passing, and now he’s dreading having to relive those details in every upcoming interview. “That’s a lot of glue to unstick, you know. Forty years.” Still, he’d never think about removing the track from the record: good songs should be heard, shared.

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  • susan davidson

    I would pay a million dollars to just kick back and drink coffee with this guy. He is as original as any snowflake. A real story teller.

  • CrusaderAXE

    I first heard Guy Clark sing LA Freeway on Radio Eireann in Dublin City in October 1969. When I got back to the states, I immediately ordered his first two albums and have waited in total anticipation for the next one, and the next one and the next one. I’d let my guitar playing go in the early 2000s, and picked up a new old guitar right after my dad passed away because I wanted to play Desperadoes… we’re all just waiting for that train, but only some people can notice it and fewer still can articulate it.Guy Clark does…

  • Bing Omagicmama

    wow, I am so touched. Condolences to Guy on the passing of Susannah.

  • mike

    Texas Cookin’ was one of the best albums ever.


  • Stephen Pate

    Great article but it needs to punch up the front end. Not everybody, in fact, most people don’t have a clue who Guy Clark is. Lead with a story lead that says it all, including his top two biggest songs. Otherwise you will lose people. I vaguely know who his is but quit on page 2 to check him out on YouTube and Wikipedia.

  • Linda Howard

    I actually have had the pleasure but it was gin and tonic.

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  • W. Keith Moore

    I met him in the mid 90′s in Nashville. He was hanging out with Nanci Griffith who was listening to my band The Wineskins. I was working at a smoke shop and Guy walked in to by some Sweet Afton cigarettes. Living in Nashville you run in to “Stars”, big names, etc.. . It never was all that exciting to be honest. But the night Guy Clark walked in, the hair stood up on my arms. After we talked a moment about song writing and Texas, he asked me about me?!! I told him about my band, and he said, “Huh, I’ve been hanging out with Nanci, and she’s been listening to y’all. I like your music, Who writes the songs?” He is genuine, humble, and wise. He told me to keep doing it, keep being true, and don’t let Nashville ruin you. I will always be most thankful for that amazing gift.

  • Ray

    can you explain the “four years”?, I was under the impression Townes and Guy were always best friends?

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  • Gina Minson

    Seems like part of the charm is how folks were introduced to his music. Although I had heard others covers of his work, I was not into music enough at that time to delve further. A friend heard me singing “One Paper Kid” as a lullabye to my daughter and commented “I didn’t know you knew Guy Clark.” I picked the song up from Emmylou’s Quarter Moon album and had no idea what he was talking about, so he introduced me to Guy’s work. That led to two fools for each other spending the next 20 years sharing a passion for music and songwriters. The only time we were able to see Guy perform we drove 7 hours to Houston and even got to meet him. Worth every penny and mile! We were honored just to jam in one of the venues he had graced years before. When my partner passed 5 years ago we played “Homegrown Tomatoes” at the memorial and used some of his ashes to fertilize some of the finest, sweetest tomatoes I ever tasted. Thank you, Guy, for sharing your truths. Maybe you didn’t mean to save anyone but I feel certain you did and enriched many more lives.

  • Ken

    Good gracious if you don’t know who Guy Clark is, or only “vaguely” know him, you’re reading the wrong magazine. Come on down to Texas, I’ll buy the beer and make the playlist.

  • Val Shultz

    Val Shultz
    Ya got that right, Ken!

  • Stephen Pate

    None of my ex’s are from Texas so I’ll take you up on the educational session.

  • Drivingtheview

    ‘ain’t no money in poetry and that’s what sets the poet free…I’ve had all the freedom I can stand’. Guy Clark is as good as anyone has ever been. That’s a fact

  • Kate Whitaker

    double vodka tonics : ) I don”t think he was drinking last nov.

  • Martman

    Class Act Guy is…………..

  • Lynn Patton

    I’ve had that pleasure. It was a lot like sitting at the feet of a highly-revered elder of a secret tribe of geniuses.

  • Chris Bellamy

    I think the world of Guy Clark and his art! You are a genuine soul that links a lot of us together. I am just glad we’re on this planet at the same time!

  • Pete Cummins

    Guy Clark is a great man and artist and is loved over here in Ireland, I once had the honour of carrying Guy’s guitar from a gig in Dublin back to the Harcourt Hotel where he was staying. I wrote a song about the hotel called the Hardcore Hotel and I also wrote a song about Illegal immigrants from Mexico for a Fleadh Cowboys album so I’m looking forward to hearing Guy’s take on it.
    I’d carry Guy’s guitar any time, anywhere.

  • capt ardy

    Always a pinch of magic and a spoonful of truth in his lyrics.

  • jwludgate

    Wonderfully written piece and a touching tribute to “a prince amongst men” and maybe the finest singer songwriter who ever graced the planet.

  • Keith Jones

    A wonderful interview . I have seen Guy perform dozens of times in 5 or 6 states. I am sure he talked about his great friend and performing companion Verlon Thompson and would have liked to have seen another page with Guy’s views on their relationship. Verlon has to be the most self-effacing musical sidekick ever, and if you have seen Verlon perform solo, you know he is performing with Guy because he wants to , not because he has to.

  • larryxo

    Most of the comments are about Guy, and that’s appropriate. But let’s give a nod to Marissa, who gave us a warm and heartfelt portrait of the artist as an old man.

  • Darrell Allison

    Seen Guy several times and “Randall Knife” makes me break down every time. I’m 64 -not too far behind him. I have come to realize what it means to be a desperado waiting on a train.

  • Donny O

    Guy wrote some incredible songs, but “One Paper Kid” was not one of them. That was written by Walter Martin Cowart.

  • Gina Minson

    Yeah… I neglected to mention that. We just both were familiar with a different artist’s cover of the song which helped us to connect to one another and Guy’s music. But thank you for pointing that out. I wouldn’t want to miscredit anyone.

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