Guy Clark writes songs with precision and lots of heart

 http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/headline/entertainment/4909792.html

By ANDREW DANSBY

Guy Clark fills a doorway like John Wayne. Tall and big-shouldered, he leans against the jamb in the front of his room at the Hotel San José in Austin, seemingly running the door’s length from his shock of gray-and-white hair to his well-worn boots.

He takes a drag on a hand-rolled cigarette and croakily whispers, “Come
on in.”

Inside there are an old Martin guitar and a small suitcase and not much else. Sitting at a simple table, Clark talks about making songs and guitars, his chief creative pursuits for the past 40 years. In between, he rolls more smokes with the kind of precision that he applies to those songs. His fingernails are milky white, from the quick to the tip, and his long fingers create clean rolls. He then snips the ends off, dusts away any fallout.

It’s practiced and precise and full of attention to detail.

Clark’s latest album is called Workbench Songs, which is a title that could easily have applied to any of his recordings. The term “craftsman” gets applied a lot, so much that it became the title of a compilation.

But Clark, 65, might have best summarized himself, inadvertently, with a phrase from his best-known song, Desperados Waiting on a Train. In the tale of friendship between a kid and an old wildcatter, Clark
refers to the older character as “an old-school man of the world.”

Born in Monahans, Clark lived some before the release of Old No. 1, his 1974 debut album and song-for-song one of the great recordings in popular music, never mind the country, folk, Texas music or other genres it gets lumped with.

He was 34 when it was released, a full decade after he’d been playing “to few people and very little money” in Houston clubs.

By that time, he’d left a job as art director at Channel 11 and moved to Los Angeles, only to get sick of that town (listen to his song L.A. Freeway) and settle in Nashville, Tenn., where he’s been ever since. But he gets around, and his music reflects that. Just see the pained, globe-trotting Dublin Blues.

Songwriters clique

Clips from the documentary Heartworn Highways position Clark as something of a father figure on the Nashville scene. He had a wife and a home, which made him the grown-up in a clique that included Townes Van Zandt, his best friend and peer, along with up-and-comers like Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell.

He hasn’t moved much since then. Every three to five years, he’ll release a new set of 10 to 12 songs, then go on tour, which brings him to the Crighton Theater in Conroe for a sold-out show on Saturday. But Clark seems happier at home.

The title of Workbench Songs reflects that. He says the originals on the record were all written in the area of his home, where he builds Spanish-style guitars.

“It’s kind of a dream come true to be able to have a room where you write songs and build guitars,” Clark says. “If you get stuck writing songs, you just get up and work on a guitar. It’s a right-brain/left-brain thing.

“Writing is so cerebral. But then four steps away you have this real hand/eye-type stuff. They sort of feed off of one another.”

Clark downplays his process, despite its consistency.

“However long it takes is however long it takes,” he says. “They’re just songs. It’s not brain surgery.”

Many of his songs – Desperados and Texas 1947, for example – are based on vivid childhood memories.

“Most successful songs, they’re all based on stuff I know about. They have to ring true.”

Life and death

Clark will field any question about craft. He likes trying different things, which explains the mix of story songs (like Texas 1947), surreal songs (Picasso’s Mandolin, Cold Dog Soup), contemplative songs (Randall Knife, The Dark), food songs (Homegrown Tomatoes) and love songs (Anyhow I Love You).

He’s more guarded about his health. He was diagnosed with lymphoma more than a year ago.

Are you feeling better these days?

“Yeah.”

So the cancer is in remission?

“Mmm, I can’t really imagine why people would be interested in that.”

You don’t think people are concerned about your health?

“Well,” Clark says. He pauses to blow a cloud of cigarette smoke. “(Expletive) ’em. I ain’t.”

Clark can be funny when talking about death. He played at Van Zandt’s funeral, quipping at the time that he’d booked that gig “30 years ago.”

But in talking about his work, he shows a twinge of vulnerability. Just a twinge.

“It’s a crapshoot every morning,” he says. “Can I do this again?

“But it’s good work. You can’t beat it.”

Brought to you by the HoustonChronicle.com

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