wed 27/08/2014

theartsdesk in Nashville: Writing a Song With Guy Clark | New music reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Nashville: Writing a Song With Guy Clark

Composing and drinking with Nashville's finest songwriter

The songwriter's songwriter at home in Nashville

Nashville is much more than the Grand Ol’ Opry, big hairdos and rhinestones, and I was looking for something beyond the occasionally enjoyable kitsch. I was failing to make much sense of the place and fell back on a technique which I’ve often found produces results when somewhere unfamiliar – ask the musicians themselves who they most respect. One name kept coming up – Guy Clark, who it became obvious was a city legend, a songwriters’ songwriter.  I turned up at Clark’s house at 11 in the morning, and he offered me a drink from an already open bottle of Bourbon.  I asked him for an interview. His response: “Fuck that, man – let’s write a song.” So we did.

We went downstairs to his studio and he showed me his collection of guitars - “flamenco negros, with rosewood back and sides”, which he makes himself. He told me that he didn’t really consider himself a country artist, being just as influenced by bluegrass, Mexican music and the blues, as well as poets like Dylan Thomas.

Clark played me tapes of some recent songs. The theme seemed to be wistful songs about women of a certain age, like “Arizona Star” who was a “pre-Madonna primadonna”, “shinin’ like a diamond she had tombstones in her eyes”. Another whose dancing days are over “but she’s still got a couple of two-steps she ain’t shown no one” and who “loves to ride horses in three-quarter time”, and a tender song "Magnolia Wind": “I’d rather not hear pretty music again, if I can’t hear your fiddle on a magnolia wind.”

At least 50 artists have covered Clark’s songs – from Lyle Lovett and Rita Coolidge to the Everly Brothers and Ricky Scaggs, who had a country Number One with his song “Heartbroke”. Rodney Crowell had another with “She’s Crazy For Leavin'”. Clark’s friend, the late Johnny Cash, covered five of his songs, notably “Texas 1947”. For Emmylou Harris, Clark is a “true poet and a great American writer”. Esquire magazine called him “the finest songwriter in the history of Texas” (Clark was born in West Texas in 1941).

But from Clark’s first album Old No 1 (1975), now considered a classic, it’s his own performances of his songs that the Nashville insiders rave about. Solo albums with highly crafted songs trickle out every two or three years, none of them troubling the charts. “The record companies don’t seem to know what to do with me – and I don’t want to be a star, anyway,” he says.

One song on each of Clark’s albums is by the songwriter many consider to be Clark’s only Texan peer: Thomas Van Zandt, who died in 1997. “He was my best friend for 30 years, my sounding board for all my songs.” His last album Somedays the Song Writes You featured van Zandt’s classic, “If I Needed You”. He told me that he had been troubled by writer’s block. One way out was to co-write, and most of the songs on his recent albums have been collaborations - one highlight being “Eamon”, the saga of an old sea-farer who comes back to dry land to die, which he co-wrote with fellow Nashville renegade Crowell.

A couple of drinks later, Clark was wondering how best to start the song we were going to write. An idea occurred to him – had I been anywhere really interesting lately?

As it happened, I'd been on a trip to the edge of the Sahara on the Mauritanian border where I’d spent some time with some Sufi mystics. This would be the subject of the song, he announced. We came up with the first few lines (you have to imagine Clark’s deep Southern voice, marinated by decades of liquor). “So I found myself in Africa/ Under the desert skies/ And I heard a voice calling the faithful.”

The scene was set, but then Clark came up with a line that I thought had a touch of genius and made the song darker: “But I did not hear my name.” We imagined a lead character, clad in designer clothes - “Got my shoes handmade in Milan” (an effective internal rhyme, I thought), but again Clark added a telling detail - “They got holes in ‘em” - which suggested this character unravelling in a strange environment.

A few chords, a chorus and six hours later we had a song, with the attention to detail Clark puts into crafting his guitars. Exhausting business, this songwriting, especially as the Bourbon was finished off, and I made it back to my hotel and slept for about 12 hours. He did suggest I drop in sometime and we could try another song or two. Any time, Guy. The problem, he said, was that “the more I do this the harder it gets and the less I know”. Clark has reportedly not been in the best of health recently, but he's still touring and when I last spoke to him on the phone he said he was "just keepin' on keepin' on", as ever.

Somedays the Song Writes You on Amazon

Guy Clark tour dates

Watch Guy Clark and Verlon Thomson playing "The Guitar" from his latest album in Austin, Texas:

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The more I do this the harder it gets and the less I know

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