Guy Clark Interview

Guy Clark Interview

We offer a tribute to the late Guy Clark with a rebroadcast of our 2003 interview.

“Write stuff that scares you to the bone. The, “I don’t want anybody to know that about me”, that’s what you write about. Just jump in, make it as hard as you can. It’ll be so much better. Don’t make shit up. Tell me what happened to you when you were thirteen. It’s a struggle every day and it’s never the same twice. There aren’t any rules. All those things are probably why I like it.”

– Guy Clark

Guy Clark: Nov 6, 1941 – May 17, 2016

I first met Guy Clark in the early 1990s when I was making my living as a guitar maker. I went to show my wares when he was touring with Townes Van Zandt at Godfrey Daniels Folk Club in Bethlehem, PA. Apparently impressed with my work as a luthier, he invited me to visit his shop next time I was in Nashville. We visited several times over the next few years talking shop and sharing tricks of the trade. He was gracious, welcoming, and I’m proud to have been able to call him a friend.

When Viv and I decided to start Art of the Song 12 years ago, Guy was one of the first songwriters we approached about an interview. We traveled to Nashville and were all set up to do several interviews in our hotel room at Shoney’s. About 15 minutes before the scheduled time, Guy called and said, “I just wanted to be sure you knew how to get to my house.” To which Viv said, “We’re all set up with the recording equipment here in our hotel room… can you come over here?” Guy then said, “I’m not sure that would be a good idea, I just smoked a fatty.” We told him no worries, we’d be over in a few minutes. We quickly tore down the microphones and recording equipment and dashed over to his house, albeit a few minutes late. He invited us into the guitar shop in the basement of his home where we had a relaxed and inspiring conversation. – John Dillon

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John: We’re here in the Guitar Shop studio of Guy Clark here in Nashville and it’s a great pleasure to be here. Thank you for having us Guy.

Guy: Thank you so much John for being here. I’m just proud that you are here.

John: I understand that you grew up in Monahans, Texas, which we had the pleasure of driving past the exit on I-10 not too long ago. There’s nothing out there but mesquite and sagebrush, and…

Guy: Oil wells.

John: How did growing up in that sort of environment affect you as a songwriter?

Guy: I don’t know exactly how, but it was nothing but good because it’s so austere and I think it’s really beautiful. Monahans is kind of hard to get behind but West Texas is really pretty, and it really is flat there. Joe Ely or Butch Hancock, Joe, I heard it from Joe because he’s from out there, right around Lubbock and he said, “It’s so flat you can stand out there and turn in circle and see fifty miles anywhere you look. If you stand on a tuna fish can you can see a hundred.”

John: That’s a good way to put it.

Guy: I think that it certainly had some sort of effect the way I write because it takes a certain breed of people to live in that environment. I was born in 1941 and my grandmother and father lived out there during the depression in Monahans, Texas. She was running a hotel and bootlegging whiskey. That early environment, I’ve been able to draw just this wealth of stuff, some of which is extremely accurate and some of which has got a sort of poetic/theatrical license to it. It’s all pretty much real.

John: What are some of your early musical influences?

Guy: Neither of my parents played anything. Didn’t even have a record player till I got in high school and started getting records. At one point, I was about sixteen and my father took on a new young law partner right out of school. Her name was Lola Bonner and she played Mexican songs and was a fan of really good flamenco music and mariachi music and that style of guitar. So that was my first intro to it. Probably for the first year I didn’t know any songs in English, it was all Mexican songs, which has completely gone away from my life. Anyway, that’s how I got started and then realized I wasn’t going to be Sabicas and I really didn’t speak Spanish that good so got into traditional folk music and was involved in that until I started writing songs.

John: When did you write your first song?

Guy: I can’t remember the year I wrote the song, but it was ’65-’66, somewhere in there. I don’t know the exact. It’s in Houston. It’s that song Lyle did “Step Inside This House” and I’ve forgotten. Worked straight jobs and did that and then finally quit and went to try to make a serious go of it in ’70, something like that. Moved to California and subsequently moved here.

John: Did you do a lot of writing in California?

Guy: Yeah, evidently. Well, I wrote the first song I kept in California. It was “That Old Time Feeling”. That’s when I knew I could write songs. 

John: What about L.A. Freeway?

Guy: Actually I wrote down the thing from L.A. Freeway, I wrote it in the back of a car when I just looked up and said, “Man if I could just get off this L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught.” Lightbulb goes off, Susanna’s eyebrow pencil and a burger sack. Write it down and carry it in my wallet until after I got to Nashville and I was writing and ran across it.

Viv: I have to take this moment to thank you actually, from the bottom of my heart, for using the world “oxymoron” in a folk song. John had to pull the car over when we hear “Arizona Star” and that line jumped out, “She makes real an oxymoron” and I was like, “Who is this guy?!” 

Guy: Who is this girl? More to the point. That’s a very true song. As true as I could remember it. I had subsequently saw her in London. She came to the show. My guitar player’s girlfriend is the news anchor Channel 4 here and she makes documentaries, Demetria Kalodimos. She was so taken with that song she had no idea what it was about or who it was about but started looking for her and researching it and making a documentary and talking to people who knew her, because it was really outrageous street theater. It was pretty tame for some reason. I was an observer. Neither one of these George or Arizona Star remember me, and would have no reason to because I had just come to Nashville but I watched this scene and it was just the damndest thing I ever seen, and I’ve been to Fort Worth and two goat ropings. It was out there. 

Viv: When I listen to your songs, some of them are based from the character view, just ten seconds in a woman’s life to a broad stroke painting, like “Arizona Star” of the whole big picture. Then, in “The Dark”, you have a song that’s written from the perspective of the lover of this fiddle player. It’s a very theatrical experience for me to listen to your music.

Guy: I grew up reading really good poetry and I was always, just as a young person, soaking up stuff, man. Guys like Dylan Thomas, Stephen Vincent Benet, and of course Robert Service. I don’t know when the last time you read those Yukon poems of his was, but you need to go back. There’s so much going on, the inner rhymes, and it all is just flawless. There’s no “oh baby” for two lines, but it may not come out right. It’s amazing stuff. But anyway, it’s different every time.

John: Viv mentioned character studies that you do and I’m assuming that some are more real than others. Some are fictional.

Guy: That’s what I was saying before, I try to start with some semblance of the truth or something. I saw something I did, something somebody told me they did. There aren’t any real rules, but that’s just what I enjoy writing about in different voices like you were saying–whether it’s putting yourself in the girl’s head and she ain’t going nowhere. I don’t know where that came from, I wrote that song in forty-five minutes. It was just channeled through me. What that song does is what I always try to do in writing. It paints a picture for you, but it allows the listener to imagine that that they know that song is about them, not about them, but they can use their imagination and have that picture be in any color they want.

Guy: I like it in the first person, I like it in the second person, I like in the third person, I like it once-removed. I just like the nuts and bolts of writing and all of those things appeal to me. I’m still trying to figure what to leave out. Like good guitar players, it ain’t what they play, it’s the holes they leave. 

Viv: It’s what’s between the notes.

Guy: That’s right, and a lot of that applies to writing lyrics. To me, it does. It’s way too oblique for a lot of people.

Viv: If you were to offer any kind of wisdom to people who are hoping to bring more creativity to their lives….

Guy: Write stuff that scares you to the bone. The, “I don’t want anybody to know that about me”, that’s what you write about. Just jump in, make it as hard as you can. It’ll be so much better. Don’t make shit up. Tell me what happened to you when you were thirteen. It’s a struggle every day and it’s never the same twice. There aren’t any rules. All those things are probably why I like it.

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John: Let’s talk a little bit about inspiration. Do you sit down to write a song or does the idea hit you whenever? 

Guy: Different every time. That story I told you about L.A. freeway writing it down like that, that’s when I learned don’t ever think that you will remember something, some idea, some hot thing. “Wow, that’s so cool. I’ll never forget that!” If you don’t write it down right then, you will forget it because it’s out of context. That’s the one discipline I really employ. After that, it’s anybody’s guess. You wind up with a stack of bar napkins at the end of the day. Go back through it and see if anything makes any sense to you. That’s the way I do it. Sometimes it starts with a guitar lick, not as often. I’ve written whole songs and never picked up the guitar. Just because it’s the words mainly for me. Then, sometimes, the music comes first. Sometimes they happen at the same time. Most times they don’t happen. It’s hard work.

Viv: We’ve had a lot of people say they use other activities sometimes if they’re getting into a spot where they can’t write anymore or they get stuck. They’ll go for a drive in their truck.

Guy: This is the example of that. What I do: I sit here and look out a window and stare at a wall and try to make something up. And, in the same room, I can get up and walk over here and do this really nice hand art. It’s right-brain/left-brain, yin/yang–they feed off of one another. Before I started building guitars, I had a dartboard for a long time because that’s the same thing as this mindless thing of just standing there and throwing darts, which frees the other side up. Building guitars does the same thing. As does playing golf, it’s just hard to get out there and do it and then come back and sit down and write. It’s anything that uses that side of your brain. I built my layer, just to have a table where I spin around and work on and pick up my guitar and try to noodle something out. That’s the only thing I do consistently. It’s like, who was it, one of those great writers like Steinbeck or someone, he said, “I write in long-hand, with a pencil, No. 2 pencil on a yellow legal pad. The only bias I have is when you’re on fire about writing, man, it’s coming out so fast you can’t get it down. It’s like ‘wow!’ and you get to the end of a chorus or chapter and stop. Don’t keep going. So that, when you wake up in the morning, you can’t wait to get back to it. Rather than working yourself into a stupor and hitting brick walls.” He said that was a discipline that he learned to employ was “Quit when you’re on fire. If you feel yourself getting stuck. Stop. Get a drink. Go do something.”

Viv: That’s amazing, because most times you feel that you have to keep going because the muse is with you right now.

Guy: You have to be able to recognize when the muse leaves the room.

Viv: The chapter’s ended. She’s gone.

John: You wrote a song called “Boats to Build”. Were you really a boat builder?

Guy: In junior high and high school we lived down on the Texas coast in Rockport, Texas, about thirty miles north of Corpus Christi. It started in high school, my summer job was working in the shipyard, which built big wooden 80-foot shrimp boats. The last guys that built wooden work boats, because it was already turning into welded steel. So I got to be a carpenter’s helper with these guys who were building boats and they weren’t building pretty boats. They were building work boats. It just floored me, still. It was one of those life-changing experiences I ever saw just because, “Look at what that guy did, man!” Building boats is all square with the world. There’s no straight line on one, but everything has to be square with the world. I don’t know, it made a giant impression on me and still does. I still think about it. Richard Lee is a friend of ours and he’s a songwriter. Wrote “Don’t it make My Brown Eyes Blue” and he has this beautiful little hand-made wooden sloop gaff rig sloop. It’s called a friendship sloop from Maine he had built and brought down. Anyway, he’s a sailor. Well, Richard’s wife one year, for his birthday, gave him two weeks at the wooden boat-building school in Maine and Richard was gone and Verlon Thompson and I were going, “Man, I wonder how old Richard’s doing. God, I hope he’s having a good time. Let’s write him a song.” Then that’s how that came about. Then all that experience of mine came into that. Damn should people know what a fair curve is. That was just a culmination of stuff that falls together.

John: One other question about songwriting. Co-writing, working by yourself, do you have a preference?

Guy: Lately I’ve been co-writing mostly, just because I got tired of writing by myself. I really enjoy the interplay. It’s one thing to sit here and write brilliant songs on a piece of paper and just kind of mumble them to yourself, but when I have to say the words out loud to you, have an idea, write it down, say something out loud, then you cut to the chase a little bit. If it’s really stupid, you know it right away, you can’t fool yourself by just looking at it on paper and going, “Idiot! Maybe that works.” When you say it out loud, then it’s committed. So I enjoy that part of songwriting, which is not to say that writing by yourself isn’t the purest form of it, of course, I just don’t have that chip on my shoulder about it anymore. I used to. I wouldn’t write with anybody. But, you know, who cares.

Viv: Guy, thank you so much. We really appreciate your time.

Guy: Like I said, this is first time I’ve had a chance to sit down, relax all day. And thank y’all for coming by.

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