Americana Music Comes to Town
Guy teamed up with producer/engineer Miles Wilkinson again for 1992’s Boats to Build after being courted by Kyle Lehning, who had been hired to manage the Nashville office for the revamped Asylum Records label. Lehning released Boats to Build as part of the American Explorers series in partnership with Elektra/Nonesuch.
“I remember it being kind of exciting,” Guy says. “I was certainly pleased to work with Kyle because he was producing Randy Travis, and I liked the records that he made with him.”
At the time, many artists played on mainstream country radio were selling hundreds of thousands of albums. Progressive artists didn’t typically show those kinds of numbers, then or now. But there existed a few faithful executives who believed things could be different.
“The original reason that we started Asylum was to do a boutiquey, leftof-center country label, which lasted about a year and a half before I just about had a nervous breakdown and we had to shift gears,” Lehning says. “Guy was part of that first year and a half. This was right on the heels of Alison Krauss’s success; it was post-O’Kanes and Foster and Lloyd, and Alison was making noise. It almost seemed possible. Today it sounds completely ludicrous to think that we might try to take a chance, but at the time there was this woody, acoustic kind of thing floating around. There was a vibe in the air where it seemed possible we could sell a lot of records on these left-of-center artists.”
For Boats to Build, Guy wrote two songs by himself: “Madonna w/Child ca. 1969” and “Must Be My Baby.” But it is the cowritten songs that really stand out on the album. Guy reunited with Richard Leigh, with whom he wrote “Ramblin’ Jack and Mahan,” to write “I Don’t Love You Much Do I.” He’s joined by Emmylou Harris on the track. He wrote “How’d You Get This Number” with Susanna, “Too Much” with Lee Roy Parnell, “Jack of All Trades” with Rodney Crowell, and the title track with Verlon Thompson. The latter song became a fixture in his live shows, along with its backstory. Of course, Guy couldn’t help but be influenced by his own boatbuilding experience in Rockport, but he and Thompson wrote “Boats to Build” as an homage to their friend Richard Leigh, who loved to sail. Guy sometimes sailed with Leigh on Old Hickory Lake. Knowing how much he loved boats, Leigh’s wife presented him with the gift of a boatbuilding class at a school in Maine. The story Guy tells on stage is that Richard’s wife left him when he returned from boatbuilding school, but “Richard ended up with a nice boat, and Verlon and I wrote a good song.”
Guy wrote “Baton Rouge” with J. C. Crowley, a member of the 1970s rock band Player, which scored a number hit with 1978’s “Baby Come Back.” When recording “Baton Rouge,” Wilkinson envisioned a New Orleans style Dixieland jazz feel. “Guy was reluctant at first but let me try it anyway,” Wilkinson said. “It would not be right to have trumpet, slide trombone, and clarinet in the song, which is what I heard in my head, so we gathered Sam Bush on mandolin, Jerry Douglas on slide Dobro, and Stuart Duncan on fiddle. I told these guys that I wanted them to think and play like a Dixieland band—Jerry was to think like a trombone player since he was playing the slide instrument, Sam was to think like a clarinet, and the fiddle player like a trumpet. Then I let them work it out by themselves. And they did it, masterfully. Guy loved it. We ended up opening the Boats to Build album with that cut.”
To promote the record, Asylum produced an eight-and-a-half-minute video salute to Guy, with testimonials from artists including Townes, Crowell, Emmylou, Kathy Mattea, Vince Gill, Radney Foster, Lee Roy Parnell, and Hal Ketchum. Harris, Foster, Parnell and Crowell all appear on the album.
“We wanted to present him in the proper light with his peers and with people that understood what he was about,” Lehning says. “You have to understand that I’d never run a record company. To say I didn’t know what I was doing is the understatement of the century. We were just stumbling in the dark, trying to do the best we could. With Guy, you have to go that route. You have to do an EPK [electronic press kit] in lieu of some flashy tour, in lieu of radio, in lieu of sales, in lieu of everything else, what do you have? You have these great accolades. You have peers. What a dynamic presence Guy is. Let’s get it out there.”
The Asylum staff had plenty of experience promoting mainstream country artists, and they used those tools to try to get Guy’s record heard by members of the music press and radio. At Country Radio Seminar, a conference for radio programmers and music directors, Guy performed in a hotel suite to introduce his album. During Fan Fair, a music festival for country fans, Guy performed on the Asylum stage and did interviews with country music press.
“I got him to do the interviews when he came off the stage by standing there with two solo cups full of beer,” former Asylum publicist Wendy Pearl says.
I handed him one, and I told him he’d get the other one when he was finished with his interviews. It was like the carrot in front of a horse’s nose. He rolled his eyes at me and said, “You know me!” I told him I’d make this as painless as possible, but [he’d need] to do his part of it, and so he did. He was kind of reluctant but also accepted the game that he had to play at the time and what he needed to do. And he was always kind. I always just assumed that somebody with that kind of talent, people who live on a different plane, don’t often see the people who are down here on this plane. He connected with people. It could be the janitor, and he would treat the janitor the same way he would treat the talent producer, the booker. It did not matter to him. In fact, I think he preferred the janitor because those were the people that he really, really connected with. Guy was also incredibly generous. I don’t think people realize how generous he really is, because he is so stoic. People don’t think of stoic people as having that kind of magnanimous personality. When Guy needed to show up to work, he would show up. When he agreed to do it, he was going to be there and be committed. He was also so stubborn, and it’s the quality I respect about him the most. That he was totally 100 percent aware of who he was and what he was going to do and how he was going to do it. As a publicist, I would ask him if he could just make this one exception. Things that I thought were fantastic opportunities that he would say no to, and I had no recourse whatsoever. If it was against his personal feelings or if he said no, it meant no. All the arguing, all of the positioning, all of the begging I was going to do was not going to change that.
"He connected with people. It could be the janitor, and he would treat the janitor the same way he would treat the talent producer, the booker. It did not matter to him." - Wendy Pearl
Lehning hired veteran promotion executive Steven Sharp to garner radio interest in Boats to Build. Sharp had worked with mainstream artists and radio stations at the Arista label. It was his idea to take Guy out to meet radio programmers. “Guy didn’t like Steven at all, but he was a great promotion guy,” Lehning says. “Steven could walk in a door and make you pay attention to whatever it was he brought in there. All I can say is, he did his job. We had this little radio tour planned up the West Coast, San Francisco. I think we went from San Francisco all the way down to Santa Barbara at some places. He had this campfire thing going where he’d invite radio people out to this little camp area. It was a little lodge, everything like that. I don’t know how he figured it out or what he did, but he did. Guy would sit around this campfire and play a couple tunes.”
As they did with Old No. 1 and Old Friends, music critics loved Boats to Build. Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Robert Hilburn said: “As much as any album since John Prine’s The Missing Years in 1991, Clark’s latest collection, the character-rich Boats to Build seems wholly an expression of artistic instincts rather than commercial considerations.” Tower Pulse called him “more Beat poet than balladeer,” and All Music called the album “an ambitious, soulful, and state-of-the-art batch of songs.”
Travis Clark, Guy’s son, then twenty-five, played bass on Boats to Build, and Guy thought it would be a great opportunity to take Travis out on the road to play live. “Travis is a great bass player,” he says. “He reads Count Basie charts. He’s a really well-schooled bass player. And I thought it would be cool. Get Travis to play; be my bass player. We could do it just with the two of us. He can sing and he can play. That’s quite a big step for him as far as being able to make money playing music. We played together really good. We sang together well.”
It also gave father and son a chance to get to know each other better. “I’ve always been proud of who he is, but I never really knew him,” Travis says. “We hadn’t spent a whole lot of time together, maybe a week at Christmas or maybe two weeks. When we went on the road, we spent a lot of time together. That was a good thing to get to know him.”
It also gave the younger Clark a chance to witness his father in all his complexity. Producer Dub Cornett put together a run of shows in Colorado for Guy with Travis as his accompaniment. Rosie Flores and Steve Young were also on the bill. “There was this gal June McHugh and she’d been an oil and gas heiress out in Colorado. She was a fan of the music, and she wanted to put them out on tour and do this thing,” Cornett says. “She has a great heart. You can just tell she watched the music business, not knowing the mechanics but wanting to throw money at it. It was misguided as all get-out. I produced the damn thing, put it all together, and somehow ended up being the den mother. It was an ill-fated tour of the state of Colorado. A snowstorm hit, and we drove from Aspen in a blizzard back over to Breckenridge. I’ve never seen Guy so pissed in his life. He was actually scared. I think everybody was scared. I know I was.”
“We were driving after the show to this little place that somebody in June’s family owned,” Rosie Flores says.
It was up in the mountains, and that late-night drive was really, really, really scary. The roads were really thin, really slender, and we were way up high. We can’t see where we were going. I remember Dub whiteknuckling the seats. Dub was sweating. Guy was cussing. Steve was really quiet, and I kept trying to do small talk to get everybody’s mind off the fact that we might drive off the cliff and die any second.
Finally, Guy just said, “Let me out of the fucking car. You’ve got to get me a hotel. I want a hotel now.” He thought if we didn’t get out, we weren’t going to make it. I got that feeling from him. There was a little town, and there was a motel, and I almost got out with him. Then I thought, “Nah, I guess I’ll stick it out with you guys.” We dropped Guy off. I remember looking out the window, and Guy was just flipping the bird at us while we were leaving. He’s the only one that got out. Travis stayed with us.
One date was scheduled at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, Colorado, but somehow ended up at a local high school.
“Only fifteen fans showed up. Guy proceeded to get as drunk as he could ever get,” Cornett says. “He was having a little problem with altitude, and we got him an oxygen tank. Guy comes rolling out on the stage of this high school with oxygen going in his nose, a cigarette in his mouth, his guitar sitting in a shopping cart that he’d found, and a fifth of Jack or Jim Beam, whatever he was drinking at the time. He was drunk as hell and . . . pissed because nobody’s there. Then he just started to own the room in the way he does and the few people there were served with a classic, incredible show.”
“Everybody just had this attitude. We were just upset with the promoters because the gigs were not very good,” Flores says. “In the backstage [area] of the high school were all these props. There was this . . . pink Barbie Corvette little car. I remember I sat in it with my guitar and my boots over it. Travis pushed me out on the stage in it. We were using the props. Guy put his guitar in a shopping cart, like a grocery store, and wheeled his guitar out onto the stage. We were all just a little nutty by that point.”
Around the same time, Cornett produced a run of shows with Guy, Townes, Steve Earle, and Lucinda Williams. “We played Greenville, South Carolina. We did Raleigh/Durham, Chapel Hill, Knoxville, Atlanta. At the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta they had a full house, and it was really incredibly well received,” Cornett says.
It was the first sellout big crowd that we had. Atlanta was the show that Lucinda refused to go on because Guy made fun of her or something. He was drunk, being Guy. He didn’t bother me. I matched quarters with him and would win his money and go, “What’s the matter, old man? Can’t you take it?” I’d mess with him. You’d put two quarters in your hand. It’d be heads or tails. We’d start betting … Guy’d get real cocky about it, and Townes was happier to lose. Guy saw it as gambling. Townes was just as happy being a loser as he was a winner. Guy really cared whether you beat him or not. I’d get a couple up on Guy, and he’d be mad. He’d walk around stoked up about it, like, “Come on, let’s go.” He wasn’t interested in coke; he wasn’t interested in nothing. He wanted to win that money back. Once you get him down, then you pick on him, get under his skin. He was so Texan he had to be the winner. Travis looking at me going, “Quit, please.” You could get Guy on the ropes, and he’d lose everything he had to get back on top.
"Townes was just as happy being a loser as he was a winner. Guy really cared whether you beat him or not." - Dub Cornett
Travis accompanied Guy on some radio station visits that Travis calls painful. “It wasn’t really his gig. Not a good fit,” Travis says. “Once somebody met us at an airport. She might’ve worked for Asylum. She said, ‘How did such and such go?’ I made some terrible smartass comment about the radio station not getting it. It was uncalled for, and my dad jumped down my throat later. ‘Don’t you ever say anything like that again.’ He’s right. Even if he’s thinking it, he’s much more gracious than I am.”
In Seattle, Sharp set up a dinner with a big country station. “We didn’t think it was ludicrous to think they might play something from the album,” Lehning says. “These guys that ran these radio stations and their wives are sitting around this big table in the middle of this nice restaurant in the hotel. People were ordering wine. Guy comes down, and I say, ‘I’d like to introduce you to Guy Clark.’ He goes around the table and says hello to everyone. As he starts to sit down, Guy says, ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’ One of the women says, ‘Well, as a matter of fact, yes, I do.’ Guy says, ‘Well, then, fuck y’all.’ He just walked over to this table in the corner by himself and sat at this little two-top and lit up a cigarette. He never came back. I just said, ‘Well, this is the Guy Clark experience. I hope you consider playing some of his music.’”
At the time, Cyndi Hoelzle was the country editor for radio-industry trade magazine Gavin Report, based in San Francisco. Gavin’s charts were used as a guide for radio programmers to decide what songs to play. The publication also hosted the Gavin Seminar, a convention for the radio industry.
“Kyle Lehning had an ally with us at Gavin. We loved Guy Clark,” Hoelzle says. “I remember that radio tour. You could tell Guy was not into it. We went out to dinner at some really nice restaurant in San Francisco. I sat across from Guy. He’s totally pissed during dinner, just grouchy. After dinner was over, he says, ‘Let’s go out. Come on. Let’s go do something.’ Everybody said they had to go home. He looks at me and says ‘You, c’mon, what is there to do? Let’s go hear some music.’ I couldn’t go out. My brother had just gotten into town that night. I still regret not going out with Guy.”
Along with Guy’s California radio friend Rob Bleetstein, Hoelzle played a major role in developing the Americana Music Chart at Gavin. It would be the precursor to the Americana Music Association and play a significant role in raising the profiles of Guy and other artists like him. There seemed to be hope for a new format. In Nashville, progressive country artists Kevin Welch, Kieran Kane, Mike Henderson, Tammy Rogers, and Harry Stinson had launched Dead Reckoning Records, an indie label to release their own records so they would not be at the mercy of upheavals at a major label. Around the same time, musicians Alison Brown and Garry West started the roots label Compass Records, specializing in bluegrass and newgrass. Bloodshot Records opened in Chicago, championing what they call “the good stuff nestled in the dark, nebulous cracks where punk, country, soul, pop, bluegrass, blues and rock mix and mingle and mutate.” In North Carolina, Barry Poss’s Sugar Hill Records continued to sign interesting folk and bluegrass artists and singer-songwriters including Townes Van Zandt, Peter Rowan, New Grass Revival, and Jesse Winchester. In Austin, partners Robert Earl Keen, Waterloo Record Store owner John Kunz, and Heinz Geissler started Watermelon Records (named after Guy Clark’s song “Watermelon Dream”) and had released critically acclaimed work by Alejandro Escovedo, the Austin Lounge Lizards, the Derailers, Tish Hinojosa, and others.
In the summer of 1994, Bleetstein and Hoelzle attended a party with some of the Gavin staff. Bleetstein had just returned to California from Austin after working for Keen for a year. Inspired by talk at the party, Bleetstein went home that night and began to outline a pitch to create a new chart for the Gavin Report. “I sat down at my computer and thought about what needed to happen,” Bleetstein says.
I made a list of all these artists who couldn’t break at Triple A [Adult Album Alternative] or on the country charts. There was no room for Junior Brown; there was no room for Emmy. Johnny Cash had been dropped. Radio wouldn’t play Waylon and Willie anymore. I thought back to KFAT. It was bluegrass, it was folk, it was hardcore country, it was alternative country, and you just had to know how to make it work together. So I go in to Gavin with this pitch. “Here’s this list of artists. They tour successfully, the press loves them, they sell records, and they have fan bases. Radio is the black sheep in this family. You have two formats, in country and Triple A, that won’t give an inch. We needed to create a new format.” Of course, Guy is the fucking Mount Rushmore of it all.
“There was a group of us in the country industry who loved stuff that wasn’t fitting in anymore,” Hoelzle says.
When I first started at Gavin it was right during the Great Credibility Scare. We had Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle, Foster and Lloyd, and the O’Kanes. There was a group of people in Nashville who loved that music, too. After the Class of 1986, and then Garth Brooks comes in, those artists aren’t being played at all. There’s no place for them, but there’s still a lot of people who love that kind of music. On the Gavin country chart, we did have a lot of smaller-market stations that were still playing good music. Rob had this idea to try to stitch all those together. He came in and pitched it to me. We pitched it to Kent Zimmerman, who was the Triple A editor at the time. His chart would accept some singer-songwriters. They played Shawn Colvin, but they’re not going to play Robert Earl Keen or Jim Lauderdale because they are too twangy. They played Lyle Lovett because he was hip, but if it was too country, Triple A stations just didn’t want anything to do with it. There was that gap there.
The Gavin Report hired Bleetstein, but the new radio format did not yet have a name. Gavin put together a casual think tank with industry insiders who loved the music and understood the potential. Jon Grimson worked at Warner Brothers in the progressive music department, managing radio promotion for artists including Iris Dement, Uncle Tupelo, and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, among others. It was his job to find radio stations to play those artists before there was a radio format for them. “You take a group like the Flecktones,” Grimson says. “Every format pointed to the other format to say, ‘Well, they belong over there.’ The jazz stations wouldn’t take them and the bluegrass guys wouldn’t take them. Jazz guys said, ‘Well, that sounds like bluegrass to me.’ Bluegrass said ‘That sounds like jazz to me.’ I interfaced with all the rock regionals all around the country, but it was always this no-man’s-land for these artists out of Nashville who were not mainstream country.”
After talking with Gavin management about their plans to start a new chart, Grimson left his job at Warner to start his own radio promotion company—specifically to promote this new genre of artists to radio. Grimson came up with the name “Americana” to describe the music. “I’ve never been one to try and lay any kind of wild giant claims about stuff like that, and I think a lot of people didn’t like it at first, the idea of a brand called Americana,” Grimson says.
I really wanted to think beyond “what do we call the chart?” to “what do we call this music?” And “what do we call this category?” “How do we create a brand identity that can function for radio, function for retail, and that the artists actually want to use?” My idea of Americana was that it was the AOR [Album-oriented Rock] format of country. Or it could have been, if Nashville would have come to terms with how this could really benefit us in much the same way that LA and New York divisions had multiple formats that fed into CHR [Contemporary Hit Radio] radio. But in LA and New York they didn’t oppose that stuff. They wanted it to happen. In Nashville, kind of universally, with the exception of people like Jim Ed Norman and Tony Brown, who were signing these artists, it was: “We’re in the hits business. Come back later and talk to us when you have some hits.”
In the fall of 1994, the Gavin Report opened a Nashville office. Hoelzle moved to town run it as Bleetstein and Grimson prepared to launch the new Americana chart in January of 1995. Grimson sent out an Americana starter package to radio of forty CDs, including music by the Bottle Rockets, Jim Lauderdale, Nick Lowe, and Lyle Lovett, and even Guy Clark’s Boats to Build.
“I don’t think anybody ever before in the music business just up and decided to start a radio chart with a new format,” Grimson says.
Gavin conjured it and then published a trademarked Americana chart. They decided to advocate on behalf of the record industry and the artist, unlike Radio & Records, which advocated for the radio stations and didn’t care about the record labels or artists. It was a big risk for Gavin to go out there and lead and get the credit or get all the heat and all the criticism. And that’s exactly what happened. It was equal amounts praise and criticism in those early years. The Gavin attitude was “Why not do this? We’re trying to make things happen,” while R&R would say, “We’re trying to reflect what radio does.” It was a big deal that Gavin stepped out there.
“The chart started out with only forty-seven stations playing little nighttime shows,” Hoelzle says. “But we were committed. If we do this chart, it will give Americana legitimacy, and then other stations will say ‘We can do this.’ The format was already there. The artists were already doing it, but we wanted to create a movement among radio with the legitimacy of a chart.”
In December of 1994, the Gavin Report threw a party at Nashville’s ASCAP office to celebrate the launch of the Americana chart. Guy was there, along with Emmylou Harris, Sam Bush, Rodney Crowell, Jim Lauderdale, Junior Brown, and many other artists now associated with the genre.
In the spring of 1995, Guy’s latest album, Dublin Blues, shot to number one on Gavin’s new Americana Music Chart. At the same time, perhaps icing on the cake, the weekly alternative newspaper Nashville Scene in their “Best of Nashville” issue gave Guy the “Best Barfly” honor.
Guy and Susanna had gotten back together on the condition that they buy a house closer to town. They closed on a house on the dead end street of Stoneway Close in West Nashville. Susanna took over the upstairs. Guy made the bottom level his own, with a guitar-building studio that doubled as a place to write songs. The Clarks sold their Mt. Juliet house to Townes, who had divorced his wife Jeanene.
Back in those days, Susanna showed up at EMI Music Publishing late in the afternoons, dressed to the nines. She’d park her Cadillac in the lot and take a seat in the lobby waiting for songwriters to drift downstairs ready to leave for the night. Susanna would grab a group and head over to the patio at San Antonio Taco Company next to Vanderbilt, the Chicken Coop on the alley behind the Iguana, the Sunset Grill in Hillsboro Village, or whatever bar she felt like going to that night. The antics of the songwriter club, especially Susanna, Guy, and Townes, overshadowed whatever else might have been happening at whatever joint they took over.
Producer Dub Cornett was a regular at the Chicken Coop.
“I don’t ever remember seeing Guy Clark inside the actual Iguana restaurant,” Cornett says. “In the alley with a separate entrance, there was a place that nobody knew. They called it the Chicken Coop because it was open air. In the winter, they’d put plastic around it, but it was more like a patio bar. The real bullshit and drinking and cigarette smoking happened there. That is where the serious drinking went down. That’s where Pat McLaughlin and Guy and John Prine all held court. It was just an alcoholic bath.”
Meanwhile, Guy had a new album to celebrate. The title track of his new offering, “Dublin Blues,” is based on the traditional Irish melody “Handsome Molly”:
Well I wish I was in London
Or some other seaport town
Step my foot in a steamboat
And sail the ocean round
Sailing round the ocean
Sailing round the sea
I’d think of Handsome Molly
Wherever she may be
“That melody has just always charmed the pants off of me,” Guy says. “It’s just so cool. I guess I’m still going through that period of where I want to preserve those old songs that are just so incredibly beautiful. That happens to be one of them. I’ve been called on it several times, and my answer is, ‘You bet, I did steal it.’ I know what I’m doing.”
Despite returning to Guy, Susanna still asserted her independence. She also inspired “Dublin Blues.” “Guy and I had gone to Ireland together, but Guy had to go to Oklahoma to play a golf tournament, and since I was already over there, I thought I might as well go to Italy,” Susanna says. I called my friend Tom Gribben and asked him to meet me in Ireland.”
Gribben recalls: “Susanna called me and said, ‘Guy is playing at the music festival in Galway, and we’re going to go for five days, and then I want to go to Italy. Why don’t you come over and be our guest, and I’ll take care of everything? Guy and Susanna are getting in a cab, and Susanna puts me on the phone with a travel agent.”
Although Guy’s favorite ‘Irish’ pub is a place called Hughes, Guy and Travis played at the folk club Róisín Dubh (translation Black Little Rose), named for a famous Irish political song. The place was packed when Guy and Travis took the stage and sang “Dublin Blues.”
I wish I was in Austin
In the Chili Parlor Bar
Drinkin’ Mad Dog Margaritas
And not carin’ where you are
But here I sit in Dublin
Just rollin’ cigarettes
Holdin’ back and chokin’ back
The shakes with every breath.
The Texas Chili Parlor on Lavaca Street in downtown Austin was the scene of many shenanigans perpetrated by Guy and his friends. “There was a clique of people in Austin: Bud Shrake, Gary Cartwright, Jerry Jeff, just all these crazy people,” Guy says. “They decided to call this thing Mad Dog Inc. We had cards printed up. I still have my card. I was a member in good standing. Everyone was hanging out at the Chili Parlor, and they started ordering margaritas made with mescal, which is just horrible. The only reason it came about was because nobody had any money, and it was cheap. That was a Mad Dog Margarita. I had the line ‘I wish I was in Austin in the Chili Parlor Bar.’ I kept trying to get Rodney to write it with me, and he refused. I sat down one day and wrote it myself. It may have been the last good song I wrote by myself. It was just an existential look at how crazy that was.”
“Turning Guy down wasn’t one of the smartest things I ever did,” Crowell says.
Guy came over to my house one day, and he said, “Hey, I got an idea for a song,” and it was “Dublin Blues.” I had been on this rant with Guy. Songwriters would come over and hang with Guy, and they would get an idea and something started, and then they would split, and Guy would go back and write the song. I was harping at him about, “Hey, you’re giving up half the song when you’re really doing all the work.” He pointed out to me that it started with a conversation, and the song is only there because the other writers sat with them. I said, “Yeah, but they didn’t come back and do the revisions and turn it into the song that it is.” So, to prove a point on “Dublin Blues,” I said, “No. You go home and write it yourself. You’re the best songwriter I know.” So he did. Then I heard it, and I went, “Damn! I could have been part of this.”
“Turning Guy down wasn’t one of the smartest things I ever did.” - Rodney Crowell
The song gained such popularity that people showed up at the Texas Chili Parlor to order Mad Dog Margaritas. Guy recalls, “One day after that song came out, I walked in there and the girl behind the bar said, ‘You’re Guy Clark, aren’t you? You son of a bitch. You wrote that song about Mad Dog Margaritas. Now people come in here and order them and spit them out and want their money back.’”
Playing “Dublin Blues” provides one of the most powerful moments in Guy’s shows. It’s usually an encore, especially in Texas, and it seems the entire audience holds its breath when Guy starts “Well, I wish I was in Austin, hmm, hmmm.”
“I can feel it from the audience,” Guy says. “It’s exactly what I’m trying to do. I love scaring people to death.”
For Dublin Blues, Guy also wrote “Black Diamond Strings,” which he calls “a love song to Rodney.”
J. W. Crowell was a hell of a man
He played two nights a week in a hillbilly band
He played at the Ice House on Telephone Road
And he played in the yard just to lighten his load
Black Diamond Strings
Oh, Black Diamond Strings
Drinkin’ One W. Harper
Playin’ Black Diamond Strings.
“It is about the way Rodney grew up playing country music with his dad,” Guy says. “Rodney . . . jokingly used ‘One W. Harper’ in a sentence [in reference to the bourbon brand I. W. Harper], and I just loved the sound of that.”
“We used to laugh a lot about my dad,” Crowell says. “I’d tell Guy stories. My dad’s favorite whiskey was I. W. Harper. He would say, ‘Last night, I got on that One W. Harper.’ Guy would laugh at the One W. Harper part. Guy knew my mom and dad. They would come through now and again. By the time Guy and Susanna got to know my mom and dad, they were teetotalers and had been converted to Christianity. I was staying at Guy and Susanna’s place on the lake once, and they were coming through, and I remember going around and gathering up all the whiskey bottles, cleaning up for them to come. And then my dad came and played guitar. Guy introduces it as a love song. I bawled like a baby when he played that for me.”
After some prodding from Guy, Crowell joined him to write “Stuff That Works.”
“I was getting a divorce, and I’d had my fifteen minutes of country music stardom, and that was all dismantling itself,” Crowell says.
An old structure was falling away, and I was whining a little bit and said, “I’m quitting; I’m through with it.” Guy showed up at my house one day. I opened the door, and before I said anything he said, “Shut up,” as only Guy can deliver a line with that much gravity and finality. He said, “I’ve got an idea for a song.” It was “Stuff That Works.” We spent an afternoon writing that song, and I was back in the music business just like that. Just back on it. It was a happy moment, and it probably was the beginning of me coming out of a real funk that I was in—getting divorced, wasn’t going to be a country star anymore, and now I didn’t want to be one anymore. It was a good moment. Guy said “Hey, look. You’re obviously talented. You want to be an artist or do you want to be a star?” He said, “You have the talent to be a star if you want to do that. Do it. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a different mind set. You want to be an artist, you dedicate yourself to that.” I’m going, “I want to be an artist. I know the right answer.” And then, that was a turning point for me, actually where I started to dedicate myself . . . to realizing how to write, more than realizing how to charm. That was a sweet and friendly thing to do.
I got an ol’ blue shirt
And it suits me just fine
I like the way it feels
So I wear it all the time
I got an old guitar
It won’t ever stay in tune
I like the way it sounds
In a dark and empty room
I got an ol’ pair of boots
And they fit just right
I can work all day
And I can dance all night
I got an ol’ used car
And it runs just like a top
I get the feelin’ it ain’t
Ever gonna stop
Stuff that works, stuff that holds up
The kind of stuff you don’t hang on the wall
Stuff that’s real, stuff you feel
The kind of stuff you reach for when you fall
I got a pretty good friend
Who’s seen me at my worst
He can’t tell if I’m a blessing or a curse
But he always shows up
When the chips are down
That’s the kind of stuff I like to be around
I got a woman I love
She’s crazy and paints like God
She’s got a playground sense of justice
She won’t take odds
I got a tattoo with her name
Right through my soul
I think everything she touches
Turns to gold
“I had some of the verses started and it was a waltz,” Guy says. “Rodney and I were writing, and I told him it was something I just couldn’t get right. He changed it to 4/4, and then we wrote the rest of it. The recording I did of it was a little tedious, too long, but I eventually learned how to do it and how it should be paced. That’s a standard piece of my repertoire.”
Guy thinks “Hank Williams Said It Best” is too long but Susanna wouldn’t let him change it. “I should’ve edited about half [of ] that out,” Guy says. “That was one of those songs that just poured out. Usually I’m meticulous about going back and editing my work, but on the work tape I made, I just decided to sing everything I’d written down, not go back and tidy it up and rearrange lines and really work on it. I played it for Susanna, and she said ‘Man, don’t you dare change one word of that.’ That really is a line from a Hank Williams song recorded under his Luke the Drifter alter ego: ‘Unless you have made no mistakes in your life be careful of the stones that you throw.’ It just came out of my mouth and made me laugh so hard that I couldn’t pass it up.”
Susanna had the idea for “The Cape” while hanging out with Willie Nelson after a show. She told Nelson about jumping off the garage when she was a little kid. Susanna took the idea to her friend Jim Janosky, but, after failing to figure it out, they took it to Guy. “That’s a really well-written song, and basically I wrote it,” Guy says. “Susanna and Jim and I got together and talked about it a few times. Once again, I couldn’t leave them out because I wouldn’t have done it without the idea. The idea of the cape, the first time it was ever used like that was Superman in 1939. It wasn’t a longtime, universal thing. Everybody knows what it means now, but fifty years ago, I don’t think anyone knew. People love that song. I constantly hear: ‘It changed my life.’ It’s even the theme song at some camp. ‘Always trust your cape.’ It’s kind of like, ‘Don’t lose your inner child, nurture it.’”
Susanna was Guy’s muse yet again for “Baby Took a Limo to Memphis.” “She actually did exactly that,” Guy says. “Susanna was going to Memphis to write with Keith Sykes. She had a plane ticket and called a limo to go to the airport. They were on their way to the airport, and this limo driver said, ‘You’re Susanna Clark, aren’t you? You’re married to Guy Clark. You know, I beat him out of about $300 the other night pitching quarters.’ Susanna says, ‘Take me to Memphis.’ I didn’t know it until she got back and told me she took a limo to Memphis. It was just so Susanna. She looked around, and there’s a TV set and a bar. ‘Fuck you guys, why would I want to take an airline to Memphis?’”
“Susanna always told me that Guy and Townes were staying out late gambling their money away,” Keith Sykes says.
So she gets this big hit record with Richard Leigh and has plenty of money. Says she’s going to come to Memphis to write with me, and she shows up and gets out of this big old limousine in our front driveway. It cost her like fifteen hundred dollars, and that was a pretty good chunk back then for regular working songwriting guys. We spent that week together writing at my house, and then we drove up to Kentucky to see Rodney play a show at Murray State University. Murray is the town where I was born, so I know the area. We got a cabin at Kentucky Lake and hung out there. We sat up and talked and had a great weekend together. I drove Susanna back to Nashville. The next time I called, I hear Guy wrote a song called “Baby Took a Limo to Memphis” and every line in that song is just dead solid on; it’s just great.
Guy and Verlon Thompson wrote “Hangin’ Your Life on the Wall” together, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott joined Guy on the recording. “One thing that influenced me was a song Jack did called ‘912 Greens,’” Guy says. “That’s where ‘Let Him Roll’ and ‘The Randall Knife’ came from—that style of slow-talkin’ blues. Jack had a line in there about an ex-ballet dancer, so I took it and changed it to ‘I used to be an ex-bull rider.’ Verlon had the first line, ‘I used to be Juanita’s old boyfriend,’ and we threw lines back and forth until we had it.”
Although Guy had recorded “The Randall Knife” on the Better Days album, he was never happy with the arrangement and tempo. Asylum president Kyle Lehning witnessed Guy perform the song at a show in Texas and asked him to record it again for Dublin Blues. “I thought I was going to have to call an ambulance to come get me after I heard him sing that song,” Lehning says. “How does somebody do that emotional thing for a five-minute song? It killed me.”
Like Old Friends and Boats to Build before it, Dublin Blues garnered rave reviews from critics. John T. Davis wrote in the Austin American Statesman that Clark “pared away superfluous details and images until his tales of hardscrabble characters, star-crossed lovers, out-of-time dreamers and desperadoes, and vignettes of Lone Star life achieved the parched lyricism of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting or a Dorothea Lange photograph.” Modern Screen’s Country Music noted: “He’s carved an indelible niche somewhere between the Willie ’n’ Waylon outlaws, the poets, the folkies, the rebels and the true country legends.”
Songwriters and music journalists who admire Guy often comment that his approach to writing lyrics is comparable to his skills as a luthier— that he crafts songs with the same detail and precision of an artisan woodworker. In 1995, Rounder Records released a thirty-song, double-CD collection of Guy’s three Warner Brothers albums, titled Craftsman, building on this master craftsman theme. Although he gave the okay to use the title for the record, it didn’t sit well with Guy. He says that craftsmanship and songwriting use two different parts of his brain.
“I should have put a stop to that ‘craftsman’ shit a long time ago,” Guy says. “It makes my skin crawl. It’s nobody’s fault but mine because I didn’t step up and say, ‘No, that’s not right.’ I consider what I do poetry. I don’t need to prove I’m a poet in every line, and I’m not afraid to speak plainly in my songs. Not everything needs to be metaphor, and I don’t need lofty words. But it is my obligation as a poet to be faithful to the verse. I write what I know. I write what I see.”
“Guy at the core is a poet and an artist,” Crowell agrees.
Guy has the best command of a paintbrush of anybody I think I’ve ever seen. I often said, “Guy, if I could paint like you, it’s all I would do.” He has a master’s right hand. Maybe the confusion lies in the fact that he is also a very fine craftsman. He’s a luthier. He builds things, and he builds things with care and with the exactitude of a master carpenter. I think it’s important to separate the two. Somewhere along the line people started saying he crafts songs the way he builds guitars. That’s the part that pisses him off. I think what makes him an even better poet and has elevated him above most is that self-editing, which comes from that craftsman sensibility. It doesn’t negate the poetry. It actually refines it and frames it. It’s understandable that if you’re not really trying to understand your own creative process and how to access the poetry, you may just throw the luthier in with the poet, the songwriter, but to me it works as a whole.
“The first time I heard someone call Guy a craftsman, I knew it was a totally inadequate description,” J. T. Van Zandt says. “Craft is like stringing beads onto a rope or shaping clay. It’s something that can be taught and learned. I think that to write songs like Guy Clark requires living a certain way. It also requires a great deal of understanding for the human condition, and those aren’t things you can learn necessarily. You can develop a skill, but you can’t develop raw talent. You certainly can’t write songs like Guy Clark. No one else can. To call it a craft or to call him a craftsman is—it’s not even an understatement. It’s just totally inaccurate.”
“His songs are art,” Verlon Thompson says.
You think of the great painters or sculptors; they do it every day. They tweak on this, and they throw it out, and they start over and do it again and again. That’s what Guy’s done. It’s so much more nuanced. It’s not construction. It’s a layer, and you let it dry and see how that affects the layer beneath it and what’s coming through and what’s not. That’s why going to an art museum with Guy is one of the coolest things. He’s taught me stuff about art that I never knew about—what kind of paint you use and how certain paint reflects differently than another. I think Guy is as good an artist as he is a songwriter. He doesn’t do it as much, but when he does . . . he just gets his stuff out and one day, there it is, a masterpiece. I think his painting is incredible. He’s an artist in every sense of the word.
“Guy Clark is a poet,” Lyle Lovett says. “His songs are literature. The first time I heard a Guy Clark song, I thought it made everything I’d heard up to that point something other than a song. It’s his imagery, his subject matter and how he does it. It’s poetry. And his sense of melody is wonderful. The musicality is as inspiring as the lyrics.”
With Boats to Build and Dublin Blues, Guy made a strong statement about his commitment to his poetry. The songs were written with insight and authority about grown-up themes of hardship, risk, and consequences. All of the arrangements and sounds are in service to the song. At age fifty-four, Guy was finally living the writer-artist life he had always imagined.
• • • • •
Gavin’s Americana chart and Asylum Records cohosted a party at the Iguana and Chicken Coop to celebrate Dublin Blues, Guy’s first number one album. Emmylou Harris presented Guy with a package of Black Diamond strings. Guy, Susanna, and Townes got roaring drunk. Artists, agents, managers, publishers, and countless members of the Music Row elite filled the restaurant and bar to celebrate the rise of Americana and toast its new kingpin, Guy Clark.
This chapter has been excerpted from the book, Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark, by Tamara Saviano, out now on Texas A&M University Press.