Built to Last
Editor’s Note: Guy Clark passed away on May 17, 2016, according to his longtime friend and colleague Tamara Saviano. In his memory, we’re re-running this cover story from 2002. May he rest in peace.
Guy Clark lives on a quiet cul de sac in West Nashville. There’s a garden out front, woods out back, and the lot slopes so the basement looks out on the trees. Clark and his wife Susanna, a fine songwriter herself, live on the first floor, but Guy works in the basement. And it’s there that one can glimpse the secret of his music — the crucial connection between the carpenter’s craft and the songwriter’s craft.
Hanging over the cellar workshop’s windows and doorways are large, black-and-white photos of Townes Van Zandt, Buck White and Susanna. On one wall are the blueprints for a flamenco guitar, and in the rear of the room is the table saw Clark uses to cut the wood for building those instruments.
Filling most of the opposite wall are cassette shelves, and the tape-case spines feature the hand-scrawled titles to many of his most famous songs: “She’s Crazy For Leavin'” (a hit for Rodney Crowell), “Heartbroke” (Ricky Skaggs), “New Cut Road” (Bobby Bare), “L.A. Freeway” (Jerry Jeff Walker) and “Desperados Waiting For The Train” (Walker, the Highwaymen). Several more show up on Clark’s fine new album, The Dark (due out September 10 on Sugar Hill Records), and a few tantalizing titles have never made it out of the basement.
Dominating the center of the room is a large, rough-hewn workbench where Clark uses glue and vises to assemble his guitars. Right now, though, the bench holds a large plastic coffee mug and an ashtray as the 60-year-old singer, songwriter and luthier sits at the table-like bench in a blue work shirt and faded jeans. His hair is a little thinner and his skin a little looser, but he still has that square jaw, that swept-back gray hair and those flaring eyebrows that make him look like a 19th-century Southern senator.
“I’ve built seven guitars in the last two or three years,” he says. “I work on two at a time, because you’re always waiting for the glue to dry on one of them. I like to have something to do that involves eye-hand coordination, because it uses a different part of the brain than songwriting. Susanna’s a very talented painter and she got me interested in doing that for a while. But now I’m back to making guitars.”
Earlier this year, the Country Music Hall Of Fame hosted an exhibit titled “Workshirts and Stardust: Paintings by Guy and Susanna Clark.” On display were Susanna’s paintings that became the album covers for Willie Nelson’s Stardust, Emmylou Harris’ Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town, Guy’s Old No. 1 and Nanci Griffith’s Dust Bowl Symphony. Also on the walls were Guy’s portraits of Rodney Crowell and himself; the latter became the cover of his Old Friends album. Now the oil paintings are back upstairs in the Clarks’ home.
“If I get stuck writing a song,” Clark says, “I can put it aside and work on a painting or a guitar. Then the next line in the song might pop into my mind, and I can turn around and write it down or put it on tape immediately. That’s why I like writing songs and making guitars in the same space.”
Songwriting and guitar making may involve different parts of the brain and different skills, but in Clark’s mind they are both crafts that demand hard work, high standards and long hours. Clark knows that a better line might come along tomorrow, or next year; he even keeps working on songs that have already been recorded.
“I work on songs all the time,” he claims. “I still work on songs that were written 20 years ago. If there’s a line that I never liked, and all of a sudden a better line pops out of my mouth onstage, I’ll use the new line forever after.
“For example, one of my favorite songs is ‘Better Days’, but there was a line that never suited me. I tried to change it but I couldn’t think of a better one, so I went ahead and recorded the song as it was. Years later I was down in Australia where I met a woman who said she used ‘Better Days’ as a theme song for the battered women in the shelter she ran.
“I told her I had stopped playing that song because I didn’t like this one line that went, ‘See the wings unfolding that weren’t there just before/On a ray of sunshine she dances out the door.’ I always thought that was really lightweight. She said, ‘Yeah, the women don’t like that line either.’ So I said, ‘Well, what about this,’ and I changed it to, ‘See the wings unfolding that weren’t there just before/ She has no fear of flying and now she’s out the door.’ And I’ve sung it that way ever since.”
The original version was the title track of Clark’s 1983 album, the last part of a trilogy he did for Warner Bros. All three LPs were later released as a two-CD set on Philo with the apt title Craftsman. The revised version of the song can be heard on 1997’s Keepers: A Live Recording.
Keepers is Clark’s phrase for songs that are worth recording. Like a fisherman, he implies, you hook and reel in a lot of songs from the subconscious, but most of them are too scrawny and ill-shaped to take home. So you throw them back into the pond with instructions to eat a lot of plankton and fill out.
Clark’s high standards as to what’s a keeper and what’s a throwback mean that he takes a long time between albums. After 1983’s Better Days, it was five years till the next release, Old Friends, then six years till Dublin Blues, then five years till the next studio project, Cold Dog Soup, and three more till this year’s The Dark.
It was worth the wait. The Dark is Clark’s strongest, most consistent collection of songs since Better Days, and the low-key, string-band arrangements serve his music better than any session he has ever done. Some of the new songs are welcome variations on old themes, while others strike out in new directions.
The opening track “Mud”, for example, offers homespun philosophy as a tavern sing-along, much in the tradition of “Homegrown Tomatoes” and “Stuff That Works”. “All things come to him who waits,” Clark sings, “yet he is lost who hesitates.” There are no easy answers to life or art, he implies; you just have to keep working at it without being afraid to get “a little mud…on your shirt.”
Like Ted Williams, Clark has left varying sets of funeral instructions. In 1983 he sang, “When I die don’t bury me/In a box in a cemetery/Out in the garden would be much better/I could be pushing up homegrown tomatoes.” In 1999, he asked, “Oh, Susanna, when it comes my time/Bury me south of that Red River line.” Now he declares, “When I die please bury me/Down by this old muddy creek/Let the crawfish have their way/It’s mud to mud and that’s OK.”
“Dancin’ Days” and “She Loves To Ride Horses” are tributes to the kind of strong, independent women Clark saluted in earlier songs such as “Must Be My Baby” and “Rita Ballou”. “Bag Of Bones” is an admiring portrait of an older father figure in the vein of “Desperados Waiting For The Train” and “Randall Knife”. “Soldier’s Joy 1864” is a historical narrative much like “New Cut Road” and “Immigrant Eyes”.
The album contains some of Clark’s finest descriptive passages. On “Mud”, he evokes the pleasures of sitting by a country creek: “The light comes down through the limbs and the leaves/And dapples the water between the reeds/The air tastes green, the bank gets soft/Right about then your shoes come off.” Balancing the poetry is one of his most deliciously awful puns: He describes the title character of “Arizona Star” as “a prima donna pre-Madonna.”
The new album’s title track, however, marks a departure for Clark. “The Dark” opens with an unhurried, melancholy, acoustic-guitar figure, and within that moody, shadowy atmosphere, Clark half-sings, half-speaks:
“In the dark you can sometimes hear your own heart beat, or the heart of the one next to you. The house settles down after holding itself up all day, its shoulders slump, it gives a big sigh, you hear no one’s footfall in the hall. That drip in the kitchen sink keeps markin’ time. The junebug on the windowscreen can’t get in but it keeps on tryin’. One way or another, we’re all in the dark.”
That kind of evocative writing is not unusual for Clark, but such descriptions usually lead to a memorable aphorism or narrative climax. Here, however, the deliberate ambiguity is never resolved. Both the music and the lyrics suggest the ominous creepiness of the night, but they also hint at the secrets and pleasures the darkness contains. In contrast to most of his songs, which take a definite stand on whatever subject is at hand, this one savors its contradictions.
“I wanted to write a song about how unappreciated the dark is,” Clark explains. “Everyone puts it down, but there’s a lot of stuff you can only see in the dark, and it’s worth seeing. At the same time, there’s something intimidating about the dark, and I wanted that in there, too. So the song itself is a little bit dark.”
The new album’s highlight is “Homeless”, a portrait of the panhandlers who haunt the sidewalks and median strips of America’s cities. It’s a problem that doesn’t suggest easy solutions, and Clark doesn’t pretend to have one. Instead, he does something remarkable; he provides multiple perspectives on the situation by allowing the identity of his narrator to slip and slide from one persona to another.
One moment the song is being sung by a sympathetic observer (“There’s a cardboard sign, old and bent, that says, ‘Friend for Life, 25 cents.’ When did this start making sense?”); the next moment the singer is an unsympathetic observer (“Get away from here, don’t give them no money, they’ll just spend it on beer”). Finally the singer is homeless himself (“Man, it’s really getting cold. Sometimes I forget things and I get confused”).
These shifts happen without warning, which is unlike the well-crafted clarity of most Clark songs. But the fluidity of viewpoint reminds us that each of us contains all those attitudes. All of us have felt pity for someone freezing on a heat grate, and all of us have been irritated by an overly aggressive panhandler blocking our way to the ATM machine. Underneath both reactions is the fear that through some unforeseen chain of circumstances, we ourselves could end up on the street with nowhere to go. Clark’s song captures those mixed feelings about poverty as few others have.
“I wrote that song with Ray Stevenson, and at some point we realized we were slipping between the third and first person,” Clark explains. “It’s kind of untidy, but it seemed to work, so we left it like that. It’s posing questions without offering an answer. These are questions I have about life, but I don’t have the answers. If I did, it’d probably change, so I don’t think I’m in any position to preach about anything. All the loose ends aren’t tied up, but all those emotional images seemed to work for us. We meant it to have that raw edge.”
Although it seems unfinished, “Homeless” is as deliberately crafted as any of Clark’s songs. It took weeks to carve out all the parts and to glue them together so all the seams were flush. The three viewpoints in the song set up the final verse, delivered by a fourth persona: Clark the homespun philosopher. “No, life ain’t easy,” he says, “takes work, takes healing, ’cause you’re gonna get hurt. You lose your faith, you lose your shirt, and you lose your way sometimes. You never really had control. Sometimes you just got to let it go, and when the final line unfolds, it don’t always rhyme.”
That’s the challenge of songwriting: You have to be open to unexpected, unruly eruptions from the subconscious, but you also have to do the hard work of shaping those stray feelings into a story, a picture or a monologue that will trigger the same feeling in someone else. Ignore the subconscious, and you become a Music Row or Tin Pan Alley hack. Ignore the hard work, and you become a self-indulgent artiste. Few writers maintain that balance of inspiration and craftsmanship past the age of 30, but Clark has kept it into his 60s.
Early in his career, Clark, like most Texas songwriters, wrote his songs by himself. Since he moved to Nashville in 1971, though, he has learned the advantages of co-writing. He has relied more and more on collaborators over the years, and The Dark is his first album without a solo writing credit. It includes co-writes with Buddy Mondlock, Terry Allen, Rich Alves, Shawn Camp, Steve Nelson, Ray Stevenson, Gary Nicholson and Keith Sykes, plus a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues”.
“I’ve often said that you should write about what you know,” Clark says, “but people get the wrong idea. That includes what people tell you as well as what you’ve done. If other people’s experiences touch you, that’s part of what you know. You want to write a song about something that people can associate with, where they can say that happened to me or that could happen to me. You have to leave holes in just the right places so you allow them to use their imagination.”
“Bag Of Bones” for example, grew not from Clark’s experiences but from those of Gary Nicholson, who co-wrote the song. Nicholson, who has penned a bunch of country hits as well as Delbert McClinton’s finest material, wanted to write a song about his father. The result pokes gentle fun at an old man whose body has been whittled down by war, accidents, alcohol and years, but whose spirit remains indomitable.
“Because of ‘Randall Knife’,” Clark explains, “I’ve had several people want to write about their fathers with me, which is rather flattering. Those images about the shrapnel and the missing fingers are pictures Gary had in his head. I didn’t question him too closely, but they seemed real to me. But in any sad or serious song I write, I always try to have some humor. Life is funny, even in the middle of high drama.”
Clark wrote “She Loves To Ride Horses” with Keith Sykes, an old pal from the ’70s, and “Dancin’ Days” with Steve Nelson, a neighbor who lives down the street. The singers in both songs are simultaneously bedazzled and bewildered by the headstrong women in their lives, glad to bask in their glow but despairing of ever guessing what they’ll do next. The horse rider “doesn’t care how long it will take her or if she ever gets there,” and the dancer has “still got a couple of two-steps she hasn’t shown no one.”
“Keith came over one day, and he was in trouble with his wife,” Clark recalls. “He said, ‘I’ve got to have a song before I go home.’ I knew his wife Jerene loves horses, so I said, ‘How about, ‘She loves to ride horses in three-quarter time,’ and we finished it in time for him to go back to Memphis.
“Someone said that ‘Dancin’ Days’ sounds like the continuation of ‘She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’, which has always been one of my favorite songs. I’ve been around strong, self-reliant women all my life, and I think they’re cool. It all started with my grandmother in West Texas who had her leg amputated on the kitchen table when she was 12 years old. Her husband ran off so she raised my father by herself. She was this sweet little old Methodist Church-going lady, but she was tough as nails.
“I’m sure Susanna is in a lot of those songs, even when they’re not specifically about her, because she’s a bright and strong woman herself. Women are bewildering to men; that’s just a fact of life. I think it’s important to have that mystery. I don’t think there’s any danger that we’ll be understanding them too well too soon.”
“Magnolia Wind” and “Soldier’s Joy 1864”, the two tunes Clark co-wrote with Shawn Camp for the new album, are sequels of a sort to “Sis Draper”, which they co-wrote for Cold Dog Soup. Camp is a skillful fiddler, and “Sis Draper” was inspired by a figure from his Arkansas childhood, an itinerant violinist whose infrequent visits created a holiday-like atmosphere.
“Sis Draper is a real person in Shawn’s life,” Clark explains, “but we elaborated on her story. She was quite a looker, I gather, and she made quite an impression on Shawn when he was 10. She became this romantic figure for him, and that’s the kind of story I like. We both had the idea of writing a new song about a character out of that original tune. That inspired a whole bunch of songs, and we now have five or six based on ‘Sis Draper’.”
The original described Sis as a woman with “honey on them fiddle strings, magnolia in her hair.” “Magnolia Wind” is sung by someone who’s hopelessly in love with Sis, someone who would “rather be deaf, dumb and stone blind than to know that your mornings will never be mine,” someone who appreciates the folly of pursuing a love that’s “here and [then] it’s gone on the magnolia wind.” “Soldier’s Joy 1864” describes how Sis’s grandfather first learned the fiddle while recovering from an amputated leg during the Civil War.
“One thing that connects all these songs is that they’re all based on old fiddle tunes,” Clark reveals. “‘Sis Draper is based on ‘Arkansas Traveler’, ‘Soldier’s Joy’ on ‘Soldier’s Joy’, and ‘Magnolia Wind’ on any number of tunes.
“I never consciously wrote a series of connected songs before, and we didn’t plan on doing it this time; they just popped out. They can all stand alone, but they also form a picture. We’re thinking it may become a stage musical at some point. I haven’t seen that many musicals staged, I’m sad to say, so I’d just be learning from the get-go. I assume it might be something like Chippy.”
Chippy is the musical written by Terry and Jo Harvey Allen, which starred the Allens, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Wayne Hancock and Jo Carol Pierce during its brief lifespan. Terry Allen co-wrote “Queenie’s Song” for Clark’s new album. It’s based on a true story about Allen finding his dog shot dead on New Year’s Day morning, 1999.
Guy and Susanna happened to be visiting for the holidays, and after the obligatory phone calls, arrangements and vengeful cursing, Terry and Guy sat down that afternoon to write a song about what happened. They carefully avoided turning the experience into a tear-jerking melodrama or an end-of-the-world cataclysm, but the sheer senseless of the act only added to their anger. Instead of offering a philosophical moral in the final verse, they let their raw, unresolved anger hanging there.
The Dark not only contains some of Clark’s finest songs, it’s also one of his best sounding albums. As he passed 55, Clark realized he was not a rock ‘n’ roll or new-country kind of guy, and probably never had been. He respected people who could use the recording studio as a tool, but he knew he had neither the skills nor the temperament to turn elaborate, multi-tracked production to his advantage. It dawned on him that he was much better off recording his songs as simply and straightforwardly as possible.
In the CD booklet for his 1999 album Cold Dog Soup, there’s a photo of Clark sitting in a gray folding chair with one mike for his acoustic guitar and another for his voice. Sitting in folding chairs right across from him are Darrell Scott with a mandolin and Verlon Thompson with an acoustic guitar. It’s a small room in the demo studio at EMI Publishing in Nashville; you can’t see through the control-booth window in the photo, but engineer Chris Latham is back there. He’s making sure he gets all the vocals and string-band tracks from every take, because there will be minimal overdubbing — some harmonies by Emmylou Harris and some solos by Scott, Thompson or Shawn Camp.
Clark, Scott, Thompson and Latham are listed as co-producers on Cold Dog Soup, and they take the exact same approach on The Dark. They’re more experienced and confident now, so the sound is even leaner and cleaner this time. Clark had tried a similar approach on the 1997 live album, Keepers, but it proved less successful.
“It’s different to do it onstage rather than in the studio,” he acknowledges. “With an audience there’s more adrenaline going, and I find myself over-singing. It sounds OK at the time, but when you isolate it on tape, it’s too much. With this approach in the studio, I can lay back and let the songs do more of the work.”
Almost every Guy Clark album includes a nod to Townes Van Zandt, and The Dark features the late singer’s “Rex’s Blues.” In 1963, Clark was a 21-year-old college dropout who dabbled in building boats and playing folk music in Houston. That’s when he met Van Zandt, the man who would become his best friend and greatest influence.
Van Zandt was 19, a scrawny, laconic, dark-haired kid with a dry wit. When Clark first met him, Van Zandt had only written two songs, “I’ll Be Here In The Morning” and “Turnstiled, Junkpiled”, but they were enough to give Clark a whole new perspective on songwriting. He had always assumed that folk songs were so old that no one could remember writing them, and that pop songs were so silly that no one gave much thought to writing them.
“The first time I heard Townes, I went, ‘Wow!'” Clark remembers. “Here was someone who was writing new songs that weren’t talking about girls and beer in moon-June rhymes. There was something intelligent about the way he used the English language. I said to myself, ‘Here’s a reason to write a song.’ I started writing the day I met him.”
The Houston folk scene was dominated by John Lomax Jr. (son of the famous folklorist, brother of Alan and father of Van Zandt’s future manager), a real-estate developer who founded the Houston Folklore Society. At the society’s concerts, John Jr. would sing a cappella the traditional songs his dad had collected; sometimes he would grab an axe and slam it into a log to keep the rhythm of a work song.
More importantly, Lomax made sure that Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, two of Texas’ greatest living bluesmen, were frequent guests. They couldn’t have been more different, for Hopkins was a wise-cracking, slick-as-oil urban hustler, while Lipscomb was a gentle, self-effacing, rural troubadour who included many non-blues numbers in his repertoire. But both could spellbind an audience with just voice and acoustic guitar, so they had a great impact on Clark, Van Zandt and their peers. And that made the Houston folk scene different from any other.
“For a 21-year-old folksinger, it was heaven,” Clark recalls. “Both Lightnin’ and Mance were brilliant guitar players, though neither were flashy, and that taught us that it’s not always the notes you play that make a difference; it’s also the holes you leave. We eventually applied that to our songwriting. You don’t want to tell the listener everything; you have to leave room for them to imagine how their grandfather would have said it. It makes them feel smart; it makes you feel smart; and everyone is happy.
“Lightnin’ and Mance wrote some lyrics that were stunning for that genre. To hear Lightnin’ do ‘Mr. Charlie’, that long talking-blues dripping with sarcasm, just knocked me out. Townes and I didn’t write 12-bar blues and didn’t try to sing like Lightnin’ — why bother, you can’t match him — but we learned to write about real stuff. You can’t make up the shit that Lightnin’ sang about.”
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was released in May 1963, and Houston’s folkies were buzzing with excitement about songwriting. Clark and Gary B. White were roommates for a while, and Jerry Jeff Walker often slept on their couch. A local actress named Kay Oslin was in a folk duo with Frank Davis; she later became the country star K.T. Oslin. Clark married his first wife, had a son, Travis, and divorced.
And the songs poured out of Van Zandt, who released an album a year from 1968 through 1973. He traveled a lot and drank even more, but songwriting remained his top priority. No matter where he was or what condition he was in, he worked on songs constantly and diligently until he was satisfied that every word, every note, every rhythm was necessary and exact. In that, at least, he set an example Clark has been living up to ever since.
“When you hear a good song by Townes or Dylan or Ramblin’ Jack Elliott,” Clark says, “it makes you want to write a song — not like them, but as good as them. Townes and I would play songs for each other all the time — not like it was a competition, but because we wanted each other’s approval. If he didn’t like it, he wouldn’t say anything, but sometimes he’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s good.’ Who wouldn’t want to hear that from Townes?”
Clark was working as an art director at the CBS station in Houston when he met Susanna at the end of 1969. She told him, ‘Look, if you’re going to be a songwriter, be a songwriter. Don’t dabble at it and then spend the rest of your life wondering what might have been.’ With that challenge ringing in his ears, Guy moved to L.A. and brought Susanna with him. He got a job in the Dobro factory there and called up every song publisher in Southern California.
“We were living in this garage apartment in this straight neighborhood in Long Beach,” Clark remembers. “We woke up one morning to the sound of the landlord chopping down this beautiful grapefruit tree, and my first reaction was, ‘Pack up all the dishes.’ It sounded like a line in a song, so I wrote it down.
“Just about the only discipline I have as a songwriter is to write down an idea as soon as I have it. You wind up with a stack of bar napkins, and the real work comes the next day or week when you sit down and go through them to see if any of them makes any sense.
“I played in a little string band while I was in L.A., and one night we were driving back from a gig in Mission Beach at four in the morning and I was dozing off. I lifted my head up in this old Cadillac, looked out the window and said, ‘If I can just get off of this L.A. Freeway without getting killed or caught.’ As soon as I said it, I borrowed Susanna’s eyebrow pencil from her purse and wrote the line down on a burger wrapper. If I hadn’t, I might not have that song today.
“It was a year later, when we had moved to Nashville, that I was cleaning out my wallet and I found that scrap of paper. I put it together with ‘Pack up all the dishes’ and this guitar lick I had, and it all became ‘L.A. Freeway’.”
The Clarks had moved to Nashville in 1971 because Guy had finally landed a publishing deal with RCA. The company told him he could live in New York, Los Angeles or Nashville.
“There’s not a lot of country music that I like or that I’ve ever liked,” Clark admits, “and Lead Belly and Lightnin’ influenced me more than Hank Williams or Lefty Frizzell. But I’m from Monahans, Texas, and when I open my mouth, it comes out sounding country. If I’m going to be true to myself, it’s going to sound country.”
Guy and Susanna were married on January 14, 1972, on Mickey Newbury’s houseboat on Old Hickory Lake outside Nashville. Van Zandt came up to be best man and wound up living with the newlyweds for eight months in their small house on Chapel Street in East Nashville.
The house soon became the focal point for a community of like-minded singers and songwriters. Old Houston friends such as Newbury, Jerry Jeff Walker and Gary B. White dropped in. New Tennessee friends such as Keith Sykes, Vince Gill and David Olney came by. Californians such as Emmylou Harris and Brian Ahern popped in. Two young kids from Texas, Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle, showed up on the scene.
“We’d be sitting around,” Clark remembers, “and someone would say, ‘Jerry Jeff’s in town, call him up and get him over here.’ We’d end up in a room together, drinking too much and smoking too much and picking guitars. It was never about, ‘This is my best song’; it was always, ‘Listen to what I just wrote.’ Imagine hearing ‘Pancho & Lefty’ for the first time. Stuff like that is priceless.
“None of us had any money. Townes was making records but he was barely getting by on college gigs. We were always wondering if we could afford a jar of mayonnaise. But that was our job — to hang out, get drunk and play songs that no one had heard before.”
They weren’t exactly starving. Most of them had publishing deals on Music Row and were drawing small retainers. They spent the afternoons cutting demos, meeting with producers, and passing out tapes before the picking parties started up again after the sun went down. Sure, they were trying to impress each other artistically, but — and this is a crucial point — they were also trying to make it as commercial-country songwriters.
And in the 1980s, they succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams. Clark had country chart hits with “She’s Crazy For Leavin'” (Rodney Crowell), “Heartbroke” (Ricky Skaggs) and “New Cut Road” (Bobby Bare). Van Zandt had hits with “Pancho & Lefty” (Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard) and “If I Needed You” (Emmylou Harris & Don Williams). Crowell had hits with “Shame On The Moon” (Bob Seger), “Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight” (Oak Ridge Boys), “‘Til I Gain Control Again” (Crystal Gayle), “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” (Waylon Jennings) and “Ain’t No Money” (Rosanne Cash).
Between them, Harris, Crowell, Rosanne Cash and Ricky Skaggs scored 31 #1 country hits and 57 top-10 hits in the ’80s. In addition, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett all had top-10 country hits in the ’80s.
It’s often forgotten what a special time the ’80s were for country music. It was an era when intelligent lyrics could get on the radio, when country-pop was not a dirty word. For the community fostered by Clark and Van Zandt was not traditionalist; they were injecting irony and minor sixths into the music as never before. The high standards and the work ethic these writers learned in the Clarks’ living room kept their work from getting stale even when success came along.
“We didn’t invent this stuff,” Clark points out. “Writers like Kris Kristofferson, Roger Miller, Mickey Newbury, Billy Joe Shaver and the whole outlaw crowd were writing really good songs before we came along. We wanted to live up to their example. They proved that you don’t have to sell the audience short; the public is a lot hipper than the music biz gives them credit for.
“Every time I wrote a song, I’d call up Townes or Rodney and say, ‘Listen to this.’ And because I was trying to win their approval and because they were trying to do the same, the standard of writing remained high. We weren’t driven by an ambition to become stars, but by a responsibility to do good work.”
By the time the scene’s run of commercial success ended with the coming of Garth Brooks, the key figures had all established their reputations. Harris, Lovett and Skaggs can still fill theaters all over the country, while Clark, Crowell, Walker, Cash and Earle can fill showcase clubs without a problem. So they soldier on, still writing songs with each other’s ears in mind, even if those tunes are more likely to be heard on NPR than on country radio. And sometimes the results are as impressive as The Dark.
Townes Van Zandt, of course, died in 1997. In his absence, Clark relies more than ever on his other best friend, Susanna. Even now, as she’s recovering from a ruptured disc, she still inspires and challenges him.
“Susanna would watch us go through all this songwriting angst,” Clark says with a wry chuckle, “and one day she sat down and wrote ‘I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose’, went out and got it cut. It was a #1 hit for Dottsy [ed. note: actually #12, in 1975], and Susanna said, ‘Is this what you’ve been trying to do?’
“She only writes when she feels like it, and we’ve written only a handful together — ‘Black Haired Boy’, ‘The Cape’, ‘Old Friends’. Performing doesn’t remotely interest her, even though she has a beautiful voice. It bothered me for a long time, but one thing you learn about Susanna is she’s going to do things her way, and like it or not she doesn’t really give a shit.
“I’m glad I’m married to someone who’s an artist too. I’m not going to ask her why she’s out in the studio painting all day when the dishes are dirty, and she’s not going to ask me why I’m in the basement all day. She’s a painter; I’m a songwriter; this is what we do. There’s never been any competition between us; she has always encouraged me, and I’ve always encouraged her.
“Besides, it gives us something to talk about while we’re drinking coffee.”
ND contributing editor Geoffrey Himes’ favorite albums of the year thus far have come from Los Lobos, Caitlin Cary, Paul Kelly, Elvis Costello, Mary Gauthier, Guy Clark, James Talley, Chumbawamba, Hamiet Bluiett, Willie King, Cee-Lo, John Surman & Jack DeJohnette, Jon Dee Graham, Bill Frisell, Edgar Meyer and Nelly.