Old Friends, Still Telling Guy Clark Stories
There was a sign backstage at the Guy Clark tribute concert at the Ryman that said: “Guy’s songs are more interesting than your stories.”
But that didn’t stop people from talking and by the next morning, there were still Guy Clark stories being told. Steve Earle did his part by bringing together Clark’s old friends including Joe Ely, Jack Ingram and Rodney Crowell for a guitar pull and storytelling session on his weekly radio show Steve Earle’s Hardcore Troubadour Radio.
Earle recalled his early days in Nashville long before he became a Sirius XM radio show host. One night at Bishop’s in Nashville, Earle came upon Clark who was playing pool. Back in Texas, he had met songwriting legend Townes Van Zandt and figured that was his “letter of introduction.”
As Earle tried to get up the nerve to go over and talk to him, Clark looked up and said “I like your hat.” Clark later helped Earle secure a publishing deal by wearing down a company to get the young writer $75 a week.
“You just have to figure out how to meet him and get hooked up and it will all take care of itself,” was the advice an aspiring songwriter Rodney Crowell was told about a tall dark-haired figure in town named Guy Clark. Crowell was living out of his car and spending his days in Centennial Park. The advice came from some folks he met there, a couple of New Yorkers from Poughkeepsie who were an out of work acrobatic team posing as a Russian trapeze act.
Crowell eventually got a dishwashing job at Friday’s and was talked into getting a house for him and some of his friends. One afternoon he came home and to his surprise, someone was passed out in his bed. It was none other than Guy Clark who had his Justin’s hanging over the end of the bed. Crowell was stunned by the realization, “That’s Guy Clark.”
He finally roused himself from sleep to say just two words: “Hello man.”
Earle surmised that Clark knew he was different than the other songwriters around town.. For himself, Crowell and other writing hopefuls, he believes they learned as much from Guy’s wife Susanna about carrying themselves as artists as they did from him.
When Crowell collaborated with Clark years later on deadline co-writing songs like “She’s Crazy For Leaving” and “The Partner Nobody Chose,” he saw Clark put on his game face. “Guy wasn’t a hair guy. He didn’t have a hairstyle or anything but whenever he had to gather himself and whenever the pressure drop was on, Guy he would push his hair back. He’d comb it all back. It was the way he was raised. That’s when you knew he was in business.”
By the time he had become one of the self anointed “Four Horsemen” along with Lyle Lovett. John Hiatt and Guy Clark, Joe Ely had known Guy since the first night they met and stayed up past sunrise singing songs. At the time Ely had been working a shovel in the circus in ring stock.
“I think I got one more song,” he recounted saying that night. It was a song he had in his head but had never written down. Clark asked him to play it one more time and came back with a an old battery recorder. Ely forgot about it and never played it again. But walking down the main drag in Austin four years later, he heard something familiar on KUT radio. Ely realized it was “The Indian Song,” the same song he played for Clark at sunrise.
“I went out and bought Guy’s record because I wanted it but also so I could learn my own song,” he said noting that Clark got on him that all circus songs should be played in three-four time. Both Clark and Townes Van Zandt did “The Indian Song” as a waltz.
As much as this was about Guy Clark, it was hard not go back to Townes Van Zandt. Earle prompted Ely to recount the great story of how they first met. “As best as I can recall,” Ely said in his gentlemanly and soft spoken Texan accent, “It was 1968. You never saw anybody walking through Lubbock with a guitar and a backpack.”
Van Zandt reached into his backpack and offered Ely a copy of his first album. He had hitchhiked through the Mojave desert without many clothes but a backpack full of records. Ely said that the only person in Lubbock he knew who had a turntable was Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s daddy. He, Gilmore and their new friend Butch Hancock listened to it for months until he said they literally wore a hole in it.
Jack Ingram, some twenty years younger than the men strumming next to him, got Clarks respect when he recorded “Rita Ballou” with the recommendation and help of Steve Earle. Ingram, who grew up with Clarks records that we’re part of the fabric of his family’s house, saw him play in Houston and recalls his imposing mystique.
“He was already Guy Fucking Clark.”
“He was always Guy Clark,” Earle concurred.
In Clark’s later years, he would collaborate on co-writes with younger writers. Ingram recounted how they would go over with two or three ideas. “They’d get high and their ideas didn’t sound as cool as when they brought them in,” Ingram shared. “They’d say them out loud. Guy would just stare at them.’What else you got? That’s your idea?’”
Ingram had an interesting encounter with Clark. When Ingram was playing on his Barefoot and Crazy tour, he’d take off his Justin’s and flip them on to the mic stand. On the last night of the tour he realized he’d run out of boots. He home and bought a brand new pair of boots and was breaking them on the day he went to see Guy Clark.
“Guy looks at me and says, ‘Those look like brand new boots.’”
“They are,” Ingram replied.
“Well that sucks.”
Clark mentioned that he had a pair of Charlie Dunn boots he wasn’t wearing. He asked Ingram what was his shoe size. It turned out that both he and Clark had a size 13. Clark went upstairs and came down with the boots.
“It was one of the best days of my life,” Ingram said. “He gave me one pair of boots and I came out with two”
Clark told Ingram a story about how he was hanging out on a boat he was preparing to sell. Ingram noted that Clark hated being called a craftsman but knew how to make boats. Clark’s job was to sail the boat to a buyer in Florida. But then Hurricane Carla hit Galveston He anchored in bay and rode out storm that leveled the city.
When Ingram played the tribute at The Ryman, it was the birthday of his grandfather who passed away last year. The song “Blowin’ Like a Bandit” has special resonance for two men important in Ingram’s life.
“I’ll pull a Guy on you,” Crowell interjected at some point as he went into another story. Crowell recounted how he had learned a song from his daddy, a nonsense song that intrigued Clark so much that he made him play so he could figure it out. Crowell now calls it “Guy Clark Blues” in deference to an old blues talking song as he describes it.
Earle, who had played “The Last Gunfighter Ballad,” took his turn and sang the song for his friends. It prompted another story.
“Did Guy ever tell you the story of what he wanted to do when he was writing that?” Crowell asked? “He said, ‘Man I was so tempted at the end to have him get run over by a truck full of Marty Robbins records.’”
The four men took turns when their tag came up, a tradition that originated in Nashville back in Guy’s heyday.
They were old friends ,just sitting around playing songs and telling stories, being faithful to oral tradition. You couldn’t ask for a more fitting tribute.