Portrait of an Artist: Guy Clark on ‘Write Your Own Story, Whatever It Is’

Guy Clack sits on a chair with his guitar

Like most of the albums he has made over the course of a 38-year recording career, Guy Clark’s latest, My Favorite Picture of You, is a compact collection of exquisitely crafted vignettes, portraits, and narratives, each etched with just the right amount of colorful detail and tapping a deep well of authentic emotion. From one listen to these 11 songs—spanning the sweet juke-joint scene of “Cornmeal Waltz,” the poignant low-key commentary of “El Coyote,” the heartbreak and transcendence of “Rain in Durango,” and the moving epitaph of “Death of Sis Draper”—you understand fully why Clark’s anthologies and live recordings bear such titles as Craftsman and Keepers.

The precision, clarity, and feeling of Clark’s songwriting have earned him hits (Jerry Jeff Walker’s version of “LA Freeway,” Ricky Skaggs’s rendition of “Heartbroke,” Rodney Crowell’s single of their co-written “She’s Crazy for Leavin’”), induction into the Nashville Songwriters Foundation’s Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting, and a Grammy nomination for the 2006 album Workbench Songs. He has long been held in awe by such peers and protégés as Walker, Crowell, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Darrell Scott, and others, a truth underscored by their contributions to the 2011 double-CD tribute album This One’s for Him.

Born in Monahans, Texas, in 1941, Clark lived in Houston for much of the 1960s, and briefly in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California, before settling into his songwriting life in Nashville, Tennessee. His collaborators include his wife, Susanna, and a circle of friends—Crowell, Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury, Billy Joe Shaver, David Allen Coe—who joined the legendary “guitar pulls” at the Clark house (portrayed in the 1975 documentary Heartworn Highways).

In a catalog that includes such landmarks as Boats to Build, Dublin Blues, The Dark, and Somedays the Song Writes You, the new My Favorite Picture of You is an affecting accomplishment, given that Clark has in the recent past endured chemotherapy treatments for lymphoma, a broken leg, two knee replacements, the loss of his wife of 40 years in 2012, and illnesses in 2013 that have kept him from performing. He played only a small amount of acoustic guitar on the album, leaning heavily on his longtime pal Verlon Thompson and multi-instrumentalist Shawn Camp. Clark also has curtailed the guitar building that has long been his primary avocation, saying, “I’m getting old and have not exactly taken good care of my body, so it’s kind of difficult to stand at my workbench all day.”

In an hour-long phone conversation from his Nashville home, Clark confirmed that a “should have known better” theme runs through several of the new compositions (“Hell Bent on a Heartache,” “Good Advice,” and “I’ll Show Me”). He then went on to talk about the family and Texas roots of his craft, the value of simplicity in songwriting, and the pleasures of collaboration. Although he’s confident in his skills, Clark keeps himself open to serendipity: it played a huge role in writing the new album’s title track, which began as a love song to Susanna and stands now as a deeply touching memorial.

“My Favorite Picture of You” is such an honest and finely detailed song. Was it hard to write?

Actually, it came pretty easily. The hardest part was learning it. I’d had that photograph since it was taken in the late ’70s or early ’80s. I think John Lomax took it, because it was at his house. Townes [Van Zandt] and I were just drunk on our asses, and Susanna had had enough: “I’m going somewhere else.” I think probably Lomax took that picture when she walked out the door. I couldn’t guarantee it, but I’ll credit Lomax with it.

How did the song come about?

That picture has been pinned to the wall in my workshop all these years, ’cause it’s always been my favorite picture of Susanna. The guy I wrote the song with, Gordy Sampson, came over to write with me, and he had some kind of list, two typewritten pages of titles and hook lines. I was going through it, and all of a sudden I saw that title, “My Favorite Picture of You.” A light bulb went off and I just turned my head and looked up, and there was the picture pinned to my wall. I said, “Here it is, Gordy, I got it,” and I knew the whole song. I hadn’t worked it out, but I knew that was the song. It was very clear. It didn’t take very long to write that one, because all you had to do was paint that picture, which was fairly easy. That might have been the first song that was written for the album. That’s where it started.

You don’t seem to write a lot of songs about social or political issues, but you have “El Coyote” and “Heroes” back to back on the new album. What inspired “El Coyote”?

A newspaper article, or it may have been a TV story. That’s a true story. A coyote [smuggler] went down to somewhere on the border and picked up a truckload of illegal immigrants, and coyote says, “Crawl into the back of this truck, and I guarantee I’ll get you across the border for $1,100 apiece.” He got ’em all packed up and gets ’em across the border and unloads ’em and turns around and turns ’em into the border patrol for $1,100 apiece. That’s just heartbreaking. I don’t even know how to speak to it, other than to say it pisses me off. The other story was true, too. Eighteen people locked into the back of a truck, and they couldn’t get out, and they all died in the heat of the south Texas day. I guess I’d had enough. There was nothing else to do except try to write a song about it.


Was “Heroes” also based on a real story?

In that it happens more than you would think—there are more young men coming back from the Middle East who commit suicide than there ever have been in any of the other wars the United States has been in, more than Vietnam or World War II. They come back from the Middle East, and they can’t live with what they did or what they saw, and just kill themselves. That just broke my heart when I heard that. Once again, there was nothing else to do except try to write a song about it.

One constant in your repertoire has been the story song. When did you develop your interest in that form?

I’ve always been into story songs and poetry. When I was a kid, after dinner we’d sit around and read poetry out loud at the kitchen table. It was pre-TV. The whole family would sit together and read Stephen Vincent Benét or whatever really good lyrical story or poetry there was around. Both my parents were literate in that way. My father was a lawyer, and my mother was really into theater and that kind of thing, and it was just a natural thing to do. So I’ve been turned onto it since I was born, I guess.

Was music a part of your family, as well?

No. It’s funny. Neither of my parents played anything, and we didn’t have a record player. But I think there is a musicality in words already. You hear it in good poetry and good prose.

How did you get exposed to music?

I guess the musical part came from one of my father’s law partners, a young woman, Lola Lee Bonner, who had just gotten out of law school in south Texas. She played the guitar and sang Mexican songs—mariachi and norteño music. I was just dumbstruck. I’d never seen anyone play an instrument and sing a song. It was the first time I’d ever experienced that, and it was just spine-tingling to me. The first time I heard that, I had to do it, that’s all there was to it.

When did you get your first guitar?

I guess I was about 16. In south Texas you could go down to the border and get a cheap $12 Mexican guitar. The first year I had a guitar, I didn’t know any songs in English. They were all in Spanish.

When did you get to Houston and start hearing the blues?

I got out of high school in 1960 and went to a year of school at Texas A&I in Kingsville [part of Texas A&M]. I got more and more into folk songs there. I went to Houston in ’62 or ’63 and met some other guys that played guitar and sang. The Houston Folklore Society already existed, hosted by John Lomax. It was 40 or 50 people sitting in the park, playing songs around the circle. I was just in hog heaven to be around that many people doing that. There was the beginning of the little folk scare in Texas, too, with little clubs that had folk music.

What were you and others singing at the time?

Mostly traditional folk songs. People were not yet writing their own songs. I’m sure Bob Dylan had reared his head somewhere, but it hadn’t hit Texas yet. But Lightnin’ [Hopkins] was always there, and Mance [Lipscomb]. Lightnin’ played all over Houston all the time. Mostly, being an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old white kid, you couldn’t walk into those places and listen. It wasn’t safe to do. But because we were involved with John Lomax, we could go. He could get us into those joints. It was a real experience. The cool thing about those guys, Lightnin’ and Mance, was that they were writing songs—about themselves and their experiences. It wasn’t really the white guys doin’ it. But you could relate to these guys—they were the real-deal blues singers, and they were writing songs about their lives. Those songs are autobiographical. The thing that I gleaned from them was that you can write your own story, whatever it is. They were living proof. Otherwise, you’re just another white boy singing the blues.

So the blues players inspired you to write your own songs?

Yes, they did. I loved the blues, I loved the sound of that, the way it feels and everything, but like I said, you can’t just go around learning and playing Lightnin’ songs. So it gives you a reason to use that tool to create with. Fairly soon, everybody got turned onto Bob Dylan, and also in that mix is Woody Guthrie, which was just brilliant. When you realize that “This Land Is Your Land” isn’t just something you find in a songbook, that a guy actually wrote it, that Woody Guthrie wrote it—as soon as that hit home, there you are.


Did you realize early on that songwriting could and would be your profession?

No, I was not too sure it could be. I’m still not too sure it could be. I was just trying to get something done, and I don’t know when that realization actually came. I had a pencil and paper and a guitar, and all you had to do was put that together at some point. The first song I ever wrote was “Step Inside This House.” I thought it was wonderful. So did Lyle Lovett, and he recorded it.

What drew you to Nashville?

I decided that I was going to try to do this, try to write songs and put them out there for people to record. But I moved to LA first. I’d met a couple of guys, and they got me to move to LA around 1970. But I didn’t really care for LA, driving around in the yellow air. It was an experience, and I assume it was a good experience, ’cause I did it and I learned a lot. I was only out there eight months or a year. I had a job at the Dobro factory. I would build Dobros all day and drive into Los Angeles anytime I could make an appointment to play somebody some songs. I didn’t have any tapes. I didn’t have anything other than a guitar and me—that was it. I’d make an appointment, take off from work, and drive into LA and play songs for people. One day somebody got me in to play for the head of RCA’s publishing company, and he said, “Great, man, how much money do you want?” I had no idea about money, and he offered me so much I said sure, I’ll take it. “And where do you want to live? I’ve got a little office in LA, Nashville, or New York.” Well, the question was immediately answered, because I did not like Los Angeles, and I had one friend in Nashville, Mickey Newbury, and I said, “Nashville.” We just packed up the old VW bus and took off.

Once you settled in Nashville, your house became a kind of salon for songwriters working slightly left of the country mainstream—Rodney Crowell, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Billy Joe Shaver. How important was that sense of community?

It was very important, because it was people doing the same thing you were trying to do. It was like Paris in the 1920s—everybody hanging out and writing. There was great camaraderie. It was never a competitive sport with the people I was around. Everyone was very helpful to one another. In LA, it had been a real competitive sport. Just getting a gig playing at a little joint somewhere was not easy to do, because of the competition. In Nashville, everyone was just, “Yeah, man, come on, I’ll help you do this.” It was good fun. It made it all come true.

In the pop and folk of the late 1960s and early ’70s, there was a lot of experimentation in songwriting, and a fair amount of excess. How did you learn to write with such economy?

I don’t know that I’ve learned it yet. I’m still trying to figure out what to leave out. Looking back at it, and listening to my earlier songs, I figure I always wrote too much. There was always too much going on. It’s like good guitar players: it’s not the hot licks they play, it’s the holes they leave.

If you were teaching a songwriting workshop, how would you advise students to edit themselves?

I don’t know that you can tell somebody how to do that. You have to prompt the audience to use their own imagination, as opposed to explaining every little detail to them. Go put on a Hank Williams record and listen to it. It’s dead simple. Put on a Lightnin’ Hopkins record, and it’s dead simple. Mance Lipscomb. Woody Guthrie. Anything that’s really good, that really captures you and makes a difference to you, is usually very simple.

The complete opposite of something like Dylan’s “Desolation Row”?

Well, that’s a rather unique case. The first time I heard “Desolation Row,” I had to learn it. Nobody had ever heard anything like that. So there are exceptions to every rule, and that would be one.

Many of your songs over the past couple of decades are co-written. What moved you in that direction?


I got into it mainly just by being stuck. I used to always write by myself, and I was just getting to a point where I couldn’t come up with anything. I didn’t write anything new for several years in the ’80s. But people of a like mind eventually wind up helping one another in some way. I really like co-writing for a couple of reasons. One is, you’re just sitting there with one other person, and hopefully it’s someone who is smart and you enjoy their company.

When you’re writing by yourself, often you’re sitting there just going “mmm, mm, mm,” mumbling the words to yourself and kind of humming along. You’ve got most of it on paper, but you’ve never actually committed to it orally. You’ve never sung it out loud. But when you have to say it out loud to another person to explain what you’re trying to say, you save yourself just tons of time. You get closer to the meat of what you’re trying to do, sooner.

Do have any special routines for collaboration, in terms of where you do it and how you work out music and lyrics?

When I co-write, people usually come here, and we sit in the room and drink coffee or smoke dope or whatever and just work until we get something—and if we don’t, we come back another day. It’s just a matter of whoever’s got what. If you’ve got a good lick, play it, and hopefully your co-writer will recognize it. It’s never laid out that “OK, you do the music. I’ll do the lyrics.” It just doesn’t work like that. You always wind up doing both.

You’ve often included one song by Townes Van Zandt on your albums. How did you decide to sing “Waltzing Fool,” an early Lyle Lovett song?

It was just time to do something different. I searched around and through Townes’s stuff, and there are still a lot of good songs to be gleaned, but that Lyle song has always been in the back of my mind. I just always adored that song. There’s something about it that is just so charming. Then Lyle called me, because he was getting some kind of big award from ASCAP, and he wanted to know if I would sing a song of his at the awards ceremony. I said sure. He didn’t suggest a song, but I knew immediately what I wanted to do. I did “Waltzing Fool” for the awards banquet. The next morning I had the studio booked to work on this album, and that song was the first thing we did when we got into the studio.

Coming toward the end of the album, it’s almost a bookend with the opening song, “Cornmeal Waltz.”

I never think of that. I just pick the best ten or 11 songs I’ve got and record ’em. I figure the less of that obsessive crap I have to go through—“Oh, wait, what if we put this here? No, let’s put that here”—the better the record is.



Guitars: Guy Clark plays one of his own guitars, a 000 model. “When I started building guitars, I made nine flamenco guitars first, because that’s the kind of guitar I started playing,” he recalls. “I love the way they feel and the way they sound. I need a steel-string guitar onstage, but I want it to be more like a flamenco guitar, so I built a 000 12-fret slot-head guitar that pretty much fills that bill. I used Indian rosewood for the back and sides, old German spruce that a neighbor gave me for the top, cedar for the neck (it’s very light and very strong), scrap from the back and sides for the headstock, and ebony for the fingerboard, faceplate, and binding. It’s the best guitar I’ve ever played. Just about everybody who comes in and plays it feels the same way.”

Amplification: RMC pickup system (rmcpickup.com), with individual pickups under each string and onboard tone and volume controls.

Strings: Medium-gauge D’Addario phosphor bronze.

Capo: Shubb, which he sometimes uses on the top five strings (leaving the E string open) to create an effect similar to dropped-D tuning.

Picks: A custom combo of a flatpick and thumbpick. “I originally played with fingerpicks and a thumbpick, and tried to learn to play Elizabeth Cotten style,” he explains. “But I didn’t like metal fingerpicks, and I cut off the end of my thumb on my right hand, and I couldn’t get nail that would work as a picking nail. Plus, my thumbs are double-jointed at the first joint, so instead of sticking straight out, where you could grow a good nail on there and pick with it, my knuckle makes a right angle, an L. So you make stuff that adapts to what you need. I put a thin, lightweight flatpick onto a Herco blue thumbpick to strum with. I cut off the end of the thumbpick, so it doesn’t stick out too far, do the same with the flatpick, and drill little holes in both and brad them together.”

Derk Richardson
Derk Richardson

Derk Richardson is a freelance music journalist, host of the KPFA radio program "The Hear and Now," and former managing editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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