Music News & Reviews

Guy Clark's new album could sum up his career

Texas singer-songwriter Guy Clark will be featured Friday at Somerset's Master Musicians Festival.
Texas singer-songwriter Guy Clark will be featured Friday at Somerset's Master Musicians Festival.

Among the songs featured on Guy Clark's next album, Songs and Stories, is a plain-speaking but soft-spoken reflection titled Stuff That Works. It's a tune he has performed for years, an ode to the simple, trusted things in life: an old blue shirt, a worn pair of work boots, a dependable friend.

"The kind of stuff you reach for when you fall" is how Clark sums up the subject matter in the song's conversational chorus.

He is too modest to ever do so, but Clark, 69, ought to count his own music among the "stuff" he sings about. For close to four decades, the West Texas native has been a mentoring force for Lone Star State disciples including Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett while the list of artists who have recorded his songs range from Americana king Rodney Crowell to modern country celebrity Kenny Chesney.

But the last thing Clark would dream of crowing about is his artistic prowess. A featured performer next weekend at Somerset's Master Musicians Festival — he performs Friday night and Earle plays Saturday — Clark views songwriting in often workmanlike terms.

"It's just nice to be able to see people do good work," Clark said of the artists who have interpreted his songs. "And it's nice to think you had something to do with it. And I don't mean it came by preaching to them. It came through them listening. Even today, I will help anybody I can who has something to say."

Born in Monahans, Texas ("I just tell people I'm from West Texas"), Clark moved to Nashville in the early '70s. He admitted that Lone Star inspirations are "ingrained" in him. But his early years were spent absorbing numerous folk, country and blues sounds.

"Growing up in Texas, we would go see (blues legends) Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin' Hopkins. The thing about those guys is that they wrote their own songs. That was pretty inspiring. And then I met Townes."

Townes is Townes Van Zandt. A songwriter of epic influence, especially among Texas-bred artists, Van Zandt was a close friend and contemporary of Clark. Van Zandt, who died Jan. 1, 1997, shared the stage of his final Lexington concert with Clark at The Kentucky Theatre in 1994.

"When I met Townes, he had only written two songs," Clark said. "But what I really liked about him was just his use of the English language. It was pretty much flawless."

Clark features one of Van Zandt's most popular works, If I Needed You, on Songs and Stories (by way of a concert version) and on 2009's Somedays the Song Writes You (in a studio recording). The Songs and Stories rendition comes with an introduction that details two characters, Loop and Lil, who figured into a verse often omitted by the numerous artists who have recorded the song. Loop and Lil, as it turns out, were parakeets Van Zandt often carried with him in his coat pockets.

"Don Williams and Emmylou (Harris) did a duet of that and put it out as a single, but they left out that verse. I don't think anybody quite got it until I explained it to them."

Clark's own song writing skills have not dimmed through the years, although he often collaborates with other writers on his newer songs. Sometimes the Song Writes You contains two splendid examples, The Guitar ("if it sounds spooky, it's supposed to") and The Coat ("that one is kind of worldly, or maybe world-weary is more like it").

Among the artists who took to Sometimes the Song Writes You was country megastar Chesney, who cut one of the record's finest songs, Hemingway's Whiskey, as the title tune to his newest album.

"That's money in the bank, right there," Clark said with a laugh. "But really, it's nice to have anybody cover my songs.

"I love writing them. It's hard work. Every day, I get up, come in here (a studio in his home) and go, 'OK. Now what?'

"I've been doing this for 40 years, and sometimes you think you've had all the good ideas you're going to have. But I know there is always something new out there. That's what keeps me doing this.

"Songwriting is something you never get through. You never get to be the best there is. You never get finished. There is always one more song."