Omaha Rainbow #15, December 1977|
"GUY CLARK, interviewed at the office of Travis Rivers in Nashville, Tennessee, by Richard Wotton on Monday 22 August 1977. Special thanks to John Lomax."
I was born in 1941 in a little town in West Texas. My father was an attorney and my mother did different things, she was a secretary for a time. We moved to Houston in about 1951, then moved down to the Texas coast at Rockport, which is just north of Corpus Christi. I went to high school there, graduated, then I took off.
I started playing guitar about '58; my father's law partner played guitar and sang; and I picked it up from him. Originally I was mostly into classical and Mexican music. I tried a couple of time to study classical guitar but I just didn't have the discipline to do it. It's too easy just to play songs, you know. In the earlt sixties I got into folk music in Houston, mainly from John Lomax's father, and I used to play coffee bars and small clubs. I wasn't writing then, just singing traditional folk songs like everybody else. I was making money out of it when I could but I was doing other jobs as well. I tried going to college off and on for several years but it didn't work out. I did several kinds of jobs during this time, spend some time in San Fransisco, but I was always singing. Then in 1969 I decided I had to do something serious about whether to be in the music business and moved to Loas Angeles. I'd been working at a Houston TV station as an art director. We got the writing deal I have now with Sunbury Music. That took about eight months. Then we moved to Nashville, and have been here ever since. The writing deal involved a certain amount of money each week which was nice because I didn't need another job.
I had met Skinny Dennis in Los Angeles and he came to Nashville about six or eight months before us. He'd gone to New York and was on his way back to the West Coast when he stopped over to see us and never went back. I think it was Mickey's idea about landscaping his garden. Dennis was always hanging around and he needed a job. He said he was going to do it but never got round to it. Rodney Crowell is from Houston but I didn't meet him till he came to Nashville. I knew Townes and Mickey Newbury in Houston, I've known them a long time.
The early days in Nashville were fun. The Exit/In was a very small club and just about the only place where you could play. There were lots of songwriters about and you could hang out and play there; it wasn't much money but it was worth it. They has a writers' night on Monday or Tuesday and you were always meeting people there.
The first song of mine that was recorded was 'The Old Mother's Locket Trick' by Harold Lee on Cartwheel Records. It was a sort of talking blues thing. A lot of people helped get the songs around, like Mickey Newbury and Jerry Jeff Walker who was an old friend. He'd come through town and hang out for a couple of days and listen to what I was doing, and he wound up doing 'LA Freeway.' Micket introduced me to the Everly Brothers and they did one of my songs. It tool time, and that's the whole thing about it.....patience.
I'm flattered when poeople record my songs. I enjoy it and hope it makes a lot of money ! I have an opinion as to whether it's good or bad, but it doesn't matter too much to me. David Allen Coe changed some lyrics, Jerry Jeff changed some, but I don't care because I can always do it the way it goes. I may not like it but for some reason I decided long ago that I was writing songs and putting them out there for people to record. If they changed them, inadvertantly or whatever, I wasn't going to let it worry me. I don't have favorite versiions but Jerry Jeff does them pretty good. I don't think anybody does them the way I think of them.
Have you been performing much lately?
We just got back from three weeks in Japan - just us, we were the only act. I didn't even know the records were out over there, and this guy called and said, "How would you like to come to Japan?" I said, "What for?" He said, "The records been released and you're doing good. You'd do a concert tour with no opening act or anything." I said, "Sure, great." Took my band. Danny Rowland (lead guitar), Chris Laird (drums), Charlie Bundy (bass) and hoyt Axton's pedal steel player, Pete Grant, who's a very nice guy. We did nine concerts in three weeks - it was very relaxed and I loved it. Only about 1500 top down to 500 seat halls, and ther were aware enough of us to come out and we didn't lose money. I'd really like to do that every year.
Last year we did a tour with Waylon Jennings - he just asked if I wanted to go out and play with him - and this year did a few dates with Emmylou. We were out playing till the first of June and since then haven't done anything. I was planning on recording all summer with Rodney Crowell and Albert Lee from Emmylou's Hot Band, Michey Raphael and Bee Spears from Willie Nelson's band, plus David Briggs on keyboards and a drummer. However, just getting all those guys together at the same time is very difficult, plus I was having a hassle with the record company, so the logistics of it are pretty far fetched. We cut four things earlier in the summer and its like a dream band. I've always wanted to play together with that combination. We got into the studio and put it all together. I just flipped out, I could not believe it, how good it was.
Rodney said "Texas Cookin'" was like a live album the way you recorded it.
Yes, that's right. That's the way I really like to record and this recent deal was even more like that. You take the band you're going to work with and do it all at once. That's the way music is to me, it's not going back into the studio and doing my voice over fifteen times. You wind up without an original track there, everything has been done over. It works for some people - you can tell it - but not for me. The very last thing I want to do is a voice over - I want the boys there when I'm singing. The basic tracks we've got are great and they were all done in one take. There you have the edge where everybody is playing together. I don't care how right you can get something, it isn't for me. You can't get back to the place you were at and the feeling when everybody is having a good time. You can't always have it that way and you have to make compromises, but ultimately that is the way I like to record. "Old No.1" was recorded piecemeal, it was a whole bunch of different things. As a matter of fact, that was the second time I did it. First time was with the wrong producer and it was just atrocious. I stopped it and said, "Man, forget it, you just can't do that," so it's little pieces of demos we did for the publishing company and different combinations of stuff.
It sounds OK, feels like one record.
Yeah, that's what we were trying to do - it's a good record and I guess it does, but it was a real mish mash.
Neil Wilburn is the best. He's from Nashville and has lived here all his life. His father was in the electronics business, TV and radio, and he's been here since the first studios were built. Neil's a very gentle, easy going guy and his approach is the same as mine. No matter how sophisticated the equipment, all you're in there for is to record music, and that's what you have to remember. A lot of people lose sight of that. He likes it live, he doesn't like overdubs. We have a perfect working relationship - I know the songs and how to do them, he knows how to put them on tape and that is where he wants it to stop. If you don't have it all together before you start then he ain't going to be doing business wit you to begin wiht. His approach in producing is make sure it gets done right, which to me is perfect.
When are you coming to England?
I've been trying to do it. As a matter of fact, when you saw Rodnet and Emmylou in London last Easter, I was going to do it. I'd been doing some dates with Emmylou and her manager, Eddie Tickner, asked me, "Why don't you come to England with us?" I guess this would have been instead of Asleep at the Wheel. I asked when it would be and it was, like, the last four days of their tour and the first days of my Japanese tour. If it had been two weeks sooner I'd have done it. It was one of the reasons I didn't make it. The problem is money, evidently you can't make any money in England, but Japan, hell, you can make a bunch of money! So it's mainly getting the record company to subsidise and whether they want to foot the bill `cos, especially the first time, there's no way you'll break even. I'd love to come to England.
If you're out on the road a lot it must be harder finding time to write new stuff?
Really. I've never been able to write on the road and it gets harder here at home. I just write when I have the inclination, though I really have to set aside some time and say, 'I'm going to write.' It's hard work and not much fun, but that is what I do and I'd rahter do that than not do it at all.
How do you write?
It's different, sometimes words, sometimes music, sometimes a combination of the two. Sometimes I work on a songs for six months, sometime three nights. It's got harder over the years, probably because I've become a lot more critical of what I'm doing. I don't write nearly as much as I used to. A lot of the songs I write then aren't worth shit, and I was thinking they were. So all round it's more difficult - to find the time and to write the words.
I enjoy my solitude more these days. When I'm out on the road it's impossible to see people, and with the time I have at home I don't particularly want to spend time hanfing out.
One line in 'Desperados Waiting for the Train' had me puzzled. "Drinking beer and playin' Moon and 42."
Moon and 42? Those are different domino games. The songs is about a guy who was like my grandfather.....he wasn't my grandfather, but my grandmother had a hotel in West Texas and he had lived there for ever. He was like part of the family and was a father figure to my father. When I was born in '41 and my father was overseas, he was the first male figure in my life. He was a bachelor and worked in oil fields all his life. He drilled oil wells all over the world. I used to be taken round with him everywhere. I went on the rigs and one of my first memories was of a gusher blowing the racking board right out of the derrick. You don't se that sort of thing anymore, they've got these things under control. He took me along to the bars where he hung out and he taught me a lot about growing up. He died when I was about 20 and that song is about him and out relationship.
It was this song that David Allen Coe changed. You sing, "Carry on Jack, that son of a bitch is coming," and he changed it to, "Don't cry Jack, it's only Jesus coming."
David was trying to make it more dramatic and all it needs is understatement, it's as simple as that. I love David but he couldn't quite grasp the understatement of it. The same way he's in the studios as the Rhinestone Cowboy with glitter and diamonds and all that shit.
'Texas 1947' is autobiographical. We lived in a very small town and it was an incident I'll always remember all my life. I had a good friend who was also 6 and is father worked for the railroad. One day, for some reason, our parents packed us all up to the railroad to this this streamlined train come through. It went throught, didn't stop or anything, and we all stood watching. (Laughs) It was like a moonshot, you know.
Steve Young has recorded 'Broken Hearted People.'
Yes, he's a very nice guy from Mobile, Alabama, originally I think. I love Steve, he's a great singer. I met him in San Fransisco in '67 ot '68. I just met him briefly at a club but I always remembered him. Met him here again at the Exit/In. With 'Broken Hearted People' we were sitting picking at a party one night and he said he liked it and he recorded it. He's got two other records that I prefer. "Honky Tonk Man" was one, he did it on a small label, Mountain Railroad Records. His new record, "Renegade Picker," has too much echo on it. he's got such a perfect voice to begin with which you can hear on those earlier records and this one has echo and all that crap which his voice doesn't need. He ought to be recorded perfectly flat because he's got all that in his voice.
So many good son writers seem to have come out of Texas.
Yeah, Rodney Crowell is superb, and Townes is the best there is as far as I'm concerned. As for what Townes will do - there's the all time question! I've no idea. I know Townes and he loves to play and loves to write and he's crazy and he'll do just that, whatever 'that' turns out to be. You can never tell with him. Townes was the best man at my wedding. I met Susanna in Oklahoma City, where she is from. I was playing there in '68 or '69. We went to California together and when we arrived in Nashville we got married. Townes had his hair down to his ass and I guess we were both drunk. There were just a few of us. Mickey Newbury and his wife, Susanna and me and Townes. We took Mickey's houseboat to Galvin, hired a cab, went to the court house and found the same guy who'd married Mickey and his wife, took the cab back to the boat and went home. (Laughs) That was about it.
Susanna wrote 'Black Haired Boy.' She says it was written about me and I think it was written about Townes. She's a very good writer. She's got the title of Emmylou's next album - a line from one of here songs - "A Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town." She's doing a painting for the cover. On both of my albums the cover photography was done by Jim McGuire. Calls himself Grease Brothers Photography. He's a really great photographer and also did the "Renegade Picker" cover for Steve Young. He knows what he's doing and just keeps taking pictures till he gets it right. I like the "Old No.1" cover but the "Texas Cookin'" cover didn't come out right. The proofs were fine but it came out with a blue cast.
Going back to Susanna, she did that song for Dottsy, 'I'll Be Your San Antonio Rose' which Emmy did as well Jessi Colter's done a song that'll be the title of her next album. she's making an awful lot of money....more that I am! She doesn't play much though she might get into it if she gets more confidence. She'll get onstage whenever Jerry Jeff does once in a while.
1975 "Old No.1" RCA APL1-1303(US)
Rita Ballou/LA Freeway/She ain't goin' nowhere/A nickel for the fiddler/That old time feeling/Texas 1947/Desperados waiting for the train/Like a coat from the cold/Instant coffee blues/Let him roll.
1976 "Texas Cookin'" RCA APL1-1944(US) RCA PL1097(UK)
Texas cookin'/Anyhow, I love you/Virginia's real/It's about time/Good to love you lady/Broken hearted people/Black haired boy/Me I'm feelin' the same/The ballad of Laverbe and Captain flint/The last gunfighter ballad.
The "hassle with the record company" referred to by Guy earlier in the interview has been resolved by his leaving RCA for Warner Brothers. We should be able to look forward to his third album release before long and, hopefully, that first visit to the UK.
By the way, if you think the interview seemed to end a bit inconclusively, Richard put a not at the end to say it "sort of fizzled out here." Never mind, it will give me a good excuse to talk to him again for Omaha Rainbow.