Guy Clark’s been aptly portrayed as a national treasure. The native Texan has devoted his life to crafting masterful, poignant melodies and lyrics that have earned him the richly deserved title of "Songbuilder." Clark continues the tradition that has brought him such acclaim with his latest Sugar Hill CD, The Dark.
"I’m really proud of the way we recorded this album," Clark says. "It’s the same way we recorded the last one, Cold Dog Soup, and this is even closer to what I’m trying to attain."
Clark achieves the organic sound by keeping things simple. Clark and frequent collaborators Verlon Thompson and Darrell Scott play the instruments while Clark sings. He is also joined by renowned musical talents Tim O’Brien, Shawn Camp, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.
The result is a stunning collection of 12 timeless gems, 11 co-written by Clark and one by his late friend, Townes Van Zandt. Most of Clark’s songwriting takes place in the basement of his Nashville home in the workshop where Clark also builds guitars.
"I do 99.9% of my songwriting right here at this table," Clark says. "I can’t write on the road because there is too much to do. When I write, I have to blow off everything else and just sit and stare out the window. I’m not a multi-tasker when it comes to writing."
Clark’s focus on songwriting began in the ’60s when he, Van Zandt and Jerry Jeff Walker were part of the burgeoning Texas music scene.
"I met Townes in Houston, we were both playing the clubs there," Clark says. "He had written about two songs I think, and was hanging out with Jerry Jeff, married, supposed to be going to law school. Townes was bound and determined to have the blues. We got to be friends and I really have to credit him because he is one of the main reasons I started writing. I had probably tried to write songs before to no avail. But the first time I heard one of Townes’ songs it was so literate, you know, and yet music. No one can be Townes, but you can use the same approach."
Clark achieved success as a songwriter with Walker’s recordings of his now classic "L.A. Freeway" and "Desperados Waiting For A Train." Through the years, artists like Johnny Cash, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Steve Wariner and Rodney Crowell have recorded Clark’s songs. But no one does justice to a Guy Clark song more than the master craftsman himself.
"I suppose it’s because I wrote them and they’re my stories," Clark says. "Most of the songs I write I couldn’t make up by any stretch of the imagination. They either happened to me or they happened to someone I know."
The songs on The Dark are no exception. The album stretches from the subtle imagery in "Mud" and "The Dark" to the fabled yarns of "Magnolia Wind" and "Soldier’s Joy" to the suffering in "Homeless" and "Queenie’s Song" to the joy of "She Loves To Ride Horses." With every song on The Dark, Clark once again proves he is a consummate storyteller. On each track, he wraps his aching voice around masterfully crafted songs that flesh out and give meaning to the core of American experiences.
Clark reunited with some of his favorite co-writers and made some new friends while writing songs for the CD. Clark wrote "Arizona Star" with his friend Rich Alves.
"Arizona Star was a real character here in Nashville back in the ’70s," Clark says.
"She had this girlfriend named George and they paraded up and down Elliston Place. She was really a beautiful girl, kind of a Marilyn Monroe look. It was real street theater. Rich didn’t know her, but he started with this melody and was describing someone that reminded me of Arizona Star. She was as close as I could describe her in the song."
Clark wrote "Magnolia Wind" and "Soldier’s Joy" with one of his favorite collaborators, noted tunesmith Shawn Camp.
"We wrote a song called ‘Sis Draper’ on the last album. The next time Shawn and I got together we decided to take some of the characters from Sis Draper. We’ve written five or six songs with the characters from that song. ‘Magnolia Wind’ and ‘Soldier’s Joy’ are part of that suite of songs. In ‘Soldier’s Joy’ we fantasized how a fiddle player would get started in Sis’s family. This is about her great-great grandfather who lost his leg in the civil war and he couldn’t dance so he became a fiddle player and he passed it down to the next generations."
The opening track, "Mud," and closing title track were co-written with Buddy Mondlock.
"Buddy is an old friend but we’ve never written together," Clark says. "Both of these songs were Buddy’s ideas. When I write with other people, it brings out different parts of me and I’m always surprised. It’s really fun. ‘The Dark’ came about because Buddy was in a bad mood and I was up and happy that day. He said, ‘I’m a little darker than you are today.’ But, it’s really not a dark song, it’s an uplifting song with a different take on life."
Clark wrote "Dancin’ Days" and "Off The Map" with his neighbor, noted songwriter Steve Nelson.
"He’s a great songwriter," Clark says. "He’s written music and lyrics for Winnie the Pooh cartoons and for artists like Barbra Streisand. Steve moved here a few years ago from LA. I don’t know how we came up with ‘Dancin’ Days’ but someone who heard it said it sounded like the sequel to ‘She Ain’t Going Nowhere,’ (from Clark’s 1975 debut album, Old No. 1) "It wasn’t meant to be, but it seems to fit. ‘Off The Map’ is kind of a ‘Death Of A Salesman’ piece."
Clark co-wrote the sorrowful tale "Homeless" with Ray Stevenson.
"It was the first time we had ever written together. Ray came over here and walked into my guitar shop and said, ‘I don’t want to write a song, I want to build a guitar,’" Clark says. "He came over here every minute that he had off. I walked him through the whole process and he built a flamenco guitar by himself. Sometimes when he finished working, we’d sit down and fiddle with this song. By the time he finished building his guitar, the song came to fruition. The idea came from a homeless guy Ray saw downtown that held a sign that read, ‘Friend for life, 25 cents.’"
Clark recorded Van Zandt’s "Rex’s Blues" for inclusion on The Dark.
"I’ve loved that song since the day Townes wrote it and I promised myself that I am going to put a Townes song on every album I record until the day I die because he was my friend and a great songwriter," Clark says. "This one was next on my list."
Clark says his only goal in creating songs is writing them in a way that the listener will be able to relate to the song.
"I’m not always able to accomplish it, but I try to write in a way that allows the listener to become part of the song," Clark says. "Being a songwriter is not something you’re ever through with. You don’t ever get to be the best there is. You try to do better than you did but you never get completely through it. When you remember all the words without having to even learn them, that’s usually a good sign. There’s a myth about Willie Nelson never writing anything down -- if the words are so strong that you can’t forget them, the song will usually hold up. Sometimes you just have to get out of the way and let the music emerge without trying to command it."
With words and lyrics so strong that they are indeed unforgettable, the collection of songs on The Dark should certainly prove to be a brilliant and progressive contribution to the extraordinary musical archives of Guy Clark.