Writing Songs and Building Guitars: An Interview with Guy Clark

Guy Clark
My Favorite Picture of You

Guy Clark is a plainspoken, honest, and uncompromising figure. With a rough-hewn Texas accent, striking features and an imposing frame, he fits the description of an outlaw well and his long history playing alongside fellow kindred spirits like Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, and Emmylou Harris backs this persona. After all, it was Guy and his wife Susanna, who hosted these songwriters at their home, where they would spend countless hours writing, chatting, and often raising all sorts of mischief. While their music didn’t fall by the wayside then, it certainly has been raised in stature over the years, making Guy somewhat of a forefather of the folk-rock, Americana world. It helps that he is also painstakingly careful with his writing. He eschews short cuts and urgency, seeking instead to honor the commitment and hard work that all good art demands be invested. The act of creating isn’t always easy, but its’ rewards can last a lifetime. This is a concept Guy has stood behind throughout his career.

Sadly, he is embarking on this next chapter without his beloved Susanna, who passed away last June. It’s hard to tell Guy’s story without her, so fittingly, Susanna serves as the inspiration for his latest album, My Favorite Picture of You. As a striking Polaroid graces the cover and a lasting memory lays at the root of the title track, Susanna continues alongside Guy in spirit, providing heartfelt inspiration and guidance, much like she had over the course of the past 30-plus years. I caught up with Guy on a recent afternoon, where we pleasantly chatted about the new album, the process of writing, and some well-worn memories.

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Thanks for taking the time to chat, Guy. I was able to get an advance copy of the new album, My Favorite Picture of You, and I have to say I really like it. And that’s where I wanted to begin. It’s been about four years since your last album, so was it about time to get back to the recording studio or were things a little more spontaneous this time around?

Oh, it’s always about time. (Laughs).

Did you have some songs laid out ahead of time or was the songwriting process a bit more spur-of-the-moment for this album?

Oh, they’re all pretty new. I don’t know that they were planned out or not. My approach to making records is whenever I get to ten or eleven good songs; that’s when I decide it’s time to make a record. There’s nothing really scheduled about it.

In looking at the crew you’ve assembled as musicians for this album (multi-instrumentalist Shawn Camp, guitarists Verlon Thompson and Gordie Sampson) I see some familiar names from your past work. Is it fair to say that you’ve got a good sense of camaraderie with these players? Do you hear them playing on the tracks as you’re writing or sketching them out by yourself?

Not really, but like you said, I’ve got some friends that I play with all the time and I try to keep things as simple as possible. You know, I just want musicians to present the song in the best way, because my main strong suit is the lyrics. I mean, I don’t tell anybody what to play. Everybody listens to the song and plays what’s appropriate.

Well, it certainly sounds great, and I think they complement your voice quite well.

I would certainly agree with that.

A song that stands out to me on this album is “The High Price of Inspiration”.

Yeah, that’s one of my favorites.

Yeah, I think it reflects that sentiment of having the “good angel” on one shoulder, and the “bad angel” on the other and illustrates that conflict of what you and some of your peers have mentioned before: that whole idea of chasing the art and chasing the inspiration at nearly any cost.

Oh sure. It’s a battle that can produce both positive and negative results.

How did you get hooked up with Jedd Hughes, who co-wrote the song with you?

Well, I’ve known Jedd for several years. I met him, well, I can’t remember where I met him exactly. Somebody brought him over my house one day. Then, he started playing with Rodney Crowell and I started to hang out with him a little bit then and I think he’s just a very special person. He’s just a great person, and just an incredible guitar player. I love the way he thinks about writing. He’s also just good fun to write with.

Were you guys in the same room ironing that song out or was it a longer process that maybe took a few days or a few weeks?

It seemed like I had written that line down: “the high price of inspiration”, but when Jedd came over to write, we didn’t have anything in mind. I wasn’t thinking of writing that particular song the day he came over. It just kind of popped out. I was looking through some notes I had made and that line was there. We both kind of looked at each other, and said ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea!’ It’s an idea we both knew about. (Laughs)

This album too, finds you revisiting the character of Sis Draper.

Oh yeah.

You’ve touched on her for years now. Again, was it a spontaneous decision to throw her character back into the mix or was it a particularly good time to include a song about her?

Shawn Camp and I have been writing around her character for several years. She’s been the subject of seven or eight songs. She was a real person. She was the person who taught Shawn Camp how to play the fiddle. From an early age, that’s who he learned from. He was around her a lot and she would show up once in a while at family gatherings and stuff, so he was always quite aware of her presence.

She’s made for a lot of great stories. Now, with the death of Sis Draper on this album, have we heard the last of her or is she going to come back around and haunt us some more?

(Laughs). No, I think we’ve gotten rid of her, but I’ve had in the back of my head an idea for “The Ghost of Sis Draper”.

I was going to say: The Ghost of Sis Draper” has a nice ring to it, so perhaps she’ll be back.

Yeah, you never do know.

I’ve heard that Lyle Lovett’s “The Waltzing Fool”, the last song on the album, is a song of Lyle’s that you have a bit of history with and obviously possess a certain fondness for.

Oh yeah. Well, a long time ago he had left behind a tape. I guess you could call it a demo tape but it sounded like a record to me. It had about ten or fifteen songs, and “The Waltzing Fool” was one of them. I just thought he was amazing in terms of the quality of his writing and his work, and this was a song that had always stuck in my head from the first time I heard it. Lyle was getting an ASCAP Award of some sort and had asked me to perform a song of his at the awards ceremony and the first thing that popped into my mind to play was “The Waltzing Fool”. So, I performed it that night at the awards ceremony and it just so happened that I was going into the studio the next morning to work on this record. And when I got there, there was nothing else that I wanted to do other than that song. That’s how it came to be included on the album.

It’s a nice surprise when it pops up on the album and fits nicely with how you just described it. It’s a cool little moment of spontaneity when it appears towards the end.

Yeah, I think it fits in nicely.

Well, it obviously also goes without saying that this album is very sentimental and close and dear to your heart. And the picture on the front of Susanna has quite a story, doesn’t it?

That’s always been my favorite picture of Susanna and I’ve always had it pinned to my wall since the late 1970’s or early 1980’s or whenever it was taken. The most eloquent thing I could ever say about Susanna was that picture, you know. But, let me tell you. When that picture was taken, she was pissed off. (Laughs). Me and Townes Van Zandt were in that house that she’s standing in front of and we were just drunk off of our asses, just being absolute jerks. She had had enough so she just walked out of that house and somebody snapped the picture, I think it may have been John Lomax and it was just a classic look.

I’m paraphrasing here, but the old story goes that you were working in television out in Los Angeles as a day job in addition to singing and writing songs when Susanna asked you what it was that you would ideally like to do. When you responded with music, she just said, well that’s what you’re going to do. Was taking a risk like that intimidating? Did you have faith that it would just work out?

Well, both. You know, you wake up every morning with doubts about your ability to create and make a living at it. But, on the other hand I was sure I could do it.

It’s a great story and a great testament to your ability and faith. And, I’d venture to say it all worked out great!

Oh yeah, it was a good decision for sure.

Focusing on songwriting for a second, I recently re-watched the Townes documentary, Be Here To Love Me, and I was struck by Jerry Jeff Walker’s comments about how in order to succeed and to really find out if you can make it, you must devote your entire being to the craft. Townes certainly took that to heart, for better or for worse. However, I feel as though you’ve been able to balance the two. You’ve been successful as a songwriter, yet also had a loving and supportive marriage, and a group of solid friends that you could collaborate with and bounce ideas off of. Would you agree with that assessment?

Well, first of all, I don’t consider it a craft. I consider it poetry and art. Craftsmanship, when it comes to songwriting, I find kind of offensive. However, I have other things in my life, like I build guitars for example, and I do some painting to try and create some sort of balance. You’re sitting at a table and you’re trying to conjure up something meaningful and when it comes to writing songs you want it to be something good. And then, in the same breath, to be able to walk across the room and do this hand-eye coordination thing of building guitars is kind of symbiotic. In other words, you’re using one side of your brain to do one thing and then you switch. And I think they (songwriting and building guitars) feed off one another. I do this all in one room.

And I imagine when working on the guitars, ideas for lyrics will fly into your head.

Oh sure, and I’m always waiting on glue to dry.

Ha. That’s true. Do you set aside time each day to go into that room to work and write?

Well, recently I’ve had both knees replaced. I’m not able to stand at the workbench for any long period of time because that’s just the way it is. Slowly it’s getting better, and I’ll be getting stronger, but I’ve lost a lot of muscle mass in my quadriceps and at my age it’s hard to get that back.

The recovery time isn’t as quick as it used to be, unfortunately.

(Laughs) No, it’s not as quick as it used to be.

Well, if you’re kept from making guitars for a while, you can still play the guitars while you’re resting, right?

(Laughs) That’s true. I can’t play quite as well, but I can play.

One more subject I want to touch on is the nature of competition. Back in the 1970’s, you and Susanna used to host all of those immensely talented singer-songwriters at your house. When you all got together to play and share songs, I would imagine that some feelings of competition would rise up from time to time.

Well, I’ve never thought of songwriting as a competitive sport. Everybody supports and inspires one another, but it’s not a competition.

Was it inspiring though to hear somebody like Steve (Earle) or Rodney (Crowell) come up with those songs of theirs?

Oh, for sure.

Did you get the urge to move to the other side of the room and come up with something that could top it?

Not to top it, but within yourself to write and use the English language to the best of your ability. Like I said, it’s not a competitive sport to me. But, you hear “Pancho and Lefty” for the first time and that’ll make you want to write some more.

Are there some recent artists you’ve heard that have really struck a chord with your tastes?

I really like a lot of songwriters, in fact I’m a fan of just about everything I hear. Jedd (Hughes) is a good example. I really like what he does and like watching him onstage playing guitar with Rodney (Crowell) is really inspiring. Shawn Camp is the same way. He’s just an incredible musician and a great writer.

Well, sorry to hear about your knees, but I wanted to ask if you’ll be getting out on road once you’re feeling better.

Yeah, I’m gonna get out and play. I’m just moving a little slower and have to pick my spots. I just can’t go out and beat the road to death anymore playing those little joints. But, you know, I’ll be out there. I’m not quitting.

I think we’re all happy to hear you say that.

Well, I hope so. I’m looking forward to getting out there.