Who's That Guy?
You've done your homework on Guy Clark. You've studied the press clippings ("Better than a good Texas brisket!" enthuses Vince Gill. "In my wildest dreams I look like Michelle Pfeiffer and write like Guy Clark," bubbles Pam Tillis. "He may be the Thirteenth Apostle," raves Leroy Parnell. "A genius for describing down-home Texas living," claims Waylon Jennings. "I hold Guy in the same esteem that I do Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits," lauds Rodney Crowell), you've listened to the CD (1992's Boats to Build), and you've even spoken to a co-worker whose ex was one of Clark's old Nashville drinking buddies ("laconic," is how she remembers Clark). You've even spoken to the musician himself. But the best word you can come up with to describe Guy Clark is...cool.
This Saturday Clark, the laconic troubadour whose tunes have been covered by country superstars from Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash to Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, and Rodney Crowell, will become the latest Lone Star legend to strut his stuff across the Stephen Talkhouse stage. It's another coup for the club and another treat for fans of high-quality songwriting. Joe Ely, Jerry Jeff Walker, and now Guy Clark. In two years the Talkhouse has cornered the market on a musical genre no other Dade County concert venue ever showed interest in. If they made songwriter trading cards, these guys would be at the heart of any serious collection. They're the equivalent of baseball's triple threats, crossing blues, country, and folk boundaries with fluid ease.
Clark's exquisitely crafted songs blend deceptively simple melodies with clever, incisive lyrics that catch your ear and force you to stop whatever else you may be doing to listen more closely. He does not write music to blare from your Alpine as you zoom down I-95 with the windows open, choosing instead to compose thoughtful character sketches and keen-eyed vignettes that demand full attention to be appreciated. The man can turn a phrase, and that is his claim to fame.
Certainly his music is pleasant enough, in a country-folksy-bluesy kind of way, but it's the words you remember. It's the words that make Guy Clark cool. Words like "I got these lines in my face trying to straighten out the wrinkles in my life" from "Ramblin' Jack and Mahan," or "She's got answers to some questions that I would not dare to ask/Survival's never graceful when the changes come that fast" from "Madonna w/Child ca. 1969."
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The droll Texan is in no danger of being branded prolific. Both of those songs are on Boats to Build, two years old and still waiting for the followup -- he's heading back into the studio in July. Clark has recorded just seven LPs over the course of a musical career spanning 24 years, a leisurely pace he chalks up to a perfectionist's mindset -- he will sit on a song until he's completely satisfied with it.
"'Baton Rouge' [from Boats] was like that," he confides in a smooth southwestern drawl that ignores his residence in Nashville since 1971. "I wrote a few segments that I really liked, but I just couldn't seem to complete it. I kept tinkering with it. Finally I put the song aside for six months. When I picked it up again, I finished it easily. Some come quicker, some slower. If you want it to be good, you can't rush it."
While younger country artists like Skaggs and Crowell have scored big with songs penned by Clark, the veteran tunesmith is often cited as the best interpreter of his own material. His homespun charm and weather-beaten voice inform his eloquent-but-streetwise lyrics with hard-won authenticity. It's like that with his pals Ely and Walker as well. Other singers have performed some great covers of their songs, but for every last nuance of pain, longing, love, redemption, wisdom, and color you've got to go to the source.
"I've tried to deliberately write hit songs for other people. It happens all the time -- someone will come along and say, 'Man, could you write something for George Jones?' I wish I was better at it, the money would be nice, but I just can't work that way. It's not my strong suit," Clark admits.
The tall, charismatic musician with the Nolte-esque hair and eyes has played his share of gin joints and honky-tonks over the years, and has had his fill of trying to sing over loud bands and drunken drummers. These days, in keeping with the spare, less-is-more instrumental arrangements on Boats to Build, Clark prefers to take the stage with nothing but an acoustic guitar and his son Travis, playing bass for accompaniment. Word has it he possesses an uncanny ability to mesmerize an audience with both his understated, oddly resonant singing voice and a knack for storytelling and trading one-liners with an audience.
He engages in his share of mildly self-deprecating humor (revealing that he is ridiculing himself in "How'd You Get This Number," for example), but the pride Clark takes in his craftsmanship is palpable. He considers himself a purist. You can't imagine him ever making a video.
"I go to a lot of trouble to create an aural experience," he says. "I'm offended by [music videos]. They're way too expensive -- sometimes they cost more to make than it does to record a whole album. I've seen very few I really like."
He pauses and sighs resignedly. "I've made two," he admits.
Guy Clark performs at 9:00 p.m. Saturday at Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557. Admission costs $10 and $12.
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