Guy Clark Dublin Blues 39:430:00/39:43
Season 1 episode 2 transcription
The world is full of really good songwriters—but only a handful set the bar
Where Guy Clark comes from, the rhyme, the imagery, and the stories seem to roll free and reckless down stretches of two-lane Texas highways. Here are just a few iconic Texas voices—all paving the road that Guy Clark traveled:
Townes Van Zandt
Billy Joe Shaver
I could spend the rest of this podcast just doing that, but today I’m here to talk about Guy Charles Clark. Guy was born in the West Texas town of Monahan. He became part of the Houston music scene before spending most of his life with his wife, songwriter and artist, Susanna Clark in and around Nashville, Tennessee. Guy released thirteen studio albums from his debut in 1975 with”Old No 1” to “My Favorite Picture Of You” in 2013. These 13 albums were on 6 different record labels—that’s usually an indication that the business side of the music business isn’t quite sure what to do with you. They all recognized a great songwriter when they heard one, but great songs aren’t always hit songs. The early records were attempts to twist these songs into arrangements that might have some appeal to country music radio in the mid 1970’s. What did that sound like? Well in 1975, Merle Haggard scored 4 number 1 hits.
It was also the year of Freddy Fender
Like Freddy, BJ Thomas scored on both the country and pop charts
As did Linda Ronstadt, Jesse Colter, and Glen Campbell
Folk inspired acts like Bobby Bare, Jesse Colter and, to some extent, Waylon & Willie were opening a little crack of access to the country charts—a genre that was beginning to lean heavily toward a lush easy listening sound, complete with strings and horns. With a decent budget and a great batch of songs, the collaboration began on what would become Guy’s first record for RCA, Old No. 1. But RCA’s first attempts at turning Guy’s songs into hits failed. Without telling Guy, the producer wrote out charts and flew in a full horn section from Memphis. Guy was having none of it. According to Tamara Saviano in her outstanding biography, Without Getting Killed Or Caught, Guy fired the RCA producer and scrapped what was done on the recording so far. With very little budget left, he got back to his more stripped down, acoustic vision for the record with the emphasis on the lyrics.
No hits emerged from the record, but a songwriter who would always put artistry over hit making did. Here’s the way Guy put it in the biography. “I never did write songs for country radio. I wasn’t a country singer and am still not a country singer. I just write songs and play them. I’m Guy Clark. My songs are not really geared to sell a lot of records and have a lot hits. I just do what I do.” Guy Clark is at his best when he just does what he does.
I only mention all of this because it seems like Guy clark’s music business career was always a balancing act between the way he heard and played his songs, and what producers and record companies thought they could churn into a hit. Three more commercial attempts for Warner Brothers proved what Guy knew all along he was a folk singer and his songs were poetry. It’s true, Guy wrote some of his best songs in those early years, LA Freeway, Desperados Waiting For A Train, She Ain’t Going Nowhere, But he didn’t write all of his best songs back then. Guy was never satisfied with his lyrics being lost in the mix.
In 1988, 13 years after his big label debut, Guy Clark released “Old Friends” on the independent label, Sugar Hill.
This record would set the tone for all the records to come. Paired down arrangements, played by stellar musicians, all in pursuit of supporting the song and highlighting the lyric. Switching to Asylum Records in 1992, he released Boats To Build. Three years later, Dublin Blues. I chose Dublin Blues as a focus for this episode because I believe it is the perfect example of what Guy Clark can do when He’s calling all the shots. Old Friends and Boats To Build are amazing records, absolutely worthy of your attention, but Dublin Blues has it all—Including one of the all-time great first lines:
Just a warning: order a Maddog Margarita at the Chili Parlor in Austin at your own risk—they taste terrible. Guy Clark has a knack for writing personal songs that connect universally. He married the talented songwriter and artist, Susanna Clark in 1972, a complicated, sometimes turbulent and completely beautiful partnership that lasted until her death in 2012. The song Dublin Blues was about her.
Up next is the upbeat Black Diamond Strings which Guy called quote, a love song to Rodney, unquote. Rodney Crowell met Guy in 1972 in Nashville. He was one of the many young songwriters who gravitated to Guy because Guy set that high bar and because of his ability to recognize good writing. Guy and Rodney became lifelong friends and collaborators. Black Diamond strings are the guitar strings you use when you can’t afford literally anything else. JW Crowell was Rodney’s dad.
In a quote from Without Getting Killed Or Caught, Rodney Crowell said he bawled like a baby the first time he heard that song.
At this time, RodneyCrowell was going through a divorce and looking back at what he called his fifteen minutes of country music stardom. He was on the brink of quitting it all when Guy showed up with a song idea.
The song was Stuff That Works—one of two songs on Dublin Blues that seems to warn against hanging your life on the wall
The next track on Dublin Blues would have been a lot shorter had Guy not played it for Susana before he started the editing process. It was inspired by a song written by Hank Williams and performed by Hank’s alter ego, Luke the Drifter
As I mentioned, Guy played it for Susanna pretty much how it flowed out of him and she told him not to change a word. He didn’t, but, looking back, he kinda wished he had.
He is, of course, quoting Hank who is quoting Jesus but, according to Guy It was Hank Williams who said it best.
Next up Guy teams up with Susanna and Jim Janosky to write one of Guy’s all-time great songs—The Cape.
A song about courage, faith, and jumping off the garage
Baby Took A Limo To Memphis was snatched right out of the real world. In a limo On her way to the airport in Nashville for a flight to Memphis, Susanna Clark learned Guy was out the night before and lost 300 dollars to the driver. She decided to have the limo take her directly to her final destination. That would have been about a 1500 dollar car ride
Before I get too far into this, allow me to name a few names. It’s not just the songwriting that makes Dublin Blues so memorable. I’m talking about those stellar musicians who know how to, not only play the notes, but leave the space for the song and the lyric to breathe. I’m talking about mandolin master Sam Bush and Guy’s son Travis on bass. I’m talking about the amazing musicianship and, it turns out, mixing skills of Darrell Scott—a master songwriter himself. I love the hushed and tasteful percussion of the late Kenny Malone. Toss in Verlon Thompson, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Suzy Ragsdale, Nanci Griffith, Kathy Mattea—all these old and talented friends making Guy’s songs shine.
Guy wrote Hangin’ Your life on the Wall with Verlon Thompson, but he drew inspiration from Ramblin Jack Eliott. He even included Jack’s iconic voice on track.
Ramblin’ Jack was also the inspiration for a slow talkin’ blues style Guy used for his song Let Him Roll from 1975’s Old No 1 and the song that appears last on Dublin Blues, The Randall Knife. I give several examples of the talkin’ Blues style on my episode about Woody Guthrie’s Dustbowl Ballads. I encourage you to check it out. This slowed down version creates a whole new thing. Here’s what Guy heard Ramblin’ jack play:
Guy was never happy with the drums and sound effects used on the first recording of the Randall Knife. It made its debut on Guys 1983 record, Better Days
12 years later the power of this song about Guy’s deceased father was unleashed through its simplicity.
The Randall Knife is the perfect ending to this collection of Guy Clark songs. It speaks of loyalty and love, recklessness and strength, as well as the vulnerability of the poet. It’s full of whiskey, pain, and beauty.
Most of the world knows Jeff Daniels as an accomplished and award winning actor of both stage and screen. Dig a little deeper and you find he is also a playwright, a devoted dad and husband, and a damn fine singer songwriter.
Go just a little deeper and you find a man who is committed to the arts and building community around it. He founded the regional professional theatre The Purple Rose in his hometown of Chelsea, Michigan—a town where he lived throughout his career, even though all of the action was clearly on the coasts.
His guitar was a constant companion through his lean years as a struggling actor in New York City. That same guitar became a pal during long periods of down time on movie sets. The result is decades of songs in notebooks and recorded into crude 4 track cassette tape recorders. Oh, and hundreds of songs. Between stints on Broadway, the most recent being Atticus Finch in Aaron Sorkins To Kill A Mockingbird, and major film and television rolls, you might find Jeff rolling down the road in an RV, taking his music to the people in small theaters across the country. As an uncompromising artist himself, Jeff has an appreciation for songwriters like Guy Clark who managed to stay true to themselves—even through the temptation of big money labels and slick producers.
It's it's what the great ones do. You know, Picasso didn't have a committee of producers or corporate people standing behind him going, ‘try more red,’ you know, he didn't, he painted what he saw. Guy Clark is similar. The great ones are. This is what I see, and yeah, there are boundaries and guardrails. If you want to get it heard by someone or covered by someone or recorded by, but I never got the feeling of listening to anything that guy Clark wrote that he wasn't writing for anyone else except himself, and if someone liked it and picked it up, great. I mean, I don't know, guy Clark well enough to know if that was true, but his work sure seems like it. You just hope it catches on because this is the only way you know how to write. And that's every song that guy Clark wrote feels like that, you know,
I remembered Jeff telling me a story a while back about sitting in on one of the great songwriter rounds with Guy, Joe Ely, John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett. I asked him to tell you the story.
He was on that songwriters tour that Lyle Lovett kind of puts together. Lyle was up there at the Wharton center in East Lansing, Michigan with Joe Ely, John Hyatt and Guy Clark and Lyle had kind of brought him in. I knew Lyle from, we were on the Johnny Carson show together in like 1985, I met him on the couch of the Carson show. That's where I met Lyle. We stayed acquaintances, you know, friends over the years. And now I understand that he and these guys are playing the Wharton center on the songwriters tour. I said, I'm going to go up and learn about songwriting. So I emailed him and said, I can meet you up for the pre-show dinner and sound check, and then get a seat and, you know, sit in the audience and learn something. And so I went out there and I said, oh good to see you, and we walked down there and now as you know, the Wharton Center is, like what, a 2000 seater? That's where they were. I had played the Pasant theater, I believe it's named, which is like 600 seats. So as we walked down the hallway of the Michigan state, you know, theater complex, there’s my picture with a guitar going, Hey, thanks for the great night at the Pasant theater. Lyle stops and says you play? And I'm like, um, well, I mean, define play, I mean, and he goes ‘you want to sit in?’ Okay. Well, you can't say no. So you say yes, and now you go back to where the catering is and guy Clark walks up and says, ‘I hear you're sitting in with us tonight.” And I say, ‘apparently I am.’ And he goes, ‘Here's my Martin why don’t you get used to it because what's going to happen is, Lyle's gonna introduce you and then I'm going to get up and hand you my guitar, and then I'm going to go out on the loading dock and smoke a joint.’ I said ‘that sounds good to me.’ So I'm sitting there with Guy’s Martin and, you know, just trying to, what the hell am I going to do? And sure enough, about halfway through the show, Lyle goes into this long introduction. They have no idea who's coming out and then it gets to me and I, there I am, he says the name, hometown boy, place goes nuts. I have walkout guy hands me the guitar, walks off and heads straight for the loading dock. He might've pulled the joint out of his pocket before he got off stage, I don't know. And I sit down and I'm looking, and there's Joe Ely going…uh huh, And John Hiatt's looking at me going, ‘really.’ And Lyle's looking at me going, ‘God, I hope you're good.’ So I break into If William Shatner Can, I Can Too, which is the song I opened with when I first started playing out to take the knees out of anyone who had a problem with an actor singing songs on his guitar, I just like headed them off at the pass before they could hate me. And I'm playing If William Shatner Can, I Can Too, which is full of celebrities who have tried to do this—including me.
And I look over at Hyatt, and Hyatt is biting his finger he's laughing so hard. So it was a huge success, I did the song, I was done, I walked off, here comes Guy Clark and he smells exactly like you would think he would smell if you had just been on a loading dock smoking a joint, and I hand him his guitar and that's it. It was great. He couldn't have been nicer. Couldn't have been more—‘anybody’s got a song's good enough for me.’ I mean, it was just, it was a great night and Guy was a big part of that.
I asked Jeff what attracted him to the idea of songwriting. Was it a particular influence? A particular era of song? Turns out it was writing. Of any kind.
Writing is what hit me in the, in the jaw with a right hook. And that happened in the seventies. I went to New York city to be an actor, and I joined the Circle Repertory Company, which was an off-Broadway theater company. The only thing they did were new plays. And I had come out of college at Central Michigan University a little time at Eastern Michigan, I had done musicals. All the playwrights that I had done were dead. I mean, they, they just were, dead. And now all of a sudden I'm in this off-Broadway theater company and there are like half a dozen playwrights, all of them walking around trying to rewrite a second act. I met Lanford Wilson there, like the first day I walked into the offices and there's a future Pulitzer Prize winner who had already written a play called the Hot L Baltimore, which ran forever on Broadway in the early seventies. And that put Lanford on the map, It puts Circle Rep on the map, it put the whole acting company on the map. It was up about three years before I had, I got there and there's Lanford, the guy who wrote it. He was the first star I ever saw. I mean, you look at rock stars and movie stars and all that. To me, Lanford Wilson was a star. He took a liking to me, an interest in me. And it was being around all those writers and to see the first draft of a Lanford Wilson play come in and now we're going to read it. And if you're one of the actors who was lucky he wrote a part for you. And so we would do the reading and then Lanford would go, ‘thank you very much, see you in a couple of weeks.’ And then we would come back and it would be completely different. Same people, story similar— that whole kind of the sculpting, of taking the clay and then turning it into something. The draft after draft, that's where I fell in love with writing. What is that? How do you go from from draft two to draft three? Whether it's a play, screenplay, a book, or a song, it all was the same way. You learn that you can't rewrite a blank page. Writing doses to start when you sit down in front of a blank page—that’s nothing. It starts, in a play, when you have a hundred pages of a beginning, a middle and an end. Even if it's a mess, now you can begin. Now you go back in and you keep 35 pages of that, but you got a write the first, you got to get it on (the page). And I learned that from those playwrights. I mean, the readings we did, they would just shake their heads and go, ‘No, the second act doesn't work. I'll be back.’ And it would be all pitched. I would just kind of say, why didn't they know ahead of time? You watch a movie and it's like, it didn't come out of the guy's fingers like that in one grab. They had to go through. I mean, that, that never dawned on me. And once it did that became of great interest and the guitar was sitting in the room, it was my best friend. I learned how to finger pick early…
So what was it that brought Jeff’s attention to the deep poet Texas songwriters. Turns out it was one of Guy Clark’s most famous protégés
No, I didn't get clued into them until Stevie Earl, his album Guitar Town jumped out. That led me to Townes van Zandt and Guy Clark. To be honest, I, you know, you're influenced by who hits you first, and with me, it was Arlo Guthrie’s Alice's Restaurant Massacre, that 18 minute epic tale. And it was funny. And it was an acoustic guitar. That's all he had. And then you hear that he's got a hit with the City Of New Orleans. Oh, he didn't write that? Stevie Goodman. Who's Steve Goodman? Now I'm chasing him down. He's not only a great musician as Arlo is—I think Arlo is underrated—but Stevie is like, he’s funny and it was like, yeah, but you can't write funny because as an actor, as you know, actors, you know, if you want to win an Oscar, you can't be funny. Comedy doesn't win awards dramas do. So be serious about your art. But there was this voice in me going, Yeah. But funny is, you know, you can't teach funny. And then I saw Christine Lavin, and I'm going okay. It was okay to write funny. That's what they taught me. That was a door you could walk through if you wanted. It's okay. Those things helped. And then. You know, and now you're into fingerpicking and now it's Stefan Grossman, John Fahey, uh, John Renbourn, doc Watson, you jump on, you gotta learn Deep River Blues. Um, now all of a sudden I'm playing like that and, and writing for it. And it's fun. I enjoy it. It keeps me busy. It keeps me even being depressed because the phone hasn't rung in three months.
But I still remember seeing Steve Goodman at the Bottom Line in New York, like 77, 1977. I wasn't even there a year and he's at the Bottom Line and that's around the corner and up a block from the Circle Rep theater—I think I'm going to jump in there. And I went in and he's out there by himself, the guitars almost bigger than he is, because he was whatever he was, five foot five. And he held the whole room. He killed. He didn’t need a band, he didn't need lights, he didn't need, so he didn't need anybody else, but himself. And I remember looking at that going that, that. If I fail as an actor, this is my backup plan—I’m going to fail as a singer songwriter. That's my backup plan, but I'd really nothing else to do. I had nothing else that I wanted to do that interested me. So I just kept at and at it and at it. And then, you know, like I said, it wasn't until 25 years later that I actually happened to go play out, which is, which is a whole other magilla.
What about the art of performance. Was being on a Broadway stage interpreting a script different from singing songs you wrote in a small theatre out there in the midwest somewhere?
It's very similar. In fact, it's more rewarding in a way, because it's all me. I'm the writer, I’m the actor, I'm the director, I'm the arranger. You're completely in charge where, whether you were in a play or a movie or a TV show, it's somebody else's words. You're going to hand it off. Especially if you're an actor, you're going to hand your performance. As soon as they say cut, it's not yours anymore—It’s off, it's gone, it's to the editor, and then you see it a year later and it's, it's not what you remember. The thing about sitting there with a guitar and just your song and an audience, no matter if it's 20 people or 2000, the connection is the same. That connection from the song, the performance to that listener, whether that's a song, whether it's a play, whether it's even a film that you're not even there anymore. Marshall Mason, at the Circle, the artistic director used to say, there's an electrical, maybe an emotional connection. And if you lose that, the moment the lights come up on the play, you have to connect with that audience and not let that go until the lights go down and the play's over. You have to sustain that. And whether that's with the writing—it’s always with the writing, it starts with the writing, it ends with the writing, but if you can sustain that. You've got a good performance, a good song, a good play, a good movie. That's the same thing that if you're just sitting there with a guitar and a chair.
As a performer, how do you know when that connections been made?
If they don't move, you can start there. I mean, I noticed when I was doing Atticus Finch, I'd come to the front of the stage during the close of the argument, and there's 1400 of the most sophisticated theater goers, you know, it's Broadway, and 1400 people aren't moving. You can feel the stillness, you can hear their silence. They aren't moving because of what you're saying, the words that are coming out, the story. When they aren't with you, there's restlessness, people are moving and looking down, you know, there there's some movement, but when there isn't any at all, you got them and now you got to kind of lead them towards that final verse where if it's the right song, they're going to laugh their ass off, or they're going to cry.
Yeah. And the really good ones like guy Clark, and it goes against everything that, that a live performance is, which is, let me stand on a stage and come to you. You go, you go across the Footlights to the audience with your song, your play or whatever, and your light show. And you're, you're going to the audience to, they just have to sit back. Guy Clark sits there like he's in a closeup in a movie, and he pulls you in. And that's what close-ups in movies do, they pull the audience into the character. Right? So guy Clark knows exactly how little he has to do in order to get that audience, at least emotionally, leaning forward—leaning into what he's going to do and say, and sing next. And that's when you got them. When you can reverse that, that thing of, ‘ I got to go to them.’ No, no, pull them into you. And there's a simplicity to that. That guy Clark had down.