Deep in the heart
Texas native Guy Clark’s poetic country does what it pleases
Guy Clark’s speaking voice, over the phone from his Nashville home, is much like his singing voice: low, soothing and Southern. Clark, born and reared in Texas, is one of a number of stellar singer-songwriters, including Jerry Jeff Walker, Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith, to come from the Lone Star State. He became successful early on as a songwriter when country artist Walker had a hit with Clark’s now-classic “L.A. Freeway.” His success continued when the likes of country greats Johnny Cash, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Crowell recorded his tunes, and it continues to this day. He’s not known as the “King of the Texas Songwriters” for nothing.
Clark’s songs are poetic and heartfelt. His latest album, The Dark, is filled with simple yet thought-provoking lyrics that can just as easily stand on their own without the music, though the music just makes them that much more meaningful. On “Homeless,” he sings, “She’s way past complainin'/ She sings a heartfelt melody/ One that begs for harmony/ It’s not what she thought it’d be/ But, hey, it could be rainin'.” The song ends with, “Lose your way sometime/ You never really have control/ Sometimes you gotta let it go/ When the final line unfolds/ It don’t always rhyme.” His compassion for humanity and grasp of the human condition shine through in the songs.
I suggested that he seemed like a poet to me, which got us into a little conversation about poets and writers. Who is his favorite poet? “Hands down: Dylan Thomas.” These days, he reads the classics. He’s decided it’s high time. “I’m in the middle of Moby Dick right now.” He’s got Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald waiting in the wings, though he’s not so sure he’ll ever tackle Fitzgerald, he says. He likes Larry McMurtry and Tom Robbins.
We got off on a conversation about improvisation (contrary to what some might think, jazz musicians aren’t the only ones who improvise), which got us into talking about, besides Clark’s own playing, Willie Nelson and Miles Davis. All this to say that Clark has a well-rounded yet humble understanding of things: He sees the similarity between the deep simplicity/complexity of Miles and Willie, for instance, and then says honestly and simply, “Moby Dick‘s pretty cool…”
Clark’s unassuming but insightful character makes him a very pleasant conversationalist and an excellent songwriter and musician. His love for life clearly comes through in his performance.
And Clark’s performance these days is what’s starting to win him even more fans. He is perched very nicely on the post-O Brother, Where Art Thou? wave. The newfound popularity of country/folk/ bluegrass/roots music in the wake of that film, exemplified by such artists as Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss, and the near cult-like devotion to the late Johnny Cash, for instance, bodes well for country boy Clark. Couple that with his talent and his history (his longstanding musical and personal friendship with the legendary Townes Van Zandt alone gives him plenty of cred), and you have an American legend in the making.
On stage with him at the Sierra Nevada Big Room will be his long-time buddy and collaborator, singer-songwriter and guitarist Verlon Thompson ("He sings like a bird!" Clark told me admiringly). Clark and Thompson have played together for "10 or 15 years" and know and like each other so well that they just get up there and play. "We never rehearse. … We just think exactly the same. … It’s the most comfortable I’ve ever been playing…" As usual, there will be no set list. They might just start out playing a song called out from the audience. You never know. But I do know it’s gonna be good.