There’s a seemingly endless supply of folks that are talented enough to make a living with the gifts they’ve been blessed with. But then there are those exceptional few – a mythical few – that are willing to spend whatever time is necessary – make whatever sacrifice is necessary – to accomplish the extraordinary.
Take Larry Bird for instance. The “Hick From French Lick” was an amazing basketball player. But the reason he’s in the NBA Hall of Fame is the extra tens of thousands of shots he took during hours and hours of practice alone in the gym.
Or better yet, take the peerless Guy Clark. The “Songwriter’s Songwriter” is a celebrated artist to be sure. In 2004 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He received the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. And in 2013, he received the Academy of Country Music’s Poet’s Award.
But what makes him legendary is the time he spends transforming a couple of pieces of wood into a hand-made six-string – or simply “throwing darts at the bull’s eye” – searching for a little extra inspiration while crafting one of his “close-to-the-bone” masterpieces.
This week Clark released his latest collection of masterpieces, “My Favorite Picture of You,” his first album of new material in four years. The rare and treasured work is as much a custom creation as the guitars he fashions on a simple workbench in his basement. It is also, arguably, the most emotional album of his much-decorated career.
Clark wrote the album’s heartfelt title tune for Susanna – his wife of 40 years, and a successful songwriter in her own right – who passed away in 2012. Her picture adorns Clark’s new record, a lasting image of the creative partner who long ago insisted he quit his day job and write songs.
And building on the lingering memories of affecting title track, the record continues the no-holds-barred sentiment with the banked fury of “El Coyote” and an incautious number titled “The High Price of Inspiration.”
The legendary artist took the time with me recently to chat about his songwriting inspiration and the outstanding new album. Clark spoke of building a song around a single perfect line. One of the best examples of his stellar tunesmithing from the new record is “Hell Bent On A Heartache,” where he straight up declares that “love’s a bitch but it could be worse.” As Clark astutely said about the song recently, “It’s as true as you can make it.”
And in another instance of his flawless poetic brilliance, Clark genuinely proclaims that the “high price of inspiration always leaves me broken.” Is it any wonder then that the music icon confessed, “at times, you just have to take a deep breath”?
With his incomparable songwriting, Clark has provided us with a window into his soul – a window that at times may open just a bit too wide even for him. “Some of it is a little close to the bone. But I find that really cathartic. I like being able to do that. Whether it’s too scary to do or you’ve done it before you realized what you’ve done, I try not to be scared of it. I mean, I’m out here trying to save my own life, you know?”
Writing the album’s title tune had to be a little scary even for the hard-to-ruffle Clark, as evidenced by the following line: “You never left but your bags were packed just in case.”
“I wrote it before she died,” said Clark about the song. “It was six months old or so when she died. And I played it for her. I remember when that came about and it was just an obvious line to me. I lived with it everyday. But it wasn’t after the fact.”
“The first time I played it, I got through it. It was no problem like that. The biggest problem I have with new songs, especially that song is remembering the words (chuckles), ‘cause you don’t want to screw something like that up. But that’s the problem with any new song. That’s the hardest part of writing them is remembering them.”
Given the seemingly endless number of Clark’s remarkable lyrical creations, it’s a problem that a lot of other songwriters are no doubt wishing they had to wrestle with. But in spite of what seems like an infinite succession of insightful poetic melodies, the songs don’t just drop out of the sky for the master tunesmith.
“No, they don’t. I can’t really speak for anyone else, but everyone has those little moments of inspiration where something will pop into your head, a line that pops into your head. And I tell you, you have to write it down immediately or you will forget it. There’s no way you’ll remember it five seconds later.”
“And so that’s why the disciplines I employ, or try to, when something like that comes to me, I will go to great lengths to find some way to write it down. It’s hard work once you get it going, to try and fill in the blanks.”
Hard work to be sure, but Clark must be doing something right. And the 71-year-old elder statesman of a clutch of gritty, gutty songwriters – including the late Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett – is still learning.
“Oh yeah, every day. I mean, it’s a new experience every time you try. It’s mostly learning what to leave out, you know? It’s like good guitar players. It’s not the hot licks they play, it’s the holes they leave. It’s the same with writing. I find that you can overwrite something very easily, much easier than you can make it very sparse and succinct.”
While he continues to develop his staggering talent, Clark is also determined to make the most of both the logical left side of his brain and the creative right side. It’s not unusual to find him alternating between carefully crafting a song – and deftly building a six-string.
“Yeah, right. I do it in the same room, so if I get stuck on a song, I can just go over and play the guitar. And then if I get to a place where I’m waiting on glue to dry, I go back and work on a song.”
“I’ve always tried to do that. And a lot of times it hasn’t been just building guitars. Sometimes you can just relax for a couple of hours, just sitting there by yourself throwing darts at the bull’s eye. It’ll clear your head, you know?”
The veteran storyteller has certainly spent some time on the road. But as with most of his musical compadrés, the stage has become his refuge.
“You know, the road is hard, going out and playing for folks and traveling. And trying to find time to get a nap or whatever, that’s hard work. Sometimes you’re just too tired to really feel like you can do it justice. But something kicks in and you get on stage and you start playing and singing – that transcends all that. It energizes you in a way.”
He’s been using that energy to shape exceptional music for five decades. And while some may fear that great songwriters are a dying breed, Clark looked at things a bit differently.
“Oh, I don’t think so. I don’t think they will ever be a dying breed. There are people that do better work than others. There are some people that are very good at copying a style. I hear a lot of songs that on the surface, it’s really clever and put together fairly well. But there’s really no substance to it. There’s an awful lot of that going on. There’s very few fresh things that I hear, including my own songs.”
He may be right about his songs. But after a listening to the musical genius of “My Favorite Picture of You,” I’ll take a “humdrum” Guy Clark any time.