Country music artist Pam Tillis once said, “In my wildest dreams I look like Michelle Pfeiffer and write like Guy Clark.” Her words reflect the high regard in which the quiet Clark is held by other country and folk musicians. As singer Lee Roy Parnell admitted in an Asylum Records press release, “Guy’s one of my heroes. I don’t have very many. I choose them carefully. His music always feels good and it’s medicinal for me…. It’s pretty easy for me to shove a Guy Clark cassette in and start feeling better right away. Music is medicine and he’s a good little medicine man.” Clark is embarrassed when confronted with such testimonials, though, and the reserved Texan attributes the quality of his body of work to a simple dedication to his craft: “My whole background is poetry, literature and that whole thing, and I just can’t bring myself to sing something that’s not really good. My percentage of keepin’ songs is pretty low.”
Clark was born on November 6, 1941, in Monahans, Texas, though he spent most of his childhood in the small Texas Gulf Coast town of Rockport. Even as a youngster, he was drawn to the blues and Mexican folk music that swirled around the region, and his book-loving parents encouraged him to embrace literature and poetry. But while they helped him and his siblings to enjoy reading and music, they also tried to steer their children into careers as doctors or lawyers. (Their father was a trial lawyer who eventually became a county prosecutor.) “My parents were children of the Depression and those were scary, scary times,” Clark recalled in an interview with Robert Hilburn for the Los Angeles Times. “So it was instilled in us as children to be careful … to get a solid, secure job.”
But by the mid-1960s, after brief stints in college and law school, Clark found that his desire to write songs could not be quelled. He worked as a television art director and a shipyard carpenter at various times, but he continued to hone his songwriting all the while. He was encouraged during this time by legendary Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt, whom he met i n Houston in the early 1960s, as well as by his own wife, Susanna, a fellow songwriter and artist.
Clark and his wife moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, hopeful of securing a recording or publishing contract. Once there, Clark worked in a dobro manufacturing plant and drove around pitching his songs to various publishers. He eventually secured a deal with RCA, and the couple relocated to Nashville and its less frenzied pace. Clark penned several songs that other country artists recorded, and a few of these—“Desperados
For the Record …
Born November 6, 1941, in Monahans, TX; son of an attorney and a theatrical aficionado; married Susanna Clark (a songwriter and artist); children: Travis.
Worked as art director at Houston television station, mid-1960s; signed with RCA, early 1970s; released first album, Old No. 1, 1975; moved to Warner Bros. and released Guy Clark, 1978, and two other albums; released Boats to Build, 1992, and Dublin Blues, 1995, both on Asylum.
Addresses: Record company —Asylum/Elektra Entertainment, 1906 Acklen Ave., Nashville, TN 37212.
Waitin for a Train,” “L.A. Freeway,” and “The Last Gunfighter” among them—became modest hits.
In 1975 Clark finally released his first album, Old No. 1, on the RCA label. It set the pattern for the way his later work would be received: critical praise coupled with modest sales. Reviewers appreciated the plainspoken but eloquent phrasing of his folktales of heartbreak and happiness as well as the simple acoustic accompaniment. As noted in the Asylum press release, country singer Kathy Mattea called Old No. 1 “the strongest collection of songs I think I’ve ever heard.”
During the course of the next several years, Clark released a couple of other albums—Texas Cookin’and Guy Clark— that also featured his trademark mix of romanticism, wry sentimentality, and hard-bitten wisdom. Stardom eluded him, but fellow country musicians seemed to recognize Clark’s talent, and his early albums boasted the talents of Jerry Jeff Walker, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, and Waylon Jennings, among others. “I’d say that the one biggest thing that I learned from Guy, besides the sheer human aspect of songwriting, is self-editing,” Crowell told Country Music contributor Bob Allen. “He is a ruthless self-editor! I’d sit and watch Guy write a song, and he’d have a beautiful piece of work going, and he’d come up with the most inspired, beautiful line, and I’d think, ’God! That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard in my life!’ But he’d throw it out, or set it aside, because it just didn’t quite work for that particular song that he was writing.”
In the early 1980s Clark released South Coast of Texas and Better Days, albums that helped the songwriter solidify his presence on the national folk club circuit. Then, in 1989—after a six-year absence from the recording studio—he released a new album, Old Friends, which featured a self-portrait on the front cover. Stereo Reviews Alanna Nash wrote that everything about the album “retains Clark’s unmistakable brand of personal integrity” and called Old Friends “an exceptional work, and one that often produces unadulterated joy.” Still, widespread critical or public attention eluded the singer.
In 1992 Clark unveiled his seventh album, Boats to Build, and the long-inattentive national music press finally began to take note of the songwriter. Rolling Stone contributor Don McLeese called the album “easily his best since his 1975 debut, and perhaps his best ever. Though his limited vocal range has made him more popular among other songwriters than with the public at large, it’s hard to imagine anyone singing this album’s highlights better than Clark himself.” Ralph Novak, writing in People, commented: “A lively, witty, intelligent collection, this album testifies eloquently to Clark’s role as éminence grise of Texas country music.”
Clark’s 1995 album, Dublin Blues, garnered positive reviews as well from critics who lauded the musician’s careful attention to quality. Geoffrey Himes remarked in Country Music that Clark’s slow songwriting pace indicated his interest in craftsmanship, and suggested that “the time is well spent, for his latest batch of songs resembles finefurniture; the words and music fit together so precisely that there’s nary a seam or a wobble.”
By the mid-1990s Clark had emerged somewhat from country music’s shadows, though even his strongest supporters recognized that his gruff voice and low-key stage presence would make full-blown stardom unlikely. This does not appear to bother Clark, who in recent years has been joined on stage by his son, Travis. “I love playing with him,” Clark said. “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had playing. I don’t tell him what to play, and I don’t tell him what to sing. There’s a certain familial buzz that goes on that’s unspoken. We never rehearse, we just start playin’ a song.”
Clark continues to resist those who urge him to set aside his usual songwriting process and churn out a few commercial hits. “I’ve tried and I can’t doit,” he admitted to Allen in Country Music. “The stuff turned out to be awful. The truth is I’ve never had a piece of contrived work make me a dime…. There’s another reason you don’t want to stray from your heart as a writer. If you write anything bad it might just become a hit… and you’d have to spend the rest of your life singing it every night.”
Old No. 1, RCA, 1975.
Texas Cookin’, RCA, 1976.
Guy Clark, Warner Bros., 1978.
South Coast of Texas, Warner Bros., 1981.
Better Days, Warner Bros., 1983.
Old Friends, Sugar Hill, 1989.
Boats to Build, Asylum, 1992.
Dublin Blues, Asylum, 1995.
Country Music, November/December 1989, p. 39; January/February 1993, p. 14; May/June 1995.
Dallas Morning News, September 30, 1993.
Entertainment Weekly, February 3, 1995.
Los Angeles Times, January 23, 1993.
People, April 19, 1993.
Pulse! March 1993; April 1993, p. 74.
Rolling Stone, March 9, 1989; January 7, 1993, p. 54.
St. Petersburg Times, June 24, 1994.
Stereo Review, June 1989, p. 102.
Additional information for this profile was taken from an Asylum Records press release, 1995.
"Clark, Guy." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/clark-guy
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