Guy Clark: For the Sake of the Song Page 2
You can go out to eat & that's for sure
But it's nothin' a homegrown tomato won't cure
Put 'em in a salad, put 'em in a stew
You can make your very own tomato juice
Eat 'em with eggs, eat 'em with gravy
Eat 'em with beans, pinto or navy
Put 'em on the side, put 'em in the middle
Put a homegrown tomato on a hotcake griddle.
Homegrown tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes
What'd life be without homegrown tomatoes
Only two things that money can't buy
That's true love & homegrown tomatoes
from "Homegrown Tomatoes"
Born in 1941 in the small West Texas town of Monahans and raised by his grandmother, who ran a hotel, Clark arrived in Nashville in 1971, after brief stops in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The house he and Susanna lived in in Nashville became a gathering spot for songwriters, a state of mind wonderfully documented in the film Heartworn Highways. Clark's first album, the hugely influential Old No. 1, released in 1975, when he was 32, taught him some valuable lessons about the music business and making records.
"That was the second time I did Old No. 1. The first time, I was about halfway through it and I just had to put my foot down and say, 'If you guys continue with this and put this out, I'll change my name and move somewhere else. I will not do this.' There's a whole mixed album that went straight to the can. The one that was released was done [by] stealing demos, stealing studio time, pickers doing it for nothing . . . I finally got my way by just having to say 'No!'
"I was new in Nashville and I'd never made a record before; I was just kind of going along with what people told me. I learned, don't ask anybody anything. Don't ask them what they think, 'cause they'll tell you."
Clark had two producers in his early years, Neil Wilburn (Old No. 1, Texas Cookin', Guy Clark) and Rodney Crowell (The South Coast of Texas, Better Days), but neither was completely in sync with his vision for how he wanted his records to sound.
"I really liked Neil, and he was really helpful and wanted to do what I wanted to do, but he still didn't know what I was shootin' for. He was still a Nashville producer, bless his heart. He worked for Billy Sherrill for so long. He recorded the Bob Dylan record Nashville Skyline. It was still all that layered bullshit, you know. Gotta have drums, bass, and two guitar players and a piano player and an ocean of strings. He didn't know any better, really. I'm an old folksinger, and I just like it real simple and clean. And I don't like drums.
"But hey, I like rock'n'roll. Chuck Berry. There you go. I'm not Chuck Berry and I don't want to be, but that doesn't keep me from appreciating it.
"One of the . . . not rules, but one of the things I shoot for on every song, is to get a live version of the lyrics. And if I don't get it, we do it again. Vocal takes should all be whole takes. For the most part, we get it in two or three takes. And I make sure I'm prepared. Working it out in the studio is a waste of time and money. It's the stupidest thing in the world to be paying that much per hour for a studio and pickers and not know what you're gonna do? C'mon. But that's just the way they did it. And still do it. A lot of players, artists, don't know the songs. They got people bringing them songs the day of the session. 'Oh yeah, I like that, let's do that.' I learned the hard way, spending way too much money and coming out with something I really didn't care for. At one point, I just quit. I didn't write a song or make a record for five years. And I just started over. Old Friends  was the first one. I just went into the studio, me and a guitar, and recorded the songs and added sparse stuff."
Clark has basically been producing himself ever since, though he's used the same engineer, Chris Latham, since Cold Dog Soup (1999).
"He's a performer. He's a stylist. What he delivers is exclusive to him," Latham says over the phone, from Nashville. "Nobody does it the way he does it. Nobody else is going to interpret his songs the way that he will."
He was a drifter, a driller of oil wells
And an ol'-school man of the world
He let me drive his car when he was too drunk to
And he'd wink and give me money for the girls
And our lives were like some old Western movie
Like desperados waitin' for a train
Like desperados waitin' for a train
From the time that I could walk he'd take me with him
To a bar called the Green Frog Café
There was old men with beer guts and dominos
Lying 'bout their lives while they played
I was just a kid, they all called me "Sidekick"
Just like desperados waitin' for a train
Like desperados waitin' for a train.
from "Desperados Waiting for a Train"
My Favorite Picture of You was recorded straight to a computer, using Pro Tools. Like all of Clark's most recent records, it was tracked at a now-defunct studio, in the basement of the EMI publishing building in Nashville, that locals fondly called "The Rathole." The studio was dismantled last year when EMI was sold to Sony; most of the gear now resides in the home studio of Nashville songwriter Keith Gattis.
"In the past, everyone just kind of sat around in a circle and played and I'd close-mike everything," Latham explains. "This one, Guy played on a lot fewer cuts than is typical. He was nursing along a bad cough, bad head cold sort of thing. We anticipated going back and having him re-sing everything, but as it turned out, we were able to pull enough pieces and parts from a few different vocal takes and tracking sessions to make it all work.
"There was one microphone down there, which any recording that Guy's ever done, his vocals have been cut on that mike. It was an old Neumann U-67. Whenever anybody was singing, that was the one to use. There were several U-67s down there, but that particular one just spoke well. It actually had a piece of tape on it that just said 'GUY.'"
Clark slowly gets up, to go to a physical therapy session after our interview. Asked if he's gonna tour anytime soon, he shakes his head. "Touring is not happening right now, until I can get to where I can walk. I was just going out with a guitar player. I've been playing for years like that, and it got to the point that I couldn't carry my own guitar and my bags. Now I've got a hit record, and I can't go out and play because I'm too crippled up."
Not touring doesn't mean that Clark has stopped writing. Most days, this artist is still making art in that big room with the windows.
"Oh, yeah. Every day. The last great Guy Clark song hasn't been written yet. That's the way I look at it."