Long Haul

Guy Clark's guitar work and vocals aren't why people flock to him; his storytelling through song is.
Senor McGuire

It might as well have been the Mesozoic era for all the trace that's left on the local psyche, but the 1960s and early-1970s music scene in Houston was as fertile as the Mississippi Delta of an earlier day.

The Moving Sidewalks imported psychedelic rock to the Texas hinterlands with some help from Austin neighbors the 13th Floor Elevators. Fingerpicking interpreter Mance Lipscomb, from Navasota, and blues icon Lightnin' Hopkins, then living in Houston's Third Ward, milked a revival of folk interest, playing almost weekly around town. And the folk behind the revival, mostly young white guys with guitars and their own strains of blues, were soaking it all up and sweating it back out at The Jester and Sand Mountain Coffeehouse and The Old Quarter.

Guy Clark was one of these, paying his fraction of rent in a series of Montrose group-houses, building copies of the Mexican-style guitar he'd first played as a kid in Rockport, and cutting his songwriting chops in the company of running buddy Townes Van Zandt. Of all the talents honed in those days in this town, it was Clark and Van Zandt who left Houston -- and their onetime songwriting peers -- in Van Zandt's much-loved rearview mirror. Van Zandt moved on to Tennessee, with stops in Colorado and lots of road in the meantime. Clark went to Los Angeles, then San Francisco, then finally Nashville, performing all the while.

Clark never wasted time making forecasts, so he probably didn't expect to find himself, at age 58, the last man standing. Van Zandt died in 1997. Compadre Jerry Jeff Walker turned into self-caricature at least a decade ago. Understudy Rodney Crowell seems to have peaked, and admirer Lyle Lovett covers Clark songs between movies. Clark himself just gets better.

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The standard line among the KPFT habitués who talk about such things is that Clark and Van Zandt are opposite sides of the same songwriting coin, complementary yin and yang chasing the same art on parallel philosophical tracks. Van Zandt is understood as the mystic, the dreamer, the collector of "sky songs" that flowed from the ether through his arm and into a waiting guitar. Clark is the craftsman, the practical man-of-his-hands who built songs like he built guitars, meticulously, with tools.

Clark is familiar with the theory.

"Oh, yeah, I've heard it, but it don't make a shit to me," says Clark. "I mean, there's a certain amount of craftsmanship, but there's also a certain amount of inspiration. And poetic self-indulgence, or whatever you want to call it." Clark doesn't buy the idea of sky songs, either. "I mean, you get inspiration, ideas or brilliance or clarity or whatever, and write down a little just to remind you of what it was, but the rest of it doesn't fall out of the sky, I guarantee you."

Whether Clark's reputation as a lyrical cabinetmaker (a 1998 biography is titled Songbuilder) is any more accurate than Van Zandt's self-consciously obtuse disavowal of songwriting as actual work hardly matters. But as a conceit, it helps explain the above-made claim that Clark is not only not getting worse -- in keeping with prevalent patterns -- he's improving. Pure inspiration might wane at the whim of the muse, but craftsmanship builds upon itself.

Clark's best early songs may have earned him followers and made his legend, but they're almost unlistenable to anyone who doesn't go just absolutely apeshit over every last strummed melodrama on the Americana playlist. "Texas 1947" and "The Last Gunfighter Ballad" are fine pieces of Texas-regional sudden fiction, but Clark has never been anything special as a singer or guitar player, and the Nashville orchestrations of the early albums have aged like fruit.

"L.A. Freeway" didn't become a hit until Walker turned it into the oily anthem of a creepy time, and the tune itself seems in retrospect a forebear of the worst sins of Jackson Browne and Jimmy Buffett both. If anyone has written a chorus of more melodic bombast than "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train," may they live to regret it. Clark got by then on his words. He was not, as he says, "rhyming moon, June, spoon and cowboy boots." He was a hell of a storyteller.

Clark wouldn't agree with the "unlistenable" assessment -- these chestnuts are songs he plays every night, because his audience demands it and "because I think they're good songs, 'cause I took care when I wrote 'em" -- but he does allow that he hopes it has improved. "I don't write as much as I used to, but hopefully my standards have raised."

It's not just that the standards have been raised. The studio sheen of the early albums has so eroded that Clark's latest, Cold Dog Soup, is little but Clark, guitarist Verlon Thompson and mandolin picker Darrell Scott, sitting around a couple of microphones and occasionally shaking hands with visiting fiddler Shawn Camp and harmonizer Emmylou Harris. There are so few overdubs, they're listed in the liner notes. "That's what I've been working towards," Clark says. "I like music being played live, and all you got to do is put a microphone in front of it."

The informality, the instrumentation, the continuing movement away from folk-pop toward stately bluegrass, and the singer's aging familiarity with his own homey baritone croak make Clark's latest the kind of porch music you might hope to make if your friends were talented musicians and you spent any time on porches. You wouldn't want to hear it on the radio. You'd want to hear it live.

Which is where Clark likes to play it. He may make the better part of his living when other artists cover his songs, and has lived in Nashville for 27 years to encourage the practice, but he's traveling more now than ever and says he wouldn't have it any other way.

At his upcoming Conroe appearance, he'll be accompanied by guitarist Thompson and will share a stage with fellow folk iconoclast Terry Allen, with whom he'll swap songs and stories.

"I do exactly what I want to do. I got no bitches about anything." And he'll keep on doing just this, he says, as long as he can do it. "Unless I hit the lottery or get a Garth Brooks cut, and then fuck it, I'm going home."

The prospects of either happening anytime soon are pretty bleak. And since songwriting, like guitar building, is a craft to which "you've got to devote your life," the learning curve just keeps climbing. Clark's elder-statesman status in the songwriter community amuses and flatters him, but, he says, "I'm still trying to figure it out, you know? I got to get up every day and write. You never get to be the best there is. You never get through. It's a kind of job security, is what I think. You never get through."

Guy Clark performs Saturday, April 29, at the Creighton Theater in Conroe, 234 North Main Street, with Terry Allen and Anna Egge. Tickets are $37.50. For more information, call (409)539-6009.

E-mail Brad Tyer at brad.tyer@houstonpress.com.

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