(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Guy Clark has been crafting superb albums for more than three decades now, and they seem to be getting better and better. When I say crafting, that’s exactly what I mean. He builds songs meticulously. I don’t know of anyone else who puts songs together as carefully and with as much thoughtful attention as he does.
His new CD, Workbench Songs, set for release on Oct. 17, shows again why he remains one of the most respected songwriters alive. He is now artist in residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, with three public performances this month. The first was Wednesday (Sept. 6), the second is Sept. 13 and the third is Sept. 27.
Sitting at his workbench in the woodshop in his Nashville home, rolling up a cigarette, looking out over a green, leafy expanse of woods, Clark talked about building things. This is the room where he structures songs, as well as builds guitars.
He said two experiences early in his life had a profound effect on how he approaches music, as well as life.
In high school, he worked a summer as a carpenter’s helper at a shipyard on the Texas Gulf Coast.
“That was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Clark said. “Working for guys who built 80-foot wooden workboats on the Gulf Coast. These were serious working boats, not yachts. And to watch those guys work was … well, especially with building boats, everything’s got to be square with the world. It’s not like you can just go up and put a square on the wall. It’s got to be square with the world. You have to think like that. Just to watch these guys work and to just see the real beauty with which they did this carpentry on boats. And I had always had a love of working with wood. Growing up in West Texas, you get a pocketknife and a whetstone first thing and make your own toys out of fruit boxes. I always took to that. I loved that, working at the shipyard.
“Working with those carpenters was a wonderful thing. It was tough to tell my parents,” Clark said, pausing to laugh heartily at the memory.
“My father was a lawyer. He asked me in my senior year if I had decided what I wanted to do,” Clark laughed again. “And I told him, ’I wanna be a boat carpenter! I wanna build boats!'”
Sometime you should listen to Clark’s “Boats to Build,” a song from his album of the same name.
When he moved to Los Angeles not too many years later to try to make it in music, Clark took a day job at the Dobro factory in California, building Dobros and National steel guitars.
“I had already built five or six or seven classical guitars in Houston,” Clark said, “and I worked on mine and all my friends’ guitars. The first guitar I bought in South Texas was an old cheap, 12-dollar Mexican guitar, and it was clear to me that it didn’t work right. So the first thing I did was start working on it, taking it apart and fixing it. It was just the most natural thing to me. Some people are afraid of guitars. But they’re just tools, they’re not precious things.”
Working for the legendary Dopyera brothers who created the Dobro (which was a Slavic word meaning “good,” reflecting their Czechoslovakian heritage) was a formative experience, he said.
“The brothers were weird, old cranky farts,” he said. “Rudy, who was really old, was in research and development. He had his own little workshop up on a loft, and he would hammer out bell brass F-5 mandolins. If you like that sound, that’s who did it. And Ed, the younger brother, kind of ran the place. He was 70 or so, just full of energy, bouncing off the walls.
“Neither one of them played guitar, except for two chords to see what something they made would sound like. They were machinists and inventors. They had worked in the oil fields in Long Beach, Calif., as kids. Their father was a cello maker and bass maker in the old country, Czechoslovakia. But the kids came up with the idea of amplifying a guitar the same way that a Victrola worked with a resonating cone. That was pre-electric guitars, pre-amplifier. The rest is history.
“Anytime during that year,” he recalled, “anytime that I could get an appointment to see a publisher, the brothers would let me go see them, so that was good. I didn’t have tapes — I would just take my guitar and walk in and say, ’You want to hear some songs?’ Finally, I played four songs for the guy who was head of RCA’s publishing company, and he said, ’How much you want, and where do you want to live?’ It was just like one of those storybook things. So, we picked Nashville because we didn’t really like L.A.”
Writing songs and building guitars, Clark said, are intertwined, but he adds, “They are also right brain/left brain. When I’m sitting here, real cerebral, trying to write and conjure up the imagination and rhyme and do the whole thing, and then I can walk over there [he points to his band saw] and do this hand-to-eye thing, this is like a dream come true. I used to have a dartboard in here, and I would stand and throw darts until the brain clears. Anyway, it really works. This is what I always dreamed of having — a place where I wrote and built guitars. All I need is a few square feet. This is like working in a boat.”
Although he builds guitars, Clark said he’s not in the guitar business.
“Trying to make a living selling guitars, that’s too hard,” he said. “For a long time I kept all of them I had made. I made 10 in this last little spurt. I gave one to Lyle Lovett — because he needed one. I gave one to Rodney Crowell. And I gave one to Jamie Hartford. Jamie, because he came over here and said, ’Man, how do I get one of those guitars?'”
Clark laughed again and started rolling another cigarette.