The title track of Guy Clark‘s new album, Somedays the Song Writes You, insists that inspiration can strike at any moment. Luckily, Clark was undistracted during a recent phone conversation in which he was asked if he keeps notebooks all over his house.
“Not all over my house. But it used to be that you’d always wind up with a stack of bar napkins,” he replied with a laugh. “‘Oh, let me grab that pen.’ … And, you know, sometimes I’ve had very good luck with it.”
To say the least. With a quick wit and a disarming knack for details, the Texas native remains one of Nashville’s most esteemed songwriters, covered by Jimmy Buffett, Johnny Cash, Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, Ricky Skaggs, George Strait and Jerry Jeff Walker, among many others. In this interview, the master craftsman talks about loose harmonies, backseat naps and cool tomatoes.
CMT: The album’s title track states that when the music takes over, you have to let it do its thing. How long have you believed in that philosophy?
Clark: (laughs) Oh, I guess it’s one of the first things you figure out. You can’t always control it. You work and work on stuff and it just doesn’t happen. Then all of a sudden, you’re not paying attention, and there it is.
Do you have to stop everything you’re doing at that moment?
Well, you better stop and write it down if you have one of those ideas because you will forget it in five minutes — or five seconds. But that’s one of the first things I’ve ever learned about writing was, man, if you have one of those little flashes of brilliance or inspiration, write it down right then. Drop everything.
I spent the weekend listening to your older albums, and I like how you use harmony singing like it’s another instrument.
Yeah, I never did like choruses — four or five people all blending together and ooo-ing in the background. I like one voice, up there like it’s a duet. And I’ve always felt that was more effective. I like it better than big choruses.
I had the feeling you encouraged people to come in and out whenever they wanted.
Right. Emphasize anything you want or anything that sounds like you want to sing.
“L.A Freeway” is one of my favorite songs. Do you remember what you talked about on your way out of town when you left L.A.?
I remember how I wrote it. We were living out there, and I was playing in a little string band, like traditional country music. We were playing one night in San Diego, and we’re driving back about 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. I dozed off in the back of this old Cadillac. I sat up and looked around, and I said, ‘God, if I could just get off of this L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught.’ It just popped out of my head and a little light bulb went off. I immediately got a burger sack off the floor and my wife’s eyebrow pencil and wrote it down. It got carried around in my wallet for a year.
I admire “L.A. Freeway” and “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” but how often do people ask about fun songs like “Home Grown Tomatoes” and “Texas Cooking”?
As much as need be, I guess. I don’t know. “Home Grown Tomatoes,” I always thought of as a love song.
I was sitting there watching my tomato plants grow, just going, ‘Man, you guys are so cool.’ (laughs)
“Texas Cooking” could be my love song.
Yep, yep. Somehow that one has slipped out of stage repertoire for some reason. I don’t know why. But songs do that. They come and go. I guess because I’m writing new songs. George Strait did that not long ago, a couple albums ago. It was really pretty good.
When you’re looking out at the crowd, do you make up stories about the people looking back at you?
I don’t have time to do that. I try to remember what I’m doing. It’s better off when the lights are so bright I can’t see anybody.
How do you feel about people shouting up requests to the stage?
I don’t mind it at all, if it’s something I know. I don’t really work with a set list. I do it off the top of my head, and sometimes it’s a big help.
Do people find their way to you after the show?
Sometimes. It just depends on the situation. I don’t mind meeting people and signing stuff. It’s fine with me. Sometimes the logistics of joints don’t lend itself to it, or maybe I’m in a bad mood.
Then what happens?
I pack up my guitar and go home.
You moved here in 1971. What is it about Nashville that’s kept you here since then?
When I came here, I wanted to be a songwriter. And it probably still is the most accessible place, where the business is the most accessible. When I moved here, if you wanted to go see Chet Atkins, you’d just go to the RCA building and walk in. There weren’t two armed guards, armed secretaries. You’d just drop by and see him. L.A. was never like that. It was this big ordeal. When I got this publishing deal that I have, I was in L.A. I played some songs, and they said, “Where do you want to live? We’ve got offices in New York, Nashville and L.A.” I said, “Nashville,” because I knew Mickey Newbury. So that’s the way it worked out. But anyway, I’m here because of the community of writers and guitar players. A lot of them are really good friends of mine. I enjoy their company and I enjoy their creativity. If I had my druthers, I’d live in Texas, and if I ever break even, I might move back.