Townes and Guy: Songwriters You Should Know (Part I of II)

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Guy Clark2

It’s fitting that I was at a Guy Clark concert when I overheard someone telling the person next to him how sadness was the easiest emotion for a songwriter to elicit. In the world of singer-songwriters this is apparently a motto of sorts. Any guy with a guitar can make you feel sad. There’s just something inherently sad about a guy up there all by himself with nothing but a guitar to protect him. There’s such vulnerability in it. The chance of a mistake, naked without accompaniment creates tension that can drive a quiet performance and bring a listener’s emotions into a more accessible space. And the most accessible emotion for the performer to reach is always sadness.

This mantra has become a barometer for me, helping to separate the songwriting cream from the songwriting crop. A common question I ask myself is whether a new musician makes me feel anything but sad? Can that musician make me feel happy, or angry; inspire feelings of longing, or any number of complex emotions. The great singer-songwriters can certainly make you feel sad but they never stop there

Guy Clark3

It’s a picture book story; upstate New York, winter, lots of snow, a flier in town saying Guy Clark was coming to Homer, a tiny place I’d never heard of, somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

When we walked into the converted church it was humming with anticipation (Homer Center for the Performing Arts). And when Clark walked on stage, just him, his old guitar and a microphone (which he didn’t need), the pews creaked under the audience as it inched forward to hear his now old, grizzled voice kick off the evening.

Clark is a songwriter’s songwriter. At least that’s what they say. What this really means is that he never got too famous but is well respected, revered even, by his peers. To a music lover, this is nearly always a good sign.

Those who’ve heard, know that Clark has written some truly great ones. Songs that make you feel like dancing (Rita Ballou), rockin’ on a porch chair (Homegrown Tomatoes), or downright cryin’ (L.A. Freeway or That Old Time Feeling ). His music is not quite country, although there’s plenty of Texas in it and Clark does speak in twang. A better word for his style, one that the Grammys actually nailed, is “Americana.” The genre even has its own category at the award show for which Clark was nominated in 2007 (Workbench Songs) and, not coincidentally, where you’ll usually find the best American soul music (see idk. post Good Ol’ American Soul for a definition) in any given year.

Clark’s performance is bare but never dull. At the Homer church, he told anecdotes between songs (a must for any troubadour), dedicated them, and recounted the stories of their coming to fruition. Two of his more touching numbers involve little singing at all; Clark talks through them (Randall Knife and Funny Bone – see myspace link at bottom), smudging the fine line between telling stories and singing songs.

At the time I was relatively new to Clark, and what is often referred to as the Austin/Nashville singer-songwriter scene (think John Prine, Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle, Jerry Jeff Walker, Lyle Lovett – who Clark discovered, and Townes Van Zandt – more on him later). The show exposed me to a musical experience I’d never had before; that of witnessing a truly great songwriter perform songs so well crafted that they seem too good, too rich, too heavy. Songwriters like Clark (they are few and far between) must’ve thrown out hundreds of less worthy songs to get to that one they’re playing.

(Live Performance of Clark classic “Desperados Waiting for a Train”)

Clark’s is a world of songwriting where writing the perfect song is the only goal, where words are chosen after great thought, pain, and self-examination. What comes out is so true, so good at connecting with you that sometimes you’ve got to look over your shoulder and make sure no one is following you, writing down your own inner thoughts.

Be forwarned, he can also be intense. This is not the kind of music you read to.

Clark builds his own guitars, sings about what he knows, and keeps his instrumentation simple. Seems easy, but very few people can write with such richness and make it feel so natural. In fact, on first listen, he may not even appear that special. But, if you’re paying attention to what he’s saying you’ll soon feel a whole range of emotions come over you. Sadness, sure, but I guarantee it wont end there.

When it’s all said and done, Clark’s legacy will not only be his music, but his profound affect on other songwriters. Over the years, his house became home to many a struggling musician as well as a place to kick around new material. Most famously, he will forever be linked to one musician in particular: Townes Van Zandt, who lived with Clark for spells and opened for him when times were hard.

Recent video for “Hollywood”

My Space Page (out of date but still has some songs)


Written by JustJake

April 1, 2008 at 8:20 pm

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