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Guy Clark straps on toolbox for "Workbench Songs"

By Brian Baker, December 2006

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The intimacy and warmth of the songs was reinforced by the physical nature of the sessions, as Clark and his rotating cast of players generally sat in a single room in the studio, performing together as if in a living room stomping out rhythms on a threadbare rug.

"We were just sitting around a room," recalls Clark. "The drummer was in a little drum booth, but everybody else was just sitting in an open room."

Clark's compositions are more than mere songs, they are visually rich, almost cinematic stories set to evocative folk/blues-inflected country music. Although it's tempting to imagine that Clark always begins the process by creating his characters and then building a story and song around them, he insists that the inspiration and the process takes many forms.

"Like 'Desperados Waiting for a Train,' I knew exactly what that guy looked like," says Clark. "Sometimes you have to use your imagination. But you know, it's songwriting, not brain surgery. We're supposed to be having fun."

With the observation that Clark's story/songs drift into prose-like territory on a number of occasions, he's quick to accept the similarity, but also admits that he could never write straight prose.

"Anytime I sit down to try to write any kind of thing out, like prose or just anything, it winds up rhyming," he says with a laugh. "All of a sudden, I start looking for rhymes. I can't write. I try to write a little thank you note to somebody, and I go, 'Maybe if I just change this around...' It all goes back to the song."

As always, a good many of the songs are culled from Clark's memories of Texas, amazing considering he hasn't lived in the state since the late '60s. The images he conjures up are amazingly potent, particularly on the humorously serious "Tornado Time in Texas." Clark has definitely experienced the excitement of a Lone Star twister.

"I've been real close to them and Verlon (Thompson, the song's co-writer) has too," says Clark. "It was originally Verlon's idea. He had the line, 'The sky was blacker than a funeral suit/And hotter than a depot stove,' and I just went, 'Man...' We must have talked about it for a year before we wrote it, and it just kind of evolved. It was fun to do, too."

Another great track is "Funnybone," which sounds like Clark's version of a John Prine tune, a song about a loveworn rodeo clown featuring the verse, "Tears and grease paint will not mix/And old dogs will not learn new tricks/He's got that smile painted on/nobody knows somethin's wrong/She broke his funnybone." That song also had an interesting evolution.

"The guy I wrote it with, Ray Stephenson, came over here and wanted to write a song about a rodeo clown," says Clark. "I was like, 'Oh, man, there must be 15 songs about rodeo clowns.' The more we talked about it, we hit that line, 'She broke his funny bone,' and that was it. It's just a little painting, it's like a Greek tragedy. The smile, the frown, the mask."

One of the most provocative tracks is the marijuana advocacy number, "Worry B Gone." Clark laughs when remembering writing the song, which he penned with the help of Gary Nicholson and Lee Roy Parnell, and how it got to its present state.

"That was kind of an accident," says Clark with a chuckle. "We had written it about drinking; it was 'Gimme just one more sip of that worry be gone.' I hardly ever change anything, but I was sitting here one day by myself, singing and trying to learn the song, and that just popped out of my mouth without even thinking about it ('Gimme just one more puff of that worry b gone...'). I just started laughing. I thought, 'I can't pass this up.' Let the chips fall where they will."

In the final analysis, Clark likes the end result of his work on "Workbench Songs" for the simplicity that is manifested in its 11 tracks.

"I like the ambience of it," says Clark. "It seems like it's very easy to listen to and the songs keep your attention. I was just trying to put them together in a pleasing and entertaining way."

When the question is posed on how Clark sees "Workbench Songs" fitting in with his larger catalog, he offers a typically low-key response to a high-minded music critic's musing.

"It's just the next album," he says with a laugh. "I don't know. The only thread is me. There's me and the songs I write and the way I do 'em. And that's it."

That may be it for Clark, but it's so much more for the people who have been following his work for the past 35 years. Guy Clark songs are songs by an old friend, about an old friend. They are scenes from his richly varied life that fit seamlessly into our own. Clark may be the only thread throughout his own career, but he is also the strong and colorful thread that runs through everyone who loves and appreciates his storytelling craftsmanship. That is is so much more than merely "it." That's everything. And that simple, universal truth may well stand as Guy Clark's enduring legacy as a singer, songwriter and storyteller.

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