Guy Clark straps on toolbox for "Workbench Songs" – December 2006
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Guy Clark straps on toolbox for "Workbench Songs"  Print

By Brian Baker, December 2006

The photograph on the cover of Guy Clark's new album, "Workbench Songs," shows Clark's weathered hand gripping the headstock of his acoustic guitar against the backdrop of his workaday denim shirt with pearl buttons at the cuff and pockets. It's a warm and simple image that perfectly captures the mood of the album's songs and the spirit in which they were created.

"That just hit me one day because I was sitting where I am right now, looking at that workbench," says Clark from his Nashville home. "It just popped into my head. The first thing you do is, 'What song on here would be a good title,' but I thought this up."

It's an easy image to conjure, particularly since Clark is an accomplished luthier and actually crafts guitars in the same way he metaphorically shapes a song. One can imagine Clark strapping on his guitar the way most craftsmen strap on a tool belt and getting to work on a song, starting with the raw materials of melody and verse and whittling away anything that doesn't belong to reveal the simple beauty underneath it all.

The end result is the simple magnificence and elegant truth of a Guy Clark composition. Repeat the process a dozen times, throw in an extra craftsman or two as writing collaborators, and the result is better still; an entire album's worth of Clark's musical ruminations about life and its obvious (and not so obvious) pitfalls. It's a time-tested blueprint that has worked for Clark over the course of his 30-plus year career, although he notes a certain hesitance over the word "craftsman."

"That term gets bandied about with me a bit, and it's complimentary," says Clark. "But, hopefully, it goes a little past craftsmanship. Hopefully, it approaches art. But I guess that's the way I approach stuff, trying to do it right. No loose ends."

In typically self-deprecating fashion, Clark admits that he doesn't adhere to any grand design or thematic patterns when assembling a new album. He just waits until the hopper is full.

"I write all the time, and I make a record when I get 10 or 12 good songs," says Clark. "That seems to be the way I've figured out to do this."

Perhaps most incredibly, Clark has been figuring this out for the past three and half decades. When he moved to Nashville in 1971, he had no long-range plans that could have foreseen a 35-year career as a performer and songwriter.

"I wake up every day not envisioning it," says Clark with a laugh. "I've just been seeing the Texas borderline. If I ever break even, I'm moving back."

On "Workbench Songs," Clark's debut for Dualtone Records, the master songwriter/storyteller has chosen to share the writing duties with a variety of talented co-writers including Gary Nicholson, Lee Roy Parnell, Chuck Mead, Rodney Crowell, Hank DeVito, Verlon Thompson and Darrell Scott.

In fact, the only song composed by a single writer is Clark's cover of Townes Van Zandt's "No Lonesome Tune" - a longtime friend of Van Zandt's, Clark has included a cover of one of the legendary songwriter's songs on nearly all of his albums since Van Zandt's tragic passing on New Year's Day in 1997.

Clark's tendency to collaborate is not necessarily a new development; he co-wrote "She's Crazy for Leavin'" with Rodney Crowell back in 1989, which went on to become one of 5 straight number 1 singles for Crowell from his lauded "Diamonds and Dirt" album. Even though Clark has been collaborating for some time, he admits that he's worked with other songwriters to a greater degree in recent years.

"It's something I've gotten into the past several years," says Clark. "I like writing with other people. I like the process of talking about stuff. And one of the things that I've found that I really like about it is when you write with someone else, you actually have to say the words out loud. You can't just sit there and mumble to yourself and tell yourself how great it is. The first time it comes out in the air, it's like, 'Oh, my God, what is that?' So, that's a good part of it."

And while Clark is quick to acknowledge the talent of the writers he's worked with on "Workbench Songs," he admits that the life of a solitary songwriter has a great appeal for him as well.

"I like writing by myself, too," he says. "Any way you can get it done, any way you can get the song out."

Clark has been getting the songs out since before his debut album for RCA, "Old No. 1," in 1975. And like the craftsman he is, Clark has taken his time with each of his own albums; except for the relatively short gap between "Old No. 1" and his sophomore album, "Texas Cookin'," the following year, Clark has generally taken between 2 and 5 years to create his subsequent studio releases (which have been punctuated by a pair of live albums, a greatest hits collection and 2001's "Together at the Bluebird Cafe," a live document of Clark's 1995 show at the Nashville landmark with Van Zandt and Steve Earle).

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