"My whole thing," says singer-songwriter Guy Clark, "has always been to write songs for myself to perform. If other people want to do them, that's wonderful. But I'm writing them for me and, yes, they are autobiographical. All of 'em."
Clark may write only for himself, but there are plenty of country singers who can't wait to make his graphic western folk tales their own. Since 1975, when Clark released his now-classic debut album, "Old No. 1," he has sustained a reputation as perhaps the best storyteller to emerge from the "progressive country" or "outlaw" movement. Actually, his eye for natural detail, for action settings and colorful characters, recalls Mark Twain and John Ford as much as Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings.
Despite the fact that Jennings, Jerry Jeff Walker, David Allan Coe, Rodney Crowell, the Everly Brothers, Johnny Cash and Ricky Skaggs have had success with his songs, there is a special charge to hearing Clark perform them himself. Clark -- who appears at the Birchmere tonight with his good friend singer-songwriter Crowell -- possesses a grainy voice and rugged delivery that lend a stark cinematic reality to such vignettes as "Desperados Waiting for the Train" and "Texas-1947."
Clark's storytelling flair was partly shaped by his childhood in Monahans, Tex., a small dusty town cut straight out of "The Last Picture Show."
"West Texas is desert hard country," he says. "It's mostly oil and some cattle. During the war, there was a bomber base near Monahans, so my grandma's hotel was full of pilots and oil-field workers. The old guy in 'Desperados Waiting for the Train' was sort of my adopted grandfather. He was a crusty old oil driller, and we'd hang out together in the domino parlors and pool halls. He taught me to whittle and lots of other stuff."
Although his childhood provided the material, it wasn't until he moved to Houston in the early '60s that Clark began to try to capture his experience in songs.
"I fell in with old John Lomax and his Houston Folklore Society," he recalls. "There were a lot of good influences around, like bluesmen Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. I was playing the folk clubs and ran into Jerry Jeff Walker and Townes Van Zandt. They got me into writing. I hadn't thought about it till then."
Clark and his wife, Susanna, eventually landed in Los Angeles in 1970. He managed to get a songwriting deal and sell a few tunes but admits that "it wasn't easy. We had no money, and I was scuffling on the street, shopping songs. L.A.'s all right if you've got a reason to live there, which I did at the time." The Clarks' escape from Los Angeles was captured in his memorable "L.A. Freeway."
Clark moved to Nashville in 1971 and has lived there ever since.In 1975 the first of five Guy Clark albums was released. His old pal Jerry Jeff Walker covered a few of the songs on "Old No. 1," and Clark's stock as a songwriter's songwriter quickly rose.
By that time, Willie Nelson had moved back to Texas and inspired a whole new breed of personal singer-songwriters, including Steve Fromholz, Rusty Wier, Michael Murphy and Billy Joe Shaver, as well as veterans like Jennings and Coe. Clark was right at home with the so-called "outlaws."
"It was great at the time," he says. "It felt natural 'cause I am from Texas and most of my songs are set there. That's my home. The scene was exploited, though."
Clark admits that before it was over, the outlaw movement had produced a sizable heap of musical cow pies, as every young singer in Texas put on a cowboy hat and brandished cliche'd images of the Old West and cosmic metaphors. Clark never had to worry, though. When the dust cleared his songs stood real, vivid and honest.
He's still writing them. He has songs on the new Jennings and Dirt Band albums, and he's recently been collaborating with another of Nashville's finest writers, Rodney Crowell. Part of the strength of Clark's songs derives from his clear vision of the nature of his craft.
"I think underneath it all," he says, "there's a desire to explain experience and emotion, to make them meaningful. You have to put it in a way that it can be shared. It has to touch people, make them mad, laugh, whatever. That's what songs are. They are theater."