Shining Like Diamonds

Steve Earle & The Dukes’ latest record, GUY, pays homage to legendary songwriter Guy Clark

The last time I saw Guy Clark it was three nights before he passed away,” says Steve Earle, recalling his close friend and songwriting mentor. “I was heading back to New York, and I stopped by to visit Guy in the nursing home. He was really sick from the cancer, but there was a whole room full of people, and they had brought in barbecue. Guy was asleep, and I had to go see my mom in Cheatham County. I came back by the nursing home later to see Guy before I left Nashville and asked him how the barbecue was. He looked around to see if anybody else was listening and then leaned over and said, ‘Pork.’ Guy lived in Nashville for 45 years, but he never accepted pork as proper barbecue. He was a Texas beef brisket guy. So, the last thing my teacher said to me was ‘Pork,’ and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Single-minded devotion to “what’s right” — whether it’s barbecue, crafting songs, or passing knowledge on to others — is a value Earle learned firsthand from Clark. It’s also a debt Earle continues repaying, both through mentoring young songwriters and his new tribute album, GUY.

Earle’s devotion to Guy Clark began as a teen in Texas, long before meeting Clark. “I started writing [songs] when I was 14,” Earle says. “I was trying to do it from the time I realized Beatles records said ‘Lennon-McCartney’ in the parenthesis, and it meant they were writing the songs. My dad would not let me have an electric guitar, so I started listening to acoustic stuff and kind of lost touch with rock ‘n’ roll. I began playing at the Gatehouse Coffee Shop in San Antonio and heard about the singer-songwriter scene in Houston.”

The allure of Houston’s music scene proved irresistible. Running away from home in 1969 at age 14, Earle spent a month in Houston where he
met and befriended Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt. Although Earle’s time as a teenage runaway was brief, his fascination for Houston’s music scene persisted.

“I dropped out of school and moved to Houston when I was not quite 17,” Earle says. “My uncle had a rock band, and I was crashing with him, just down the road from Sand Mountain Coffee House [the center of Houston’s folk music scene]. There was a big mural in the back room featuring Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newberry, Don Sanders, and Jerry
Jeff Walker.”

By the time of Earle’s second arrival in Houston, Clark had moved to the greener pastures of Los Angeles and then Nashville. But Clark’s profile as a songwriter was on the rise. In the fall of 1972, Jerry Jeff Walker recorded Clark’s song “L.A. Freeway.”  Although the single only reached No. 98 on the Billboard Hot 100, it became one of Clark’s most venerated compositions.

Written on the heels of a frustrating year that Clark and his soon-to-be wife Susanna spent in Los Angeles, “L.A. Freeway” tells the story of leaving the hard asphalt of the City of Angels for the green hills of Tennessee. Told through engaging couplets — “Throw out them L.A. papers and that moldy box of vanilla wafers”— the song is a joyous celebration of new horizons, and a spectacular kiss-off to bad times, instantly identifiable to anyone who’s been tempted to flip the bird to their life and circumstances.

The next year Walker recorded another Clark composition destined for legend, “Desperados Waiting for a Train.” Although Walker’s version failed to hit, Clark’s tale of the changing nature of friendship between a young man and a grizzled old-timer became a country favorite with covers by Rita Coolidge, David Allan Coe, and Tom Rush, along with an eventual No. 15 country hit by the supergroup The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson).

Clark recorded both “L.A. Freeway” and “Desperados Waiting for a Train” for his 1975 debut album, Old No. 1 — along with more examples of his trademark style — gritty ballads, with simple narratives revealing a masterful command of language, an eye for vivid detail, and universally appealing subtext.

“I think the best thing for a writer to be born with is a memory for detail, and Guy had it in spades.” Earle says. “As much as I loved Townes’ songs, I didn’t fully understand what he was doing. What Guy did came naturally to me. Once I started trying to emulate Guy instead of Townes, things started clicking a lot faster.”

After two years of working his way up in the Houston folk scene, Earle’s ambition and desire to meet his songwriting hero led him to Nashville.

When I got to town [in August 1974], Robert Altman was shooting the movie Nashville in Centennial Park,” Earle says. “[To attract a crowd to the park] they were advertising dime hot dogs and nickel Cokes. I had a $1.50, so there was lunch and maybe dinner too. I’m probably in the crowd scene somewhere. When it was over I was full, but I was broke. I asked someone where I could play and pass the hat. They pointed me to Bishop’s Pub [on West End] where Tin Angel is now. I walked in and Richard Dobson, a songwriter I knew from Houston, was behind the bar. He got me a gig there, and I spent a few weeks sleeping on his couch.”

Since Bishop’s was one of the few songwriter hang-outs in Nashville at the time, it didn’t take long for Earle to meet his hero.

“I walked into Bishop’s one day, and Richard said, ‘Guy’s here.’ I’d been waiting for it to happen.  I walked into the pool room in the back, and there was Guy, [his wife] Susanna Clark, [singer-songwriter] Jim Stafford and [country singer] Deborah Allen. I wore a cowboy hat everywhere I went back in those days. Guy was leaning over to shoot, and he looked up at me and said, ‘I like your hat.’ I eventually introduced myself and told him I knew Townes.”

By then, Guy and Susanna Clark’s Mt. Juliet home was a center of the Nashville hipster songwriting community, immortalized in the documentary Heartworn Highways, shot in Nashville in 1975 and 1976. As a talented and eager-to-learn songwriter, Earle fit neatly into the group.

“The first big party I went to at Guy and Susanna’s house was Rodney Crowell’s going away party. He was leaving Guy’s band to move to the West Coast to join Emmylou Harris’ band. That’s when I took over as Guy’s bass player for the few live gigs he was doing. Guy got me my first publishing deal, and it was a real apprenticeship. He had done the same for Rodney, and later on, the same for Shawn Camp. Guy was always eager to help young songwriters. And the last few years of his life he got some of that help back when he started co-writing with younger writers. Writing gets harder as you get older and your brain starts to coagulate. I learned that from Guy, and it’s why I come to Nashville a couple of times each year to work with newer songwriters.”

Although Earle continued to be influenced by many writers, including Townes Van Zandt, Clark’s influence and advice went far beyond an affinity for story songs he shared with Earle.

“Townes was a big deal to me [as a writer] but I wasn’t stupid,” Earle says. “I knew to pay attention to what Guy was doing [in terms of his career] rather than Townes. Townes died when he was 51, but only wrote two songs in the last decade and a half of his life. The writing just went away because of his alcoholism.”

“Not that Guy didn’t have problems with alcohol and drugs, but Guy was disciplined. He worked every day and pretty much did until he died. He painted and built guitars. For Guy it was about being an artist and doing work. The things artists do are called disciplines for a reason, because nobody tells you when to punch the clock when you’re making art. Guy showed me how he laid a song out on the page and taught me I needed an eraser. My belief in craft comes directly from Guy. I’ll turn a song over and over again until I max it out. If you come up with a really complicated rhyme scheme in the first verse, you have to duplicate it on the second verse. For Guy, it was not acceptable to slough it off. He taught me songwriting
as literature.”

Clark and Earle’s friendship continued throughout Clark’s life with the two
performing with Townes Van Zandt at a 1995 writers-in-the-round show with a belated 2001 release as the live album, Together at the Bluebird Café. In 2011, Earle recorded Clark’s “The Last Gunfighter Ballad” for the multi-artist album, This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark, and following Clark’s death in 2016, Earle wrote and recorded a loving tribute to Clark, “Goodbye Michelangelo” for Earle’s 2017 album, So You Wannabe an Outlaw.  Earle’s devotion eventually led to GUY, an album Earle knew was inevitable in the wake of his 2009 tribute to Townes Van Zandt, Townes.

“I knew I had to record a tribute record for Guy,” Earle says. “I didn’t want to meet that motherfucker on the Other Side having made the Townes record and not one for him. It was on the agenda for years, and as soon as Guy passed away, I started thinking about it.”

Earle says many people were surprised his 2017 album, So You Wannabe an Outlaw, avoided politics, given the election of Donald Trump and Earle’s reputation as a take-no-prisoners supporter of progressive politics.

“I was surprised it wasn’t more political, but every once in while I make a record that is completely and totally personal, and that one was,” Earle says. “I said the next one would be just as personal but way more political, and I started writing it, but timing is important.
I wanted that record to come out in 2020, so I then I thought, ‘Now is the time to make the Guy record.’ ”

Despite Clark’s prolific catalog of songs, Earle found choosing the tracks for the album a simple process.

“I knew there were some songs I had to do,” he says. “Like when I made the Townes record, the first track I recorded was ‘Poncho and Lefty.’ It’s like when they lock your ass up
and they put you out in the yard the first time. You pick out the biggest motherfucker out there and you knock him out and get to keep your radio. It’s the same deal. I decided to make the core of it songs I actually knew by heart, which were mostly Guy’s earlier songs.”

By focusing on songs Earle already knew, preparing for the album was particularly easy for his band, The Dukes.

“When we were out doing the Copperhead Road 30th anniversary tour [in 2018], we started rehearsing the Guy stuff on every soundcheck. We would practice a song a day and then go back and refine them. There were a lot of songs that only required one take. There were only a couple of songs we decided to add during the sessions — ‘The Ballad of Laverne and Captain Flint’ and ‘New Cut Road.’ It was pretty easy — 16 sides recorded in five days.”

On the 16 tracks of GUY, Earle and The Dukes present straightforward, keep-it-simple covers of several Guy Clark classics, tailoring the arrangements and performances to Earle’s personal style. The Dukes — Chris Masterson, Eleanor Whitmore, Ricky Ray Jackson, Kelley Looney, and Brad Pemberton — also preserve the band’s signature sound through both delicate acoustic takes on their masterful cover of “L.A. Freeway” and such raucous country rockers as “Out in the Parking Lot.”

“It’s just me and my band on most of the tracks,” Earle says. “Shawn Camp played on the two bluegrass songs (“New Cut Road” and “Sis Draper”) because I needed a real bluegrass guitar player. Also Mike Bub plays bass on “Sis Draper” because Shawn wrote the song with Guy, and Mike plays with Shawn all the time.”

Although Earle kept it simple for the majority of the album, he felt the closing track, “Old Friends,” Clark’s solemn ode to the rough-hewed, steel-clad bonds of friendship required a larger cast. Recruiting Terry Allen, Jerry Jeff Walker, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Shawn Camp, Gary Nicholson, Verlon Thompson, and Jo Harvey Allen to sing alternating lines of the song with Mickey Raphael and Jim McGuire (on harmonica and dobro) joining The Dukes, the assembled group delivered a moving, poignant finale, perfectly capturing the exquisite joys and sadness of friendships punctuated by the long goodbye.

Throughout Clark’s career as a singer-songwriter, he never lost sight of the professions on both sides of the hyphen. In Clark’s view, the process of songwriting is a literary endeavor but only stage one of crafting great songs. A songwriter creates the body, but the singer endows that skeleton with life and sinew.

“He always knew he was Guy Clark, the singer-songwriter,” Earle says. “He knew he came from a tradition that was important and he tried to live up to it and keep it going. What I learned from Guy more than anything else is that songs are not finished until you play them for people.”