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[whitespace] Guy Clark
Michael Amsler

Storyteller: Singer/songwriter Guy Clark performs this week at the LBC.

Texas tunesmith Guy Clark is still livin' his dream

By Greg Cahill

DURING HIGH SCHOOL, I had a summer job at a shipyard, building the last big wooden shrimp boats that were made before they switched over to steel," says singer and songwriter Guy Clark, recalling his stint as a carpenter's helper in the sweltering Gulf coast town of Rockport, Texas. "Those guys were master craftsmen and carpenters. Just to watch them work was a life-changing experience, seeing the finesse and the way they went about it.

"Their attitude was 'faster is not better.' I try to take that same approach with my songs, with quality taking precedence over quantity."

That painstaking approach is evident on the newly released Keepers (Sugarhill), a set of live recordings that showcase Clark's whimsy and country roots. The album marks a return to the North Carolina label for Clark, who has been hailed as everything from "the common man's poet laureate" to "the 13th apostle."

While Clark isn't exactly a household name, his songs--including "The Last Gunfighter Ballad," "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train," "Heartbroke," and "Oklahoma Borderline"--have scored hits for such country luminaries as Ricky Skaggs, the Highwaymen, Vince Gill, and Rodney Crowell.

Progressive country singers and songwriters like Crowell, Lyle Lovett, and Nanci Griffith often cite Clark as a major influence.

Few in the country genre have the same knack for storytelling as Clark, whose folksy vignettes and character studies often resonate with a gritty realism reminiscent the novels of John Steinbeck.

"A lot of my songs are based on real people, although there's a certain amount of dramatic and poetic license, which I assume I'm entitled to take," he explains with a laugh, during a phone interview from his home outside of Nashville.

In the past, those songs often spoke longingly of broken lives and unfulfilled dreams. For instance, "Let It Roll," from his classic 1975 debut Old No. 1 (Sugarhill), told the story of a flophouse elevator operator and dying wino who had been jilted by a Dallas whore. It was inspired by a salty merchant seaman named Sinbad whom Clark and fellow Texan Townes Van Zandt had once met in a Houston bar.

These days, Clark is living his own dreams, writing some of his most lighthearted material and making the kind of records he wants to hear. The source of that inspiration is the vast West Texas prairie, a spiritual touchstone where Clark visits families and "savors the real barbecue" sold in local rib joints.

"Being a songwriter, there's a certain independent stance you have to take--you're not copying other people's songs, you're trying to create something of your own," he says. "That's the kind of thing you're raised with in West Texas--or any other part of Texas--that you can do anything you put your mind to. After all, we're just two or three generations away from being an independent nation in the Lone Star State. You're imbued with that spirit growing up, and I think it spills over into songwriting as well as a lot of other fields of endeavor.

"You just can't get rid of that."

Guy Clark performs with Texas singer/songwriter-cum-sculptor Terry Allen (whose works will be on exhibit at the neighboring California Museum of Art at a special reception at 7 p.m.) on Friday, Feb. 20, at the Luther Burbank Center's Merlo Theater, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. 8 p.m. Tickets are $20. Call 546-3600 for information.

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From the February 19-25, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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