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Singer-songwriter Guy Clark is nothing if not beloved. When indie-rock poster boy Conor Oberst dissed the Lone Star State in a misguided fit of post-election rage at a 2005 concert ("I'd put a gun to my head before I'd live in your state," he said), he made a quick exception for the Texans he did admire, including Bill Hicks, Townes Van Zandt...and Guy Clark. Likewise, no matter how much dim-witted Texas frat-country singers bash Nashville, they're quick to pay their respects to Clark and the band of Texas expatriates he's mentored there over the past 30 years—"Nashville sucks, except for Guy Clark and Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell, of course." Clark's simply a giant in the world of songwriting, inspiring awe across state lines, genres and oceans.
Since debuting in 1975 with the absolutely flawless Old No. 1, Clark (who turned 65 last month) has slowly and quietly assembled one of the best catalogs in country and folk music, producing such classics as "L.A. Freeway," "Desperados Waiting for a Train" and "Dublin Blues" along the way. His latest, Workbench Songs, is only his 12th album in 31 years, a testament to the amount of labor and time that go into every collection of Guy Clark songs. Though he's never met with much commercial success on his own—he's probably better known to most as the old guy in the Taco Cabana commercials, despite having his songs covered by everyone from Johnny Cash to Brad Paisley to Jerry Jeff Walker—Clark has built a fiercely loyal fanbase over the years, probably half of whom are songwriters themselves.
In conversation, it's easy to see why the man is so revered. An aging Texas hippie with the vocabulary to match (he calls his friend Ramblin' Jack Elliott a "very far out guy," for instance), he's a born storyteller, with the type of lived-in voice to make his sepia-toned tales ring true. Fans have known this for years, relishing Clark's between-song banter and distinctive talking blues numbers such as "Let Him Roll" (the tear-jerking story of a wino and his love for a Dallas whore), but it wasn't until recently that advertisers caught on, casting Clark in the aforementioned Taco Cabana commercials. When asked about his star turn, where he waxes poetic about tacos and enchiladas in his distinctive Texas drawl, Clark cackles. "These guys in Atlanta who worked for an ad agency did that," he says. "They cooked up this whole idea and pitched it to Taco Cabana and asked me if I wanted to do it...It was real quick and goofy and very well-paid. And I figure, shit, man, I'd do a commercial for a taco any day."
Clark's storytelling got another moment in the sun with the release of the excellent Townes Van Zandt documentary Be Here to Love Me, which features a humorously drunken Clark toasting Townes and recounting their adventures in Houston, Nashville and beyond. But when asked whether he's ever thought of writing a memoir (or even issuing a spoken-word release), Clark is quick to reveal where his loyalties lie. "I've thought about it," he says, "but I didn't go buy a typewriter and sit down and start typing. I turned around and wrote some more songs. That's the thing about songwriting is you never get through. You never get to be the best there is. All you can do is just keep doing it."
When it comes to his craft, Clark has an obsessive eye for detail and a vicious perfectionist streak—he's been known to change a lyric years after recording a song—a fact that contrasts starkly with his easy-going demeanor. Not only has he ignored writing prose in order to satisfy his demanding muse, he seemingly even places limits on how much he reads. "Hopefully I'm supposed to be writing songs, not reading," he says, despite acknowledging a love for Dylan Thomas, Robert Service and the short stories of Ernest Hemingway.
The one concession Clark's muse has made to his sanity is allowing the man to bring some friends along for the ride. Every one of the originals on Workbench Songs was co-written with at least one other writer, continuing a trend that's been increasingly prevalent in Clark's work since the late '80s. It's not that he lacks inspiration these days—it's just more fun this way. "For years I wrote by myself," he says, "but I've been [collaborating] more lately, and I enjoy it. It's fun to sit here with somebody who's bright and plays his guitar and sings and bounce stuff off of one another." And with talented friends like his, who could blame him?
In a scene from the lost-and-found progressive country doc Heartworn Highways (filmed in the mid-'70s, released in 1981 and largely forgotten till its recent reissue on DVD), Clark hosts a Christmas Eve guitar pull at his house in Nashville, swapping songs with Steve Young, Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle, the latter two virtual unknowns at the time. His song "Ramblin' Jack and Mahan" recounts a similar scene, based on an experience Clark had in Austin. "I had just been down to Jerry Jeff's birthday bash," he says. "Jerry Jeff went to bed, and me and Ramblin' Jack and Larry Mahan [That's six-time World Champion All-Around Cowboy Larry Mahan to you and me] stayed up all night pickin'." Though the players may change from time to time, these songwriting salons are a common occurrence in Clark's world, especially in his basement workshop, where many a Nashville luminary has come to trade new songs with Clark or plead for the sage's songwriting advice, something he by and large tries to avoid. "I try not to put myself in that position," he says, "I don't like tellin' people what to do."
Whether or not he relishes the role, Clark has become a mythical figure in the world of Texas songwriting, the Obi-Wan Kenobi to Willie Nelson's Yoda, if you will, with a host of apprentices to match. But as he sees it, he's just working, hanging out with friends and writing songs—luckily for us, some of them just happen to be flawless.