8 p.m. Saturday
UCO Jazz Lab
100 E. Fifth, Edmond
When it comes to pure songwriting craft, Guy Clark has few peers. His songs pulse with truths like a still-beating heart cut and pasted to the page.
He took apart the first guitar he ever owned and put it back together again, like a soldier would his rifle. Indeed, it’s no surprise Clark would become a luthier, and continues to build his own guitars to this day.
It goes back to one of his first jobs, spending a high school summer as a carpenter’s assistant in a Rockport, Texas, shipyard making wooden shrimp boats. They were the last of a breed (immortalized in his 1992 song and album, “Boats to Build”), and that kind of craftsmanship made an impression on him.
“The way they went about it was incredible, just by eye and square with the world,” Clark said, noting a similar combination of sharp eye and able hand served him as well. “When you’re writing, you’re just sitting, staring out a window, trying to envision something, and then to try and float that into a song you have to do the hand-eye coordination thing.”
His parents owned a hotel in Monahans, Texas, where he met all sorts of folks, giving the songwriter a peek at the wider world and planting the seed that bloomed into one of America’s finest country-folk artists.
“First time I heard people sitting around in a room, playing guitar and passing it around, I was hooked, though I didn’t really know it at the time,” Clark said. “I didn’t finally make that decision, like a conscious decision, until I was about 30, but when I was about 16 or 17, the hook was set.”
As a young man, he moved to Houston, where he was inspired by area blues performers Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. It’s there he met Townes Van Zandt, his best friend for 35 years until his death in 1997.
“He was the smartest guy I ever met, hands down. His IQ was really out there and the funniest person I think I’ve ever met. And to be as dark as he was,” he said. “It wasn’t competitive between us, but it was certain inspiring to hear the songs he was writing, and I think it probably worked the other way around.”
Clark left Texas in the late ’60s, living in California. This time inspired his biggest hit, “L.A. Freeway,” which would come after he moved to Nashville, Tenn., when Jerry Jeff Walker covered it in 1972.
Although he worked for a publishing company as a songwriter, he’s never much cottoned to writing for other performers. Of course, that doesn’t stop musicians from covering him. Last month, Kenny Chesney released an album named after his cover of Clark’s “Hemingway’s Whiskey.”
“I love it when other people do them, and it makes money. It’s an absolutely wonderful thing, because it reinforces that I was actually right about what I was doing in some way,” he said. “The best luck I have is writing for myself, and anybody else that does them, that’s just gravy.”
In writing, he focuses on reaching for the heart of the matter, and keeping things as honest as he can.
“Close to the bone ” that’s what I think it’s about. There’s a certain amount of theatrical and poetic license I allow myself, but for the most part, it’s based upon as much hard truth as you can get to,” he said.
Clark’s had a tough couple years, battling a broken leg, pneumonia and a knee that needs replacing. Travel is difficult, so he has slowed a bit.
“I got no reason to go out and play for the folks unless I got new songs, and I got no reason to write new songs unless I’m playing for the folks. It’s a symbiotic relationship,” Clark said, adding that he does have a new song toward the next album. “You just write all you can, and whenever you get 10 to 12 good ones, that’s when it’s time to make a record.”
For all of his talent and experience, time hasn’t made writing any easier, Clark said.
“You have to reinvent yourself every day when you get up. What’s it going to be today? It’s hard work. It’s not playing,” he said. “It gets harder because you don’t settle for the stuff you used to settle for. Hopefully, your taste gets better and you reset the bar every time for yourself ” not compared to anybody else, but your own work. And you know it’s always a challenge.” “Chris Parker