Guy Clark's songs are like having a conversation with old friends: you're comfortable enough to discuss any topic, reminisce or just share your dreams. "I never thought about it," says Clark when asked if that's what he has in mind when he creates songs. "Seems like a pretty good description. Sounds like a compliment to me."
Doubtless, myriad kudos will be forthcoming when Guy Clark hits Charlotte's Ovens Auditorium on his latest tour, teamed with Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt and Joe Ely.
Although Clark didn't put out his first album until 1975, his carefully crafted songs had already been exposed to the public eye by others. Jerry Jeff Walker had a minor hit with Clark's "L.A. Freeway" in '72 and featured Clark's " Old Time Feeling" on the same, self-titled album.
Clark started playing guitar in high school, doing traditional folk music in local folk joints around his hometown of Monahans in south Texas. He worked as art director for the CBS affiliate in Houston by day and was a folkie by night. But he didn't start writing songs until his late 20s.
"It just got to the point where it was the next logical step," Clark says. Friends/colleagues Townes Van Zandt and Jerry Jeff Walker had just started writing, and Clark realized he had to write as well.
"If I wanted to keep doing it, I couldn't just sing other people's songs and folk songs. I'm not that good a singer," he says, chuckling hoarsely.
The soft-spoken Clark's voice is husky, like somebody with a multiple pack-a-day cigarette habit or, more likely, like someone who's been inhaling secondhand smoke in bars for three decades.
Although he wrote songs, by the late 1960s Clark still hadn't recorded. Moving to L.A., he worked as a luthier in the Dopera Brothers' dobro factory. Then he settled in Nashville with wife Susannah in 1971, where he has remained.
Clark's songs were successful from the beginning. In '73, Walker got another of Clark's songs into the marketplace -- "Desperados Waiting for a Train" and others soon followed. Johnny Cash put Clark's "Texas, 1947" on the charts in '75. That same year, Clark released his first album, Old #1, with his own versions of "L.A. Freeway," "Desperados" and the magnificent love song "Like a Coat From the Cold." Over the years, a host of country's finest hit the charts with Clark's songs: Bobby Bare, with "New Cut Road," and Ricky Skaggs' "Heartbroke" both scored in 1982. Vince Gill covered "Oklahoma Borderline" in '85; John Conlee had "The Carpenter" in 1987, and both Steve Wariner with "Baby I'm Yours" and Asleep at the Wheel's "Blowin' Like a Bandit" hit in '88. Brad Paisley recently covered Clark's "Out in the Parking Lot" and Jimmy Buffett has resurrected his "Boats to Build."
Yet to some, Clark was more than just a song resource. Lyle Lovett says he was a mentor to him long before they met. Lovett recorded the first song Clark ever wrote, "Step Inside My House." Clark never got around to recording it.
"I never did sing it very good," he says modestly. "First time I heard Lyle sing it, I didn't even know it was my song. It took a verse and a chorus before I snapped that it was mine. I said, 'Man, if he can do it that good, there's no need for me to record it.'"
The first time he heard a Lovett demo, Clark says it sounded like a finished record to him. He has high praise for Lovett's grasp of the English language and how to wrangle it around.
"I just saw him yesterday, heard a new song of his and thought, 'Wow ! I was right.'"
Lovett and Clark have become friends and performed together sporadically for nearly two decades -- a tradition cemented by the coming "Songwriter's Tour," which was first assembled about 15 years ago for a series of concerts sponsored by Marlboro cigarettes and called "Marlboro Country." When Marlboro discontinued the series, somebody figured out the concept could be packaged, taken out on the road and sold.
"Nashville is inundated with the setup," Clark says.
But in this part of the country, the Bluebird concept hasn't been aired that much, except for a brief flight on the higher numbers of the cable and satellite servers a few years back. The Tour will feature the four artists in a round-robin presentation of their songs.
"All four sit on the stage in straight-backed chairs, as close as we can get together, and just trade songs," Clark explains. "There's no set list, there's no agenda -- there's no nothing except the song. You can do anything you want to, so it constantly changes."
Themes come and go, and the format's interactive. "I remember one night I did a song about a dog and everyone down the line had a dog song," says Clark, laughing at the memory. "So it's that kind of stuff -- whatever you wanna play.
"I take a lot of requests. If people want to hear something and I remember it, why not?"
Clark has more stuff to remember with the addition of his Grammy-nominated Workbench Songs, released in November 2006. It has the same meticulous craftsmanship you've come to expect from him, even though all but two of the songs have co-writers. Clark says he enjoys the back and forth, the word-wrangling that takes place with another songwriter. There are other benefits as well.
"When you co-write, you actually have to say the words out loud. You can't just sit there and mumble 'em to yourself, look at it on paper and say, 'Hmm, that's really good.' 'Cause when you commit it to the air, to another person's eardrums, a lot of times it's not very good," he says with a derisive snort.
"So you cut through a lot of fooling yourself. I can sit there for two weeks and tell myself something's really good, and when I try to sing it, it's like, whoops!"
Clark has always been meticulous in his writing. You don't want to have a hit on something you don't like, he believes. Therefore, he has no regrets about his catalogue.
"Well, he says carefully, "there's a lot that I don't do that didn't pan out, but none I wish I hadn't written."
"'Cause I learned something," he continues, cackling, "Don't do that again."
The Songwriter's Tour, featuring Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, and Joe Ely plays Ovens Auditorium; Jan. 25 at 8 p.m.; $29-$60; www.maxxmusic.com.