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Guy Clark's Dublin Blues

By John Bloner, Jr.

Singer/songwriter Guy Clark doesn't like the term  "craft".

"I find that word a little offensive when it's applied to songwriting," he tells Doug Freeman. "I really think it's poetry and it's art."

Despite Guy's protest, the term "craft" represents his work well. From its Old English origins, "craft" characterizes physical strength, courage, skill, talent, virtue, excellence, a trade, a calling, and a product of art.  Guy is a craftsman. He selects his words and notes like a master carpenter chooses his tools and woods. He sings his songs in a weathered voice like some latter-day Noah.
Guy Clark in his youth, working at a boat yard

I got boards to bend, I got planks to nail
I got charts to make, I got seas to sail.
I'm gonna build me a boat
With these two hands
It'll be a fair curve
From a noble plan.
Let the chips fall where they will
'Cause I've got boats to build.

"Guy Clark doesn't just write songs," Kurt Wolff and Steve Leggett announce in an article on the artist. He crafts them with the kind of hands-on care and respect that a master carpenter would have faced with a stack of rare hardwood." In a recent NPR article, Melissa Block says, "Songwriters who revere Clark will tell you he crafts songs with the same precision and attention to detail he uses when he builds guitars."

There's that word again--craft.  The man from Monahans, Texas embodies it. His songs are carefully laid out, measured, cut and finished. Check out these lines from "The Carpenter":

Let us now praise a carpenter and the things that he made
And the way that he lived by the tools of his trade.

"The Carpenter" was released in 1983 on Guy's "Better Days" album, a recording that also delivered two of his most loved tunes, "Homegrown Tomatoes" and "Randall Knife". Guy builds these songs from a solid foundation of details of people, places and memories. Although the phrase, "think global, act local", was originally tied to city planning, it applies to songwriting of the highest order. He's not just singing in his rough-hewn voice about life in West Texas, his father's knife, or a set of favorite guitar strings, he is sharing stories that resonate with his listeners. They may see something of themselves in the songs, even if they've never played an instrument or set foot in the South.

On his 1995 record, Dublin Blues, Guy delivers the title track's first lines as a man--an expatriate in body and soul--looks back at his home and reflects on lost love.

I wish I was in Austin
In the Chili Parlor Bar
Drinkin' Mad Dog Margaritas
And not carin' where you are.

Chili Parlor Bar in Austin, Texas
The song sways with the grace of an older man who may have lost a step but can still move some hearts. There's a burnished quality to Guy's voice. Some call it whiskey-and-cigarettes. Some might call it the voice of wisdom. All I know is that five seconds into Dublin Blues, I was hooked forevermore on Guy Clark.

On the record, Nanci Griffith lends her ethereal voice to the track like fog grazing an Irish hillside on a mid-April morning. In concert at the 2005 American Honors and Awards, Guy is joined instead by Emmylou Harris. Listen to the ease in which this song moves from testimony to prayer to a country dance.

"In a town of writers, he really is our poet laureate" -- Emmylou Harris 

Dublin Blues has broken my heart every time I've listened to it. You would think I would not have pulmonary function left in my body after giving myself over to the song's chorus time and again, yet the song is more than a tale of lost love. It sets a tone of celebration of the men and women that Clark has known and admired, as well as the giants who have come before him to exercise their craft on the world.

On the second tune, "Black Diamond Strings", he lets us in the side door to one of the ice houses on the east side of Houston, TX, where J.W. Crowell "played two nights a week in a hillbilly band" and encourages the man to "let Rodney sit in, hell, he's goin' on nine/His fingers are bleedin', but he's keepin'/good time". 

In this song, "Rodney" is none other than Rodney Crowell, Grammy Award winning singer/songwriter, whom Guy befriended in the 1970s.  To earn the Texan's approval, Crowell worked on his songwriting craft until one found favor with his mentor. The tune was "Bluebird Wine", which he played (with verve) on the documentary, "Heartworn Highways", which also featured the Mount Rushmore of outlaw country music: Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Charlie Daniels (and more).

On the Dublin Blues record, Crowell and Clark got together to write "Stuff That Works", a musical ode to "Stuff that's real, stuff you feel/The kind of stuff you reach for when you fall".  It's also a list poem, describing Guy's favorite pair of boots, an ol' blue shirt, a good friend, and most of all, Guy's wife, Susanna.

I got a woman I love
She's crazy and paints like God

In addition to co-writing songs with her husband and songs of her own, Susanna Clark painted many of the iconic covers to some of country music's (or any music's) greatest records.
  • Willie Nelson's "Stardust"
  • Emmylou Harris' "Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town" 
  • Nanci Griffith's "Dust Bowl Symphony" 
  • Her husband's first record, "Old No. 1"
  • Keith Sykes "Don't Count Us Out"
The last two albums were graced with an image of an ol' blue shirt (a staple of Guy's wardrobe).  See below.

Stuff That Works: Guy and Susanna Clark in front of her painting that graced two album covers

Guy has been singing on record to Susanna since his first album, which featured the tune "L.A. Freeway". He wrote the chorus' first line, "Man, if I can just get off this L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught", on a burger bag, using his wife's eyeliner pencil. The song sways to tenderness when he tells his young wife:

Oh, Susanna, don't you cry, babe
Love's a gift that's surely handmade

The line speaks to their financial struggles as a newly-married couple. On his latest record, "My Favorite Picture of You", Guy lovingly describes a photo of Susanna, who died in 2012, when she was pissed off at him and their friend, Townes Van Zandt.

My favorite picture of you is bent and faded and it's pinned to my wall
Oh and you were so angry, it's hard to believe we were lovers at all
There's a fire in your eyes, you've got your heart on your sleeve
A curse on your lips, but all I can see is ... beautiful.

The tune is one of the most tender in Clark's catalog, evoking Roy Orbison's classic tune, "Blue Bayou" in its melody.

Guy and Susanna co-wrote a couple of songs on Dublin Blues.  "The Cape" is one of them. In her article, "Metaphor, Guy Clark and The Cape", Elizabeth Hunter writes, "The Cape is one of my favorite songs. In 171 words, Clark gives us the story of a character at three stages of life."

Guy sings first of a boy with "a flour sack cape tied all around his neck" whose sport is jumping off the family garage roof. In the second verse, the boy has grown to a man who's "full of piss and vinegar, he's bustin' at the seams". In the final verse, the listener encounters an old man who is now metaphorically still "jumpin' off the garage."  He's never lost the playfulness of the little boy. The flour sack may be in the rag bin by now, but somehow he's still wearing it proud.

Verlon Thompson's been playing and writing with Guy for about thirty years. His acoustic guitar is all over Dublin Blues and he earned a co-writer credit for the tune, "Hangin' Your Life On The Wall".  This song could be a cousin to Springsteen's "Glory Days", but where the Boss' character may be pitied for clinging too hard on past success, Guy peoples his tale with men who can laugh at themselves, recognizing that they cannot charm, move or throw a fastball like they could as younger fellas, and get on with their slower-paced lives.  

A decade ago, Guy and Verlon got together on a Wednesday night for a rendition of this song at Alice's Champagne Palace in Homer, Alaska.  You can almost taste the tacos and margaritas, as Guy thumps some Johnny Cash chords before launching into his and Verlon's song.

Won't you come on in?

Guy wraps up Dublin Blues with a heart-breaker, "The Randall Knife".  He speaks the song's lines over a spare background of acoustic guitar and bass, telling of the tenuous relationship between a father and son, with the knife-blade as its metaphor. The Randall knife earned its notoriety in World War II.  One serviceman wrote to the company, "It was a terrible thing at close range. [Your knife] would cut a man's head nearly off with a quick swing."

Guy once said, "The first thing you get in West Texas is a pocket knife."  The Randall knife is not for a child's sport, however.  In the song's second verse, Guy relates:

If you've ever held a Randall Knife
Then you know my father well
If a better blade was ever made
It was probably forged in hell

The intimacy of the lyric and the Guy's delivery of it evokes the darkest hour of the night, when the fire's gone down, everyone else is in bed, and your old man opens up to you about something he's kept hidden for a long time.

Just try to listen to "The Randall Knife" without crying. When Vince Gill first tried to play it, he said, "I started weeping, bawling all over my guitar. I thought 'God, this is my relationship with my father. I know what song I'm gonna sing at his funeral one day'."

Many of Guy Clark's songs are woven into my DNA. Even when I'm not listening to them, I think of them while cutting the lawn, driving around town, and whenever I see a tool shed with its hammers, saws and chisels all in their proper place. The image below evokes a favorite verse by another songwriter, Kate Long, from her tune, "Who Will Watch The Home Place?", as performed by Laurie Lewis.

In my grandfather's shed there are hundreds of tools
I know them by feel and by name
And like parts of my body they've patched this old place
When I move them they won't be the same.

To learn more about this great American songwriter and singer, visit his Website here, dig into his catalog of material from "Old No. 1" to "My Favorite Picture of You", or lend an ear to the superlative tribute album, "This One's For Him" which features his friends performing some of his greatest songs, including four from the Dublin Blues record. The Website, Allmusic.com, gives a comprehensive look at Guy's career, records and extensive credits as a songwriter whose music has been covered by many well-known artists.

Thank you for your craft, art and poetry, Guy Clark.