Archive for March 4th, 2011

Buried Treasure: Old No. 1

4 March 2011

[Today: Deep in the heart of Texas…]

Guy Clark was a guitar maker in Houston, TX in the late-60s, when he decided to try his hand at songwriting. A few minor Jerry Jeff Walker hits and about five years later, he finally got a shot at making his debut album. The appropriately titled Old No. 1 sounds like an album that was years in the making – each song as finely crafted as a handmade guitar. The Texas in Clark’s songs isn’t populated by horses and cowboys so much as lonely people drifting around looking for their place. The settings and characters are pure Lone Star, but the sentiments are universal.

‘Desperados Waiting For A Train’ and ‘L.A. Freeway’ (the aforementioned hits for Walker) are fine examples of Clark’s craft. The former is the story of two lifelong friends that has the depth of a short story, while the latter focuses on a few key details and lets your imagination fill in the innumerable blanks. ‘L.A. Freeway’ leaves you with many more questions than it answers: What is he running from? Is there contraband in that truck? Who wants him dead? Depending on the answers, it might be a precursor to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘State Trooper’ and Kanye West’s ‘Jesus Walks’ or it might just be about a musician hightailing it out of Los Angeles. Either way, it’s a gorgeous song that’s all the better for its ambiguity and Clark’s lived-in voice.

Where does it all come from? “I try to write about stuff I know about, stuff that happened to me or someone I know. Inspiration just comes out of nowhere… that’s the hard one to get,” he explained in a September 2009 interview. ‘Texas 1947’ is the inspired tale of a kid sticking a nickel on the train tracks (to squash it “flatter than a dime”) that somehow manages to convey the wonder of a massive locomotive as seen through six-year-old eyes. On the other end of the spectrum, ‘Rita Ballou’ is an ode to the prettiest heartbreaker in town, laid against an irresistible backbeat.

Asked about the genesis of his songwriting skills, Clark said “Well, my folks were both very literate, and always encouraged me in the arts. I was a junior in high school before we got a television set, and we’d sit around the kitchen table and read aloud after dinner. At least one night a week was dedicated to reading poetry. It seemed like people were more literate back then, or maybe they just didn’t have so much input from media.”

Over the course of his career, Guy Clark has released 13 albums and none have sold particularly well. But he’s a musician’s musician, and has earned a comfortable living off songwriting royalties. Old No. 1 has been identified as part of the Outlaw Country movement of the mid-70s, but really it’s just an unforgettable bunch of songs about an unforgettable bunch of characters…

Listen: Rita Ballou

Listen: L.A. Freeway

Listen: Texas 1947