Long before he became a songwriting partner of Guy Clark, Shawn Camp was once a waiter who served Clark a bowl of chili.
Camp is also someone who has also been to the famed Texas Chili Parlor referenced in the opening lines of Clark’s “Dublin Blues.” It was there that he had a Mad Dog Margarita on a visit to Austin shortly before Clark died in 2016, describing it as possibly the worst he’s ever had in his life. But Camp was quick to make the point you have to do it if you ever loved Guy Clark.
Camp theorized that the margarita Clark references in “Dublin Blues” might have been so horrible that it was the only thing that could get the girl off the writer’s mind. “Dublin Blues,” written in the city that Clark lived so much, is now like traditional folk music that’s been covered by the likes of Joe Ely, Townes Van Zandt, Asleep at The Wheel and more recently bequeathed to a new generation of Nashvillians like Lilly Hiatt and Aaron Lee Tasjan who sang it wonderfully for posterity on the Luck Mansion Sessions.
When San Antonio-born Steve Earle stood onstage outside Austin at the Luck Reunion a few weeks ago singing “Dublin Blues,” it was one of sixteen Guy Clark songs he and the Dukes recorded for their new tribute entitled Guy.
Steve Earle was practically a kid when he came to Nashville more than forty years ago, among a breed of hungry new singers and songwriters in search of record deals. Rodney Crowell, a Texan emigre like Earle, is one of the voices with Emmylou Harris, Terry Allen and Jerry Jeff Walker in the album’s culminating and emotionally climactic moment, the song “Old Friends” written by Clark, his wife Susanna and Richard Dobson.
“You just have to figure out how to meet him and get hooked up and it will all take care of itself,” was the advice given to Crowell about a tall dark-haired figure in town named Guy Clark. Crowell, who is the subject of a new book being written by Clark’s biographer Tamara Saviano, was living out of his car in Nashville and spending his days in Centennial Park.
Back in Texas, Earle had met songwriting legend Townes Van Zandt and figured that was his “letter of introduction” to meet Clark. One night at Bishop’s, Earle came upon Clark who was playing pool. Richard Dobson was behind the bar. As he tried to get up the nerve to go over and talk to him, Clark looked up at Earle and said “I like your hat.” Clark soon helped Earle secure a publishing deal by wearing down a company to get the young writer $75 a week.
On his weekly Sirius XM radio show Hardcore Troubadour Radio, Earle said he needed to make this record at some point. He had already made Townes ten years ago, a tribute to the great Townes Van Zandt, When Clark passed away, it became obvious Guy would be made.
Onstage at the Luck Reunion, Earle was more explicit. “I didn’t want to run into that motherfucker on the other side having made Townes and not having made this record.”
Whereas Earle had played acoustic guitar and overdubbed instruments on Townes, he and the Dukes cut sixteen tracks over five days. Earle admits the band might have been a little irritated with the approach, not allowing them to make overdubs and fix any mistakes. But he was ebullient calling the Dukes the best he’s ever worked with.
On a promotional tour to set-up the record’s release, Earle crisscrossed the country making stops at mom and pop record shops including Twist and Shout in Denver, Good Records in Dallas. Cactus in Houston and finally Waterloo in Austin.
“That’s what happens when you release a fucking record in March,” Earle grumbled on-air. “You end up at SXSW.”
With no disrespect to friend Lewis Black and the festival’s founders and his friends, Earle was happy for the invite. He ended up doing a couple of solo shows and three with the band, including a morning show at nine a.m. that turned out to be one of their best The reward came when Earle got to play on Willie Nelson’s property in Luck, Texas, the site of the film Red Headed Stranger whose fictional town and stage set still stands. Earle got to see two Nelson shows while seeing Waylon Payne and singing a song he co-wrote with Logan Ledger. Earle followed Lola Kirke with his own set in the town’s chapel.
As he sang “L.A. Freeway” on the Luck grounds, he gave voice to the words of one of Clark’s most famous lines. Clark was trying to get off his exit when he said to his wife Susanna, “Man if I could just get off here without getting killed or caught.” He grabbed her eyebrow pencil and a burger sack out from under the back of the floorboard and managed to write it down before it was forgotten. It was a line he’d use in the chorus of a new song called “Pack Up Your Dishes.”
Jerry Jeff Walker would be the first to popularize a Guy Clark song when he recorded “Pack up Your Dishes.” But Jeff called Clark from the studio to let him know that there was going to be a change to the song. “We’re going to call it ‘L.A. Freeway,’” he said. “It makes more sense.” Clark agreed.
As Earle sang the song and clever line “Oh Susanna don’t you cry…” perhaps he reflected on the influence she had had on him. As much as Guy had taught him, Susanna had done as much to influence how he carried himself. And if it wasn’t for Susanna, perhaps one of Guy Clark’s greatest songs would never have been shared.
Clark was grieving with the death of his father when he wrote “Randall Knife.” When his wife heard it, she asked: “What are you going to do with that?”
Clark replied, “Nothing. This is for me.”
“No you’re wrong,” Susanna said. “This is for everyone.”
Verlon Thompson, a longtime friend and collaborator who joins Shawn Camp on Earle’s version of “Old Friends,” said everyone who heard Guy Clark sing the song had the same reaction. “I’d see big guys, hairy-legged welders along with young beautiful ladies all crying at the same time. It never failed to hit home. It hit hard.”
Clarks words and Eatle’s delivery still hit hard on the latter’s new reading of “Randall Knife.”
Guy also marks the passing of another Nashville institution. The House of Blues studio where Guy was recorded is no longer operational. Universal bought the property and shut down the facility once run by Earle’s friend Gary Bell.
Earle is getting going back on the road. A new tour is being built around New Orleans Jazz Fest. He’ll be in Dallas July 3rd at the Outlaw Music Festival and is already looking forward to the next day where he’ll be back in Austin and play at Willie Nelson’s annual 4th of July summer picnic. Perhaps he’ll have in his hip pocket something he once said to an Austin audience: “I was in Dallas last night. It sure is great to be back in Texas.”
No doubt when he thinks of Guy Clark, Steve Earle can’t help but think of his last moments with his mentor.The voice was unmistakable even when it was groggy and it began with a single word.
Just as Steve Earle got to the door and was about to leave his friend for likely the last time, he heard the voice of Guy Clark who awoke, his eyes popped up in his bed at a Nashville facility.
If it was anybody else, Earle would have had a problem. Nobody else called him that.
Earle who had delivered barbeque that night wanted to know what he thought. Clark then uttered one word.
He then closed his eyes.
In his forty-four years of living in Nashville, Guy Clark never accepted pork as proper barbeque. If this was the last thing his teacher had said, it was okay for Steve Earle. After all, it was such a Guy thing to do.