When Steve Earle was an aspiring musician still in his teens, he was fortunate to be taken under the wings of two legendary artists who had a significant impact on him as he was learning the craft of songwriting. The first was country-folk singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, whom Earle met in Houston, in the early ’70s. The other was Guy Clark, another Texan, like Earle and Van Zandt, who was 14 years older than Earle but just starting to establish his own career as a recording artist. Clark gave Earle his first big break, helping the younger guitarist land a music publishing deal as well as hiring him to play bass in his band and perform on his highly acclaimed 1975 debut album, Old No. 1.
The influence of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark has always loomed large in Earle’s music, and he has shown his appreciation to both men in numerous ways over the years. He has recorded their songs at various times in his career, and in 1995 he performed a benefit concert with them at Nashville’s Bluebird Café that was released as an album, Together at the Bluebird Café, in 2001. In 2009, about 12 years after Van Zandt passed away, Earle released Townes, a tribute album containing 15 cover versions of his favorite songs from his mentor’s catalog.
After Guy Clark passed away on May 17, 2016, Earle decided he shouldn’t wait as long to record a tribute album to him. “When Guy passed away, I knew that I was going to have to do it as soon as possible,” Earle says. “I didn’t want to run into him on the other side, having made the Townes Van Zandt record but not his. I had originally planned to make a political record as the follow-up to my last album, [2017’s] So You Wanna Be an Outlaw, but I made this record now for my own selfish reasons. The timing worked out better anyway, as my political record will now come out in 2020,” an election year.
Guy (New West Records) is a collection of 16 Guy Clark covers performed by Earle and his band, the Dukes. The material comprises nine songs from Clark’s first two albums, Old No. 1 and Texas Cookin’, as well as his tune “Heartbroke” (a number-one hit for Ricky Skaggs in 1982) and a handful of numbers from later in Clark’s career, like “Dublin Blues” and “Out in the Parking Lot.” Among the highlights are several of Clark’s best-known songs, including “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” “L.A. Freeway,” “New Cut Road” and “Rita Ballou.” On “Old Friends,” Earle is joined by, appropriately, some of Clark’s pals, among them Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris and Jerry Jeff Walker. Shawn Camp, who played on several of Clark’s later records and produced his last album, 2013’s My Favorite Picture of You, also plays guitar on two tracks.
Although Earle usually spends his time off the road at his home in New York City’s Greenwich Village, Guitar Player caught up with him at his second home in Nashville, where he was spending time in between shows. As he fondly reminisced about the many ways Clark inspired him, it soon became evident that both men are kindred souls who shared the same passion for the craft of songwriting, guitars and life.
How did you meet Guy Clark and end up working with him?
Before I left San Antonio for Nashville, I knew a little bit about Guy because Jerry Jeff Walker had recorded three of his songs [“Desperados Waiting for a Train,” “L.A. Freeway” and “That Old Time Feeling”], and I played them. In November of 1974, when I decided to go to Nashville, I was hoping to meet Guy. I figured it would happen eventually because I knew people that knew him.
I was hanging out at this place called Bishop’s Pub. At least two or three times a week — as often as they would let me — I would play a set there and pass the hat. It was a basket house. About six months before I got to Nashville, Guy and his wife Susanna had moved out to the lake near Mount Juliet, so they weren’t around as much as they had been in past. One night, I walked in and my friend songwriter Richard Dobson, who was tending bar there, told me that Guy was in the pool room in the back. Guy was back there with Jim Stafford, Deborah Allen and Susanna. They were shooting pool, and I just hung out there watching them play. Guy was lining up a shot and I was in his line of sight. He looked up, and the first thing he said to me was, “Nice hat.” Back in those days nobody would have recognized me without my cowboy hat. We struck up a conversation, and I started getting invited to things.
About a year and a half later, when his first record came out, I was playing bass in his band. I played in his band for just one tour. He helped me get my first publishing deal. He browbeat his publisher until he signed me. Guy championed my songs and showed me a lot about songwriting.
What were the most valuable lessons Guy taught you about songwriting?
There were two big ones: Write with a pencil, not a pen, and use a big eraser; and songs aren’t finished until you play them for people.
A lot of people aren’t aware that, in addition to being a prolific songwriter and guitarist, Guy was a talented guitar builder.
Guy worked on my guitars back when I first met him. He was a luthier, and he repaired the guitars that belonged to everyone in our little circle. He had a guitar shop when he lived in San Francisco. Somebody gave me a photo of him, Minor Wilson, who was his business partner, and Bob Weir sitting in front of the shop in 1969. It didn’t last very long. Minor went back to Texas and Guy moved to L.A., where he worked at the Original Musical Instrument factory owned by the Dopyera brothers. He built Dobros and stayed there until he signed his deal with Sunbury/Dunbar, an RCA publishing company. They asked him where he wanted to live, and since he didn’t like L.A. very much he had them move him to Nashville.
There’s such a wealth of material to choose from Guy’s entire career. How did you decide which songs to cover, and why did you focus so much on songs from his first two albums?
It’s weighted pretty heavily toward his earlier stuff because that is the material that I am the most connected to. Those were songs that I already knew and had played in my career. Before I got to Nashville and met Guy, I already knew “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” “That Old Time Feeling” and “L.A. Freeway.” When I played bass in Guy’s band, I played “Anyhow I Love You,” “She Ain’t Going Nowhere” and “Texas 1947,” and I was around when “The Last Gunfighter Ballad” was written.
I had to make a little bit of an effort to come up with some later stuff, although most of my choices were easy. “Dublin Blues” lent itself to my band. We did it how I thought Guy would have done it earlier in his career. Guy became allergic to recording with drums. He tried and tried to record with drums in the beginning, but after that it became more spotty. By the time he recorded “Dublin Blues,” he was working mostly in a bluegrass-band format, with all acoustic instruments and no drums. Those were some of the best records of his career. His last album, My Favorite Picture of You, is amazing, and he finally won his first Grammy for that.
My version of “Dublin Blues” was one of the first things we recorded after So You Wanna Be An Outlaw. I was playing a lot of electric guitar, and that’s just where I ended up. On Outlaw, I finally overcame my fear of Fender Telecasters. I never thought I would ever become a Tele guy, like I am now. I didn’t start playing electric guitar until my late 20s. I’m still more of an acoustic player than an electric player. I use the same gauge strings on my electrics as I do on my acoustics and play with a combination thumbpick/flatpick — a Fred Kelly Bumblebee. Guy was the first person that I ever saw use a pick like that. He used to make them himself, long before anything like that was commercially available.
“Parking Lot” was another one of his later songs that I felt needed to be on there. There are a few songs that I missed though. After I finished the album, I ran into Louie Pérez. He’s the principal lyricist in Los Lobos, and he was always a fan of Guy. Louie told me he heard that I had finished the Guy Clark album, and he asked if I recorded “The Cape.” I said “Nope.” “Did you record ‘El Coyote’?” I didn’t do that one either, and when he mentioned it, I realized that I should have. When I was back home in New York City, I went to Electric Lady Studios on my own and recorded two more songs for a seven-inch single that is going to be released for Record Store Day. It’s going to have “El Coyote” and “Don’t Let the Sunshine Fool You.”I did them solo — just me and my 1930 Marshall Special. It’s a Gibson-made flat-top that’s like an L-00, and it’s the only intact one of the two known to exist. It sounds great. It was the first time I ever used that guitar for a recording.
You’ve developed a very distinctive voice on the Telecaster.
It’s me, but it’s also very Waylon Jennings. Jerry Shook, who is a session player in Nashville that I know, saw me playing a gig in a club one night. Back when the mechanical bull thing was going on, there were only three people in Nashville who knew [the popular line dance song] “The Cotton-Eyed Joe”: me, Gary Nicholson and Ray Kennedy. We all had bands that played the mechanical bull joints. Back then, Jerry told me that my guitar playing reminded him of Waylon. When I started playing electric guitar a lot a few years later, I leaned toward guitars with P90s, because they were forgiving, and hollowbody guitars, because they fed back really easily. I liked that.
I always found Telecasters unforgiving. I bought a 1955 Telecaster that was completely intact from Matt Umanov’s shop in 2007. I got it for only $15,000, because the owner really needed to sell it, but it’s always been worth a lot more than that. It was one of the best buys I’ve ever made in my life. I used it on one song on one record where a Tele seemed like the only thing that would fit, but I never put it on the back [bridge] pickup. Then I started writing songs for Outlaw. By that time my band had evolved into a really good country-rock band. I wanted a pedal-steel player, so we got Ricky Ray Jackson. I finally surrendered to the Tele on that album.
I finally have a band that can do everything I ever recorded: bluegrass, the harder rock stuff from the ’90s, blues, more traditional country — everything from the Cherokee Cowboys to the New Riders of the Purple Sage. The arrangements on this album became more about playing. There’s a western-swing feel on several songs, which is something that we’ve gotten really good at. Our fiddle player studied with Johnny Gimble. It’s also all about Texas. I’m really happy with the current lineup of my band, and I’d like to keep it together as long as I can.
It sounds like you used the Tele on most of the songs where you played electric guitar. Did you use any other electric guitars on this album?
I used the Tele on everything except “Parking Lot.” For that song I played a 1963 Gibson SG/Les Paul Standard. It has some of the last alnico PAF humbuckers that Gibson made. It’s a great guitar. I’ve grown to like real humbucking pickups. I’m starting to want a ’burst, which is going to cost me a lot of money one of these days.
Your tone on “Heartbroke” is a little different as well.
On “Heartbroke” I’m not on the back pickup. It’s more of a western-swing thing, so I thought that the middle position sounded better for that, which is the front [neck] pickup, without the bass circuit, since my ’55 Tele hasn’t been rewired.
What acoustic guitars did you play?
It was a 1935 Martin D-28, which is the most expensive guitar I’ve ever owned. I used it for all of the acoustic tracks on this album and Outlaw. I own about 30 other Martin guitars, but they’re mostly smaller-body ones. I’d pull them out and use them on different tracks from time to time, but now I feel like I could sell all of them. The D-28 can sound huge, but when you capo up the neck it can get small, too. It’s more balanced than any other dreadnought I’ve ever heard, but it still has the woof that you need for bluegrass.
I play M-size Martins when I’m touring, because you can use a pickup to compensate for the low end. And ergonomically, it’s easier for me to play. It has a little more low end than a triple-0 Martin, because the body is bigger, but it has the same depth. I like my M-size guitars, but I’ve never used them in the studio, with the exception of maybe one track on the Townes album. I have an M-21 Steve Earle — Martin built 180 of those about 10 years ago — an M-36 and an M-38. I use them live because I don’t take vintage amplifiers or guitars on the road. My road electrics are two James Trussart Teles with humbuckers in the front. Those Trussarts are incredibly stable. I’ve put them away for three months after a tour, and when I took them out again for rehearsals they were still in tune. They’re incredible.
What mandolins do you play?
My mandolins are made by Steven Gilchrist. I have an A Junior [Model 1] that has a K&K pickup in it that I use on the road. For the record, I played a 5 Junior that Steve built for me about three or four years ago. His work gets better and better every year, and this one is just a monster.
For Outlaw, your main amp with the Tele was a Vox AC50. Did you use the same amp again here?
I used to own about 25 amps, but I went through a divorce and had to sell a bunch of them, including a couple that I regret getting rid of. I sold all of my amps, except for a small Gibson BR9 and the two that I always use in the studio: a 1965 Vox AC50 with a new cabinet with two 12-inch speakers, and a 1959 Fender Bassman. The  Terraplane record is the Bassman through the whole thing, but the last two records are the AC50 all the way through.
Live, I use Peavey Classic 50s. I love them. They sound great and they don’t blow up. I used to use them with eight 10-inch speakers. That was stupid loud, but it sounded incredible. I don’t need to get any more deaf than I already am, so I’ve backed off to four 10s. I only broke one Classic 50, which was on New Year’s Eve in Chicago in 2000 when I pushed it off the stage. After we retubed it, it worked fine.
You recorded Guy in less than a week. Did you do a lot of pre-production rehearsals, or did the songs just come together quickly?
We rehearsed all but two of the songs over and over during soundchecks while we on tour doing the Copperhead Road 30th anniversary shows for about four months. We learned the other two songs, “Sis Draper” and “New Cut Road,” during the session. Most of the songs were recorded on the first or second take, since we knew them so well.
The tracks were recorded live. How did the band set up in the studio?
I’m always in an isolation room by myself, in case something goes wrong with the vocals so I can do them over. Everybody else was together in one room while the amps were in isolation in another room. There was a baffle room in between the control room and the main room that you can put amps in, and there were a few other isolation booths off of it. Eleanor [Whitmore], our fiddle player, was in an isolation booth as well. Usually she and I are isolated and everybody else is in the same room.
We recorded in what used to be T Bone Burnett’s room at the House of Blues Studios. That studio was sold recently and everybody has moved out of there. When we recorded the album, T Bone was actually working over in Studio A and we were in his room, which is called the Cave. The main room of the Cave is based on Sun Studios, but it has more isolation than the original Sun studio in Memphis.
“The Last Gunfighter Ballad” has a very dry, intimate sound that’s different than any other song on the album. How did you record that?
It was recorded about 18 years before the rest of the album. I recorded that for Guy’s 60th birthday. Some other friends of Guy and I all recorded tracks separately for Guy and burned them on a CD that we gave him for his birthday. I was working on another album at the time at Ray Kennedy’s old studio on Music Row called Room and Board, so I recorded it there. When Tamara Saviano put together the This One’s For Him Guy Clark tribute album, she leased that track from me. I tried to record “The Last Gunfighter Ballad” again for this album. I felt it should be on there because I was there when it was written. I also played that song most of the time at the tribute concerts for Guy after he died. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t beat that version I did back then, so we put it on the album.
What tracks did Shawn Camp play on?
He’s on “Sis Draper” and “New Cut Road.” I’m playing mandolin on that song, and since Chris [Masterson, Dukes guitarist] is still learning to play acoustic bluegrass guitar, we had Shawn play acoustic guitar. Chris does just fine live now. We also brought in Mike Bub to play bass on “Sis Draper,” because it’s so hard, and Shawn and him play together all the time. Kelley [Looney, Dukes bassist] stood down for that track. We did a similar thing on “New Cut Road”: I played mandolin, Shawn played acoustic guitar and Chris played electric guitar. Shawn Camp is a bad dude! He’s one of the best mandolin players I’ve ever seen, and he’s a monster flat-top player. And he’s a great singer and a great fiddle player! He’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever seen.
Guy used a capo on the guitar’s second fret on his versions of some of the songs you did, but I noticed that you did a few of them in standard tuning. Was that more for the vocal range?
I learned about using the capo on the second fret from Guy, but I didn’t do that too much here. I used the same tunings as he did though. “Desperados Waiting for a Train” is in drop D and “Old Time Feeling” is in open G, which is the way he wrote it and the way I played it. The capo position is really just a matter of changing the key for singing it, and I was more comfortable without the capo.
Your guitar playing on “L.A. Freeway” is very close to what he played.
It’s his version, although it’s not 100 percent note for note. I did this record the same way that I did the Townes record, which was my best memory of the way Guy played it on the vast majority of the stuff.
You said one of your biggest regrets was that you never wrote a song with Guy.
I should have done that. Part of that had to do with me living in New York. I still don’t co-write a lot, but I have done it. I write with Miranda Lambert a little bit and with people I’ve done projects with, especially if I’m producing something with an artist. Guy didn’t co-write that much when I met him. In fact, he didn’t do it at all. But later on, he was co-writing more to keep himself going. When I was 20 years old, he gave me a rhyming dictionary and a thesaurus as a test. He wanted to see if I would take it, and I think he wouldn’t have spoken to me if I didn’t. We both got older and we both used the hell out of those rhyming dictionaries. I’ve got a rhyming dictionary and a thesaurus in my phone, and I use them every day.
Which of your own songs did Guy influence the most?
“Ben McCulloch” and “Tom Ames’ Prayer,” because I was definitely under his tutelage there. Those were both written when I was 20. I was emulating other things as well then. We were all listening to Blood on the Tracks, and “Tom Ames’ Prayer” was me trying to write “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” But Guy was a huge influence on everything I wrote during that period. A lot of Outlaw was directly influenced by him because I was trying to get back to where I came in on that record.
You mentioned a political record. What will that be like?
The next record is going to be a little different. It’s going to be the band again, but the core of the songs are being written for a theater piece for the Public Theater that will debut in 2020 about Upper Big Branch, the coal mine in West Virginia that blew up in 2010. The play is being written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, who wrote [the 2002 play] The Exonerated, and it’s based on their interviews with people who survived it and their family members. I wrote songs to move the narrative along. Those songs will be the core of the next record. The record will be political, but it won’t be a “preaching to the choir” record, since I’ve already made that [The Revolution Starts...Now]. This time I want to make a record that speaks to people that didn’t vote the way I did.