Stuff That Works

For an old Southern town, Nashville surely doesn’t feel old. Unlike other spots in Dixie – New Orleans, Charleston, Richmond – you don’t feel a strong sense of history walking Music City’s streets. But that’s not entirely a bad thing. For one, “Nash Vegas” has an entrepreneurial pulse that other Southern cities lack. Here, the health care sector booms, hi-rise condos sprout on every other corner, and a new convention center squats in the middle of downtown like a spaceship.

But despite all the glitz, there is a real history here that still breathes, in the form of our songwriting heritage. And the best of Nashville’s writers are versed in it.

Many AS readers dream of moving to Nashville and jump-starting their career as a songwriter. I’ve met several who, after spending a little time in Music City, were so moved by the spirit of the place – and that sense of musical history – that they quit their desk jobs back home and put down stakes here, often with spouse and kids in tow. Of course, it’s not easy to make it as a musician; the financial rewards are usually minimal. Leonard Cohen, whose song “Bird On The Wire” we break down in this issue, made his pilgrimage to Nashville in the mid-’60s with hopes of furthering his music career. I guess he did all right.

Guy Clark, who is back with a new album this month, is a crucial part of Nashville’s songwriting history. Since the release of his debut record Old No. 1, he has produced a body of work that remains immune to any trends. It’s “stuff that works,” to borrow one of his phrases. If you haven’t seen it, check out the movie Heartworn Highways, a documentary shot in Nashville in the mid-‘70s, and you’ll see that, even his 30s, Clark was a master craftsman and something of an old soul.

When I visited him in his workshop two years ago, he told me that he has a high yardstick when it comes to writing. But the man who penned “That Old Time Feeling” is not overly sanctimonious about the process. “It’s not brain surgery,” he said. “They’re just songs. They’re supposed to be fun.”

Throughout his life, the Texas native has also been a gracious teacher. In this issue, the novelist Alice Randall recounts the time she spent with Clark in the mid-’80s, when she was hell bent on making it as a songwriter. Randall also tells a great story of a guitar pull she witnessed involving her mentor and Garth Brooks, an event that she describes as a “clash of two very different kinds of titan.”

Co-writing a song with Clark is a rite of passage that a only a few lucky young songwriters in town can lay claim to. A young artist named Drake White played a few songs at our office last month and then gushed about a recent writing session he’d had with the old bard. And Ashley Monroe told us about writing the title track to her new album with Clark. “After everything I played him he would just go, ‘Hmm,’” she said. “I would get real nervous and then I would play something else. And he would go, ‘Hmm’ … [then] I told him my life story … I was telling him every detail of everything I’d been through. And I go, ‘But look at me, I came out like a rose.’ And he goes, ‘Well, why don’t we just write that?’ ‘Good idea, Guy Clark. Why don’t’ we just write the truth.’ And we did.”

So it isn’t brain surgery, after all.

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