Featured Interview – W.C. Clark

wc clark photo 1There has been a litany of studies done throughout the years trying to determine how singing, or listening to music when a woman is pregnant, will affect the fetal development of the child she is carrying.

The bottom line is that no one really knows for sure. Studies at such institutes as the neuroscience department at the University of California in Irvine, as well as the Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development have pretty much came back as inconclusive.

However, apparently not one of those pillars of research has asked Texas singer, song-writer, guitarist – and all around bluesman – W.C. Clark’s opinion on the matter.

Because according to him, the music that his mother favored him with when he was in her womb had everything to do with his development.

“All the while my momma was pregnant with me, her and her three sisters had a gospel quartet. They were singing all the time. When I came out, the sound was already in my head and body,” he said. “I just had to bring it down to my fingers into an instrument. I came out with the music in me. On top of that, my grandmother and my momma – as did a lot of black women back then – when they were working or cooking, they would take one note and go up above and underneath it. I was little at that time and I’d be hiding around the corner listening to it. That was the soul blues they were singing.”

Suffice to say, W.C. (Wesley Curley) Clark has traveled a lot of roads and played a lot of blues – almost 60 years’ worth -since those days. And he’s going as strong right now as he’s ever been going.

“Things have been real good for me this year; I’m playing a lot around Texas and the outskirts of the state,” he said. “We’ve got just enough work to keep us going. We’re getting ready to play the Ogden Valley Roots and Blues Festival in Utah (at Weber County’s North Fork Park) on Aug. 27.”

Plans are currently underfoot for Clark to hit the studio to begin working on a follow-up to his last album – 2011’s Were You There.

“The plans are already in progress and we’re in the middle of choosing the songs, because I’m going to do my own original songs on my own record label this time,” he said. “We’re working on picking out the songs and things like that right now. We don’t want to be in any hurry … we want to satisfy every little step before we go to the next one.”

If there has been one constant shining beacon for the music coming out of Austin, Texas since the 1960s, it’s been W.C. Clark. He’s mentored and interacted with more young, up-and-coming musicians than could probably ever be accurately counted. He’s touched the lives and affected the career arcs of now-legendary names like Marcia Ball, Lou Ann Barton, Paul Ray, Angela Strehli, Charlie and Will Sexton, as well as the Vaughan brothers – Jimmie and Stevie Ray – to name-check just a few. Understandably, for years now, Clark has been referred to as the ‘Godfather of Austin Blues.’

“When the scene in Austin really got started, I was already playing blues. I started showing people how to play this and how to play that, so they started calling me ‘The Teacher.’ The ‘Godfather’ thing came from when I was playing on the lake up in Chicago and I was going on stage after Lee Roy Parnell. He said, ‘Ladies and gentleman, we’re going to call W.C. up here to help me sing this next song.’ So I went up and sang harmony with him. I said, ‘Folks, I want you to know that this is my musician brother.’ And someone out in the audience yelled out, ‘That’s your Godson.’ I didn’t ever know who yelled that out, but that’s where it came from. Then I became known as the ‘Godfather of Austin Blues.’

With all the amazing blues players that have called Austin home over the years, that’s a big-time feather in Clark’s ever-present hat. While he acknowledges that he’s proud to be called the ‘Godfather,’ he’s also quick to point out that the title does carry its share of weight and responsibilities with it.

wc clark pic2“The responsibility – I welcome it. I’m into the blues and all the music so deeply that anything that comes along with that, I’m ready for it. I want it,” he said. “Because there’s a lesson in everything.”

Those that are familiar with Austin from the 1960s and ’70s but have not visited since, would probably be shocked at just how much the city has exploded over the ensuing decades. There’s more people living in Austin these days, there’s more place to work, more places to eat and there’s even more people playing music in the town these days. By proxy, that also means the music scene in Austin has undergone a few tweaks and changes over the years, as well. But regardless of the changes, Austin still has a vibrant supply of young talent vying for its place in the sun.

“In every generation, the music almost always changes, everywhere. But there’s always young guys and ladies that are playing the blues that are slowly but surely coming up,” he said. “And it’s like that in Austin now. One of the things that clubs here are doing for young musicians now is hosting open mic nights. That gives young musicians a chance to be heard, but at the same time it can also hurt (established) musicians that are trying to get paid. For example, if a musician has been getting paid $75 or $100 to play a club, if that club has open mic night and can get young musicians to come and play for free, that saves them money. But that’s necessary, because if it wasn’t for those open mic nights, a lot of the young blues guys couldn’t get out there to be heard. South By Southwest (annual music conference and artist showcase held in Austin) has been another great avenue for young blues players to get their names out there.”

Austin has always been a massive melting pot for music of all forms, from country to folk to jazz, to punk and free-form psychedelic rock. To put it bluntly, Austin has seen and heard it all. But the blues – specifically Texas blues – has always been at the town’s core. And according to Clark, the real measure of the blues – whether you can them Texas blues or Chicago blues or the Delta blues – is something that can’t been seen, but can only be felt. That feeling can be one powerful elixir, too.

“The blues is all about feeling. The only reason for the different labels that people put on the blues was that it was necessary for the radio stations. They created those categories. But to me the only categories of the blues and happy blues and sad blues. But the thing is, that’s not the music, that’s the people that are listening to the music,” he said. “The people are the ones that are sad before they get into the blues. The blues just brings that out for them. Then they can lay back and go, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ because it’s coming out of them. Now, some players will come into a blues band and they will bring negativity to mix in with a positive blues. The way I know a positive blues is that if I go to work and have a headache or stomach ache and when I play my last song, I might think, ‘Oh, that’s right; I don’t feel good.’ But all the while I’m up there playing my songs, that (not feeling good) never entered into my mind. That’s the positive blues.”

The other side of that coin is when someone introduces bad vibes or an uncaring attitude into a good blues tune.

“Yeah, like if somebody comes in and is not playing the pattern or the tone of the song … that’s when negativity starts slipping in. When that happens, that’s when you’ve got these bands that are arguing or fighting with each other. That’s why a lot of those rockers will jump off the bandstand and expect somebody to catch them,” said Clark. “They got that negative and nervous energy from that music that they play. I saw a guy from Austin jump off a six-foot stage one time, but he broke his leg. Now that’s negative energy.”

With that being said, has Clark ever felt temped to stage dive into a crowd?

“Oh, no, no, no,” he laughed. “But I tell you what; there’s been times when I had to remember that I was heavy, because I was so caught up in the music that I was playing that I didn’t feel no weight. The music was carrying me away. You know, everything should be in neutral. If everything was in neutral, we wouldn’t have no past or no future … everything would be about right now.”

wc clark pic3Clark’s father was a guitar player and it didn’t take too long before he was looking for a way to replicate what his dad did. In W.C.’s case, this meant taking a little bit of ingenuity, finding a couple of 2X4s and scraping together some bailing wire to fashion his very own guitar.

“I made a guitar out of 2X4s and bailing wire and I played it for a while. I got that from a country band out of Taylor (Texas) called Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters. The first time I had seen a guy playing tub bass was with them,” he said. “He had one string and that went into a metal tub and hooked into a 2X4. Well, I figured if he could do that with one string, I could do it with six strings. So I got a bunch of bailing wire and put it on a 2X4 and stretched it and tuned it up my way and played it for a while. Then, a gospel quartet had heard of me and they wanted me to play guitar for them, so they bought a guitar and that’s how I got my first (real) guitar.”

Even though he was in a gospel group, Clark soon found his thoughts drifting to other forms of music, namely the blues. But in order to first fall in love with the blues, he had to hear them largely when his mother was out of the house.

“Up the street in my neighborhood was a café that had a jukebox with the blues in it. Well, my momma was from the old alter and would say, ‘We can’t listen to that.’ When she was around (the house) I listened to big band stuff and Frank Sinatra and gospel music,” he said. “When my mom was gone, my step-father would put the radio on XHRF and we listened to the blues. He’s (Clark’s step-father) the one that was enticing me, because I heard him telling momma, ‘Let him alone … it’s in him.” My momma would say stuff like, ‘Boy, put that guitar down and go to bed. You’re going to make people hate you, baby.’ So I would go outside in my car – I bought my first car when I was 17 years old – and start playing my guitar. Well, my momma would bring out blankets and pillows for me to cover up and sleep. That’s just the way it was.”

After playing at Charlie’s Playhouse in Austin for six years (with Blues Boy Hubbard and The Jets), Clark came onto the radar of the legendary R&B star, Joe Tex. Clark hit the road with Tex, seemingly leaving Austin behind in his rear-view mirror in the late ’60s. Turns out, that was just temporary.

“I was very ambitious then (when he left Austin with Tex) … musical ambition was what was guiding me. Joe Tex was traveling all over the world and I was playing in his band. But I had went back to Austin one year and there was a trumpet player named Don Jennings who called me up and said he had a band and they needed a bass player for that night. Well, I play guitar and bass, so I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ Well, when I got there, I saw something I had never seen before – a white blues band,” he said. “This was Jimmie Vaughan and Paul Ray and Doyle Bramhall … all those guys were white and I had never seen a blues band like that. The trick was, I played the gig and everything went fine and I was on my way back to New York to meet up with Joe Tex, when a thought hit me. It was, ‘You know, that band was good.’ I played with them and we had a good time, but it wasn’t until later that I stopped and realized, ‘Damn! Those guys were good.’ That’s when I left Joe Tex and moved back to Austin. I played with Jimmie’s band for a while and other bands for a while and then I formed Southern Feeling (with vocalist Angela Strehli and piano player Denny Freeman).”

A proposed record deal for Southern Feeling came unraveled and Clark took a job as a mechanic at a Ford dealership in Austin.

Then fate – in the form of a young Stevie Ray Vaughan – intervened. Vaughan was gathering up musicians for a band he was starting and wouldn’t let Clark refuse to be a part of that combo, which became known as the Triple Threat Revue, which also featured vocalist Lou Ann Barton and keyboard player Mike Kindred.

“I had no idea back then (that Stevie Ray would go on to become an iconic guitarist), but something was guiding me, because I laid down my guitar and played bass with the group,” Clark said. “I always say that Stevie Ray had what I call a ‘forward look.’ His music was ‘forward’ music and I knew that he needed someone that knew what they were doing on bass to kick him, you know what I mean? Not drag him back, but kick him forward – someone that knew how to listen to a solo and if they heard him getting into a rut, then they knew what to do on bass to pick him up and kick him in a different direction. That’s why I joined him … to do just that.”

wc clark pic 4Clark and Kindred also teamed up to pen a song that would go on to become one of the highlights of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s Couldn’t Stand The Weather album a few years later – “Cold Shot.” The tune not only became one of SRV’s signature songs, it can still be heard with regularity on classic rock radio these days.

“We put that song together because we was trying to have enough songs to play, to make a gig. None of us back then had any idea it was going to be a hit song,” he said. “But Stevie Ray was a ‘seeker.’ I was the same way. A ‘seeker’ will go where the music leads them, because they know in the next step, there’s something to learn.”

In addition to all of the other things he does, Clark also teaches guitar and bass. Sometimes he says he feels like the student, which any good teacher should.

“I do learn things from my students. That doesn’t mean that I learn to play something from them that they knew and I didn’t; what that means is sometimes they’ll teach me why someone doesn’t like to play a particular thing,” he said. “I’ll go, ‘Oh, so this is why people don’t like to play this or that way.’ And I’ll have learned something from my students. That gives me the energy to fix it where they will like to play it that way.”

Clark has always took to the guitar like a fish takes to water, and after having an instrument in his hand for 50-plus years, playing is like second nature to the man. That helps to explain why Clark is able to get such rich and warm tones out of his guitar. And as it turns out, the way he approaches his guitar also has a dramatic effect on the way that Clark pens songs.

“When you’re playing music and trying to learn as much as you can, you end up learning the scales that’s in the music. After a while of playing those scales over and over, it becomes a melody in your sub-conscious. A lot of times when I wake up in the morning, I have a melody inside of me that’s going to worry me until I do something with it,” he said. “I listen to the way that I accent the notes and the timing and let that tell me what the words (to the song) are. I’ll hear a melody on the guitar and then put words to it and that becomes a song. Once I start the beginning to a song, I know how the ending is going to be. I just have to figure out how to get there.”

Superman wears a cape and a red-and-yellow uniform to help differentiate the super hero from his mild-mannered alter-ego, Clark Kent. While W.C. Clark may not be able to ‘leap tall buildings with a single bound,’ he does have a tool he uses to help separate the man from the bluesman.

“My hat. When you see me wearing hats, that’s a W.C. character. When I pull my hat off, then I’m Wesley,” he laughed. “Wesley’s the name I use when I go to pay the light and water bills; when I’m up on stage playing the blues, I’m W.C.”

With all that he’s accomplished – and the indelible imprint he’s squarely placed on the Austin music scene – you might think that the 76-year-old Clark might be ready to downshift a bit and start thinking about impending retirement.

However, those thoughts don’t appear to be anywhere near W.C. Clark’s head.

“No sir. Something tells me that my hands will still be working even if my legs won’t,” he said. “Music is the spirit of all things. When you die, you have to be born again of the spirit. Well, this spirit that I have of my right now, I want to be again of it. And that spirit is music. So I’m going to hang in there as long as I can. I tell the audiences sometimes, ‘Folks thanks you for the tips and stuff and I’m going to tell you what you all are doing. When we receive this money, we’re not beating anybody out of nothing. You’re giving us this money because you want us to have it.’ And the crowds give me a great big hand when I say that. We’ve made the audience feel good with the music and no they’ve made us feel good with the money and they know it, because I told them. It’s a win-win for both parties and everybody goes home happy.”

Visit W.C.’s website at: www.wcclark.com

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