Guy Clark taught him how to self-edit. The late-legend Townes Van Zandt showed him how to access elusive inspiration, and the late Mickey Newbury urged him to try a more straightforward style of singing and guitar playing.
Soon he was composing definitive late-’70s hits, like “Ashes By Now,” “Stars on the Water” and “I Ain’t Living Long Like This.” At 63, the Grammy-winning artist, who plays from his new album “Tarpaper Sky” in The City this week, continues to make heartfelt music.
“How did I do that? I guess my Christian work ethic can’t come into question now, can it?” he asks, rhetorically.
While the avid pupil gleaned everything he could from his mentors, the key to his success is that he never has stopped learning about his craft.
“Inspiration in my 20s was handed to me as a gift, and I was able to make something of it,” Crowell says. “But as I’ve gotten older, I work hard for — and earn — inspiration, so inspiration is really just a by-product of hard work now.”
That’s how he finished his 2011 memoir “Chinaberry Sidewalks” — by hitting the computer every morning, like clockwork. “When you can make peace with spending a month on one paragraph, you’re ready to take the long-haul approach to revision on songwriting,” he says.
Crowell — who can whittle 40 nebulous verses down to a suitable six — learned brevity from his poet friend Mary Karr, who helped him with his book plus the lyrics to their 2012 collaboration “KIN: Songs by Rodney Crowell and Mary Karr.”
“Mary is a very muscular language scholar,” he says. “So we spent a lot of time discussing certain words — whether it was the poet’s choice or the songwriter’s choice.” That clarity infuses “Tarpaper Sky,” and its Cajun-spiced “Fever on the Bayou,” a gospel-stomping “Jesus Talk to Mama” and the roadhouse rocker “Frankie Please.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Slim’s, 333 11th St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Contact: (415) 522-0333, www.slimspresents.com
Songwriting isn’t easy — especially when you’ve been at it for three decades and 22 albums, like Texas troubadour Guy Clark.
With every passing year, many more tunes are copyrighted and many more melodic possibilities are nipped in the bud.