Another good man has departed the world of music. But Guy Clark leaves behind some of the best songs ever to come out of Texas: down-to-earth, workmanlike, tender, and often with a touch of wry humour.
In the New York Times, Bill Friskics-Warren wrote:
His songwriting evinced not just a keen eye for narrative detail but also an unerring ear for spoken vernacular and a wry, existentialist bent akin to that of Kris Kristofferson or John Prine. In “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” one of a handful of originals now regarded as standards from his 1975 debut album, “Old No. 1,” Mr. Clark reminisced about a grandfatherly figure at whose feet he used to listen to stories as a boy. Writing through the eyes of childhood, Mr. Clark describes the old-timer in almost mythic terms as “a drifter and a driller of oil wells, and an old-school man of the world” who is confronting his mortality.
I’d play the “Red River Valley”
And he’d sit in the kitchen and cry
And run his fingers through 70 years of living
And wonder, Lord, has every well I drilled gone dry?
We was friends, me and this old man
Like desperadoes waiting for a train
For the brooding title track of his 1995 album, “Dublin Blues,” Mr. Clark used an unlikely juxtaposition of images to effect an arresting shift in perspective — in this case, casting an old mountain folk song in a shimmering new light. “I have seen the David, I’ve seen the Mona Lisa too,” he sings over a simple folk-blues melody. “And I have heard Doc Watson play ‘Columbus Stockade Blues.’” Even his novelty songs, including paeans to down-home culinary delights like “Texas Cookin’” and “Homegrown Tomatoes,” were singular in their humour and tone. “Stuff that works” is how Mr. Clark alluded to the rustic images and folk tunes that defined his body of work in his 1995 song bearing that title. “Stuff that’s real, stuff you feel,” he sang in a gruff, half-spoken baritone, “the kind of stuff you reach for when you fall.”
Guy Clark was born in 1941, in a small town in West Texas. His father, Ellis, was a lawyer, and his mother, Frances, worked for a time in his law office. His grandmother, who ran a 13-room hotel, also played a major role in his upbringing. Some of her guests later appeared as characters in his songs; one was Jack Prigg, who became the old oil speculator in “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train.”
In the mid-’60s he began performing in clubs and formed lifelong friendships with songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, and Steve Earle. There’s a great film, Heartworn Highways, that captured these and other musicians from what came to be known as the Outlaw Country movement, filmed in 1975-6 but not released until the 1980s.
In the New Yorker, Ian Crouch adds this about his great début album, Old No. 1, released in 1975:
If that had been his only recording, if he had knocked off soon after, he still would have left behind enough classics to keep a few subsequent generations of admirers and cover artists busy. His recording of “L.A. Freeway,” stripped of the studio flourishes of Walker’s cover, is the essential version of a great American song. “Like a Coat from the Cold” is a love ballad full of gorgeous sentiment that stops short of being sentimental, something Clark almost always managed to pull off. “She Ain’t Going Nowhere,” with an angelic Emmylou Harris harmonizing on the chorus, and “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train” are twin emotional epics. “Texas 1947” and “Instant Coffee Blues” are tight short stories. “Let Him Roll” is the other-side-of-the-tracks Nashville cousin of the George Jones funeral weeper “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” The album has unity without being an actual cycle of songs, tied together by Clark’s deft guitar-picking, unfussy voice, and good-natured wisdom.
He sang about these things in “Stuff That Works,” written with Rodney Crowell, from 1995. It’s a celebration of the way that familiar shirts, a trusty guitar, comfortable boots, and an old car that still runs all add up to something more:
Stuff that works, stuff that holds up
The kind of stuff you don’t hang on the wall.
Stuff that’s real, stuff you feel
The kind of stuff you reach for when you fall.
You can see such things, and feel the glow of such a life, in the final scene of “Heartworn Highways,” as a group of musicians is assembled at the Clarks’ house on Christmas Eve, 1975. They’re sitting around a holiday table laden with oil-burning lamps, jugs of wine, cans of Pabst and Miller Lite, bottles of Wild Turkey, and packs of Lucky Strike cigarettes, holding guitars or else closing their eyes to sing. Steve Earle, just a kid, soars through a new one of his, while Clark joins him, stumbling a bit but enthusiastic, on the chorus. It looks warm and comfortable there in the lamplight, like the inside of a Guy Clark song.
Another fine song that exemplifies Clark’s view of valuing the simple things in life and ‘staying at ease with the world’ is ‘Step Inside This House’ which Lyle Lovett recorded in a fine version. Here he introduces the song and reveals, remarkably, that it was the first song that Clark wrote:
One of many personal favourites from the Guy Clark songbook is ‘Boats to Build’, a song whose imagery embraces both Clark’s love of carpentry and his pleasure in steering a boat, but whose philosophy is deep, and to live by:
It’s time for a change
I’m tired of that same ol’ same
The same ol’ words the same ol’ lines
The same ol’ tricks and the same ol’ rhymes
Days precious days
Roll in and out like waves
I got boards to bend I got planks to nail
I got charts to make
I got seas to sail
I’m gonna build me a boat
With these two hands
It’ll be a fair curve
From a noble plan
Let the chips fall where they will
‘Cause I’ve got boats to build
Sails are just like wings
The wind can make ’em sing
Songs of life songs of hope
Songs to keep your dreams afloat
Shores distant shores
There’s where I’m headed for
Got the stars to guide my way
Sail into the light of day.
This is Guy doing it in 2008, with co-writer Verlon Thompson:
Old friends, they shine like diamonds
Old friends, you can always call
Old friends Lord, you can’t buy ’em
You know it’s old friends after allFarewell, old friend.
- He Ain’t Going Nowhere: Texas Monthly, January 2014
- Guy Clark: One Last Look: Texas Monthly, 17 May, 2016
- The Essential Guy Clark Songs: American Songwriter magazine, 2009