Texas singer-songwriter Guy Clark died this morning at his home in Nashville. He was 74.
You might be familiar with Clark, or you might not have heard of him. Clark never achieved the fame of Willie Nelson. And unlike Townes Van Zandt, Clark's legacy as a songwriter eclipses his contributions as a performer. Some of Clark’s songs are best known as performed by others. "Desperados Waiting for a Train" was recorded most notably by Jerry Jeff Walker in the 1970s. Walker also sang the most well-known version of "LA Freeway." That song is a defiant expression of hope as a response to alienation.
Clark and his wife Susanna spent a short time in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. He worked in a guitar factory. Clark was a lifelong luthier, or maker of guitars. Southern California wasn't a good fit. "LA Freeway" tells the familiar story of a young man from the heartland who moves to the West Coast and finds it lacking.
Willie Nelson's "Bloody Mary Morning" follows that same theme. In characteristic fashion, Willie's tune features love gone wrong and alcohol. "LA Freeway" is more reflective. When Clark wrote "Love's a gift that's surely handmade," it's easy to think of something made of wood and leather, and not plastic. Here's Radney Foster's version.
The word "storyteller" gets tossed around a lot at the moment. Clark was one artist who truly merits that title. In the space of a four-minute song, Clark could create memorable characters or spin a tale. In that sense he was a little like Bob Dylan. But only a little. Dylan's lyrics tend toward the archetypal or even surreal. Clark's characters are much more like neighbors or family. Like the unnamed old man in "Desperados."
The subject of that song is actually a Permian Basin wildcatter named Jack Prigg. Clark spent his earliest years in Monahans, an oil town just south of Odessa. The family lived at his grandmother's 13-room hotel. The guests were a rogue's gallery of characters there for various money-making ventures. No one came to Monahans for the scenery. Clark's father was away fighting in World War II. So, for a while, the aging oilman was a father figure for Clark. The result, years later, was a song that puts into words the depth of feeling in a male relationship. That's not done too often.
To find Guy Clark's peers as a Texas writer, you might need to go beyond songwriters and get into just plain old writers. Clark's lyrics have a warmth and elegance comparable to John Graves. And Clark's capacity for humor and pathos puts him near Larry McMurtry. As for Clark's music, it epitomizes the more gentle side of the Outlaw Country genre that rose up in the 1970s. He was a musician's songwriter. The list of those who recorded Clark's songs includes Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, George Strait, Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell, Kathy Mattea, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill and many more. The list of those whose life was made richer by Clark’s artistry is longer still.