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Off the Beaten Tracks: Guy Clark, heart of Texas

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BACK to the heartworn highways this week for another great Texas singer-songwriter, Guy Clark. Like his bosom buddy Townes van Zandt, Clark provided hits for countless country singers while failing to become a household name himself. In the early 1970s he and his wife Susanna threw open their doors to scores of promising young musicians, and stars including Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell would be the first to admit their debt to the Clarks. Guy was also an engaging performer in his own right and his first album is rightly regarded as an American classic.

Guy Charles Clark was born on November 6, 1941, in Monahans, West Texas, which calls itself a city but has a population of less than 8,000. While his law student father Ellis was away on wartime service, Guy and his mother Frances lived at his grandmother’s 13-room hotel, where the young lad listened avidly to the tall tales told by guests including oilmen and air force crews.

Dad having returned home safely and finished law school, the family moved in the early 1950s to Rockport, in South Texas, where Ellis established a successful legal practice. At high school, Guy became fascinated with Mexican music. He also began repairing and making guitars, which would be a lifelong passion. ‘The first guitars I got were in South Texas,’ he told an interviewer from the Austin Chronicle in 2013. ‘You go over the border and buy a cheap Mexican guitar, and the reason they’re $12 is because they’re not worth a shit. They’re hard to play and they don’t play in tune. So to me, the first thing to do was to fix it. I’ve always had an easy relationship with wood. The first thing you get in West Texas is a pocket knife. You make your own toys.’

After a brief sojourn at the University of Minnesota, Clark moved in the early 1960s to Houston, where he opened a guitar repair shop with a friend, and began playing in coffee shops and bars. There he met fellow musicians including Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury and Jerry Jeff Walker. He married a folk singer, Susan Spaw, and in 1966 they had a son, Travis, but divorced not long afterwards.

Clark’s heart was captured by an artist named Susanna Talley and they moved to Los Angeles in the hope of landing a record contract. Guy worked in a dobro factory while Susanna taught art classes. They were unhappy there and glad to relocate to Nashville after Guy won a publishing deal. Their relief at leaving California is described in one of his most celebrated songs, LA Freeway.

Both Guy and Susanna became close to Townes Van Zandt and he was the best man at their wedding in 1972, staying with them for the next eight months. As the classic documentary Heartworn Highways depicts, their home was the scene of nightly musical parties which often ended in drunken high jinks.

The bond between Van Zandt and the Clarks would never be broken. ‘We were always together,’ Clark told the Austin Chronicle. ‘She and Townes were best friends, and Townes and I were best friends. He knew he could always count on me to take him in, or take care of him, or try to. And he was always in love with my wife.’

Guy’s biographer Tamara Saviano said the three endured long periods of poverty although Van Zandt was making albums. ‘They were really just in this artistic life together, and any money that came in, they were pooling it. Susanna told me of one time Townes got a check for a couple hundred bucks – a royalty check or something – and they were all excited because it meant meat for dinner. They were going to go out and buy groceries, but Townes said the first thing they were doing was buying Susanna some paint.’

Clark’s songwriting began to receive public recognition when Jerry Jeff Walker’s eponymous debut album in 1972 included LA Freeway and That Old Time FeelingDesperados Waiting For a Train appeared the following year on Walker’s Viva Terlingua LP. It was not until 1975, when Guy was 34, that he released his own album, Old No 1.

It begins with Rita Ballou, a rollicking tribute to a good-time girl, and from then on is pure gold. The wife gets a namecheck on the brilliant LA Freeway – ‘O Susanna, don’t you cry babe’. She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere  is a portrait of a sad woman starting a new life by thumbing a lift at the side of the road.

And the wind had its way with her hair
And the blues had a way with her smile
And she had a way of her own
Like prisoners have a way with a file.

That Old Time Feeling gives nostalgia a good name, as does Texas 1947, when Clark recalls how, as a boy of six, he placed a coin on the train track before an express came roaring through town. ‘Me I got a nickel smashed flatter than a dime, by a mad dog, runaway red-silver streamline train.’

Staying with the railway theme is Desperados Waiting For a Train,  which by that time had been recorded by Tom Rush and Rita Coolidge as well as Jerry Jeff. Inspired by a guest at granny’s hotel, it concerns an ancient oilman wondering if every well he’s drilled has run dry.

The day before he died I went to see him
I was grown and he was almost gone
So we just closed our eyes and dreamt us up a kitchen
And sang another verse to that old song.

This is followed by Like a Coat From the Cold, a love song to Susanna.

The lady beside me is the one I have chosen
To walk through my life like a coat from the cold.

By contrast, Instant Coffee Blues concerns an uncomfortable one-night stand and finally we have the fabulous Let Him Roll, about a drunken drifter in love with a prostitute he met in Dallas 17 years earlier. I have always loved the brutal economy of the line: So he died. And that’s not the end of the song. I won’t spoil it for those who have yet to hear it, but for me it always brings a tear to the eye.

This is a sublime album, understated and beautifully played by Clark’s Nashville chums. It was followed in 1976 by Texas Cookin’, which while not reaching its predecessor’s stellar heights provides much to enjoy. Anyhow I Love You features Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell on backing vocals, a measure of the esteem in which Clark is held by the country music community. Emmylou is back for Broken Hearted People,a lament by a drinker who has found out his old lady has lied to him from the start.

So take me to a barroom, driver
Set me on a stool
If I can’t be her man
I’m damned if I’ll be her fool.

The final track is The Last Gunfighter Ballad, a lament for past times which became the title song of a 1977 album by Johnny Cash.

Clark went for a more polished and conventional sound on his eponymous third album, released in 1978. Cello, harpsichord and clavinet all make an appearance while for the first time cover versions are involved. Old friend Townes gets a nod with his song Don’t You Take it Too Bad while the best original, for me, is Comfort and Crazy. Compared with Old No 1, however, Guy Clark was a disappointment to me and I must confess the last of his albums to make it to my record collection. 

Townes van Zandt died aged 52 on New Year’s Day, 1997, and Susanna Clark took it hard, turning to drugs and smoking heavily. ‘Everybody tried to help her, but she didn’t give a shit,’ said Guy. ‘The big thing that really happened to her, that put her over the edge, was Townes dying. God, they were just so close, and I don’t think she ever got over it.

‘She just didn’t like being in this world without Townes being in it. There just wasn’t anybody she could talk to. It was dark.’

Susanna died of cancer in 2012. Throughout Guy’s long career she had been his muse and the subject of many a song. His 14th and final studio album, My Favourite Picture of You, shows him holding a yellowing snapshot of his late wife. It was taken by a friend in the late Seventies or early Eighties after she stormed out of the house furious because Clark and Van Zandt were pie-eyed (for the thousandth time).

‘Townes and I were in the house, just drunk on our asses being jerks, and she had finally had enough,’ said Guy. ‘She put on her coat and walked out the door. I remember it being cold. And somebody snapped that picture.

‘From the moment I saw it, that was my favourite picture of Susanna, and always has been. It says everything. Boy, she’s absolutely beautiful – beautiful – and in an experienced kind of way in that picture. And she’s so pissed off.’

My Favourite Picture won Clark a Grammy Award for Best Folk Album in 2014. Here’s the title track. 

In the absence of Susanna, he continued to write songs and build guitars, saying the two pursuits were ‘just a way to while away the time until you die’ – an echo of one of Townes Van Zandt’s finest songs. Guy Clark was 74 when lymphoma claimed his life in 2016.

Having made Townes, a Van Zandt tribute album in 2009, Steve Earle released a collection of Clark songs, Guy, ten years later. He told the New Yorker: ‘I knew when Guy died that I’d have to make a record, because I don’t want to run into him on the other side having made Townes’s record and not made his. I don’t even know whether I believe in that, you know, but I am not taking any chances.’

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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