One Hell of a Guy – The voice and songs of Guy Clark.

Guy Charles Clark was born in Texas, November 6th, in 1941, and he was meant to be larger than life. When he died in Nashville, 17th of May, 2016, it was like the death and the fall of this enormous grape-fruit tree we could see from the window, with roots all over the place, cracking the patio, but leaving a big, black hole in the garden, for ever and always leaving us that saw it, remembering the beauty, the flowers, the sweet fruit, something really special that can´t be replaced even if we tried.

Guy Clark is one of those artists where his songs may be more known than the songwriter himself, and where other artists takes on his songs might me more familiar to most people, even the times when he himself had the most beautiful versions. Guy Clark didn´t compromise with his inner vision of how his songs should be heard or how his albums should be produced. This always made him an artists artist, a critics artist, but didn´t necessarily give his own records the commercial appeal that he deserved and should have, based on the quality of his achievements. Nevertheless, his was an artists life well lived, both as a songwriter and storyteller, both as a singer and guitarist, both as an inspiration, a mentor and a co-writing companion for a long string of great songwriters. Reading last years great biography by Tamara Saviano: “Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark”, I get this picture of Clark as the brother of the Mayor of MacDougall Street in Greenwich Village, Dave Van Ronk, tough love, competent, artistic enthusiasm and generosity, eternally mentoring young talents, welcoming them with open arms, always sharing both house, knowledge, opinions and music. I see Guy Clark the same way, with and without his beloved Susanna.

He released his first album, “Old No. 1” in 1975, to this day viewed as one of the highlights of his career – a fantastic, mind-blowing debut with several instant classics.

He cuts through history and inspirations old as the hills with his “Desperados Waiting For A Train”, inspired by his grandmother´s spouse, an important inspiration and friend for the young Guy.

His storytelling qualities is already top level. Like in “Let Him Roll”, a song that later should be known in Johnny Cash´s great version.

And his gentle touch of showing his deep understanding of human nature is there right from the start, as in “She Ain´t Going Nowhere”.

“LA Freeway” was also one of the highlights of the album, already released three years earlier by friend and fellow singer/songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker, maybe most famous for his song “Mr Bojangles”, a great songwriter himself, but got to be the first to release many Guy Clark songs.

Jerry also released his version of “Desperados Waiting For A Train” a couple of years before “Old No. 1”.

His next album, “Texas Cookin´”, continued Clark´s artistic success, and showed us a whole party of friends circling round Guy and his songs. As in the beautiful “Anyhow I Love You”, where both Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Waylon Jennings are among the great background voices.

“I wish I had a dime for every bad time
But the bad times always seem to keep the change
You been all alone so you know what I’m sayin’
So when all you can recall is the pain

Just you wait until tomorrow when you wake up with me
At your side and find I haven’t lied about nothin’
I wouldn’t trade a tree for the way I feel about you
In the mornin’, anyhow I love you”

“The Last Gunfighter Ballad” was also one of the songs that remains among his greatest signature songs, giving us the feeling that he connects old and modern times in a way he mastered and refined through all his work.

“The old gunfighter stood on the porch
and stared into the sun 
And relived all the old days
back when he was livin’ by the gun 
When deadly games of pride were played
and livin’ was mistakes not made 
And the thought of the smell of the black powder smoke 
And the stand in the street at the turn of a joke 
The thought of the smell of the black powder smoke 
And the stand in the street at the turn of a joke”

The song was right up Johnny Cash´s alley, of course.

After two fabulous albums at RCA, Guy released his third album on Warner Brothers in 1978. Named “Guy Clark” it was more of a polished country album than the previous two. Clark introduced a long string of other artists songs among his own, showing great a lasting ability to interpret other people´s songs in a beautiful way. Like “Voila An American Dream” by Rodney Crowell.

Guy also introduced a cover of his best friend through many years, Townes Van Zandt, with a beautiful version of “Don´t You Take It Too Bad”. It would be the first of many great Townes covers to come. The two stayed close friends until Townes´ much to early death. Townes and Susanna might have been even closer friends, sometimes making friction in the trio, but they always worked it out. After Townes died the 1st of January 1997, Susanna never did fully recover the grief, staying in her room for years until she herself died in 2012.

Guy later contributed to a documentary of Townes Van Zandt, telling a little about his life with Townes and Susanna.

In 1981 a new album appeared, “The South Coast of Texas”, produced by his friend and co-writer Rodney Crowell. Nice, but maybe not great, even there was some great songs. Like “Heartbroke”.

“Well who wouldn’t notice the fire in your eyes?
Or the bitter direction of impending goodbyes?
I’m falling, I’m folded, I’m welded in place
At the sight of you standing with streaks down your face”

The next album, “Better Days”, was released in 1983. A step up with some really classic Guy Clark songs, as “Homegrown Tomatoes” and the fabulous memories of his father, with “Randall Knife”.

“There ain’t nothin’ in the world that I like better
Than bacon ‘n lettuce ‘n home grown tomatoes
Up in the morning, out in the garden
Get you a ripe one, don’t get a hard ‘un
Plant ’em in the spring, eat ’em in the summer
All winter without ’em is a culinary bummer
I forget all about the sweatin’ and the diggin’
Every time I go out and pick me a big ‘un
Home grown tomatoes, home grown tomatoes
What’d life be without home grown tomatoes
Only two things that money can’t buy
That’s true love and home grown tomatoes”
“My father died when I was forty
And I couldn’t find a way to cry
Not because I didn’t love him
Not because he didn’t try
I’d cried for every lesser thing
Whiskey, pain and beauty
But he deserved a better tear
And I was not quite ready
So we took his ashed out to sea
And poured `em off the stern
And threw the roses in the wake
Of everything we’d learned
When we got back to the house
They asked me what I wanted
Not the lawbooks not the watch
I need the things he’s haunted
My hand burned for the Randall knife
There in the bottom drawer
And I found a tear for my father’s life
And all that it stood for”

The album also included another great Townes Van Zandt cover, “No Deal”.

Even after successful songs on the last album, Mr Anti-Ambition didn´t rush. There should be five long years before Guy did another album, this time with lots of co-writing on the fittingly titled “Old Friends”.

One of the songs were written by his wife, Susanna, and Richard Leigh. “Come From The Heart” includes this famous lines:

“You got to sing like you don’t need the money
Love like you’ll never get hurt
You got to dance like nobody’s watchin’
It’s gotta come from the heart
If you want it to work”

Then, in 1992 Clark released the great album “Boats To Build”, lots of co-written lyrics, but a well composed album, great band, great production.

Guy was also a craftsman when it came to working with wood, like building guitars, a specialty he developed over many years. One collection of his songs was named “Craftsman”, later a regret for Clark, letting us know that songwriting was something completely different from using the knife making a good guitar.

A new recording company this time, Elektra Asylum, even made a video for my personal favorite on the album, the swinging “Baton Rouge”.

The Clark House had many friends, and many great singer/songwriters among them – Rodney Crowell, Jerry Jeff Walker, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Jeff Walker and Steve Earle and of course Townes Van Zandt, to name a few. Guy Clark was some kind of a godfather and trusted advisor for the lot. Emmylou Harris duetted with him on one of the songs, “I Don´t Love You Much Do I”.

In 1995 another great album was released, “Dublin Blues”, some co-writing, some of his own and a recut version of “The Randall Knife”.

One of Guy´s own songs told it as many of us know, “Hank Williams Said It Best”, even if he were citing one of the songs Hank didn´t write himself, “Be Careful Of Stones That You Throw”.

In 1997 Clark also released his first live album, “Keepers”, showing a wider audience his gifts before a live crowd.

“Cold Dog Soup” was released in 1999, another great batch of songs, proof that Guy still was a master of songwriting. Like in the title song.

“William Butler Yeats in jeans 
Got up to play guitar and sing 
In some join in Mission Beach last night 
At the door sat Tom Waits 
In a pork pie hat and silver skates 
Jugglin’ three collection plates Jesus Christ 

Townes Van Zandt standin’ at the bar 
Skinnin’ a Hollywood movie star 
Can’t remember where he parked his car 
Or to whom he lost the keys 
Full of angst and hillbilly haiku 
What’s a poor Ft. Worth boy to do 
Go on rhyme somethin’ for em’ man 
Show him how you really feel 

Ain’t no money in poetry 
That’s what sets the poet free 
I’ve had all the freedom I can stand 
Cold dog soup and rainbow pie 
Is all it takes to get me by 
Fool my belly till the day I die 
Cold dog soup and rainbow pie” 

Next up is “The Dark” in 2002, with the beautiful “Magnolia Wind”, once more showing us the deep quality of love songs Guy was able to create, this time co-writing with Shawn Camp.

In Guy´s house he had this room with one workbench for songwriting, and the other for building guitars. No surprise, then, that one of his album was named “Workbench Songs”. One of those were “Magdalene”.

The album also included Guy´s cover of Townes Van Zandts beautiful “No Lonesome Tune”. The two friends did sing this as a duet on many of the shows they did together when Townes was still around, like here, from 1991.

In 2009 Guy Clark released the album “Sometimes The Song Writes You”, seemingly no more able to release less than great albums, always the fabulous storyteller. Like in “Hemingway´s Whiskey”.

“Hemingway’s whiskey, warm and smooth and mean
Even when it burns, it’ll always finish clean
He didn’t like it watered down, he took it straight up and neat
If it was bad enough for him, you know it’s bad enough for me
Hemingway’s whiskey
Ah, it’s tough out there, a good muse is hard to find
Living one word to the next, one line at a time
There’s more to life than whiskey, there’s more to words than rhyme
Sometimes nothing works, sometimes nothing shines”

The album title is picked from the beautiful song “Somedays You Write The Song”, about the magic of songwriting, always the mystery, even for Guy Clark.

“Its just one of those days you cant explain
When nothings right or wrong
Too much wine or not enough
So you just play along.
Theres no rhyme or reason
Aint a damn thing you can do
Some days you write the song
Some days the song writes you.”

In 2011 there was time for another live album, “Songs And Stories”. A great collection of songs, very well produced. Clark had already fought the lymphoma for some time, and had several health problems the last years of his life. It didn´t keep him from making appearances and touring.

Susanna Clark died in 2012. Guy Clark and she was married in 40 years. Guy made his last album, “My Favorite Picture Of You” in 2014, a wonderful album in all ways. The cover is Guy holding his favorite picture of Susanna.

The album also included the song “El Coyote”, a song that took some years to finish. Here in an earlier version.

“In the town of Reynosa, there’s a beautiful river
That shines in the Mexico sun
There are boats and they cross from one side to the other
At dusk when the hot day is done
From there to Acuña to Del Rio, Texas
You valley up through San Antone
With the pesos I’ve saved up for years then I’ll trade
For the chance to send dollars back home”

The beautiful “Cornmeal Waltz” also shows that Guy had it in him to the last album, the musicality, the word play, the flame for songwriting and singing. The album brought him, at last, a well earned Grammy for Best Folk Album in 2014. Guy was always joking about losing for Bob Dylan, which he did a few times, but this time it was Guy Clark´s night. Dylan was a fan of Guy Clark as Clark was a fan of Bob Dylan from the time he started writing songs.

“There’s nothin’ like cornmeal on a dance-hall floor for dancin’ the night away,
Slippin’ and slidin’, effortlessly glidin’ in the arms of my sweet Lillie Mae,
So I shined up my boots and ironed my shirt, and pulled on some new blue jeans.
Oh, I brushed off my hat, slicked back my hair; I’ll beat all that she’s ever seen.
There’s nothin’ like listenin’ to the fiddles play
While doin’ the cornmeal waltz.
There’s nothin’ to keep you from driftin’ away,
Doin’ the cornmeal waltz.
Way out on Ranch Road 17 there’s a dance hall in the live-oak trees,
Yellow lights strung up all around, so all the little kids can see.
Pickups are parked near to the road; the beer is so cold it might freeze.
Stars are all out, the band’s in tune, and it smells like a barbecue breeze.
There’s nothin’ like listenin’ to the fiddles play
While doin’ the cornmeal waltz.
There’s nothin’ to keep you from driftin’ away,
Doin’ the cornmeal waltz.
Beat-up old Stetsons, beehive hair, belt buckles bumpin’ in time.
There’s little girls dancin’ on their daddies’ toes, spinnin’ around on a dime.
Grandma and Grandpa are out on the floor, dancin’ like they’ve lost their minds.
There’s old maids and bachelors and sweethearts alike, all movin’ in three-quarter time.
There’s nothin’ like listenin’ to the fiddles play
While doin’ the cornmeal waltz.
There’s nothin’ to keep you from driftin’ away,
Just doin’ the cornmeal waltz.”

After almost ten years of lymphoma, Guy had to give in in 2016. He was helping young songwriters to the last, and the last song he completed was “Cheer Up Little Darling” with Angaleena Presley, released in 2017, including Guy´s speaking intro.

At last I have to mention “Heartworn Highways” – the wonderful documentary about the premier league of americana artists in 1975, including wonderful performances from both Townes, Steve Earle, Steve Young, Guy and many more. A must see for all interested in this kind of music. I´m leaving you with some of the clips with Guy, from the early start of a remarkable career, one of the most talented songwriters we know of, but who always did it his own way, keeping his integrity but also sharing his art, his love and his songwriting skills with new generations of songwriters. We will never forget him.

 

Johnny Borgan

 

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