An Open Letter to Guy Clark
I hope you don’t mind if I call you Guy. It’s just that I feel as if we’ve been old friends for such a long time. It was the 70s when I got my first album of yours. It was Texas Cookin’. I was living in Kansas, married to my first husband who worked at the Co-op Elevator. I was a waitress at the local truckstop.
From first glance I loved that album. The cover image of a denim clad “Black Haired Boy” squinting into the sun was familiar to me and reminded me of the country boys I had cut my eye teeth on. While the back cover shot of you and the lovely Susanna, framed by the back window of an old pickup truck filled me with romantic hope. We had an old ’52 red pickup we’d named Gus and I imagined my husband and I being as happy as you two looked. “My Favorite Picture” of you may be this one with you lost in looking at her with such a love light that she can’t help but radiate it right out of the photo at us the viewer.
With that ideal in mind, I wore that record out! It felt like home to me and filled me with joy and sorrow, but most of all it felt alive. It made me want to sing along with you and as my husband’s work hours seemed to grow longer and longer and I spent more time alone in that old farmhouse, you were great company. Soon I was performing along full out, putting on a show right in the middle of my living room. I would pretend I was the girl fiddler on “Virginia’s Real” and try to impress you as I mimed away with my “air fiddle.”
Later when my marriage ended, though not until I recovered from being put in a wheelchair and learned to walk again, I found great comfort and healing from your song, “She Ain’t Going Nowhere.”
She ain’t going nowhere she’s just leaving
She ain’t going nowhere she can’t breathe in
And she ain’t going home and that’s for sure.
True to your lyric, I first went to California and wonder of wonders, became a stand-up comic. My career next took me to NYC where for the first time I finally got to see you perform live at The Bottom Line. I thought I loved your work before, but seeing you play your songs live took it to a whole other level. Just you and your guitar, so comfortable, telling the stories behind the songs.
Your landlord in LA who was going to chop down the grapefruit tree though laden with fruit so it wouldn’t crack the concrete who inspired you to not only leave LA but luckily for us, to write “LA Freeway.” And by the way, there’s a new roots music venue in Brooklyn called Skinny Dennis and I reckon you know where they got that name idea. I even love the fact that you had titled that tune something else and Jerry Jeff Walker had to tell you, “No! That song’s called ‘LA Freeway’!”
I treasure each of those stories and asides that have been so much a part of your live shows. Seeing you at Symphony Space and the Beacon Theater with your co-conspirators John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely and to see the fun you all had together but always the thrill I could see they all felt to share the stage with you. I remember Lyle Lovett singing a new tune at that pull and when he finished, you simply smiled at him and said, “Lyle, Lyle, Lyle,” and he went red from his neck to his ears. I thought men need to be this generous with one another and I admired you modeling such behavior though I know it’s just the way you are.
Those were the first songwriter shows I saw and they gave me a thirst to know more of my favorite songs’ back story for I found they enriched my listening experience. It helped me to begin to thread together a way to start from the stories I knew and then begin to turn the story into song. Following that golden thread has taken me on a wondrous journey and I am so grateful to you for opening that door.
I saw you at The Bottom Line many times. I should say any time you were there. I would go without lunch for a week if it meant having the money to buy a ticket. I saw Robert Earl Keene Jr. open for you when he still used the Jr. Another time Rambling Jack Elliott proved to have quite the pre-amble ramble to your show proving his name well earned; and I even saw you there with Townes van Zandt. That was the first show where I finally got the courage to try and get backstage at the urging of my new English husband. He’d noted that you were both drinking greyhounds and had the waiter send two backstage, but from me. I was thrilled when the waiter returned to say to come backstage so you could thank me.
I remember I thought you could see my heart pounding through my shirt, that Townes seemed so shy and that you were very warm and kind to me. So much so that I got up even more courage and told you that I hoped to record one of your songs one day. To my surprise, with a big smile you said, “Oh yeah? Which one of my babies to you want?”
“Doctor Good Doctor” I replied, “seems like therapy is a law in New York.”
You laughed, then you and Townes looked at each other smiling before you turned back to me and said, “You know, Townes inspired that song.”
“More like late night TV,” Townes added in a low voice making you laugh. I floated home so happy.
What I also wanted to find a way to tell you that night was how your song, “Old Friends” had helped me move past a lot of old hurt and open to new possibilities instead of just habitually responding to old expectations.
And when the house is empty
And the light begins to fade
And there’s nothing to protect you
Except a window shade
And it’s hard to put your finger
On the thing that scares you most
And you can’t tell the difference
Between an angel and a ghost
That album came at the perfect timing in my life once again with that beautiful reminder to “Come From the Heart” just when I was changing my comedy to become more insightful and character driven, it was the perfect advice. I had also become a NYC tour guide at that time to support my starving artist habit and “Immigrant Eyes” took on a much deeper meaning for me and became the centerpiece in a monologue I did about New York. Of course “Heavy Metal” tickled the funny bone of this former truckstop waitress though at that time I was still trying to hide my very country roots, from not only my big city friends but from myself as well.
On my 40th birthday my husband gave me a lovely pearl pendant he’d designed and the newly released Guy Clark CD that I hadn’t realized was out. I burst into tears of joy to be holding your new CD in my hands and I’ll never forget the look on his face. Then he blurted out, “Bloody Hell! And to think I could have forgot about the pearl and done all right with just the bloody CD!” We both fell out laughing and put in the player immediately.
I even set up my workspace to try and emulate you. I had read that you keep two work benches and then sit between them so that you could be working on a guitar on one table but be able to turn back to your pen and paper on the other surface as the Muse guided. I found this set up to work great for me and I thank you for that idea.
When my second marriage fell apart I went back to Old No. 1 for comfort and found it there once more. Over the years your music has definitely become “Like a Coat From the Cold” for me. I want to thank you for always giving us the lyric sheet because your words mean so much and to be able to hold them in my hands and read along, especially as I listen the first few times is everything. I know paper is on its way out, but I’m still a big fan of ephemera.
You’re the only artist I’ve ever traveled to see. When I heard you were songwriter in residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006 and doing a series of shows there I booked my ticket for Nashville and caught the final show of the series. You were fantastic and featured so many of your friends and colleagues and gave me the finale to what turned out to be a magical trip and one that changed me musically. When I returned to NYC I put together my first band. I had already been called America’s Favorite Hillbilly Hostess, Lindy Loo, so the band was the next step to express all that I needed to say.
Two years ago I flew to San Francisco for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass for the express purpose of seeing you play. To be there sitting on a blanket in the meadow on a gorgeous San Francisco day and see my Guy Clark with Verlon Thompson playing some of my all-time favorite tunes was such a blessing and so worth the trip.
In between those trips I’ve seen you a handful of times at B.B. King’s in NYC and I have always been delighted and usually at some point in the performance moved to tears – more than once if I’m honest. I’ve always gone backstage and you’ve always been kind, conversational even when tired out, generous and warm. But I always leave with a feeling of some frustration, some feeling that I didn’t pierce that veneer while at the same time understanding that of course I didn’t. As a performer myself I understand that need to keep a protective shield somewhat in place as it would be too easy to pour yourself out and all away if you didn’t. So it’s not that I don’t understand that, it’s more that I need you to understand – to find a way to make it understood how very DEEPLY your music has impacted not just on my life, but that it has left it’s imprint on my heart, spirit and soul and most importantly and most indelibly marked my own artistic endeavors. How do I explain how often I think of you and your songs, how much they are part of the soundtrack to my life.
How I wish to tell you about a night in a midtown NYC dive bar when an old Puerto Rican woman told me of her lost love, half in English, half in Spanish, but all completely understood. Watching her jump up to dance all by herself to Frank Sinatra every time he came on, her frail body silhouetted by the light of the jukebox and all I could hear was you singing, “Broken Hearted People.”
I want to tell you about the night an old friend from my standup comedy days called me from the road at 3:30 in the morning and my response was to blast him full volume with “How’d You Get This Number.” And those are just a few of the “Guy Clark Moments” I have lived.
I need you to know how inspirational, how vital and important your work is to me. The only other artist that means as much to me is Hank Williams Sr. – the only Hank for me. There’s an old Cole Porter song that I heard on a Mabel Mercer record called, “Use Your Imagination.” When I use my imagination I find myself sat with you in your workroom, chairs between your two workbenches tossing around song ideas and lyrics and occasionally finding inspiration with a little “Worry B Gone” and this comforting fantasy always takes me to “That Old Time Feeling.” Now that’s my favorite form of transcendental meditation.
Thanks so much for letting me share this with you Guy, but thanks most of all for being you and persevering to share your music with all of us.
“Anyhow, I Love You,”