When I woke up this morning and read the news of Guy Clark’s passing, the feeling slowly imploded inside my emotions. I tried to say, “Guy Clark is gone,” out loud. I couldn’t get through even saying his first name. I never knew him. We never met. I saw him in concert one time nearly 20 years ago. But, the familiar Texas drawl in his voice cultivated in me the possibility of being a better writer, a stronger poet, a more engaging storyteller. Hell, listening to Guy Clark has always made me want to be a better, truer, more honest and a more authentic human being. His songs made me realize I could take an unflinching look at life as it is and put it into a song, story or poem.
If anyone could be described as a song-novelist, it would be Guy Clark. He created songs from the same place Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry write their books. I learned to see the world through his songs. He brought a warmth and compassion to the often hard reality of the life reflected in his songs.
I first took serious notice of Guy Clark during an appearance on Ralph Emery’s Nashville Now, a country Tonight Show out of Nashville from the 80’s. Gary Morris-famous for “Wind Beneath My Wings”-asked Clark to sing the best song Morris had ever heard. From his seat, Clark pulled out his guitar and spoke the story of “The Randall Knife.” I went out and bought every Guy Clark album I could find. Over the years I would absorb his music so completely, the songs would naturally find their way to my guitar. My two favorites are “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” and “The Cape.” I still play and sing them every day.
In the late 1980’s he has recorded for Sugar Hill. It was a time when country music needed to redefine itself. The new music represented by artists like Garth Brooks, began pushing the envelope of country music and what could be done in a live arena. Like many others, Clark began swimming upstream into more intimate, stripped down recordings and performances. When Garth Brooks was crashing his guitar in the fog of dry ice roaming the stage under blue-lights, Clark was sitting down, embracing his guitar with small audiences exchanging acoustic jams on some of the finest songs ever written.
Before Guy Clark, there was no Americana music. He didn’t invent it, but he is one of the key artists from earlier country music, who mined it. His Sugar Hill recordings including Old Friends, Boats to Build and Dublin Blues began the growing trend toward live-in-studio recordings with few effects or sweetening from the sound engineer. What resulted was music that felt like he and his band were playing in my kitchen. It was unique in its simplicity. Front and center, there was the wise, weary warmth in Guy Clark’s voice as he sang out without pretense or the showiness common in country music today. The Sugar Hill sessions laid the foundation for Americana music. Later, Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin would discover the same approach on the American Recording sessions.
Today, the common language of young and old Americana artists is that same upfront, stripped down, live-in-the-studio sound.
The truth is, the older you get, the harder it becomes to stay awake to the moment. Pains, regrets, grief, and loss can easily overwhelm. Guy Clark’s songs have and will continue to be, for me, life lessons in wakefulness with a keen openness for the truth of my everyday life. His are the kind of songs that make getting up and facing each day with compassion and humor something I can do.
His songs-some drawn from his childhood, some from his wife, Susanna, who died in 2012, some from simple humorous observations and, of course, some about Texas food-were unsentimental but so romantic within his own stark reality.
He wrote “Randell Knife” about the death of his father using the knife as a metaphor for their relationship. Probably his most famous, “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” told the story of his grandmother’s ‘boyfriend,’ and created a seamless image of the two of them as desperados interwoven into the song and then brilliantly used to allow death to emerge as the train that comes for us all. The title chorus line was enough to create a picturesque song.
His songs to Susanna were epic, honest and moving. “Like a Coat from the Cold,” is the perfect wedding song. “Dublin Blues” is probably the best relationship fight song ever written. We don’t know much from his narrative, but it’s not good. But, the song finds its way to expressing his love for his wife. “I loved you on the Spanish steps the day we said goodbye.” “My Favorite Picture of You,” written to after her death, takes the unlikely path of describing her moment of anger captured in a polaroid. He sees the love they shared years later, in the reality of an angry moment.
Today, I spend time taking care of 90-year-old man. He sits at the kitchen table and listens as I sing songs for him. Every time I’m with him, I sing first “The Cape,” and tell him, ”This song is about you.” He listens to the story of the boy who tries to fly with the help of a flower sack cape. As grows into a man, he finds the faith to believe in himself. When it comes to the line, “no one said he could not fly and so he did,” my old friend laughs.
When I sing, “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” I tell him, this is for you and me. He listens to each word. He is a veteran of World War 11. One of the heroes of this country. When it comes to the chorus, he sings with me. I bring down the volume on my voice and let his 90-year-old shaky rasp sing-out. It’s the way the song was meant to sound. The song connects us both. This is probably the greatest kind of moment a songwriter can hope for. The song has formed a bond between me and this old man. Guy Clark’s music was always about forming these kinds of connection…human to human…real to real.
This is only one way the songs of Guy Clark have found their way into my life. His voice is as familiar to me as the Texas wind. His songs are closer to the broken earth we inhabit than the superficial, country songs you hear on the radio today. Like Hank Williams and Kris Kristofferson, his narrative voice comes from deep within the song. Whether he is singing out of his own life experience, or from within a character he created, the songs are up close, warm, human and compassionate.
Today, Guy Clark joins his wife and Townes Van Zandt in songwriter heaven. Today he can be heard in the “Magnolia Wind” he once sang about. I can only imagine the three of them together laughing in a kitchen with the songs and stories pouring out of them.
I live in L.A. And this week, inevitably, I will ride down an L.A. Freeway. I will sing Guiy’s song as I fly down the road missing too many moments of clarity and vulnerable humanity that are before me.
Thanks to Guy Clark, I have not missed them all.