Susanna Clark: An Appreciation
“Women can change better’n a man,” Ma said soothingly. “Woman got all her life in her arms. Man got it all in his head. Man, he lives in jerks-baby born an’ a man dies, an’ that’s a jerk-gets a farm and looses his farm, an’ that’s a jerk. Woman, its all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that.
~Ma Joad, Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
If there is any truth to Steinbeck’s words from so many years ago, Susanna Clark, who died on June 27 in Nashville, was a river to many in the way her inspiration flowed to a handful of key artists who have a made a lasting mark on American music. She embodied that flow. Her influence will keep right on going just like that river. It isn’t so much that a multitude of people know who she was, but it’s who it is that knew her, felt her soul, caught her visions and loved her.
The truth is without Susanna, there would be no Guy Clark. The body of his work is filled with the presence of his life partner, lover, friend and muse. It’s impossible to hear of Guy Clark’s songs without being reminded of her. It’s as though, at times she’s an invisible presence listening on each track. She’s the coat to keep him from the cold, she’s the one sitting beside him as he races down the L.A. freeway, she’s the crazy woman who paints like God, she’s the sassy lady who took a limo to Memphis and she’s the one he loves on the Spanish steps the day they said goodbye. She is the painter within the worlds of Guy Clark’s words. She is the sailor that navigates him toward the hope that underlies his best songs. She is, quite simply, the river.
Beyond the direct references, Guy Clark’s songs from the beginning have often explore the feminine soul. The restless character on “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and “Rita Ballou,” are two sides of these portraits. “Let Him Roll,” tells the story of an aging prostitute’s journey to her alcoholic lover’s funeral. His woman characters are strong with color and certainty. It was a reflection of Susanna Clark that ran like that river through the sometimes craggy shores of Guy Clarks stories and songs.
But, she inspired others as well. Most famously, Townes Van Zandt, who for years carried on a weekly Saturday morning phone call to her. In her tribute to her dear old friend, it was the silence of the ring of the phone that grieved her after Townes died. One of her great accomplishments in songwriting may her collaboration with Townes Van Zandt on “Heavenly Houseboat Blues.” It’s hard now not to see the two good friends singing this together on heavenly waters.
She gathered together the songwriters of Nashville to her kitchen where there was food and music. It takes that river quality to bring sometimes egotistical and stubborn artists together. Susanna Clark had that kind of inspired vision and continuity.
She was a songwriter. She wrote with Guy. But, she also wrote, with Carlene Carter, the title track from Emmylou Harris’ Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town. She also designed the album cover. Her 1989 hit for Kathy Mattea, “Come From The Heart,” written with Richard Leigh most accurately describes her spirit.
She was also a noted artist. Her most famous work also streamed through the music she loved. Best known and most familiar to the general public is the now classic cover for Willie Nelson’s Stardust. Her airbrush cover for Nanci Griffith was equally stunning.
It’s hard to lose someone as important to the planet as Susanna Clark. Our hearts truly do go out to Guy Clark, family and friends. Susanna Clark represented that river of music, joy, comfort, fire and life that humanity needs to keep itself going against the hardships and loss we all face. As one of Kristofferson’s lyrics aptly states, “I know I’ll never gaze upon the likes of her again.” To feel the depth of love between one of the great American songwriters, Guy Clark and his wife, you need go no further than one of his fine songs, “Stuff That Works.”