Without Being Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark
Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark traces the life of music pioneer Guy Clark, who, with his wife Susanna, shaped the contemporary folk and American roots music scene much like F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald fashioned the jazz age in Paris.
I have spent the last seven years working with Guy on his definitive biography, a book that has taken both Guy and me on a journey we could not have imagined. I used to be Guy’s publicist. I was working with him on his Workbench Songs record when he was diagnosed with Lymphoma. From my view, that’s when things started changing with Guy, when he realized that it just might be important to leave his story behind. You know if you’ve seen Guy in concert a few times that he tends to tell the same stories from the stage. There’s the one about the crazy landlord in Los Angeles who made his own bullets and cut down the grapefruit tree. Then there’s the one about Richard Leigh going to boat building school in Maine, a present from his wife, who then divorced him. As Guy likes to say: “Richard has one hell of a boat, and Verlon and I got a good song out of it.” And, of course, “Homegrown Tomatoes” is a love song. These are all stories we’ve heard time again and I always thought that was about as deep as Guy Clark was willing to go on telling intimate stories.
Boy, was I wrong. When I asked him about writing the book, I fully expected Guy to say no way. And if he did agree to do it, I didn’t believe he would really be willing to go down the rabbit hole with me and get personal. It was the only way I was willing to commit to the long road of writing a biography, Guy had to not only agree to be open and honest, he had to prove it, and prove it in the first interview. Did he ever. I’ll save that story for the book and the film. And there are many, many fantastic Guy Clark stories I can pretty much guarantee you haven’t heard because Guy has told them to no one except me. This brings me to the film. I never intended to do a film on Guy, for all the reasons you might imagine. It’s a hell of a lot of work. It’s expensive! I mean, just the music licensing alone is a huge ticket item. Guy’s health hasn’t been good and I didn’t think he’d be up to it. I’ve already put him through the wringer on the book and now I’m going to go back and make him do it again on camera? No way. Well, that’s what I thought until last year about this time.
In April 2014, Guy’s manager Keith Case and I talked and came to the conclusion that there needs to be a documentary about Guy. Guy said if anyone was going to produce a film about him, it should be me because we had spent all these years together on the book and that I know more than anyone else. And Guy trusts me. He knows I’ll do right by him even when telling parts of the story that are painful because I love and respect Guy (and I think everyone who knows him does, too). Because Guy’s health is precarious, we had to start filming right away.
You know how sometimes you’ll get signs when things are meant to be? Well, as I was thinking about whether or not to take on this project, three big things happened.
1) My husband, Paul Whitfield, who is the co-producer and DP for the film, found out that his boss (The Boss) was going to go on hiatus from touring for awhile. That means Paul is free to do something else. My husband is talented. Talented enough that he’s been working on the road for Springsteen for all these years so I’m not the only one that thinks so.
2) Some ultra-talented documentary film makers are in the middle of producing a documentary on country music. They’ve interviewed Guy and my client Kris Kristofferson for their film and in the course of this work, we’ve gotten to be friends. And they’ve been amazing friends and informal advisors to me on this Guy documentary — in the writing of the script, the technical details of using photos and other ancillary content — you name it, they’ve been there for me.
3) Connie Nelson came on board. I’ve known Connie for years through our mutual friends and when I saw her at an event last year, I asked her if she would have any interest in helping us. When she said yes, I knew it was time for me to say yes. And so here we are. Even more amazing, Guy gave me the exclusive rights to his story and I have those rights for 14 years.
The film follows Guy’s journey as he moves from Texas to Los Angeles to Nashville to become one of the most revered songwriters in American music and an influential folk hero of the 20th century. It opens as Guy and Susanna pull into Nashville on a rainy November night in 1971. The white Volkswagen bus is loaded with everything they own, including a scrap from a burger sack with a partial lyric: “If I could just get off of this L.A. Freeway without getting killed or caught.”
There is a new Music City brewing underground. Outlaw songwriters are bubbling up into the mainstream, and Guy is about to become a lion in this modern breed of Nashville Cat. The film reveals Clark’s role in the rise of songwriters in Nashville, and how that influence stretches back to his home state of Texas.
It chronicles how Guy’s early years in Monahans, Texas, affected him as a storyteller. You’ll meet Guy’s colorful and beloved grandmother, Rossie Clark — a divorced amputee, former bootlegger who ran a hotel for oil drillers and bomber pilots. Rossie’s boyfriend Jack Prigg — a fascinating wildcatter who lived at the hotel — showed young Guy a world of pool halls and taverns and oil wells that gushed black gold.
Without Getting Killed or Caught includes exclusive interview footage with Clark and his friends and family, integrating audio and video footage from personal interviews, unique never-before-seen photos, and images from Clark’s private collection, with unique historical footage. We reveal how Guy spent his formative years on the South Coast of Texas in the beach town of Rockport, as captain of the football team and student body president. He learned to play guitar from his father’s law partner, worked for the shrimp boat builders in the harbor, read poetry, and was awarded a National Science Foundation grant for summer study at M.D. Anderson Hospital.
Houston is a big part of Guy’s story. In the early 1960s, after selecting out of the Peace Corps, Guy settled in the Montrose neighborhood, a center for the burgeoning counter culture movement. We spend ample time discussing how the city and artists who lived there inspired Guy. We also detail how Guy’s best friend from Houston, Townes Van Zandt, came to be the third person in Guy and Susanna’s marriage.
Guy released Old No. 1 in 1975 — an album rooted in the culture of the West Texas desert. The documentary analyzes Guy’s struggle with the mainstream music business, as Nashville tried to figure out how to fit him into commercial country music. We explain how Guy finally took control of his own recordings with 1989’s Old Friends. It was a gutsy move at a time when the major label business was making money hand over fist.
The film explores how Guy made an even a stronger commitment to his art as the next seven albums unfolded. After several GRAMMY nominations for Best Folk Album, Guy’s 2014 album My Favorite Picture of You finally prevailed. The title track from that record is a profound, final tribute to Susanna, who died in 2012 after spiraling downhill, following Townes’s death in 1997.
The documentary closes with a scene from Guy’s 73rd birthday in 2014, an intimate in-the-round of stories and songs featuring Guy and his Texas compadres Terry Allen, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joe Ely, Robert Earl Keen, and Jerry Jeff Walker. The troubadours lovingly recount their own stories of Guy and how he shaped each of them.
We have filmed Guy at his house on four different occasions. We produced the Old Friends Reunion (a piece of it is at the end of the promo video above) for Guy’s 73rd birthday. Later this month we are doing on-camera interviews with Guy’s colleagues and friends. We’ll do more of those in Texas in June and will also shoot in Guy’s hometown of Rockport.
If you’re inclined, please support the film on Kickstarter. If you’ve ever been touched by a Guy Clark song, attended a concert, bought an album, shook his hand, sat in his workshop, wrote a song, shared a joke, a smoke or a drink, or just respect the giant of a songwriter that is Guy Clark, please consider supporting our campaign with just a $5 donation, which will give you access to exclusive behind-the-scenes coverage of the making of the film. Of course, we have some pretty cool rewards you may want to check out, too. For more information, you can also follow our Facebook page.