Farewell to Guy Clark, Songwriter’s Songwriter


“Travel safe, old friend. I would not be the songwriter I am if I hadn’t sat at your table and learned from a master”. – Roseanne Cash

Musical populism may fade but it never disappears: History testifies that wherever there’s class struggle there’ll sooner or later be a songwriter come to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

But now and then there appears that storyteller-bard who captures in sublime detail hardscrabble lives, describing them with dignity and richness.

Guy Clark was among that rarity. Dubbed the “songwriter’s songwriter,” Clark died May 17, mentor for scores of notable composers and heralded as a craftsman of strong melody lines and stronger lyrics,

Clark was born in Mohanans, Texas, in 1941. Given to the guitar at an early age, he wound his way to 1960s Houston where he became part of cadre of folk and blues musicians making the rounds of small clubs. (Clark spent time in the Peace Corps prior to the move to Houston. He briefly tried college but thought it might harm rather than help his songwriting.)

From there Clark migrated westward, spending the late ’60s in San Francisco and Los Angeles before moving to Nashville in 1971 where he reunited with kindred soul, artist and Texan, Townes Van Zandt. (Clark credited Van Zandt as an inspiration for writing songs with heft and humor: “He writes serious, he writes seriously funny. But he never rhymes moon-june-spoon to make a buck. It’s more of a literary approach. His work is a great yardstick. He consistently keeps me honest.”)

Once settled in Nashville, Clark’s stock rose in proportion to his growing body of work, eventually attracting big name artists and producers drawn to his earthy places and faces.

Although possessed of a craggy voice made all the coarser by decades of cigarettes and liquor, Clark recorded several records of his own, winning a Grammy for his 2014 album, My Favorite Picture of You, written in part for his recently deceased wife, Susanna.

By 2012 Clark’s deteriorating health began limiting his tours, but not his friendships with fellow singer/songwriters Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Vince Gill, Roseanne Cash and many other familiar names. Clark’s Nashville basement studio became a kind of clubhouse for writing, playing and storytelling.

Sadly, Clark’s last months were painful ones. As one fan lamented, he died real hard.

What remains is a catalog more subtle than Woody and more sophisticated than Johnny; but equally true to the spirit of American populism.

Clark’s characters know sin; his landscapes tend toward the barren; and his lovers are simultaneously passionate and cold, mirthful and despairing, faithful and philandering.

Clark’s people and places are not all bleak – and his country wit is woven through his broad catalog – but it’s his gift for seeing the strain and stain of everyday life on everyday people that has endeared him to critics and artists in search of musical substance.

Clark died only slightly more comfortable with interviews referencing him as a sage or tribal elder. Perhaps like most of his characters, his gritty side did not care much for niceties.

But no matter Guy Clark’s reticence for lauding, he has left behind an amazing body of work filled with images of those who live on the outside looking in.

Postscript: If you’re yet to sample Clark’s music, start with “Desperados Waiting for a Train” and go from there. Thank me later.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Jackson, Ohio. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2016


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