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Guy Clark: 12 Essential Songs

From iconic gunfighter anthems to vulnerable proclamations of love

Guy Clark

Guy Clark was one of the most celebrated country songwriters of all time.

Gary Miller/FilmMagic

At least to the modern-day fan, Guy Clark may not have been the most well-known of country songwriters, but his influence and body of work are essential to the genre. A true poet, Clark died at 74 on Tuesday, May 17th, after a lengthy illness, leaving behind songs that are touchstones of Nashville songwriting. Here are 12 essential Clark tracks, from the California kiss-off “L.A. Freeway” to the evocative “Desperados Waiting for a Train.”

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UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: NASHVILLE Photo of Guy CLARK, Performing on stage (Photo by Beth Gwinn/Redferns)

“Cold Dog Soup”

It's easy for outsiders to romanticize the poet's life, but Clark knew from experience that living it was a different story. You could have all the brilliant and legendary friends in the world — and a talent to rival theirs — but you still might not be able to pay the rent in any given month. "Cold Dog Soup" was released in 1999, decades into Clark's life of poetry and song, and by that time he had come to terms with his lot in life — but that didn’t make it any easier. Playful and catchier than many of his best-known songs, "Cold Dog Soup" references fellow travelers like Tom Waits and Clark's mercurial friend Townes Van Zandt, as well as literary figures like Alan Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac. They all shared a passion for expression and individuality, and a shared struggle. Clark's chorus is so tight it feels written in stone, a half-warning embedded in a joke to be passed down and ignored for generations of poets to come. "Ain't no money in poetry / That's what sets the poet free / I've had all the freedom I can stand. Cold dog soup and rainbow pie / Is all it takes to get me by / Fool my belly till the day I die / Cold dog soup and rainbow pie."

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UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: NASHVILLE Photo of Guy CLARK, Performing on stage (Photo by Beth Gwinn/Redferns)

“Randall Knife”

Clark's father was a lawyer, but he was a complex man: he fought in World War II, and long held on to the knife that his own mother had given him before he went off to battle. (Clark once joked that is was a Texas rite of passage to receive a "pocket knife and a wet stone" as a child.) Originally released on 1983's Better Days, "Randall Knife" is about the true layers in which a death washes over us: the memories we attach to simple objects, the doubts we place on our own grief and the emotions that keep creeping in when we least expect them. "They asked me what I wanted, not the law books, not the watch," he sang. "I need the things he's haunted." Clark understood where real value truly resided.

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UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: NASHVILLE Photo of Guy CLARK, Performing on stage (Photo by Beth Gwinn/Redferns)

“Stuff That Works”

"I got an old blue shirt and it suits me just fine," the perpetually denim-clad Clark sang on this track off his 1995 album Dublin Blues. By the Nineties, Clark had well-established himself as a quiet, mythological force on the Nashville songwriting scene – never achieving massive fame but seeing his work cut by others who, thanks to flashier personalities or bigger machines, could take them to the charts. But he was respected and adored by many, and proved that he knew what really mattered in life with songs like "Stuff That Works," an ode to how holding on to our simplest, defining pleasures is more vital than collecting shinier, newer things: "the kind of stuff you don't hang up on a wall." Like a great love, a good pair of boots and a brilliant tune.

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UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: NASHVILLE Photo of Guy CLARK, Performing on stage (Photo by Beth Gwinn/Redferns)

“Boats to Build”

A songwriter's work is rarely ever finished, and with a literary mind like Clark's, the songs become a vivid journey to some other place and time — often a crystal-clear glimpse of the world through someone else's eyes. "Boats to Build," from the 1992 album of the same name, hits on the idea of the songwriter as restless creator of those musical vessels. "Sails are just like wings / The wind can make 'em sing / songs of life, songs of hope / songs to keep your dreams afloat," he sings over soft acoustic guitars, but makes a point to acknowledge the hard work and sweat that goes into converting those raw materials to something tangible — the vehicle for truth that can "sail into the light of day." Appropriately, seafaring poet Jimmy Buffett recorded his own version of "Boats" for his 2004 album License to Chill.

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UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: NASHVILLE Photo of Guy CLARK, Performing on stage (Photo by Beth Gwinn/Redferns)

“Heartbroke”

Clark's second Warner Bros. LP, The South Coast of Texas, released in 1981, was a thoroughly engaging flirtation with musical styles from folk and Western swing to bluegrass. It also produced Clark's sole country Top 40 hit as an artist, "The Partner Nobody Chose," and "She's Crazy for Leavin'," a late-Eighties Number One (and co-write) for album producer Rodney Crowell. In 1980, Crowell was the first to record the album's "Heartbroke," but it was Ricky Skaggs' swingin' version that topped the charts. Both Skaggs' take on the song and George Strait's contemporaneous exploration in 1982 on Strait From the Heart offered a radio-friendly reading of the line "pride is a bitch and a bore when you're lonely" — in Strait's case, he changed "bitch" to "drag." But the emotional weight of Clark's lyric still rang clear.

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AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - JANUARY 9: Guy Clark, guitar-vocal, performs at the Paradiso on 9th January 1992 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Photo by Frans Schellekens/Redferns)

“The Last Gunfighter Ballad”

It's not the bullet that puts the titular gunslinger in his grave in this stark ballad, but, almost anachronistically, a car. The tale of an old cowboy who can't forget the smell of the black powder or the "son of a bitch" into whom he empties his gun, the song was cut by Johnny Cash as the title track to his 1977 album. Over the course of a sprawling narrative, he remembers standing his ground in a dusty street that's now paved and overrun by traffic — which ultimately causes his demise. But Clark's lyrics, as in "Desperados Waiting for a Train," are, on a deeper level, more about the cruel passage of time than some superficial hit-and-run. For his own version, on 1976's Texas Cookin', Clark enlisted the era's alpha outlaw for harmony vocals: Waylon Jennings.

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