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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.

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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)


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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