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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.”

Guy Clark

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.

Guy Clark

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.

Guy Clark

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.

Guy Clark

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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