Guy Clark, the Texas troubadour who blended high wit with pure poetry and turned it into timeless, vibrantly visual songs like “Desperados Waiting for a Train” and “L.A Freeway,” died today at the age of 74.
In the past few years of his life, Clark, who was born in Monahans, Texas, in 1941, had been battling failing health, but still remained prolific: his most recent LP, 2013’s My Favorite Picture of You, won a Grammy Award for Best Folk Album. In it, he told of a particular photograph of his beloved wife, Susanna, who passed away the year prior from lung cancer: “my favorite picture of you is the one where your wings are showing,” he sang in his warm, ragged coo. As always, he could see what both was and wasn’t there with the clearest of vision.
Clark recalled a youth where an emphasis was placed on inspiration and intellect — his father, who fought in World War II and went on to obtain a law degree, would lead the family through dinnertime poetry readings, making sure his son learned to use what would become his most vital gift: his imagination. There were no television sets at home — Clark turned to literature instead and eventually sports, playing on multiple teams in high school while he learned the ropes of the guitar, an instrument which he would eventually not only master playing but learn to build in the basement of his home in Nashville. He studied not just traditional strumming but was enchanted by Mexican folk and flamenco, sounds that could still be heard on his most recent songs, like “El Coyote.”
In 1963, Clark joined the Peace Corps, and, after realizing that he’d rather play music and delve much deeper into the folk tradition than attending college could ever offer him, he moved to Houston. He made a living repairing guitars and playing gigs around town at venues like Oak Water, Liberty Hall, the Jester Lounge and Sand Mountain — it was there he met fellow songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, who went on to carve an equally legendary career until his death in in 1997. Clark and Van Zandt became friends, colleagues and admirers of each other’s work throughout their lifetime together, often known as the two most ardent poets of the Texas folk-country tradition: Lyle Lovett once described Clark as the prose-master to Van Zandt’s poetry. In Houston, Clark also met Susanna Talley, whom he would later marry.
Later, Clark moved to Los Angeles for a brief stint: one immortalized in the song “L.A Freeway.” He continued to build instruments and write songs, flirting in the publishing and professional songwriting world: but Los Angeles wasn’t for him, as anyone listening to that very song could detect: “if I could just get off of that L.A freeway without getting killed or caught,” he mused in the lyrics. By then his friends from Houston — an expanding circle including Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, Steve Earle, Billy Joe Shaver and Rodney Crowell — were all gravitating toward Nashville. He moved there in the Seventies, where he would continue to sculpt the songs that would become his first album, Old No. 1. Featuring him on the cover in his classic denim-on-denim in a painting by his wife, it contained songs — like “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” “Rita Ballou” and “That Old Time Feeling” — that would go on to define his catalogue. It was recorded at RCA Studios on Music Row.
Clark, while establishing an artistic hub at the center of the pulsing Seventies songwriting scene at his East Nashville home with Susanna (a life depicted in detail in the documentary film Heartworn Highways), went on to be extremely prolific through the years. While his first recordings were for RCA, he had deals with Warner, Sugar Hill and lastly Dualtone, not only writing for himself (and having his songs covered by everyone from Willie Nelson to Vince Gill), but with his many friends and admirers.
Later in life, he would embrace co-writes more frequently, enjoying collaborations with younger artists like Shawn Camp. Many of Clark’s songs went to Number One, though not when sung by Clark himself: the breakthrough was when Ricky Skaggs took his “Heartbroke” to the top of the charts. Many other covers, including a legendary take on “Desperados” by the Highwaymen, helped him become one of the most admired songwriters in a world where commercial was increasingly being favored over craft. And Clark, whether shaping a lyric or the body of a guitar, was the ultimate craftsman. However, he never quite climbed the charts himself — a modest showing for 1983’s “Homegrown Tomatoes” was his best demonstration of commercial success.
Clark was nominated for numerous Grammy awards, though he would joke that he always lost to Bob Dylan. His luck changed with My Favorite Picture of You, which turned out to be his last album, took home the award in 2014. By then, a past struggle with cancer had ravaged him system as had the toll of hard living — equally so the death of his wife in 2012. His touring life, though once strong and vital, had slowed down, and he had taken to walking with a cane, but he still frequently invited friends and collaborators down into his basement studio to write, smoke cigarettes and play guitar, even though he was no longer able to stand long enough to craft the instruments himself. On the wall, hung the photo of Susana that inspired those last songs: her arms crossed, her eyes blazing. Though no one else could, Clark could see those wings — and now, through his immeasurable contributions through the art of the song — his are clearly spread, too.