It took a sinfully long time for Austin City Limits to induct Guy Clark into their esteemed hall of fame, but some artists don’t collect their due until it is too late.
Last summer on the evening Clark was to finally receive his honor, he was nowhere to be found. Devastated, the crowd learned from the son of Townes Van Zandt’s son, J.T., that he had been taken to the hospital. In spite of Van Zandt’s son’s reassurance that he was in good hands, those closest to Clark knew that his heath had been in decline for some time. Just a little under a year later, the man whose songs were recorded by Johnny Cash, George Strait, Ricky Skaggs, David Allan Coe, the Highwaymen, and countless others succumbs to time’s cruel cue that the only token of permanence we have to offer are the effects of shared moments and memories. Lucky for us, we have a portion of Clark’s soul left us in the form of his rich songbook.
Born where the Comanche and Apache once lurked, Clark was born in Monahan, Texas, a far West Texas town that today calls itself “The Oasis of the West Texas Desert”. Once a convergence of cultures, the dusty landscape provided Clark with a perfect backdrop for songs like “The Last Gunfighter” and “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train”, the latter from his 1975 album Old No. 1. A drifter, Clark’s narrator makes us feel the sand and dust cake itself on our faces, on our arms, and in our mouths, reminiscing of time gone by in the wide-open space of the desert, dotted by oil wells and train tracks. He plays with metaphors as his partner-in-crime watches him crying in the kitchen while he “run his fingers through 70 years of livin'”.
“The South Coast of Texas” from the album of the same name brought to life the shorelines of my youth, capturing the common bond between the shrimpers and the ladies “out in the beer joints / Drinkin’ em down for they sail with the dawn”. He could make the most mundane minutiae interesting. He made the humdrum drudge of everyday life tempting to take on another day. Sunshine and nighttime did not blend together, and it takes a skilled wordsmith with a canny knack for simple melodies to craft joy and pensiveness within the same moment.
Who knows what effect the Peace Corps had on his desire to become a songwriter and lurk Sand Mountain and Liberty Hall in Houston, venues that stand in the ruins of memory? Liberty Hall made him an adopted son to the city, and his convergence with Townes Van Zandt occurred. Perfect songwriting foils, Clark spoke in stories while Van Zandt spoke in verse. Their friendship endured until Van Zandt passed away in 1997.
In the late ’60s, Clark moved to Los Angeles with his newlywed wife, Susanna, and briefly lived there with her. Although he recorded “L.A. Freeway”, one of his best known and beloved songs, decried his contempt for the place, “If I can just get off of this LA freeway / Without getting killed or caught / I’d be down that road in a cloud of smoke / For some land that I ain”t bought bought bought.” As he threatened, he was able to flee without getting caught, moving to Nashville, a place he would call home until his death.
As Hunter S. Thompson mentored and gave us Warren Zevon, Clark gifted to us his mentorship of Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell. Earle”s penchant for no-bullshit, straightforward storytelling was strongly influenced by Clark (see “John Walker’s Blues). Crowell shared Clark’s ability to pull things taken for granted into the light with a barroom poet”s tone. His long-time collaborator and friend, Ricky Skaggs, recorded Clark”s “Heartbroke” in 1982, giving Clark his first number one hit as a songwriter. Countless awards ensued, 14 albums willed to us, but his lasting influence on present-day songwriters and songwriters to come will proudly continue to carry his torch.