The Stories Guy Clark Left Us to Tell

Guy Clark At The 2009 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

He called it dispensation. Special dispensation for white boys. There was a routine Guy Clark would remember years later: Someone would call ahead and get clearance that that a group of young white boys wanted to come see Lightning Hopkins. The blues legend would give the okay and upon arrival, would come out to meet them and escort them to their table. Hopkins might have been nasty but felt it necessary to make the point that they were there with him. Just a bunch of white boys probably too stupid to know they were going to places white boys in Houston didn’t belong.

Flash forward a few decades to Nashville. It’s the late 1970s and Guy Clark and his wife Susanna can be found with their friends at their house on the lake. The town is bustling with songwriters all around, including his friend from Texas Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury and Dick Feller, to name a few. Rodney Crowell is an emerging producer and songwriter in his own right, as is his wife Rosanne Cash.  

Cash was young and she felt she hadn’t written any good songs. But there was a passion burning inside of her. She’d sit there at the table for hours and take in everything she heard. In many ways, she thought he was ruthless about his craft. As Clark would say, “You have to throw out your best line if it doesn’t serve the rest of your song.”

One day Cash, then 23, started playing a new song she’d written called “Seven Year Ache.” At some point, Clark whipped his head around and said, “What is that song?” Cash felt herself melting inside. It was the first time she felt she’d gotten Clark's respect. The lessons she learned around that table about the work ethic of writing a song would be something she’d carry with her for the rest of her life.

These were among the first thoughts and stories that came to mind when I heard the news that Guy Clark had passed away at the age of 74. 

When someone passes, it's in our nature to begin to tell stories and share reminiscences. In the days after Clark’s passing, many stories have been told and retold. So it seemed that the Cowboy Arms hotel in Nashville was as good a place as any for friends of the late songwriter to gather together. Alamo Jones, host of his own radio show on Sirius XM Outlaw Country, was the convener of a four-hour gathering that felt like a campfire chat, albeit with a satellite signal. It included one of Clark's writing partners Shawn Camp, bandmate Verlon Thompson, Emmylou Harris, Bobby Bare, and Clark's longtime friend and biographer Tamara Saviano.

The years blur but Emmylou Harris can remember the feeling of being at the beginning of something special the world was about to hear when Guy Clark came to Nashville and recorded his first album. She can't quite remember if she sang harmony on “Texas Cookin’” but she does remember the feeling the song prompted of being hungry. 

Shawn Camp, who once was a waiter and served Clark a bowl of chili before he became a songwriting partner years later, was just back from Austin. He went to the Texas Chili Parlor and had a Mad Dog margarita, possibly the worst he's ever had in his life, but says you have to do it if you ever loved Clark.

Camp surmises that the margarita Clark references in “Dublin Blues” might have been so horrible that it was the only thing that could get the girl off the singer’s mind.

Camp remembers standing on a stepladder at the age of 15 helping his dad lay sheet rock for a house they were remodeling. When Bobby Bare came on the radio singing “New Cut Road,” he was blown away.  The way playing Ricky Skaggs played inspired him to take up fiddle and seek out information about the song’s writer: one Guy Clark.

“New Cut Road” appeared on Bare’s As Is album produced by Rodney Crowell. “New Cut Road” was his favorite song on the album.

Bare was once in a fishing camp in Florida some years later, eating breakfast, when someone came over to his table and said, “If you give me a copy of that album, I’ll give you a brand new Chevrolet.” Bare thought he was nuts until he looked at his business card and realized it was the president of Chevrolet. Bare went on another fishing trip in Cuba and the only station he could find on the radio was WSM out of Nashville. The first song he heard was “New Cut Road.”

Tamara Saviano, who was Clark’s publicist before she became his biographer, joined in to point out that one of the subjects on the song was Coleman Barnes, Clark's great uncle who died before Clark could ever meet him. She described him as a “rakish dude,” whose family traveled in a covered wagon to Texas. Barnes longed to go back to Kentucky. On his way back, he ended up falling from a train to a gruesome death.

Clark fought his record label not to release his own version of the song as a single, and then watched Bobby Bare take it to the top of the charts. Clark enjoyed the resulting writer’s royalties but could only joke that he didn’t know anything about the music business.

“This Song Is for Everyone”

What Guy Clark lacked in knowledge about the music business, he more than made up the great storylines he wrote and left behind for us. Sometimes it was the instinct to recognize a phrase when someone would say something, including himself. 

Clark was on the freeway in Los Angeles trying to get off his exit when he said to his wife Susanna, “Man if I could just get off here without getting killed or caught.” Verlon Thompson guesses that Susanna gave him a look. He then grabbed her eyebrow pencil and a burger sack out from under the back of the floorboard and wrote it down as they were driving around. It was a line he’d use in the chorus of a new song called “Pack up Your Dishes.”

Jerry Jeff Walker would be the first to popularize a Guy Clark song when he recorded “Pack up Your Dishes.”  But Jeff called Clark from the studio to let him know that there was going to be a change to the song.

“We’re going to call it 'L.A. Freeway,'” he said. “It makes more sense.” Clark agreed.

Over the years, Clark would work a story into the song. Its origin was the morning Clark woke up to hear the sound of an ax chopping something in his front yard. He went outside very carefully, he would emphasize, and saw his landlord trying to cut down a grapefruit tree. The tree had spawned sweet fruit for 30 years. Its roots were starting to crack his concrete patio. Clark saw the episode in a greater moral sense and underscored his disdain with “Los Damn Angeles.”

Clark’s propensity for storytelling was the architecture that built his songs. One of his greatest songs was never planned to be shared. Clark was grieving with the death of his father when he wrote “Randall Knife.” When his wife heard it, she asked, “What are you going to do with that?”

Clark replied, “Nothing. This is for me.”

“No you’re wrong,” Susanna said. “This is for everyone.”

Thompson could see the impact the song had every night. When Bare asked him about Vince Gill’s reaction, Thompson said it was the same as everyone else who heard it. “I’d see big guys, hairy-legged welders along with young beautiful ladies all crying at the same time. It never failed to hit home.  It hit hard.”

Bare calls Clark’s songs cinematic. “When I hear a great song, it’s like watching a movie,” he says of Clark’s work.  If they were like short stories, for Harris they were sympathetic to the characters without being clingy.

Thompson says you can listen to “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train” and know everything you need to know about Jack, who taught a young Clark about being a man. He was a boarder in Clark's grandmother’s boardinghouse and as Cwould tell it, became a little more than that.  He and Guy once walked through a cemetery looking for his grave. They didn’t find it.

“I know Guy was a little disappointed. But Tamara Saviano went there and found it. I know it’s there.”

Tamara’s Been Dogging Us”

One day Tamara Saviano got a call from a friend at Texas A&M Press, asking her if she would be interested in writing a biography about Guy Clark. She didn’t have to think long and responded with two words: “Hell no!”

Saviano, who’d worked as Guy’s publicist, figured he wouldn’t talk to anyone, let alone her. After all he’d written a song called “Expose,” with a line that was more like a vow: “I will not kiss and tell.”

She promptly forgot about the offer, but got a follow-up call a while later. This time she said she’d have to call Clark's manager Keith Case. “Can you ask Guy this so I can get a no and move on with my life?” she proposed. Case called back ten minutes later and said Clark was in.

Saviano was stunned and thought there was no way this could be. She decided she needed to sit across his workbench and look him in the eye. “If we’re going to do this, you’re going to have to break open your heart on the table for me. I am not going to listen to these old stories about the landlord in L.A. that everybody knows.” She told him she’d come back in two weeks with a list of questions.

The first question she asked was about the ring on his finger. He told her a beautiful and heartbreaking story and she knew at that moment that he would go down the road with her. “He went right through those rosebushes, thorns be damned, and told me everything,” she says. 

When Verlon Thompson says Tamara's been "dogging us" for the last seven years, it's with the greatest affection that Clark's legacy will be ensured.

In visits to work on her book, Clark was very sick. But most times he could be found with a young songwriter next to him. “Tamara, sit down and listen to this song before we start working,” Clark would often tell her.

Clark once held a writing workshop at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Ranch. He began the class by saying that the only way to learn how to write a song was to write a song. He then asked the class what everyone gathered had in common. Since everyone had a guitar, he said, “Well it’s got to be about a guitar.” According to Verlon Thompson, Clark didn’t say much and just kept his pen going.

A couple of years later, one of the students said he’d like to record the song they wrote that day. Verlon called Clark and played it for him and Clark said he wanted to cut it and contacted all nine of the students. The students didn’t want anything — they just wanted their names on the song known as “The Guitar.” Each will always be able to say they were lucky enough to write with Guy Clark.

“The Songs Are Never Finished”

The last time Emmylou Harris saw Guy Clark was with Rodney Crowell. They visited him at a rehabilitation center before he went home. She brought him treats she’d baked and promised to bring him a pound cake the next time.

“He was still his true Guy self and a bit of a curmudgeon,” she described. “He said ‘Forget the cake. Bring a notebook and a pen. We’ll create a song.’ That was the last thing he said to me.”

Verlon had been talking about Clark's generosity of time and encouragement to young writers. Somewhat to his amazement, he estimates that Clark has done over one hundred co-writes and they always sound like Guy Clark.

Emmylou says Clark never needed to co-write with anyone but wanted to bring more people into songwriting. She counts herself lucky enough to have written one song with him. She was having trouble writing a song about her father, and Clark, who knew her father and socialized with her parents, helped her finish it.

Clark believed that songs were never finished and liked to tweak them. When the album This One’s For Him: A Tribute To Guy Clark was being made, he called Saviano (who co-produced the disc, along with Shawn Camp) three or four times to remind her to tell Rosanne Cash about the newest line he’d written for “Better Days.” 

Clark continued to write and make guitars in his Nashville basement, something he’d started in a Houston shop he ran with friend Minor Wilson. Thompson talks affectionately about Clark's swivel chair --  with a workbench on his left side and his writing on his right. “He would just swivel and write a few lines and swivel and chisel a little bit,” he said with great affection. “He said he worked both sides of his brain so one side wouldn’t get too tired.”

In the coming weeks, details of a memorial service for Clark would emerge. But Saviano had something else to do. She had to write an epilogue for the biography she turned in last September. She’d use the beautiful backdrop and solitude of Santa Fe to try and summon all of the words. It was a book Clark didn’t live to read but, as Verlon Thompson pointed out, it didn’t matter. He lived it.

There is always one more story to tell, though, and for Verlon Thompson it was the night he thought he would die alongside Guy Clark. They were playing the front porch of an old saloon. A huge thunderstorm lay ahead. If I get struck by lightning, Thompson thought to himself, so be it. He’d die playing  “The Last Gunfighter Ballad” with Guy Clark.

Bring it on, he said to himself. But it never came. Clark stared at the storm, and it backed off.

Your article gave goosebumps, a few tears and some laughter... Thank you for this vivid portrait of one of the truly great American songwriters.

Great article...really enjoyed this...the guy was larger than life...

Good stuff - thanks for posting.   

Nice article. Nearly all songwriters (at least  those of the progressive county variety) suffer in comparison to the Big Guy. That "New Cut Road" song was emblematic to me as a songwriter/fiddler, too.  First time I heard it I was smitten.  It took me a while to track it down. I have the  feeling that I'll keep discovering great Guy tunes and Townes tunes for the rest of my life. 

I’m so glad that my wife and I sat in to listen to Guy in a very intimate show a couple of years ago at a place called The Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River, MA. It was truly a wonderful night. His and his contemporaries music as been a major influence on me since I first heard it in the early ‘70’s.