Columns

Guy Clark's death a time for memories 2016.05.25

By RICH FOLEY

Singer-songwriter Guy Clark died last Tuesday at age 74 and it’s a shame that many of you won’t have any idea who I’m talking about. That won’t be the case for our readers in Texas, where he’s been a near-legendary figure in music circles for four decades. For the rest of you, a bit of an explanation is probably in order.

Although he won a Grammy award for best folk album in 2014, a mere 39 years after releasing his debut album, “Old No. 1,” in 1975, it’s still that debut album that’s the cornerstone of his legacy. In fact, a song from that first album got him mentioned, complete with photograph, in the Wall Street Journal just days before his passing.

The Journal runs a weekly feature on Saturdays called “Playlist” in which a celebrity talks about a song that affected them in some way. In the May 14 edition, crime novelist Sophie Hannah told the story of how, even though she lives in England, she grew up listening to her parents’ American country albums, including Clark’s “Old No. 1.”

Although only 11 when she first heard it, Hannah fell in love with Clark’s song “L.A. Freeway.” In 2010, she took inspiration from Clark’s tale of leaving the big city and moved out of Yorkshire. That probably wasn’t the reaction Guy was looking for when he wrote the song, but at least it got him in the Wall Street Journal. I hope he heard about it before he died.

In the 1960s, Clark, a Texas native, moved to Houston and played at local clubs evenings and weekends while he tried to break into the music business. He later moved to California and worked for a time at the factory that made Dobro brand resonator guitars, gaining experience that later allowed him to hand build his own acoustic guitars. But he tired of life in Los Angeles and, in 1971, moved to Nashville to concentrate on his music career. 

Although his albums gained him little notice for years, his skill as a songwriter saw his songs covered by dozens of artists, including “L.A. Freeway” and “Desperados Waiting for a Train,“ both recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker years before Guy himself had a record deal. Steve Earle, who at age 20 played bass on Clark’s first album, played in Clark’s band for some time and considered Guy as one of his mentors.

Ricky Skaggs scored a number one single in 1982 with Clark’s “Heartbroke,” while Rodney Crowell also got a number one in 1988 with “She’s Crazy for Leavin’” which he co-wrote with Clark. Vince Gill made the top ten with Clark’s “Oklahoma Borderline” in 1985 and John Conlee did the same with “The Carpenter” in 1987.

Other artists recording songs penned by Clark over the years include Johnny Cash (both as a solo artist and with The Highwaymen), Emmylou Harris, Brad Paisley, Jimmy Buffett and Willie Nelson.  Kenny Chesney made Clark’s “Hemingway’s Whiskey” the title song of a 2010 album.

Just four days before his death, Hard Working Americans, described by some sources as a “rock supergroup” containing members from several well-known bands, released an album titled “Rest in Chaos.” It contains a Clark-penned song called “The High Price of Inspiration,” written especially for the album. Clark himself played on the recording.

On a personal note, Guy Clark holds a singular “honor,” if you can call it that, in regards to my music collection. I own his first two albums on vinyl, several mid-career releases on cassette and some of the later ones on compact disc.

 In fact, I bought an autographed advance copy of his 2006 compact disc “Workbench Songs” direct from the record company. Since I’ll now never have a chance to meet him in person, that autographed CD just jumped a lot in personal value. But that’s not the honor I’m talking about. 

In the mid-1980s, I was in a car accident, and the insurance company rented me an aging AMC Concord while my car was in the shop. It had an 8-track player and I bought a Guy Clark 8-track at Woolworth’s for 29 cents to have something to listen to. It sounded great for about three days. Then the tape broke, as 8-tracks often did. But Guy Clark remains the only recording artist whose work I have owned on vinyl, cassette, CD and 8-track. If Guy’s reading this in Heaven, I hope he’s happy.