Country Music

Guy Clark: A Living Legend of Texas Music We Nearly Overlooked

Recently I wrote a list of Texas musicians I felt folks should try to see perform live while they still have the opportunity, and in many people's minds the one glaring omission I made was Guy Clark. Now, Clark appears to be on a (hopefully) temporary hiatus from playing live shows, and has lived and written in Nashville since the '70s, but his contributions to music — and especially to the strange tapestry of what could be called "Texas songwriting" — is inestimable, so I have to admit I screwed up by leaving his name off of that list. That was a mistake as big as the Lone Star State, as any dedicated fan of country music or Texas folk can attest, and needs to be corrected now.

Clark was born in 1941 and raised in Monahans, a small town of about 6,000 people west of Odessa. His early years in west Texas, and encounters with people moving through or staying at the motel his grandmother owned, have provided career-long inspiration for his songs. In the late '60s, Clark was living in Houston and working his way around the local folk-music scene, where he met longtime friend and partner in crime Townes Van Zandt, and filled out his musical vocabulary watching musicians like Lightnin' Hopkins do their thing. During this period, Clark began writing songs and developing his own style of music, a uniquely Texan blending of folk and blues-infused country.

Eventually Clark headed west, like countless others following a dream, and found his way first to San Francisco. There he met and married his muse, a woman named Susanna, herself a gifted artist and songwriter. Before long, the couple moved south to Los Angeles for a short but tumultuous stay that inspired his classic song "L.A. Freeway." In the early '70s, the Clarks landed in Nashville, where Guy worked as a writer with several music-publishing companies before eventually being signed by RCA Records. In 1975, his first album, Old No. 1, was released, followed by Texas Cookin' in 1976, which cemented Clark's status as one of the most promising writers creating a new breed of Texas-influenced country music.

Clark has always been considered a "songwriter's songwriter," someone who has consistently crafted excellent songs that other performers fell in love with and often turned into hits. Over his long career, Clark penned songs that Jerry Jeff Walker, David Allen Coe, Johnny Cash, George Strait, Ricky Skaggs, and others turned into Billboard gold, but never quite turned into a country-music superstar himself. While he might never have emerged as a household name like some of the country music royalty who recorded his tunes, Clark still developed an enormous and well-deserved fanbase, and has been crucial to creating a unique type of serious country music, one rooted in emotional relevance instead of relying on corny boot-scootin' clichés or songs about loving one's truck.

Clark is also a survivor in a quickly disappearing and irreplaceable generation of songsmiths — a writer who brought a Texan sensibility to Nashville in the '70s, and who made an indelible mark on the music being created there. Clark was a hard-partying musician for decades, and while friends of his like Townes Van Zandt were ultimately destroyed by those excesses, Guy Clark is still around. His last album, My Favorite Picture of You, came out in 2013, filled with songs that are as good as anything he's ever written. The especially moving title track is about his wife Susanna, whom Clark cared for during years of ill health before she succumbed to cancer in 2012. Unfortunately, Clark's own health hasn't been great recently, and as a result he hasn't been able to tour. Hopefully that will change sometime in the near future.

When compiling my list of Texas living legends, I foolishly passed over Clark because he's lived in Nashville for so long that it didn't seem appropriate to include him. That was a grievous error, as his contributions to the music culture of this state are considerable, and his influence on the music of artists like Jerry Jeff Walker, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett and others shouldn't be underestimated.  With that in mind: I apologize, Mr. Clark, and thank you very much for your music.

Here's hoping you feel better soon. We'd all like a chance to see you play again.

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Chris Lane is a contributing writer who enjoys covering art, music, pop culture, and social issues.