This morning Texas music fans are reeling after the deaths of two icons, Tejano superstar Emilio Navaira and legendary songwriter Guy Clark, were announced within hours of each other. Both men helped define two archetypes of the Texas musician that span well beyond the state’s borders even today — Navaira as the roguishly handsome, cowboy-hatted crooner with an onstage strut but heart-melting vocals; and Clark as the stern, stone-faced troubadour whose taciturn manner masked the wryly sentimental streak that often surfaced in his songs. Both men were the real deal.
Navaira, who was 53, was discovered at his home near New Braunfels late Monday evening, according to the San Antonio Express-News. A native of San Antonio’s south side, he first rose to fame as the lead singer of David Lee Garza y Los Musicales in the mid-’80s, winning a number of Tejano Music Awards, including Most Promising Tejano Band of the Year and Conjunto Band of the Year several times. Later he and his brother Raul (or “Raulito”) formed the group Rio, who became a fixture on Billboard’s Regional Mexican charts through the mid-'90s and earned Navaira three consecutive awards for Male Entertainer of the Year from 1993 to 1995. Also in 1995, he released the English-language country-crossover album Life Is Good, which met with some commercial success thanks to songs like “It’s Not the End of the World.”
Navaira once rivaled only the late Selena as Tejano music’s leading ambassador to the music world at large, and remained a big draw (especially in Texas) even as the genre’s overall popularity began to decline. He won his first Grammy in 2002 for the album Acuerdate. In 2008, Navaira was severely injured after his tour bus crashed in Houston near the Southwest Freeway and Loop 610; later it was revealed he had been intoxicated and driving without a proper license, and he pled guilty to DWI charges. Following a lengthy rehabilitation, he gradually resumed his recording and performing career, and last year released Juntos, an album of duets with fellow Tejano artists like Jay Perez and Ram Herrera. One of his final appearances in the Houston area was as a headliner of the Tejano Por Siempre festival, which drew thousands of Tejano fans to the parking lot of Almeda Mall last fall.
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Clark, best known for songs taken directly from his own life experiences like “Desperados Waiting on a Train” and “L.A. Freeway,” passed away at home in Nashville after a long illness, according to publicist Tamara Saviano. He was 74.
Clark was born in the tiny West Texas town of Monahans and raised by the Gulf Coast in Rockport. Also an accomplished luthier, he moved to Houston after leaving the Peace Corps around 1963 and began working at a guitar-repair store. Clark also became a regular at local clubs like Sand Mountain and the Jester Lounge, falling in with a circle of musicians that included Mickey Newbury, Jerry Jeff Walker and Townes Van Zandt, who became best man at Clark’s 1972 wedding to the former Susanna Talley.
By then Clark had moved to Nashville, where he would continue writing songs and building guitars for the rest of his life. Especially for expatriate Texans like Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett, his and Susanna’s house became famous as a gathering spot for musicians looking for a place to try out new tunes and maybe get a little advice on how to fix a song that wasn’t working. Footage from that era can be seen in the 1976 documentary film Heartworn Highways, which was recently reissued in a 40th-anniversary edition for Record Store Day. Clark’s 1975 album Old No. 1, featuring songs like “Rita Ballou,” “Texas 1947” and “Let Him Roll,” became an essential document of the then-burgeoning “outlaw country” movement as Texans like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings began throwing their weight around in Nashville.
After Susanna passed away in 2012, Clark’s own health began to fail and he largely retired from recording and performing, although not completely. While he periodically released albums of his own like The South Coast of Texas (1981), Dublin Blues (1995), Somedays the Song Writes You (2009) and his final record, the Grammy-winning My Favorite Picture of You (2013), a number of Clark’s songs became country hits for other people, including No. 1s for Ricky Skaggs (“Heartbroke,” 1982) and Steve Wariner (“Baby I’m Yours,” 1988), and one he co-wrote with Rodney Crowell, 1989’s “She’s Crazy For Leavin’.”