Farewell, Guy Clark

Guy Clark performs at the 11th annual Americana Honors & Awards, Wednesday Sept. 12, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn. Wade Payne | Invision/AP

Guy Clark died today. The singer and songwriter’s career always carried an important message: Don’t waste your life not following your passion.

He was an art director at a CBS TV station in Houston in the ’60s, but his love was playing the guitar and writing a few words.

That’s when he got some advice from the woman who would be his wife one day, he said in an interview a decade ago.

She told him, ‘Look, if you’re going to be a songwriter, be a songwriter. Don’t dabble at it and then spend the rest of your life wondering what might have been.’ With that challenge ringing in his ears, Guy moved to L.A. and brought Susanna with him. He got a job in the Dobro factory there and called up every song publisher in Southern California.

“We were living in this garage apartment in this straight neighborhood in Long Beach,” Clark remembers. “We woke up one morning to the sound of the landlord chopping down this beautiful grapefruit tree, and my first reaction was, ‘Pack up all the dishes.’ It sounded like a line in a song, so I wrote it down.

“Just about the only discipline I have as a songwriter is to write down an idea as soon as I have it. You wind up with a stack of bar napkins, and the real work comes the next day or week when you sit down and go through them to see if any of them makes any sense.

“I played in a little string band while I was in L.A., and one night we were driving back from a gig in Mission Beach at four in the morning and I was dozing off. I lifted my head up in this old Cadillac, looked out the window and said, ‘If I can just get off of this L.A. Freeway without getting killed or caught.’ As soon as I said it, I borrowed Susanna’s eyebrow pencil from her purse and wrote the line down on a burger wrapper. If I hadn’t, I might not have that song today.

“I remember at the very beginning of my radio days playing this goofy song called ‘Homegrown Tomatoes,'” The Current’s Bill DeVille said today. “It was Guy Clark. That was my first introduction to his music. I later learned the rest of the story. This ‘Guy’ was a songwriter’s songwriter. A bunch of the musicians I really dig were big fans. People like Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker were all big fans. Jerry Jeff turned Clark’s song ‘LA Freeway‘ into a big hit. The Highwaymen, featuring Kristofferson, Cash, Jennings and Nelson also covered his music. Guy Clark might not be a household name, but his songs are. They don’t make songwriters like him anymore.”

He became a Texas music legend we nearly overlooked, a Houston music critic wrote last month along with the strong suggestion that we see him perform live while we still have the chance.

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.

His wife died of cancer in 2012. His last album, My Favorite Picture of You, was a tribute to her.

Critic Chris Lane said Clark, who hasn’t been able to tour because of his own ill health, is part of “a quickly disappearing and irreplaceable generation of songsmiths.”

“It’s hard to imagine the world of music without Guy, the world of language without Guy,” EmmyLou Harris told NPR’s Melissa Block a few years ago. “He really embraces the human condition. There is no judgment in Guy’s songs. … You know that everyone has been on a rough road.”

  1. Listen NPR: Guy Clark, Music’s Master Craftsman, On Making Songs Last

    July 23, 2013

Following your passion can, indeed, be a rough road. But it’s still a smoother ride than the regret of wondering what might have been.

Related: Guy Clark: 12 Essential Songs (Rolling Stone)