The Austin Chronicle

We Were From Texas

Guy Clark and the high price of inspiration

By Doug Freeman, July 19, 2013, Music

Guy Clark pushes a fading, black and white photograph across the table.

In it, a man leans against a 1939 Packard, foot propped up on the bumper in the dusty streets of Monahans, Texas. "Jack Prigg" reads the inscription on the back. He's smiling and sharply dressed in a black suit, a gleam of success in his grin. The image is striking for its sheer contrast to the portrait of Prigg immortalized in Clark's "Desper­ados Waiting for a Train," the old, busted oil-driller crying at the kitchen table to broken memories and songs.

"Well, that must have been a Sunday," laughs Clark, looking at the photo as he carefully takes a toke from the last vestiges of a joint and lets loose a rattling cough.

The workshop in the basement of Clark's west Nashville home collects such memories. His father's Randall knife sits on the workbench alongside his tools for making guitars. Behind him, shelves of cassettes with handwritten labels display a country songwriters hall of fame. A black and white photo of Townes Van Zandt, his haunted eyes somehow tracking around the room, stares down from the wall.

Clark pinches a clump of tobacco and begins rolling a cigarette. The 71-year-old songwriter's eyes sharpen as he takes in the room, his lips pursed together between the faint stains of yellow on his white mustache and goatee.

"Shit, I'd go back to Texas in a second if I could break even," he says. "But the music business is here, and if I could just pay back what they've given me, or advanced me, I would love to live in Texas. At this point, though, I don't know. I'm too fucking old to move back, pack all this shit up."

Clark's lack of sentimentality is deceiving. What the songwriter submerges in person surfaces in the deeply personal poetry of his songs, from "Desperados Waiting for a Train," to the elegy for his father in "The Randall Knife," and the title track of his new album, "My Favorite Picture of You," an ode to his wife Susanna, who passed away last year after an extended decline from cancer.

Guy and Susanna's marriage stands as one of the great relationships in music. As strongly devoted as it was tumultuous, their union and the art it produced became the locus for a new community of songwriters that emerged in the Seventies, a wave of scrappy expatriate Texans overtaking Nashville that included Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, and most notably, Van Zandt, whose lifelong friendships with both Clarks remain inextricable from the couple's relationship.

Those days feel impossibly far away in the quiet of Clark's house as he draws slowly on his cigarette.

"If you want good friends, they're gonna cost you," he notes as he exhales a thin line of smoke.

The South Coast of Texas

"The first guitars I got were in South Texas," remembers Clark. "You go over the border and buy a cheap Mexican guitar, and the reason they're $12 is because they're not worth a shit. They're hard to play and they don't play in tune. So to me, the first thing to do was to fix it: 'Let's just fix this son of a bitch.' I've always had an easy relationship with wood. The first thing you get in West Texas is a pocket knife. You make your own toys."

Clark grew up splitting time between the West Texas desert of Monahans, where his grandmother ran a boarding house, and the southern Gulf Coast town of Rockport, home to his father's successful law practice. Music wasn't an immediate influence on the boy, but those formative years provided continuing fodder for his songs via known characters like Prigg and the subjects informing "Boats to Build" and "Texas 1947."

"My father took on a new law partner at one point, and she played the guitar and sang in Spanish," Clark recalls. "The first time I heard people passing the guitar around and singing in Spanish, I was hooked. That became the focus of my whole life after that."

Arriving in Houston in the early Sixties, he quickly fell in with fellow troubadours Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury, and Jerry Jeff Walker in a scene forming the vanguard of new Texas songwriters amid legendary blues and folk of artists like Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. Guy moved Susanna there from Oklahoma City after dating her sister.

"Her sister blew her brains out," he says bluntly. "We were sitting together at the funeral. We eventually packed up her Volkswagen and drove it to Houston.

"Sure there were reservations," he adds. "We weren't fooling ourselves. We knew it was going to be weird, and it was. Still is. It was just time for a change in everybody's life, and you just have to catch it as it goes by."

The two eventually relocated to California in pursuit of a record contract, with Guy working at a Dobro factory while Susanna taught art classes. Their time in L.A. was short-lived and unhappy, but Guy left with a publishing deal in Nashville and inspiration for one of his first hits, the Seventies escape anthem, "L.A. Freeway."

The couple married in 1972, with Van Zandt serving as best man. He stayed with the newlyweds for the next eight months. In Nashville, the trio's home became a hub for songwriters, with nightly rounds of guitar-picking parties that served as the catalyst for a new scene of songwriters, captured in the classic documentary Heartworn Highways.

"We just wanted to go play music and not have it cost an arm and a leg, that was the initial impetus," offers Clark. "But it was fucking Nashville, Tennessee, home of Johnny Cash, and you're a songwriter from Texas. It was top of the world, like Paris in the Twenties. Me and Townes, Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell. Some serious raw talent.

"We were absolutely ballsy. We were from Texas."

Comfort and Crazy

At Townes Van Zandt's funeral in 1997, Guy began his eulogy with typically wry humor.

"I booked this gig 37 years ago," he told the mourners.

Guy, Susanna, and Townes formed a bond that held together amid the contentiousness that would inevitably develop between the three uniquely stubborn artists.

"In the early years we were always together," says Clark. "She and Townes were best friends, and Townes and I were best friends. He knew he could always count on me to take him in, or take care of him, or try to.

"And he was always in love with my wife," he adds with a rasping laugh.

The buddies often exasperated Susanna with their rowdy, all-night binges, while the secrets she shared with her confidant could grate on her husband. Yet all three were forging their creative paths, and by the mid-Seventies, Van Zandt was already celebrated with six albums. Guy began gaining national attention as a progressive country pioneer after Walker cut "L.A. Freeway" and "That Old Time Feeling" for 1972's eponymous MCA debut, and "Desperados Waiting for a Train" appeared on the seminal Viva Terlingua a year later. In 1975, Clark finally released Old No. 1, an album still heralded as one of his best collections of songs.

Susanna, meanwhile, garnered notoriety for her paintings, including the cover of her mate's debut, Willie Nelson's Stardust, and albums by Emmylou Harris and Nanci Griffith. She also began writing songs, penning the 1975 hit "I'll Be Your San Antone Rose," as well as Kathy Mattea's 1989 single "Come From the Heart," and with Carlene Carter, "Easy From Now On," the first track on Harris' Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town.

"They were really just in this artistic life together, and even any money that came in, they were pooling it," notes Tamara Saviano, who's writing Guy's official biography. "Susanna told me of one time Townes got a check for a couple hundred bucks – a royalty check or something – and they were all excited because it meant meat for dinner. They were going to go out and buy groceries, but Townes said the first thing they were doing was buying Susanna some paint."

Even as their success grew and Van Zandt continued to eschew it, the bond between the three artists remained steadfast.

"Anytime he'd write a new song, he'd come over and play it to me or call me on the phone and play it to me from Montana or wherever he was," recalls Clark. "We'd play gigs together all the time, and they were always fun or a disaster. Usually both. Neither one of us had a reason for it to be any different."

Susanna and Townes were similarly linked by a more emotional and spiritual connection sustained through a regular regimen of morning phone calls. When the latter finally succumbed to alcoholism on New Year's Day 1997, it triggered a descent for Susanna from which she never recovered.

"She was killing herself with cigarettes and pills," says Clark. "Everybody tried to tell her, everybody tried to help her, but she didn't give a shit. The big thing that really happened to her, that put her over the edge, was Townes dying. God, they were just so close, and I don't think she ever got over it.

"She just didn't like being in this world without Townes being in it. There just wasn't anybody she could talk to. It was dark."

Somedays the Song Writes You

On the workbench in the basement, a fiddle lies smashed to pieces inside an equally battered black coffin of a case.

"I broke it over the mantle piece one night, 40 years ago probably," Clark acknowledges as he smokes another rolled cigarette. "I wish I could remember why. All I know is I never forgot it and saved it ever since – just to teach myself a lesson: Never break instruments.

"One of these days I'm going to glue it back together."

Clark's accomplishments as a luthier have reinforced his reputation for songwriting as craftsmanship, but he bristles at the comparison between the two.

"Songwriting is art, it's poetry, and craftsmanship in that sense is kind of a denigrating term," he declares. "They can work with each other in a sort of symbiotic relationship, but one is right brain and the other is left brain. I think they feed off of one another. You get tired of being spiritual, and you just go over there and sharpen the tools and cut some wood. It clears your head.

"I edit myself quite a bit before I commit it to a record, and I've gotten better at it," he says. "I don't write as much as I used to, and if I do, I fix it. If it's already recorded, well, the next record I'll re-record it. But I've got to do it every day. I don't have a bunch of songs already written just waiting for me to take a day off tomorrow. You have to reinvent yourself every day."

Clark's songwriting is honed on details, moments carved from a visceral reality. They're uniquely personal and often autobiographical, yet distill into such universal truths that they remain equally powerful in the hands of other performers. Over five decades, his songs have turned hits for Johnny Cash, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Bobby Bare, John Conlee, Steve Wariner, and Asleep at the Wheel, as well as contemporary country superstars Brad Paisley ("Out in the Parking Lot") and Kenny Chesney ("Hemingway's Whiskey").

And across all 15 of his albums, Susanna remains the constant thread, not simply as muse, but frequently as the direct recipient of the song. Whether on "L.A. Freeway," when he coaxes, "Oh Susanna, don't you cry, babe," and Cold Dog Soup's "Red River" as he pleads, "Susanna when it comes my time, bury me south of that Red River line," or even just in the yearning of separation in "Dublin Blues," her presence is the inherent anchor to Guy Clark's songwriting.

My Favorite Picture of You

In the photograph, Susanna Clark stands defiant with her arms crossed. The Polaroid is yellowing and faded, stained in the bottom corner and frayed along the edges.

"It was in front of John Lomax's house, probably in the late Seventies or early Eighties," surmises its owner. "Townes and I were in the house, just drunk on our asses being jerks, and she had finally had enough. She put on her coat and walked out the door. I remember it being cold. And somebody snapped that picture.

"From the moment I saw it, that was my favorite picture of Susanna, and always has been. It says everything. Boy, she's absolutely beautiful – beautiful – and in an experienced kind of way in that picture. And she's so pissed off. It's in her eyes, and her stance. Stuff only I would see, maybe. But that picture always reminded me of Susanna."

In true Guy Clark form, "My Favorite Picture of You," the focal point of his new album, is a startlingly direct song, rent with raw feeling sprung from the subtleties of the scene. It's the encapsulation of a life together caught in the flash of a single moment.

"There were parts of [the marriage] that were really good and parts of it that were really hard," he says. "But she loved me, and I loved her. It was that simple. For whatever reason, and however hard it was, that was the bottom line."

Written a few months before Susanna passed away, as the cancer progressed and she slipped further from coherence in the fog of pain and pills, the song suspends between a tension of clinging to memory and letting go. It's among the most poignant songs its author has ever written.

"I knew it was coming two or three years ago, so it wasn't unexpected," he acknowledges. "She's probably in a much better place. She didn't want a service, didn't want any kind of bullshit hoopla, and I have her ashes in a jug upstairs. If I ever get back to Atlanta, Texas, I'm going to drop them at the end of the street."

He crushes out another cigarette and pushes himself heavily from his chair.

"The thing about writing songs is, everything is songwriting. All you have to do is remember."

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