Guy Clark captivated audiences with songs rich in detail, unsentimental yet surprisingly tender. His recordings, much like the man himself, followed the slow, methodical, respectful gait of a man from Texas.
Clark, who had battled cancer and suffered from declining health, died Tuesday morning in Nashville. He was 74.
Clark never attained the commercial success of some of his peers, but his songs were impactful. He was a consummate songwriter, Grammy-winner, Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame member, and Academy of Country Music Poet’s Award honoree who influenced generations of songwriters.
Guy Charles Clark was born in the West Texas town of Monahans on November 6, 1941. As a youngster, Clark grew up splitting time between Monahans, where his grandmother ran a boarding house, and the southern Gulf Coast town of Rockport, where his father practiced law. This time would be of tremendous impact on the impressionable youngster, as characters from the boarding house would appear in songs such as “Desperados Waiting for a Train” and “Texas 1947.”
Clark moved to Houston to pursue music and it was there met his first wife, folk singer Susan Spaw. The couple became part of an artistic community — a vanguard of new Texas songwriters that included such mavericks as Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker and Mickey Newbury. Clark, who began writing bluesy folk songs (influenced by legendary Texas bluesmen Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb), gradually earned a reputation for literate, biting, and from-the-hip gems. As fellow Texan Lyle Lovett once gushed, Clark’s “ability to translate the emotional into the written word is extraordinary.”
In the late ’60s, Guy and Susan split, and Clark moved to San Francisco where he joined his friend Minor Wilson and worked at a repair shop. But Houston beckoned and Clark returned to the Lone Star state. He then met his second wife, artist Susanna Talley, and the two headed back to California to pursue music; Clark worked as a luthier, making Dobro guitars in Los Angeles, and Talley taught art classes.
Despite settling into Los Angeles quickly, neither one of them liked it. So when Clark was offered a publishing deal in Nashville, the couple packed up and headed east. Among their possessions were the nuggets of experience they gleaned in their short stay in L.A., much of which would later come to light in the lyrics of “L.A. Freeway,” one of his biggest hits — and one of the best “adios to concrete” songs about leaving L.A. ever written.Guy and Susanna were married in 1972 and Townes Van Zandt served as their best man. Van Zandt stayed with the Nashville-based newlyweds for the better part of a year, turning their home into a nightly picking party, which drew young guns such as Steve Earle, and brought some lean,Texas bravado to the bloated cosmopolitan-driven Music City scene. “We were absolutely ballsy,” he once said of that time. “We were from Texas.”
In 1972 his old pal from Houston, Jerry Jeff Walker, handed Clark a major break when Walker cut “L.A. Freeway” and “That Old Time Feeling” for his self-titled debut. The following year, Walker picked up “Desperados Waiting for a Train” for his seminal Viva Terlingua; the single went Top 15 on the charts and cemented Clark’s budding reputation as a gifted songwriter. Clark was finally signed in 1975, and released his RCA debut Old No. 1, an influential album that is still lauded as one of his best.
Clark recorded his sophomore album, Texas Cookin’ (1976) for RCA before signing to Warner Bros. for three albums: Guy Clark (1978), South Coast of Texas (1981) and Better Days (1983), a rich body of work that gave his expressive, forthright (and unabashedly Texan) writing style renown, and reinforced his position among country music’s vanguard. Those hard-earned accolades came long before the No. 1 hits he wrote for Ricky Skaggs (1982’s “Heartbroke”) and Rodney Crowell (1988’s “She’s Crazy for Leaving”), and the songs that Johnny Cash, George Strait, Vince Gill and the Highwaymen sang their way into the country music doctrine.
In 2004, Guy Clark was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He received the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005 and the Academy of Country Music’s Poet’s Award (along with Hank Williams) in 2013. Throughout his career, he was honored with multiple Grammy Award nominations.
The past decade saw Clark plagued with a number of health issues, including lymphoma (for which he underwent chemotherapy), diabetes (which resulted in the amputation of three toes), two knee replacements and a separate leg surgery.
With a career spanning 40 years, Clark and his group of kindred songwriting spirits spearheaded the progressive country movement. Clark is lauded, admired and mourned by his peers, music critics, fans and artists who hope to glean a thing or two from his stellar songwriting.
He is survived by his son Travis and daughter-in-law Krista McMurtry Clark; grandchildren Dylan and Ellie Clark; sisters Caroline Clark Dugan and Jan Clark and many friends, colleagues, and fans.