Guy Clark: He was a poet, and his heart added the melody.

Guy Clark wrote songs as honest and emotional as his life had been. Photo Source: Wall Street Journal.
Guy Clark wrote songs as honest and emotional as his life had been. Photo Source: Wall Street Journal.

GUY CLARK Made his living writing songs. It was a good living. They were great songs. But as I think back over his life, I realize that Guy Clark was not really a songwriter. He was a poet. His heart added the melodies.

As he once said: Most of the really good songs are dead true. … It had to have happened to have the song be there. Every time I’ve tried to make stuff up it just kind of falls flat. So the majority of my work is something that happened to me, I saw happen to someone else, or a friend of mine told me happened. There is a certain amount of theatrical and poetic license. People are supposed to like it, that’s why you’re doing it. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s not brain surgery, it’s heart surgery. They’re just song.

I spent most of the 1970s listening to the songs of Guy Clark. He was an enigma like so many of the songwriters during the madcap era of Progressive County. He hung out with Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Billy Joe Shaver.

They played taverns and beer joints and chili parlor bars and anywhere someone with an extra ten dollars in his pocket would let them play.

Sometimes they got paid. A lot of nights they didn’t.

They woke up many mornings and had no idea who they were, where they were, or why they had showed up at all. On some nights, they shut their memories down and hoped no one would remember what had happened, if it happened at all. Remembering would just be a waste, and they knew it.

They would awaken, pool their money and buy a beer, then pass the bottle around. They were rich one day and broke the next, but none of them ever let money get in the way of their songwriting.

“What was it like back then?” I asked him.

He grinned. He shrugged.

“It was like yesterday,” he said.

Guy Clark finally made it to Nashville. He never made it big in Nashville as a singer of songs. But his songs made him a legend. He won Grammy Awards. He was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. The New York Times even said “he patented a rugged, imagistic brand of narrative-rich songwriting.”

His songs were honest. They were powerful. They spoke of eternal truths.

I spent the day with Guy Clark during the 1980s, interviewing him for a magazine article. He had a quick smile. He had a quicker wit.

“Some people play golf,” he told me. “I play with words.”

Many of us string them together, but no one bunched them together any better than Guy Clark.

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We sat in his basement down where his music resided, where he made his own guitars, where he lived on a steady diet of black coffee, peanut butter crackers, and hand-rolled cigarettes, the room where those words all came together, a mecca for every young songwriter who came to Music City with a dream.

Guy Clark had time for them all. He would lean back and listen to their songs. He helped them add a word here, a phrase there, and leave with a better song than they had when they arrived.

His influence on the music scene was immense. He was, some swore, the godfather of Nashville’s songwriters. He was door was always open any time day or night.

Having trouble with your lyrics?

Looking for the right word?

Tired, frustrated, and down on your luck?

Guy Clark’s light was always on.

Many came with a single line they had written. Maybe it was only an idea. Maybe it was only bits and pieces of a conversation. They left with a song.

Guy Clark considered himself a rambling troubadour who had the good fortune of surviving forty years of hard living, hard drinking, long nights, and scarred, muffled microphones where the big stars never came to sing.

Bob Dylan called Guy Clark his hero. He didn’t have many. He didn’t need many. Guy Clark was enough.

It was written of him: “The patron saint of an entire generation of bohemian pickers, Guy Clark has become an emblem of artistic integrity, quiet dignity, and simple truths.

His voice was worn gravel.

His words were as smooth as creek water rolling over stones at the bottom of a waterfall.

From “Desperados Waiting on a Train:”

I’d play ‘The Red River Valley,

and he’d sit in the kitchen and cry,

run his fingers through seventy years of living,

and wonder, ‘Lord, has every well I’ve drilled run dry?

From“That Old-Time Feeling,:

That old-time feeling

goes sneaking down the hall

like an old grey cat in winter,

keepin’ close to the wall.

From “Dublin Blues:”

I wish I was in Austin
In the Chili Parlour Bar
Drinkin’ Mad Dog Margaritas
And not carin’ where you areBut here I sit in Dublin
Just rollin’ cigarettes
Holdin’ back and chokin’ back
The shakes with every breath

His songs were recorded by such stars as Johnny Cash, Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, Brad Paisley, Alan Jackson, George Strait, Bobby Bare, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson.

Vince Gill was in a studio to record with Guy Clark, and the troubadour began singing “Randall Knife,” a tribute to his father.

My father had a Randall knife
My mother gave it to him
When he went off to WWII
To save us all from ruin
If you’ve ever held a Randall knife
Then you know my father well
If a better blade was ever made
It was probably forged in hell

Vince recalled, “I started weeping, bawling all over my guitar. I couldn’t sniff because there was a live mike. Guy Clark may be the greatest storyteller of all for me. He paints the coolest pictures of all.”

Guy Clark grew up among the sand dunes of Monahans, a West Texas wasteland. His father was a lawyer. And every night, the family would sit around the table and listen to him read from one book of poetry, then another.

The words struck Guy like bullets. They penetrated his brain. And they seared his soul. He was always happiest when surrounded by the beauty of words. Sitting alone in his Nashville home, Guy Clark would close his eyes and listen to recordings of the works of Dylan Thomas. “The rest of us spread words around,” he said. “But that old boy could write.”

A major recording label paid him a lot of money to write five songs a year. Sometimes he waited around until December, then wrote day and night. The recording studio had to wait, but the songs were always worth it.

However, Guy Clark never spent a day of his life worried about the money. Sometimes he had a lot. More often he didn’t. And when his pockets were full of money, he gave it all away.

He said, “What’s important in life and in music is dignity. I’ll bet that when you’re dying, you’re not going to think about the money you made. You’re going to think about your art.”

Guy Clark left us this week.

He’s gone.

His words aren’t.

He died, I’m sure, thinking about his art.

We live listening to it.

As Guy Clark would say, “What else is there?”

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  • Don Newbury

    Great tribute from up close.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Don, if I could write like Guy Clark, I’d buy a guitar.

      • Andrew Sparke

        Let Him Roll!
        Only saw him in concert once and he blew me away.

        • Caleb Pirtle

          Andrew, Guy was simply a man, a guitar, a single spotlight, and a song. Nothing was more powerful.

  • Sally Berneathy

    A wonderful tribute for a wonderful artist.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      He wasn’t supposed to go, Sally. He didn’t check with any of us first.

      • Sally Berneathy

        I hate it when that happens! A lot of people have been doing that lately. Rather rude of them, IMO.

  • Caleb,
    There was no one like him. Your blog is a truly beautiful and fitting tribute to him. I was a fan of Guy Clark from the first time I heard “Let Him Roll” played on KAFM in 1975 in Fort Worth. You knew that when you listened to one of his songs you were in the presence of greatness and artistry of the first magnitude. And you’re right about his final thoughts. I’ll bet he was thinking, “There’s only two things money can’t buy: true love and home grown tomatoes.”

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Stephen: True love and home grown tomatoes were art at its finest.

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