Guy Clark has died. He was 74. One of the great Texan songwriters, one of the great country music songwriters, one of the great songwriters, I first discovered Clark’s music through reviewing (it does have some perks). His was a name I already knew but what cemented it was hearing the Together at Bluebird Café album featuring Clark, Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt. And if I went into that record a fan of Earle and Van Zandt I certainly left hooked on the idea of whatever Clark might do next and desperate to go back through all he’d done already.
That album – the first thing I reached for upon waking to hear this sad news – was recorded in 1995, towards the end of Townes Van Zandt’s life, and features three friends in the round sharing stories and songs. It was released in 2001. The following year Guy Clark’s The Dark was one of my albums of the year, in my first full year of newspaper-reviewing, of working through dozens of albums a week to find the best and endure the worst. I was hooked on Clark’s music now and would find his fingerprints all through my record collection as it turned out.
His songs – pure, simple, beautiful poetry, wonderful balladry (“I played the Red River Valley/He’s sit in the kitchen and cry/Run his fingers through seventy years of livin’/And wonder, ‘Lord, why has every well I’ve drilled run dry?’”) – have been covered by the likes of Johnny Cash and Jerry Jeff Walker, Rodney Crowell, Kenny Chesney, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Brad Paisley, John Denver, Alan Jackson and David Allan Coe. We’re talking some heavy-hitters there. You’ll hear Emmylou Harris on his albums, singing his songs.
He released Old No. 1 back in 1975 and that, along with the following year’s Texas Cookin’ and 1978’s self-titled record quickly became the albums I wanted to spend a lot of time with. Guy Clark’s songs appearing like old friends.
Following on from 2002’s The Dark he served up more essential listening with 2006’s Workbench Songs.
A class act. A huge part of the Guy Clark story was his marriage to Susanna Clark from 1972 through to her death from cancer in 2012. They worked together, she was a songwriter and artists, theirs truly seemed one of the great artistic marriages. In fact it was Susanna Clark that organised – among so many other things – that Bluebird Café concert and live recording.
So, go listen to Boats to Build, go listen to Randall Knife or That Old Time Feeling, check out The Last Gunfighter Ballad or The Cape. Listen to any of the albums mentioned here or dip in with the excellent compilation, The Essential Guy Clark (that served me so well) and the album Dublin Blues. And listen to him with his pals Steve and Townes, their lives so entwined, their songs so great, on that amazing live album recorded humbly at the Bluebird Café.
Were it not for the knowledge that Guy had been in a lengthy battle with an illness you would expect him, like his songs, to live on. Stoic, masterful. He might not be one of the biggest names in music but there’s weight behind that name and those songs. And his music arrived at a time in my life, as is so often with the very best music, at the very best time.