Best known as one of the great songwriters of the 20th century, Clark took unassuming characters and mundane happenings and projected them into narratives with epic scope. Among Texas songwriters, only Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt compare to Clark, who died at age 74 Tuesday morning at his Nashville home, after a long illness.
Guy wrote “L.A. Freeway,” one of American music’s greatest driving songs and the final word for small-town troubadours on the false allure of big cities. His lyrical detail in “Desperados Waiting for a Train” and “Texas, 1947” presents a view of life in postwar West Texas that is as true as Dorothea Lange’s best Dust Bowl portraiture. When he wrote about the one possession of his father’s that he wanted when his dad died in “The Randall Knife,” he made a universal statement about paternal love and respect. Bob Dylan lists Guy among his handful of favorite songwriters, and most of Nashville does too.
In the past few years of his life, Clark, who was born in Mohanans, Texas, in 1941, had been battling failing health, but still remained prolific: his most recent LP, 2013’s My Favorite Picture of You, won a Grammy Award for Best Folk Album. In it, he told of a particular photograph of his beloved wife, Susanna, who passed away the year prior from lung cancer: “my favorite picture of you is the one where your wings are showing,” he sang in his warm, ragged coo. As always, he could see what both was and wasn’t there with the clearest of vision.
Guy penned “My Favorite Picture of You” a mere five years ago, just after turning 69, an age to which most of his contemporaries had chosen to coast, provided they were still living at all.
The song originated the way most of them do, with a line. A friend, Gordie Sampson, came to write at Guy’s West Nashville home and brought a hook list with him, a page of potential lines and titles. The two reviewed the list in Guy’s basement workshop, where he splits his time between writing and building guitars, sustaining himself on black coffee, peanut-butter crackers, hand-rolled cigarettes, and an occasional toke of boo.
Guy sat across from Sampson at a workbench in the center of the room. A tall man with regal posture, he’s got an angular white mustache and soul patch, wavy gray hair that curls up at his collar, and a woodblock of a forehead that looms over deep-set blue eyes. His general expression is that of someone who’s thinking about something more important than you are. Or at least more interesting.
One line on the list jumped out at him: “my favorite picture of you.” He pointed past Sampson to a thirty-year-old Polaroid of his wife, Susanna, pinned on the wall behind a drill press, a photo taken back when she and Guy were Nashville’s king and queen.
I’d play the Red River Valley
And he’d sit out in the kitchen and cry
And run his fingers through seventy years of livin’
And wonder, “Lord, has ever’ well I’ve drilled run dry?”
“I stepped into his home once, and it was full of art and guitars; it was this place full of artistic creation,” Lyle Lovett, a friend and admirer of Clark’s work, told the Houston Chronicle in 2012. “And that reaches into his songs as well. We’re all trying to get to the same place through our discovery of things that make us feel like we’re OK. That’s basically what music and art does. You want to find a mutual point of view with somebody who understands how you feel.
“Guy’s a master at expressing feeling in songs.”
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