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Guy Clark

Together with legends of country-folk, JERRY JEFF WALKER, TOWNES VAN ZANDT and STEVE EARLE (his friends), singer-songwriter/guitarist extraordinaire GUY CLARK has shaped the outlaw-country genre, laying a path for other younger stars to follow. One of country music’s great unsung heroes, he remains an inspiration for seasoned campaigners and young bucks alike. Just don’t ask him what it was like to be part of The BYRDS – that was GENE CLARK!
Born November 6, 1941, Rockport, Texas, Guy was raised in Monahans, Texas by his grandparents. He first picked up a guitar at the age of 16 before moving to nearby Houston. There, he worked the coffee-shop folk circuit alongside the likes of the aforementioned VAN ZANDT (to whom he became a lifelong friend and occasional musical partner) and Kay/KT Oslin. Briefly relocating to San Francisco at the tail end of the hippy boom, Guy met his soon-to-be-wife, Susanna, a painter/songwriter with whom he subsequently set up home in L.A.
Scraping a living in a musical instrument factory as well as writing for publishers (Sunbury Music), CLARK had soon had enough of life in the metropolis to make the pair head to Nashville. The experience provided the inspiration for his most enduring and well known song, the classic `L.A. Freeway’. One of his Nashville compadres, JERRY JEFF WALKER, took the track into the Billboard Top 100 in ‘73, while CLARK’s own version was one of the highlights of his R.C.A. debut album, OLD NO.1 (1975) {*9}.
Heading a coterie of Texan singer/songwriters (including VAN ZANDT) based in music city, CLARK helped define the outlaw stance, while his reputation among his contemporaries was second to none. Lending a hand on the debut were the likes of David Briggs (whose previous credits included NEIL YOUNG), a young STEVE EARLE, RODNEY CROWELL and EMMYLOU HARRIS, whose unmistakable harmonies can be heard to spine-tingling effect on `That Old Time Feeling’. While the album was hailed as a landmark by critics, commercial radio programmers weren’t too keen on Guy’s grits ’n’ gravy Texas drawl, and the songwriter seemed destined for cult status.
Not that he was too bothered, preferring to let the music do the talking and cutting another classic album in TEXAS COOKIN’ (1976) {*8}. Added to the role call this time around were veterans like Chips Moman (whose studio the album was recorded in), WAYLON JENNINGS and NICOLETTE LARSON; GC at his very best on wine-stained tributes to booze and doomed love, `Broken Hearted People’ and `Black Haired Boy’ (the latter co-written with wife Susanna), while the joyous country hoedown of `Me I’m Feeling The Same’ surely had hit written all over it. JOHNNY CASH even utilized closer, `The Last Gunfighter Ballad’ as the title track of his 1977 album.
Yet again, CLARK’s critical stock was high, while his sales remained modest. 1978 saw him sign to Warner Brothers, where he released an eponymous GUY CLARK {*6} album the same year, providing yet more material for other artists, while he, himself, covered JIMMIE RODGERS’ `In The Jailhouse Now’, Walter Cowart’s `One Paper Kid’, VAN ZANDT’s `Don’t You Take It Too Bad’ and CROWELL’s `Voila, An American Dream’.
Fellow Texan CROWELL produced his early 80s sets, THE SOUTH COAST OF TEXAS (1981) {*6} and BETTER DAYS (1983) {*7}, subsequently taking Rodney’s `She’s Crazy For Leavin’’ (which he also co-wrote with CLARK) to the top of the country charts; other country stars to benefit from CLARK’s pen included VINCE GILL, BOBBY BARE and RICKY SKAGGS.
CLARK himself finally returned in ‘89 with the OLD FRIENDS {*4} album on indie imprint, Sugar Hill. As the title might suggest, the singer roped in another cast of pals for a fine set that included a cover of VAN ZANDT’s `To Live Is To Fly’ (he’d covered `No Deal’ in ’83), a JOE ELY cut (`The Indian Cowboy’) and a humorous swipe at America’s other obsession by way of `Heavy Metal (Don’t Mean Rock & Roll To Me)’.
In 1992, CLARK unloaded BOATS TO BUILD {*7} for Elektra Records, an album that mainly featured collaboratively-scribed pieces and a usual array of cameos. Fairly prolific during the 90s, Guy released three further sets, DUBLIN BLUES (1995) {*7}, the live KEEPERS (1997) {*6} and COLD DOG SOUP (1999) {*6}; the latter saw a tight-knit, harmony-addled backing band that comprised Shawn Camp (guitar/fiddle), Darrell Scott (guitars/etc.), producer Verlon Thompson (guitars/etc.) and EMMYLOU HARRIS; out of the dozen tracks, there were three outstanding covers: ANNA McGARRIGLE’s `Be Gone Forever’, Richard Dobson’s `Forever, For Always, For Certain’ and STEVE EARLE’s `Fort Worth Blues’.
Come the new millennium, Guy was still cutting great albums, still proving that less – in country music at least – was usually more. With GILLIAN WELCH pitching in with her ghostly harmonies and CLARK conjuring up luminous images on almost every track, THE DARK (2002) {*7} left much of Nashville for dust. TOWNES VAN ZANDT would no doubt have approved; as ever, the late troubadour never seemed far from Guy’s mind, and here he put in a reading of `Rex’s Blues’.
Although he duly toured with country compadres JOE ELY, LYLE LOVETT and JOHN HIATT, little was heard of Guy on the record front until the fall of 2006. Having shifted base to Dualtone Records, WORKBENCH SONGS {*7} – his 12th set in all – was another mouth-watering display that stretched out the proverbial olive-branch to the mainstream. With its no-frills production values and self-penned/collaborative dirges from the heart and soul of Texas (even trad ditty `Diamond Joe’ had its roots somewhere), there was of course room at musical inn for a VAN ZANDT cut: `No Lonesome Tune’. A Grammy nomination for “Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album” was probably miles from his mind when he broke his leg in 2008, but then, with a prophetic follow-up album title such as SOMEDAYS THE SONG WRITES YOU (2009) {*7}, the Texan troubadour was only hinting at possible retirement. An album without a VAN ZANDT track? No, this set was no exception. Taking on – in his own bourbon-and-baccy aplomb – `If I Needed You’, CLARK kept it simple but soothing for `The Guitar’ and `The Coat’.
As ever, with stalwarts Verlon Thomson (guitar) and Shawn Camp (guitar/mandolin), alongside him and others (Bryn Davies on upright bass and Kenny Malone on percussion), CLARK celebrated 70 years on the planet with a live-in-concert set, SONGS AND STORIES (2011) {*6}. Intertwined with worthy introductions, many of them hardy perennials from an engaging career in the business, the thought-provoking singer-songwriter reeled in the years with an ease and god-like cool.
In all his time as a performer of the highest quality, GUY CLARK had never had a Top 100 album entry (his previous set had reached #146), but in Grammy-winner MY FAVORITE PICTURE OF YOU (2013) {*8}, this box had been fully ticked. Sadly, the record marked a heart-breaking time for the man, whose wife-of-40-years, Susanna, died of cancer on June 27, 2012. If ever there was a man who deserved plaudits from every corner of the cosmos, it was GUY CLARK and, in songs such as `The Death Of Sis Draper’, `Rain In Durango’, plus the intimate title track and a lush LYLE LOVETT cover, `Waltzing Fool’, the Nashville community where he resides, could be proud.
Winner of a Grammy in 2014 for Best Folk Album, a battle with cancer ensued until, sadly, Guy passed away on May 17, 2016.
© MC Strong 2000-2002/BG-GRD // rev-up MCS Mar2014-May2016

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