Editor’s note: Tamara Saviano spent seven years with Guy Clark researching her new biography Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark (Texas A&M University Press). Saviano worked as a publicist for Clark, a singer-songwriter, guitar maker, and boat builder who died last year of lymphoma. This excerpt describes his songwriting ethic and captures Clark’s generous spirit as he helped to cultivate the New Traditionalist movement and inspire such influential Americana artists as Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Ricky Skaggs, and Dwight Yoakam.
On September 17, 1985, a story in the New York Times announced the death of country music. “The audience for the Nashville Sound—lovesick laments, tales of marital strife, and other plain-spoken lyrics, sung with a rural twang, and often accompanied by arrangements more redolent of Las Vegas than of Southern cotton fields—is dwindling, growing old along with its favorite stars.”
Country music was changing. Artists with large crossover appeal ruled mainstream country radio. Kenny Rogers, Alabama, and Hank Williams Jr. led the pack. The countrypolitan era was over, along with the Urban Cowboy craze. Even Nashville’s favorite outlaw, Waylon Jennings, was selling half as many records.
The old guard was dying, and it was anyone’s guess how things would shake out on Music Row. Guy Clark quit the country music business and practiced singing his songs in front of a mirror in his basement. He wanted to get back to the basics of putting the lyrics out front. He wanted his poetry to come first, worked to improve his fingerpicking, and designed his own combination flat pick and thumb pick. “He’s missing part of his thumb. He cut it off with a band saw, either in the shipyard or something. This corner of his right thumb is gone,” Nashville songwriter Verlon Thompson says.
Booking agent Keith Case, a fan since Jerry Jeff Walker recorded “L.A. Freeway,” pursued Guy as a client. “I was knocked out by Guy as a songwriter. His images are so strong, like short films that paint a vivid picture of Texas back in the time when he lived there. I wanted to work with him, and he’s one of only two artists I chased down to sign.”
Case booked Townes Van Zandt, too, and sent Guy and Townes on the road together, just the way they did it back in Houston.
The troubadours flipped a coin each night to decide who would take the stage first. Sometimes they’d join each other on songs. Whatever they felt like doing on the spur of the moment, they did. Case also booked Guy on solo-acoustic tours. He went out and played shows by himself, singing his songs and playing guitar with no backup, as he did it in the old days in Houston. Guy traveled to Texas for a run that included Dixie’s Bar & Bus Stop in Austin and Poor David’s Pub in Dallas. He played across the river from Washington, DC, at the Birchmere, where a critic likened Guy’s songs to the film The Last Picture Show.
While his records were largely absent from music stores and radio, Guy made a name for himself with his songs. CBS Songs acquired Sunbury Dunbar, and Guy still had his publishing deal. He was obligated to turn in a set number of songs each quarter, but it wasn’t the quota that made him stick around. All Guy wanted to do was write songs and be around other songwriters.
The Highwaymen, the supergroup of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings, took [Clark’s] “Desperados Waiting for a Train” to No. 15 on the Billboard Hot Country chart in late 1985. Ed Bruce and Lynn Anderson recorded Guy’s “Fools for Each Other.” John Conlee scored a big hit with “The Carpenter,” and Johnny Cash covered “Let Him Roll.” Vince Gill’s “Oklahoma Borderline,” cowritten with Guy and Rodney Crowell, reached No. 9 on the chart. Gill was just getting his feet wet as a songwriter, and Guy was a tremendous influence. “To me, he is a painter,” Gill says. “His lyrics are familiar to me because I came from that part of the country, too. I can see oyster shell roads . . . all of those things are so real. Every word matters, and you don’t waste words. ‘They’re bound for the Mexican Bay of Campeche, and the deckhands are singing adios Jole Blon.’ That is poetic. God, it just rolls off of you so well. There are no words that are uncomfortable. One of the greatest lessons to try to learn from Guy is how to find a common sense yet elegant way to say it. The visual side of those songs [is] what completely annihilate[s] me.”
‘There’s no judgment in Guy’s songs. He writes with a great deal of care about everyone, but he doesn’t give anybody a free pass either.’
Another Okie, from the small town of Binger, landed in Nashville as a staff writer for CBS Songs. Verlon Thompson met Guy at the office. They became cowriters and friends after Thompson brought Guy a song he had started called “Indianhead Penny.”
“That’s when we started having fun, or I did,” Thompson says. “I had mentioned that idea to several people, and nobody thought it was worth messing with. Guy immediately grabbed his paper, just like that. What impresses me is the way he uses fewer words to give you more images. With two or three words, you get a complete visual idea in your head about the character and the setting and what’s going on. That’s what I love about his writing. It’s the economy of words. One of the songs that I think illustrates that is ‘The Last Gunfighter Ballad.’ Man, if you listen to that, it is a three-minute movie. Everything is there.”
Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash had moved back to Nashville, and Emmylou Harris followed them after her divorce from Brian Ahern. Harris continued to release critically acclaimed albums on the Warner/Reprise label, and Guy and [his wife] Susanna attended Harris’s album release party for The Ballad of Sally Rose. For the first time, Harris cowrote (with Paul Kennerley) all of the songs on the album. All along, Guy had encouraged Harris to write her own songs. “At one point, I had a song that I never ended up finishing,” Harris says. It was a song about a woman—kind of like “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad.” The idea was that she was going to get even with this guy, but it was obvious that he was the villain of the song. We were working on it, and at one point Guy said, “I don’t like to write songs where everybody’s not equal.” He’s very democratic. He doesn’t want to pin the blame on anybody. He sees the whole story leading up to it and beyond. We’re all human, and we all have our faults. You can’t say, “You win and you lose.” That really impressed me. I went back and thought about all of Guy’s songs and characters he writes about, like “Let Him Roll” and the prostitute that the old guy was in love with. It’s just a sad tragedy of two people who maybe could’ve found happiness. There’s no judgment in Guy’s songs. He writes with a great deal of care about everyone, but he doesn’t give anybody a free pass either.”
Guy had attended or played the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas every year since 1975. Rod Kennedy, who had owned the Chequered Flag (later Castle Creek) folk club and had founded the Zilker Park music festival in Austin, started Kerrville in a 1,200-seat auditorium in the small Hill Country town. Within a couple of years, the festival group purchased 60 acres of land outside of town and named it Quiet Valley Ranch. By the 1980s, more than 20,000 people descended on the ranch each May and June to take part in the 18-day festival. Kerrville attracts roots musicians, songwriters, and fans from all over the world. Songwriters are revered, and many of today’s most respected writers played at Kerrville before everyone knew their names.
At Kerrville in 1986, Guy ran into Lubbock native and multifaceted artist Terry Allen, who became a close friend. “I recall meeting Guy, and then memory fades fast after we met, but it was at Kerrville at the folk festival at the YO Ranch Hotel,” Allen says. “He was in the lobby, and we were both taking the shuttle to the stage. Guy had played, I think, the day before and was hanging around for his check. I was playing the next day. We hit it off in the van, just talking to each other, and ended up hanging out. Peter, Paul and Mary were playing, and we were a little too close to the stage and a little too rowdy because the guy that ran the thing got really, really pissed off at us. We were drinking a lot and carrying on a lot. It was all his fault, pretty much.
“There was a full moon that night. It’s like thousands of hippies out there, stoned, just listening to ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon.’ There was a moon, and one cloud came out of nowhere, and, just like a claw, it covered the moon. For some reason, Guy and I got so tickled seeing that, and we fell apart on the side of the stage. Peter and Paul were very upset with it, but Mary, she laughed at us. I was basically banned from then on. We just had a real good time that night and then sort of crossing tracks over the years. Every time we saw each other we got friendlier.”
The Ballad Tree is a beloved tradition at Kerrville. Each weekend during the festival, a songwriter hosts a song swap under a sweeping live oak tree on a beautiful piece of the ranch called Chapel Hill. The same year he met Terry Allen, Guy hosted the Ballad Tree and spotted a young writer named Buddy Mondlock. “I had seen Guy play at a place called Holstein’s in Chicago, and I was just blown away,” Mondlock says. “Like you’ve heard a million times, the first time someone hears Guy Clark do a set or hears one of his records, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, this is the best songwriter I’ve ever heard.’ I was particularly struck by that line in ‘Old Time Feeling’ about an old gray cat in winter staying close to the wall. With a few words, he just nailed the complete spectrum of feeling.”
Mondlock signed up to sing at the Ballad Tree so he could meet Guy and maybe shake his hand. “A bunch of people played and I was toward the end and I played a song called ‘No Choice.’ Afterward, I was just kind of standing around talking to a friend, and I saw Guy Clark walking in my direction,” he says. “I was looking over my shoulder to see where he might be going, and he stopped in front of me and said, ‘Hey, I really liked that song you just played. Do you have a tape of that?’ I said, ‘Well, yeah. I do. That’s my tent right over there. Don’t move, I’m going to go over and get you a tape.’ I came back with a cassette I had done earlier that year on a friend’s little four-track. It had that one and a couple other songs on it. I thought: That’s the coolest thing that’s ever going to happen to me. Guy Clark is going to listen to a song of mine, and he liked what I sang. I went on with the rest of the festival and had a great time. Kerrville just blew my mind, too. It was a great place to be and it was a perfect fit for me.
“I went home, and a week later I was coming into my apartment in Chicago with a basket full of laundry. I could see this little light blinking on my answering machine. I hit the play button: ‘Hey, Buddy. It’s Guy Clark in Nashville. I really liked your song, and I liked the other ones, too. Give me a call sometime.’ Holy shit! After I got done doing backflips in the kitchen I called him, and we talked for a minute. He said, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I just want to keep making music and writing songs and trying to figure out how to make a living and a life out of that.’ He said, ‘OK, well, let’s see if we can get you in the music business.’”
“I heard him at the Ballad Tree, and he was so good I just kept my eye on him,” Guy says. He wrote some great songs. ‘The Cats of the Colosseum’ is about the Colosseum in Rome that is in disrepair and full of cats. Buddy writes about the kids playing music at the Colosseum in the middle of the night. And I thought that was so good.”
As Mondlock sent him more songs, Guy made mix tapes of Mondlock’s work and began to pass them around Nashville. He handed out tapes to music publishers, folks at the performing rights organization ASCAP, friends, and anyone he thought should hear good songs. In turn, Nashville music executives began to call Mondlock, starting with producer Jim Rooney.
“He was one of the first people that called me, and he said, ‘Hey, Guy Clark gave me this tape, and I thought it was really interesting. What are you up to?’ I told him I was just starting to tour and playing clubs in Chicago,” Mondlock says. “Jim said, ‘Well, I’m coming up to Chicago. I want to go to a Cubs game. You want to go with me?’ So Rooney and I had a great afternoon going to see the Cubs play in Chicago. A little while later, Bob Doyle from ASCAP called me. Bob said Guy had given him a tape, and on that particular tape was a song I wrote called ‘The Kid,’ and that one really struck Bob. We talked a few times, and finally he said, ‘Well, do you ever think you might come down here to Nashville?’ I said, ‘Well, yeah, I’ve been thinking about it now. I never used to think about it before.’ My picture of Nashville was just this stereotypical Dolly Parton and rhinestones and all that stuff. I didn’t really feel any affinity toward that commercial Nashville glitz. That was my impression of Nashville, so I thought there was nothing for me there. But Bob said, ‘Well, you should come and check it out. It’s a really cool place, and songwriting is really what it’s all about here more than anything else.’”
Doyle offered Mondlock his spare bedroom. On Mondlock’s first trip to Nashville, he signed with ASCAP, visited Guy over at CBS Songs, and was introduced to Emmylou Harris at a reception at the Country Music Hall of Fame. “It was just so cool. I was like a kid with my eyes wide open,” Mondlock says. “I met all the people at CBS Songs. It’s just this little house with a few offices and writing rooms in it, really homey and comfortable, and Guy was there, and everybody’s being nice. I thought it was really cool. I remember watching Guy do a demo session in the little basement studio next door.
“It was not at all what I was picturing Nashville to be.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.