Guy Clark - Biography
BY J Poet
Guy Clark was a legendary Texas songwriter, picker and performer. He’s made less than 20 albums in his 30-year career, but every one is a gem, packed with finely crafted melodies, insightful lyrics and ironic humor. His style blends country, folk, blues, and a touch of pop. Tunes like “LA Freeway” and “Desperados Waiting for a Train” were early country rock classics. In his long career, he’s penned tunes for country artists - Johnny Cash and Ricky Scaggs have had hits with his material, including “Heartbroke” which Skaggs took to #1 in 1982 - and was originally signed by RCA as a singer/songwriter, but Clark considers himself a folksinger above all else. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004. In 2005, the Americana Music Association honored Clark with its Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting.
Clark was born in Monahans, Texas, on November 6, 1941. He grew up in a family where poetry was read aloud and swing band records were in regular rotation. His father was a lawyer and he learned how to play on a $12 Mexican guitar given to him by a female lawyer who worked in his father’s law office. She didn’t sing in English, so the songs he learned were Spanish folk songs. After dropping out of law school, Clark moved to Houston, met Townes Van Zandt and Jerry Jeff Walker, and played the folk coffee house circuit. Van Zandt encouraged Clark to start writing his own songs.
Clark bummed around the country in the 60s, stopping in San Francisco for a while before landing in LA where he got a job as a luthier (guitar maker) at the Dopyera Brothers' Dobro factory. Gigs at local clubs brought him to the attention of RCA. He couldn’t afford to make a demo tape, so he went in and sang fore the execs live and they signed him to a publishing agreement with their Sunbury Music subsidiary. Clark made enough money there to relocate to Nashville, where he still resides.
In 1973 Jerry Jeff Walker cut “L.A. Freeway,” which became an FM radio hit. On his next album, Viva! Terlingua (1973 MCA) Walker included Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train.” Those two songs became keystones of the so-called progressive country movement.
At the Sunbury Music offices in Nashville, Clark met Micky Newbury. Newbury, Clark, and his wife Susanna started holding songwriter circles in the Clark living room and attracted young writers like Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, Billy Joe Shaver, Steve Earle, Dave Loggins and David Allen Coe. A notorious perfectionist, it took Clarke two years to select the songs for Old No. l (1975 RCA). It included perennials like “Texas, l947,” which became a hit for Johnny Cash, “Instant Coffee Blues.” “Rita Ballou,” “She Ain't Goin' Nowhere,” and “Let Him Roll,” another hit for Cash a few years later.
Clark did some low key touring to support his album, but mostly stayed at home entertaining friends, building guitars and working on his songs. In the next 12 years he only made five albums: Texas Cookin' (1976 RCA), a rowdy session with Emmylou Harris, Susanna Clark, Johnny Gimble, Jerry Jeff Walker, Hoyt Axton, Waylon Jennings, Tracy Nelson, Brian Ahern, Mickey Raphael, Rodney Crowell, David Briggs, and Chip Young all adding to the party vibe, Guy Clark (1978 Warner), a hard core honky tonk album, The South Coast of Texas (1981 Warner) another country sounding set with Rosanne Cash, Ricky Skaggs, and a then almost unknown Vince Gill, Better Days (1983 Warner), a meditation on the joys of family and long term relationships that included the almost hit “Homegrown Tomatoes” and Old Friends (1989 Sugar Hill) a low key acoustic album. There was also a hits collection Guy Clark – Greatest Hits (1983 RCA), mostly tracks from Old No. 1.
Clark had hits in those years thanks to his pals. Cash charted “The Last Gunfighter Ballad,” Bobby Bare hit the charts with “New Cut Road,” Skaggs got a #1 with “Heartbroke,” Vince Gill took “Oklahoma Borderline” Top 10 in 1985, John Conlee went Top 10 with “The Carpenter,” Steve Wariner hit with “Baby I'm Yours,” Asleep at the Wheel charted “Blowin' Like a Bandit,” and Crowell got a #1 with “She's Crazy for Leavin’.”
Clark wasn’t getting any hits on his own, but his talent as a songwriter kept people listening. Boats to Build (1992 Asylum) got universal raves for its folk meets country vibe, Dublin Blues (1995 Asylum) was another low key gem, Cold Dog Soup, (1999 Sugar Hill) had an acoustic, bluegrass meets old time music feel, while The Dark (2002 Sugar Hill) lived up to its title with melancholy observations of aging, loss and death.
Workbench Songs (2006 Dualtone) was nominated for Best Folk/Americana Album, and while there are a few up tempo numbers, most of these finely crafted tunes deal with Clark’s usual obsessions - broken hearts, lost souls and ordinary folks living ordinary lives full of quiet desperation. His latest, Live From Austin Texas (2007 New West) is a live greatest hits collection cut for the PBS show Austin City Limits. In 2009 he released Some Days The Song Writes You, followed by a Top 40 country LP Songs & Stories in 2011. In 2013 he released My Favorite Picture Of You, continuing his streak od finely crafted tunes, only to succumb to a lengthy illness on May 17, 2016. He died in Nashville, aged 74.