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Guy Clark, RIP



The great Guy Clark has died. One of the finest country-folk singers ever and a foundational figure in the alt-country genre, Clark had been sick for some time. He was not only good friends with Townes Van Zandt, but his partner in crazy living, as you can read about in this great late-life profile. Clark was a lot more emotionally stable than Van Zandt so he lived a lot longer, but he did not live a life that was going to reach 90 (although Ramblin’ Jack Elliott still lives so sometimes you can do that). Clark had the songwriting skills to become wealthy if he played the Nashville game. On the other hand, he was pure Texas. He split the difference, moving to Nashville in the early 70s (sort of the opposite of Willie Nelson here) to keep a hand in the business but remained fiercely independent his entire career. This plus his generous nature made him a mentor to a whole generation of young Texas musicians such as Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell.

Guy Clark’s albums themselves are something of a mixed bag. His first album, Old No. 1, contains a number of classics that were often covered by others. This includes the wonderful “L.A. Freeway,” “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Texas, 1947.”

A lot of people love his second album, Texas Cookin’. I’m a bit more mixed on it, although it does have “The Last Gunfighter Ballad.”

The South Coast of Texas is one of the most underrated albums in all of music. This is basically a perfect country album, with each song revolving around some Texas story, from the Kentuckians getting ready to move to Texas in the 19th century in “New Cut Road” to the shrimpers and their ladies in “The South Coast of Texas” to the young man falling in love with an older waitress in the great closing track “Lone Star Motel.” I love this album tremendously.

He had a series of decent albums in the 80s and 90s, culminating in the pretty excellent 1999 album Cold Dog Soup. But probably the place I would start is with his live greatest hits plus some new ones album Keepers, from 1997. Good band, fun performances.

In the end, anyone who can write a song like “The Randall Knife” is worth remembering.

I only saw Guy Clark play once. It was in Santa Fe, maybe around 2004, a show with just him and his long-time guitarist Verlon Thompson. It showed the delicate nature of live performing. Mostly, it was great. But some drunk guy started shouting during the set and Clark walked off until someone kicked him out. Then, right in the middle of the powerful song “Let Him Roll” about a bum who dies still loving the prostitute he knew decades ago, someone’s damn cell phone rang. Totally ruined the moment. Such things happen in a live setting. In recent years, by most accounts, his shows had taken a turn for the worse with his physical health.

Guy Clark will be badly missed. He maybe wasn’t quite the level of titanic talent as people like Merle Haggard, David Bowie, and Prince, but in a regular year, the loss of Guy Clark would just about be the worst musical loss we could imagine.

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  • petesh

    Sad news indeed, if not unexpected, and thanks for the appreciation. I’d heard his work for a while (without knowing it) when at the end of the ’80s I hiked up and down Mt Whitney, collapsed onto a motel bed, hit the remote and found Austin City Limits and this craggy presence:

    It’s like when you’re making conversation
    And you’re trying not to scream
    And you’re trying not to tell ’em
    You don’t care what they mean
    And you’re really feeling fragile
    And you really can’t get home
    And you really feel abandoned
    But you want to be alone

    Old Friends they shine like diamonds
    Old Friends you can always call
    Old Friends Lord you can’t buy ’em
    You know it’s Old Friends after all


    • AlanInSF

      Guy was a regular at the Songwriters Circle of Hardly Strictly for many years — one of the warmest, most engaging performers I’ve ever seen. “Picasso’s Mandolin” probaby isn’t his best song, but it makes a great epitaph:

      Like Picasso said in 1910
      I’m gonna paint me a mandolin
      Could be cubes, it could be curves
      I like to mix the paint with nerve
      I’ll load my brush and fire away
      Paint me a hole in the light of day

      Well, you can play it straight or play it from left field
      You got to play it just the way you feel
      Come on boys, play it again
      Play it on Picasso’s mandolin

      Well, it’s colorin’ books and drinkin’ wines
      Its hard to stay between the lines
      Now there aint no rule if you don’t break it
      Aint no chance if you don’t take it
      Said the damndest thing he’d ever heard
      Was tryin’ to learn to sing from a mockingbird

      We’ll miss you, Guy.

      “Paint me a hole in the light of day.” Jesus fucking christ.

  • Origami Isopod

    Ah, shit. Great voice.

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  • Dennis Orphen

    Don’t forget Instant Coffee Blues from Old No. 1.

    • paul1970

      Yep, one of my favourites.
      “And you tell them the difference
      Between caring and not
      And that it’s all done with mirrors
      Lest they forgot
      I said it’s all done with mirrors
      Of which they had none
      To blend the instant coffee blues
      Into the morning sun”

      Utterly brilliant. But you see him with Susanna and his friends on Heartworn Highways and you can see he didn’t quite believe this in his heart.

      • Dennis Orphen

        “She just had to go to work

        And he just had to go.”

  • Brad Nailer

    I’m not a country fan, but I bought Cold Dog Soup based on a friend’s recommendation. I think I need to put it back in rotation.

  • Mac the Knife

    Very sad to hear. I got the sense that he got that last record out for Susanna and his work was done.

    A friend made a good point about him – you almost have to slow down your pace a notch to really appreciate it. Everything’s just really well-crafted. There are times on some of those records where you hear a little too much of the craft, but when he had good subject matter, he turned out some doozies.

    Also, agree strongly about the South Coast of Texas record.

  • Dennis Orphen

    Heartworn Highways is essential for anyone interested these things.

    • paul1970

      I might have a little cry the next time I watch this. Townes, Susanna, Steve Young, and now Guy… not many of them left.

    • petesh

      Thanks, I had missed that.

  • Ghost of Joe Liebling’s Dog

    Oh, damn! This has been a hard year for this kind of music…

    Let Him Roll’s a hell of a song. I bet he’s gone to Dallas, rest his soul.


  • Marc

    “That Old Time Feeling”

    And that old time feeling goes sneakin’ down the hall
    Like an old gray cat in winter, keepin’ close to the wall
    And that old time feeling comes stumblin’ up the street
    Like an old salesman kickin’ the papers from his feet

    And that old time feeling draws circles around the block
    Like old women with no children, holdin’ hands with the clock
    And that old time feeling falls on its face in the park
    Like an old wino prayin’ he can make it till it’s dark

    And that old time feeling comes and goes in the rain
    Like an old man with his checkers, dyin’ to find a game
    And that old time feeling plays for beer in bars
    Like an old blues-time picker who don’t recall who you are

    And that old time feeling limps through the night on a crutch
    Like an old soldier wonderin’ if he’s paid too much
    And that old time feeling rocks and spits and cries
    Like an old lover rememberin’ the girl with the clear blue eyes

    • Supposedly that was the first real song he ever wrote.

      • paul1970

        And it is, in it’s own way, an absolutely perfect song (to reference the Campos article from a couple of days ago).

        • Marc

          He had a way of finding the perfect lyrics. Catching the essence of a life in a few words, like

          that old time feeling rocks and spits and cries
          Like an old lover rememberin’ the girl with the clear blue eyes

          is a gift.

          • paul1970

            What I love most is the way the whole song builds up to that line – it’s a masterpeice of restraint and controlled lyrical progression.

            Country music is a strange genre, young men cut their teeth writing old men’s songs – this one from Guy, ‘Waiting Around to Die’ from Townes, and countless others. But some of them do it damn well.

            • paul1970

              With Steve Young, from Heatworn Highways. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9X_nl1v9x8Y
              Susanna as well, though not performing.
              RIP all.

              • Dennis Orphen

                And Jack Daniels poured into a Fire King D-handle milk glass coffee mug too.

  • paul1970

    I saw him play in Glasgow once, with his son Travis on the bass, it was a great show, very happy to play all the old favourites. He told us that a lot of songs of Old No.1 were all written in D minor, so he had to play them all together so he didn’t have to keep re-tuning his guitar.
    They included ‘The Gone Side of Leaving’, which he said was his favourite song of all, a song “about 10 seconds of a woman’s life”. Again, it’s perfect. Also my favourite song for singing in the bath.

    • The Golux

      I first became aware of Guy Clark at a show at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton, Massachusetts. He, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt and Joe Ely were sitting on stools, taking turns playing songs. We were there for Lyle and John, and all were great, but the only CD we bought that day was Guy’s recent release, “The Dark”, still one of my favorites.

      He was also a master luthier.

  • Arla

    Guy Clark will be badly missed. He maybe wasn’t quite the level of titanic talent as people like Merle Haggard, David Bowie, and Prince, but in a regular year, the loss of Guy Clark would just about be the worst musical loss we could imagine.

    I think this is exactly right…and a real reminder of what a terrible, terrible year this has been for the music world. Anyone who doesn’t transcend “great” to “culturally transformative” is in the second-tier of this year’s musical deaths, and that is just messed up.

    • burnspbesq

      Some of us will miss him more than the other three combined. I consistently had Guy Clark songs in my set lists throughout my short, undistinguished 1970s performing career.

      • Arla

        I didn’t mean “second-tier” as an assessment of merit, more just in terms of the general reaction/response from others (even considering the distorting effects of social media, the reactions to Bowie and Prince in particular were just *overwhelming* and are still ongoing). Personally, the one that hit me hardest was Lemmy (which was technically 2015, but enh, close enough). Apologies for expressing myself poorly.

  • jroth95

    “Last Gunfighter Ballad” is one of those songs I can’t get enough of: half the time it comes on, I replay it as soon as it’s over.


  • Richard

    Very sad to hear. Great songwriter, great voice. Saw him live four times or so. He was an ornery son of a bitch so you never knew what to expect but, at his best, he was mesmerizing.

  • steeleweed

    I know someone was putting together a documentary of his life, titled Without Getting Killed or Caught but I don’t know if it was finished. Never been a big R&R fan but ranks of Folk folks are getting thinner – Richie Havens, Pete Seeger and now Guy. TG we still have James McMurtry around.

  • Dennis Orphen

    For a long time I had a lot of trouble distinguishing between Gram Parsons, Gene Parsons, Gene Clark and Guy Clark. Then the World Wide Web came along and fixed that for me.

    PS: If you’re thinking about getting your Telecaster converted to a B-Bender, you might want to get on that waiting list ASAP.

  • Whidby

    After Merle died, I decided I needed to go to more concerts – especially those of performers who were getting up in years. I didn’t know about Clark’s health problems so I guess it’s not surprising that no tour dates popped up for him when I searched.

    I did see John Prine, Jason Isbel and Amanda Shires a few nights ago and they both put a Merle song in their set.

    I bet that there will be lots of musicians putting a Guy Clark in their next set, too.

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