The first time I met Guy Clark was at a New York City press party in 1976 to celebrate RCA’s release of his second album, Texas Cookin’. He was a long and lanky fella who drawled out a neighborly kind of thanks to my ex-wife and I before inviting us to start eatin’. I asked him about the only song he didn’t write himself on the album, “Black Haired Boy,” which he wrote with his almost-as-legendary wife, Susanna Clark. He was 35. Little did he or we know at the time that he would go on to become—like Kris, like Hank, like Willie—a damn Shakespeare of lyrical genius.
When I first heard he died last May at 74 from lymphoma, I had a bittersweet session of grooving to songs of his like “L.A. Freeway,” “Desperados Waiting For A Train,” “Fools For Each Other,” “Heartbroke,” “Rita Ballou” and “The Randall Knife” (the last of which brought a distinct lump to my throat). Then I played his two masterpiece albums Boats To Build (’92) and Dublin Blues (’95). That’s when I realized that he might’ve been the greatest of ‘em all. It’s a fun debate for devotees of Waylon, Rodney Crowell and the like but, hell, he’s certainly in the conversation.
The publication of Tamara Saviano’s tear-stained biography Without Getting Killed Or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark (Texas A&M University Press), had me at the title. (It’s a phrase from “L.A. Freeway.”) Four-hundred pages later, I hunger to read the whole book aloud to anybody who will listen (something I did once with Henry Miller’s Tropic Of Cancer). I want him to be alive again and, within the pages of this book, he is.
So is Townes Van Zandt [1944-1997], his best friend, the Texas troubadour who died just like Hank from a deadly combo of pills and booze. Their relationship, and the relationship between Townes and Susanna, is an ever-deepening arc that culminates in Susanna fixin’ to die and not being able to get out of bed, upon Van Zandt’s death. Like a Southern Gothic, the story, complete with side plots like the suicide of Susanna’s sister, and the love and respect from friends like Steve Earle, Jerry Jeff Walker, Joe Ely, Radney Foster, Rosanne Cash, Ray Wylie Hubbard and others who wrote, sang and got high with Guy, meanders across dirt roads but always leads back to Guy’s eminent artistry. (He was a luthier before he was a master musician. He never sold any of the guitars he so painstakingly crafted with his own hands. He would, on occasion, give them away. Rodney Crowell has one. So does his granddaughter.)
After recording five albums for two major labels, he had had enough of their corporate decisions of trying to market him as a country singer with hit radio singles. “I see myself as a folksinger and my songs as poetry,” he told the author, who had total and complete access to Clark and everyone involved. Maybe that’s why this book is so good. This is no quickee designed to cash in on the death of a legend. This is a labor-of-love done with care, meticulous research and the trust and friendship of its subject.
Once Guy Clark gained control again of his own music, he was able to make albums like Boats To Build and Dublin Blues, albums that are folksy, funny, intelligent, organic, melodic and lyrically wise, filled with economic and concise instrumental satisfaction as well as profound truth. At the time, I was Editor of Modern Screen’s Country Music magazine so how delighted was I to be quoted on page 256? “He’s carved an indelible niche,” I once wrote, “somewhere between the Willie’n’Waylon outlaws, the poets, the folkies, the rebels and the true country legends.”
Tamara Saviano is the perfect person to do justice to this giant. She co-produced the award-winning 2012 This One’s For Him tribute album and she was a friend, in every sense of the word. Guy trusted her and told his family and friends not to hold back, to tell her everything. They did. And she was more than up to the task.
Prior to Saviano’s book, Nashville historian Robert K. Oermann said it best within the liner notes to Clark’s 1995 Craftsman album. “The patron saint of an entire generation of bohemian pickers, Guy Clark has become an emblem of artistic integrity, quiet dignity and simple truth.”
There’s that word “truth” again. Guy Clark’s music has it in spades. So does this book. It just rings true.