Nashville Singer-Songwriter Guy Clark Dies At 74 | KERA News

Nashville Singer-Songwriter Guy Clark Dies At 74

May 17, 2016
Originally published on May 18, 2016 11:24 am

Guy Clark, one of Nashville's most renowned singer-songwriters, has died at the age of 74. This profile of Clark originally aired on July 23, 2013, on All Things Considered.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Guy Clark would never say it himself but plenty of others would - he was a legend among songwriters, a master craftsman of songs. Clark died today at his home in Nashville after a long illness. He was 74.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA FREEWAY")

GUY CLARK: (Singing) Pack up all your dishes, make note of all good wishes, goodbye to the landlord for me. That son of a [expletive] has always bored me.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Three years ago, our colleague, Melissa Block, visited Guy Clark at his home. As an appreciation of his life and work, we wanted to hear that story again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: If you want to learn how to write a song, one that's built to last with vivid characters and images that plant you square inside a scene, listen to Guy Clark.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESPERADOS WAITING FOR A TRAIN")

CLARK: (Singing) Well, he's a drifter and a driller of oil wells and an old-school man of the world. He taught me how to drive his car when he's too drunk to. And he'd wink and give me money for the girls.

BLOCK: Songwriters who revere Guy Clark will tell you he crafts songs with the same precision and attention to detail he uses when he builds guitars. But Clark has a simpler, blunter explanation, as he told me with a glint in his eye when I visited him recently at his home in Nashville.

CLARK: No bull [expletive] means no bull [expletive]. (Laughing) You know what I mean?

BLOCK: I've been listening to and admiring Guy Clark's songs for many, many years now, songs that make me feel I know the honky-tonk queen or wino or Texas wildcatter he's singing about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESPERADOS WAITING FOR A TRAIN")

CLARK: (Singing) And I was just a kid that they all called his sidekick. It was like desperados waiting for a train.

BLOCK: "Desperados Waiting for a Train," from Guy Clark's first album, "Old Number One," which came out in 1975. That record made true believers out of pretty much everybody who heard it, among them Texas songwriter Lyle Lovett, who was in high school at the time. Now, he counts Guy Clark as a close friend.

LYLE LOVETT: In a big way, Guy's first record helped tell me what a song should be, what a song could be. You know, a song that just - that leaps to mind is "Texas 1947."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEXAS 1947")

CLARK: (Singing) Being 6 years old, I had seen some trains before, so it's hard to figure out what I'm at the depot for. Trains are big and black, and smoke and steam, screaming at the wheels.

LOVETT: Immediately, you're in the middle of a scene with a 6-year-old boy in West Texas, and you know something is happening. And so you're drawn in immediately, and you're waiting for that next line.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEXAS 1947")

CLARK: (Singing) Look out, here she comes, she's coming. Look out, there she goes, she's gone, screaming straight through Texas like a mad dog cyclone.

BLOCK: Guy Clark is 71 now - a tall, imposing man with intense blue eyes, his hair gone silver. He smokes hand-rolled cigarettes as we talk. Clark has had health troubles in recent years - he has lymphoma, was treated with chemotherapy a few years back. And he moves slowly now, unsteady on his feet after two knee replacements and leg surgery.

CLARK: It affects your balance just being able to do anything other than walk around with a cane and complain about it. So (laughing) I love that part.

BLOCK: Guy Clark comes from the small, west Texas town of Monahans. He made his name as part of the vibrant Houston folk scene in the late '60s, moved to LA to write songs, then got a songwriting deal and in 1971, headed across the country.

CLARK: Without even thinking about it, I was heading to Nashville - you know, anyplace but LA. And I knew I didn't want to live in New York, so packed up the VW bus and moved to Nashville.

BLOCK: And he's been in Nashville ever since. In the '70s, if you were a songwriter, you wanted to be sitting at the kitchen table of Guy Clark and his wife, Susanna. Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, many others, would gather around for guitar pulls - long, boozy nights spent swapping songs.

CLARK: Like Paris in the '20s, you know? The people that were here making music and playing music and hanging out. It was far out, you know? It was the best in the world.

BLOCK: And Guy Clark was at the heart of that scene, the inspiration for lots of younger writers, including Rodney Crowell.

RODNEY CROWELL: I had an audience of one, and that audience of one was Guy Clark. If I could write something cohesive enough, powerful enough, strong enough, true enough that I could play it for Guy and look him in the eye while I'm doing it, then that's success. If he raised an eyebrow or, better yet, if he said, that's a good song - well, then you could work off of that for six months running.

EMMYLOU HARRIS: You know, it's just hard to imagine the world of music without Guy - you know, the world of language without Guy.

BLOCK: This is singer Emmylou Harris.

HARRIS: He really embraces the human condition. There is no judgment in Guy's songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET HIM ROLL")

CLARK: (Singing) It was white port that put that look in his eye, grown men get when they need to cry. And we sat down on the curb to rest, his head just fell down on his chest.

HARRIS: Everybody is equal. You know that everyone has been on a rough road.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET HIM ROLL")

CLARK: (Singing) Well, he was elevator man in a cheap hotel in exchange for the rent on a one-room cell. He's old in years beyond this time thanks to the world and the white port wine.

BLOCK: I've seen you say before that when you're writing, what's not in the song is as important to you as what's in the song. I'm not given too much information.

CLARK: Yeah, over the years I've learned that less is more. It's like, don't clutter up the human condition - or don't clutter up the English language.

BLOCK: Is it also a matter, if it's story-song, of leaving gaps in the story, jumping over parts of the story to let the listener do some work?

CLARK: Yeah, well, you want to leave people with the ability to become part of its without every little stitch in your genes being delineated.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET HIM ROLL")

CLARK: (Singing) Lord, let him roll. Bet he's gone to Dallas, rest his soul.

BLOCK: How different is songwriting for you now, at age 71, than it was before?

CLARK: Well, I don't write as much, I guess. But I know it's still there to be done. I haven't written my last song for sure, nor my best one.

BLOCK: Well, Guy Clark, thanks for being so generous with your time.

CLARK: Oh, believe me, all I was going to do was take a nap (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAPE")

CLARK: (Singing) Now he's old and gray with a flour sack cape tied all around his head.

SHAPIRO: Guy Clark talking to our colleague, Melissa Block, in 2013. Clark died today in Nashville. Clark died today in Nashville. He was 74.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAPE")

CLARK: (Singing) All these years the people said, he's acting like a kid. He did not know he could not fly, so he did. Well, he's one of those who knows that life is just a leap of faith, so spread your arms and hold your breath and always trust your cape. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.