For the love of desperados
Texas icon. Nashville institution. Guy Clark’s songwriting cast real life as poetry. Often bluegrass- and blues-tinged, Clark celebrated homegrown tomatoes, escaping the grind, regular people as desperados, and romance’s sweetest sweetness. A Grammy-winner, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member, and standard-setter, it’s easy to forget when Clark and his wife Susanna — also an accomplished songwriter and painter — lived on Chapel Avenue.
But Chapel Avenue was an ad hoc ground zero for the Texas expat songwriters of the ’70s. Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle drifted through; best friend Townes Van Zandt wrote the classic “If I Needed You” while crashing there with his parakeets Loop and Lil — mysteriously name checked in the song.
The musical equivalent of Hemingway, the granite-countenanced songwriter was long on masculinity, but offered an even stronger dose of empathy for women. “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (She’s Just Leaving)” captured the desolation of a woman walking away and “Instant Coffee Blues” distilled the emptiness of the morning after a one night stand, while “Rita Ballou” was a polaroid of a wild-eyed heartbreaker whose spirit is what made her so fetching.
If “LA Freeway” drew escape from the city of dreams, “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train” sketched an old man taking a young boy under his wing and “Dublin Blues” cast romantic chagrin against the world’s most breathtaking realms. Even “Texas Cookin’” and “Homegrown Tomatoes” gave whimsy to a simple pleasure so viscerally, one’s mouth watered.
“The Randall Knife” stands as definitive: embodying the valor, word craft, and warmth his melodies carried. A young Clark takes his father’s prized Randall knife that had been through World War Two on a Boy Scout trip, breaks the tip off in a tree – and his father wordlessly puts it in a drawer, where it sat until his death. The song pivots on the reckoning, as the grown man, must have the knife.
It is those reckonings that define Clark. In his later work, he wrote of refugees (“Immigrant Eyes”), displaced veterans (“Heroes), and wetbacks being smuggled (“El Coyote”), as well as the wages extracted for creativity (“I’ll Show Me,” “Maybe We Can Paint Over It,” “Some Days The Song Writes You”).
It was in that outsider with dignity mold that Clark pioneered so much of the way East Nashville’s creative spirit flourished. It’s fitting that quite possibly Clark’s last trip to the studio was to play on Hard Working American’s Rest In Chaos, on a stark rendition of his “The High Price of Inspiration.”
“I might like to play with him without the click on, that way I’d be playing with a real person,” the grizzled musician can be heard saying. “I wonder how that would work?”
With dexterous fingers, Clark’s acoustic guitar fills the track the way a candle’s glow illuminates a dark hall. Snider sounds sinewy, slightly wrecked, and a little worn out: a true witness to Clark’s sentiment and a perfect carrier of the singular obsession of maintaining song craft at the highest levels. Homage, indeed.