He Was A Great Guy (Texas and Red Dirt Country #4)
He Was A Great Guy (Texas and Red Dirt Country #4)

He Was A Great Guy (Texas and Red Dirt Country #4)

Read Time:12 Minute, 19 Second

Back on Tuesday the 17th, we lost visionary singer-songwriter Guy Clark. He was a huge figure not, only in Texas and Outlaw Country, but also writing songs that achieved popular success with singers such as Ricky Skaggs, The Highwaymen, Brad Paisley, John Denver, Alan Jackson, John Conlee, and many others.

His catalog is quite extensive, and any tribute I could try to do would be inadequate to the task. Nevertheless, I will endeavor to put something together.

I have chosen five of my favorite Guy Clark songs. I could have added others (“Texas 1947″ comes to mind), but I do need to limit it. I have chosen “Desperados Waiting For A Train,” “LA Freeway,” “My Favorite Picture Of You,” “The Guitar,” and “Dublin Blues.”

“Desperados Waiting A Train” is probably favorite Guy Clark tune. I was introduced to it through Jerry Jeff Walker’s outstanding cover on his ¡Viva Terlingua! album. This song takes on a journey of probably about a decade, describing the narrator’s life with “this old man.” There is no indication that the two are related, simply that they are friends. (Appearing on ACL in 1990, he reveals the man to be Jack, his grandmother’s boyfriend; the song is based on Clark’s own experiences with this Jack.)

The old man is a wildcatter, nearing the end of his life. As the song opens, he laments his lack of success, asking “Lord, why has every well I’ve drilled gone dry?” It is obvious the narrator, then “was just a kid,” looked up to the old man; learning about life through their friendship. The old man “taught [him]how to drive his car when he was too drunk to.” No doubt this was due to frequenting “a bar called the Green Frog Café.” It was here that the kid earned his nickname of Sidekick, tieing together the title and the story. In his mind, the kid and the old man are like two desperados in an old Western.

But we are reminded again of the man’s age. In the wink of an eye, the old man is 80. “He’s got brown tobacco stains all down his chin.” Our narrator, now mostly grown, still sees the old man as a “[hero] of this country,” and yet he still looks just like the old men back at the Green Frog. And at the end of the old man’s life, our narrator, now a grown man, makes one last visit. They dream about the life they’ve lead together, and the narrator warns, “Come of Jack, that son of a bitch is comin,’” And the song ends on a final chorus.

The song is deeply moving. It is also one of the earliest to come from the pen of Guy Clark, having appeared on his debut album, 1975’s “Old No. 1.” Even at this early stage in his career, we can hear both his amazing ability to craft a lyric, as well as his ability to put emotion into the music. The song’s final two verses also form a great epitaph:

One day I looked up and he’s pushin’ eighty
He’s got brown tobacco stains all down his chin
Well to me he was a hero of this country
So why’s he all dressed up like them old men
Drinkin’ beer and playin’ Moon and Forty-two
Jus’ like desperados waitin’ for a train
Like a desperado waitin’ for a train

The day ‘fore he died I went to see him
I was grown and he was almost gone.
So we just closed our eyes and dreamed us up a kitchen
And sang one more verse to that old song
(spoken) Come on, Jack, that son-of-a-bitch is comin’

We’re desperados waitin’ for a train
Was like desperados waitin’ for a train

In passing, the desperado finally got his train.

I have adopted “LA Freeway,” as the theme song to my commute. It is a song reminiscent in many ways of Waylon Jennings’ “Luckenbach, Texas.” A desire to get out of the modern life of a city dweller and return to a simpler life in the country. However, like so much of Clark’s music, this one is tinged with melancholy. It is not immediately apparent in the lyrics, but the mood is in the music itself as well as in the delivery, particular in the video at the top of this section.

While the singer definitely wants to get away “before getting killed or caught,” there is something else there. “Skinny Dennis,” is the only person from LA he thinks he will miss. The only other thing we know about Dennis is that he is some sort of musician, and the singer will miss his music.

Most of the song is addressed to the singer’s girlfriend or wife, Susanna. Susanna is the name of Clark’s second wife, to whom he was married from 1972 until her death from cancer in 2012. So, this may well be another semi-autobiographical song. Perhaps Susanna is reluctant to “be off in a cloud of smoke for some land [he] ain’t bought bought bought,” For, in the third verse, he says to her

Oh Susanna, don’t you cry, babe
Love’s a gift that’s surely handmade
We’ve got something to believe in
Dontcha’ think it’s time we’re leavin’

He’s promising what he believes to be a better life, one that, perhaps, she wasn’t ready for.

In isolation, “My Favorite Picture Of You” is a song of lost love. The setting we get is a picture randomly taken of a woman who has had enough and decided to leave. “You never left but your bags were packed
Just in case.” So, she didn’t, at least not yet. But most every description provided of this picture sounds like her mind was made up and that she was going to leave.

In watching the video, we learn that we are once again listening to a song about Clark’s life. The story goes that one day, Clark and Townes van Zandt were drunk and wasted again, and that Clark’s wife was fed up. Someone snapped this Polaroid:

As previously mentioned, they were married until her death, and so, despite how sad the song is, it ultimately had a happy ending.

It is said a picture is worth a thousand words. Clark recognizes this, writing, “A thousand words in the blink of an eye.” This song is certainly well under 1000 words (212, to be exact), and yet he captures so much in those words. Of course, he has the advantage of knowing what happened before the picture was taken. Like a lot of Clark’s music, there’s a lot of emotion packed into a few words and the music.

If you look closer at the text, you see some oddities, especially for a popular genre, and even more so for Country, which is often derided for not being very sophisticated.

  • There’s only a couple of rhymes, and they appear to be more accidental than intentional.
  • There is no chorus (though there is a melody that acts as a chorus, but the lyrics differ in them).
  • It’s not exactly free verse, but the rhythm of the lyrics is quite ragged, not always matching up to the music.

This song is the title track on Clark’s final studio album, which was released in 2013. That places the writing of “My Favorite Picture of You” most likely around the time of his wife’s death, no doubt contributing to the sad mood.

Guy Clark made guitars, and often used his own in performance. In “The Guitar,” however, we are presented with a mystery: who made the eponymous instrument? The song begins with the singer walking past a pawn shop and something catching his eye, “a beat up old guitar hanging on the wall.” Why would such a thing catch the eye? Presumably this pawn shop would have other guitars in it in better shape. Something unknown, however, draws the singer to this one.

He sets to haggling with the shopkeeper, noting that it’s a piece of junk. But the shopkeeper lets the singer play the instrument, inviting him to “see what haunts it,” before naming a price.

While not known for ghost stories, Country music has produced some. Probably the most famous of which is “(Ghost) Riders In The Sky.” Well, as we get further into “The Guitar,” we begin to see what the shopkeeper meant by saying to see what haunts the instrument.

So I hit a couple of cords
In my old country way of strumming
And then my fingers turned to lightning
Man.. I never heard it coming

It was like I always knew it
I just don’t know where I learned it
It wasn’t nothin’ but the truth
So I just reared back and burned it

Well I lost all track of time
There was nothing I couldn’t pick
Up and down the neck
I never missed a lick

Our singer doesn’t know what to think of this, remarking that “It was getting hard to tell just who was playing who.” When he finally finishes playing, he’s “scared to death.” Some unknown period of time has passed during this, but for the shopkeeper, the wait is over. He says, “I’ve been waiting all these years for you to stumble in.” Things are getting stranger for the singer. No money will be exchanged for the old guitar. The shopkeeper gives him the guitar at no charge, and even throws in a dusty old case for it.

The end of “The Guitar” leaves us without resolution as to the origin of the instrument. In fact, it opens up even more questions. The end of the vocal part of the song (there is a trailing instrumental section) was somewhat disconcerting when I first heard. If Clark had cut it off after the final words, we would be left with a song that has no resolution musically. This is unusual in popular music. I do think the ending would be much more powerful without the instrumental section. And that would probably be more fitting for a ghost story:

There was something spooky in his voice
And something strange on his face
When he shut the lid
I saw my name was on the case

“Dublin Blues” has grown on me lately. I’m not sure exactly why, but I find myself humming the tune from time to time. As I listen to it I appreciate Clark’s ability to craft a lyric all the more.

Guy Clark was from Monahans, TX. And although he ended his life in Tennessee, he will always be associated with Texas. You’ll find a lot of references to places in Texas, or songs about Texas, in his catalog. We find these references in “Dublin Blues.” The song opens with the singer wishing he was Austin at the (Texas) Chili Parlor bar, enjoying their Mad Dog Margaritas, “and not caring where you are.” Lost love. A common theme in Country music. George Jones made an outstanding career out of songs about lost love. You can feel the heartache, the pain, in Clark’s lyrics.

But here I sit in Dublin
Just rollin’ cigarettes
Holdin’ back and chokin’ back
The shakes with every breath

Whoever this woman is he is singing about, the loss of her has sent this man over the edge and he has taken to drinking excessively; enough so that he has the shakes.

It would be easy to assume the singer is in Dublin, TX. But Dublin is not far from Austin. The song is ambivalent on this point, but listening to the rest of the song leads me to believe he is stuck in Ireland. The chorus talks about his love for the woman, and we learn of the place of their parting. “I loved you on the Spanish Steps the day you said goodbye.” Whatever the reasoning for being there, they broke up in Rome (though even that is ambivalent, there are other Spanish Steps.)

In the middle of the song, we learn more about the singer. He’s poor, he works, he’ll “face up to the truth.” But he still misses this woman he loves. “I can’t walk away from you.”

Adding to the mystery of which Dublin the singer is in, he tells us of other places he has been. Ft. Worth, Spain, Paris, and Florence. Are we listening to a musician on tour, losing this woman in Rome? We they on vacation or a honeymoon? The way he tells us where he has been may indicate it was the latter, and may also hint at stubbornness on his part that may have driven her away.

I have been to Fort Worth
I have been to Spain
I have been too proud
To come in out of the rain

I have seen the David
I’ve seen the Mona Lisa too

Ah, but Clark is a Country musician, and he sneaks in an homage to Doc Watson. “I have heard Doc Watson play Columbus Stockade Blues.” I absolutely love the way he put this line in right after talking about the Statue of David and the Mona Lisa.

“Dublin Blues” is from the middle of Clark’s career, and his development as a writer from his (already great) early works is amazing. And this applies to the music itself, as well as the lyrics. By the mid 90s, when “Dublin Blues” was written, we hear much more emotion in the music, forming an excellent balance to the lyrics. The music is also more personal. I think this song is performed with at most two acoustic guitars, a drum, and a fiddle. As a songwriter, Guy Clark was very instrumental in creating the Outlaw Country sound of the 70s, and one of the things that made it Outlaw was the use of very small bands and with little to no post-production, producing a much more authentic sounding music.

I hope you have enjoyed this tribute to Guy Clark. If you weren’t familiar with his music, hopefully you find that you like it and want to hear more. His catalog is available on Play Music and Spotify. Farewell, Guy.

Shores distant shores
There’s where I’m headed for
Got the stars to guide my way
Sail into the light of day

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