Does this ever happen to you? You’ve owned a piece of music1 in your library for a while, and you like it, but your relationship to the songs is tenuous, ephemeral, noncommittal. And then for whatever reason, you rediscover that particular artifact, and it grips you, forces you to play it over and over, compels you to swirl the songs in your ears. Is it that certain music takes a few plays before it sinks in? Is it a factor of your changing brain? The music is the same, but your response to it has altered, deepened.
Last week, a song came on my iTunes shuffle while I was photostrolling, a song from Guy Clark’s Old No. 1 LP. I had added this album to my library July 15th, 2008, the same day I added Nigeria 70 Lagos Jump, Ry Cooder’s I, Flathead, Alejandro Escovedo’s Real Animal, and had played Old No. 1 a few times since then, but I couldn’t say it was a particular favorite of mine. I had played it five or six times, and particular songs shuffled a few more times than that, but nothing more.
However, last week, that particular song smacked me2 and would not relinquish its hold on my imagination. So I was compelled to listen to it a few times, and then enticed to listen to the entire album multiple times. Great tunes through and through. My favorites are L.A. Freeway, She’s Ain’t Going Nowhere, A Nickel for the Fiddler, Desparados Waiting on the Train, Like a Coat From the Cold. Maybe others too. The shaggy-dog story on Texas, 1947, about putting a nickel on the train tracks as a six year-old boy has some great lines, as does That Old Time Feeling. What I’m saying is there are no skippable songs on Guy Clark’s debut album, Old No. 1…
Maybe I’m about to start my mid-life crisis, though only if I concede to not living past the age of 120, maybe it is because so many of my formative years were spent in Austin, or maybe because I’m such a fan of Townes Van Zandt, but for whatever reason, I am adding this album to that best albums of 2014 post that I will probably never get around to writing…
Guy Clark pushes a fading, black and white photograph across the table. In it, a man leans against a 1939 Packard, foot propped up on the bumper in the dusty streets of Monahans, Texas. “Jack Prigg” reads the inscription on the back. He’s smiling and sharply dressed in a black suit, a gleam of success in his grin. The image is striking for its sheer contrast to the portrait of Prigg immortalized in Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” the old, busted oil-driller crying at the kitchen table to broken memories and songs. “Well, that must have been a Sunday,” laughs Clark, looking at the photo as he carefully takes a toke from the last vestiges of a joint and lets loose a rattling cough.
The workshop in the basement of Clark’s west Nashville home collects such memories. His father’s Randall knife sits on the workbench alongside his tools for making guitars. Behind him, shelves of cassettes with handwritten labels display a country songwriters hall of fame. A black and white photo of Townes Van Zandt, his haunted eyes somehow tracking around the room, stares down from the wall. Clark pinches a clump of tobacco and begins rolling a cigarette. The 71-year-old songwriter’s eyes sharpen as he takes in the room, his lips pursed together between the faint stains of yellow on his white mustache and goatee.
“Shit, I’d go back to Texas in a second if I could break even,” he says. “But the music business is here, and if I could just pay back what they’ve given me, or advanced me, I would love to live in Texas. At this point, though, I don’t know. I’m too fucking old to move back, pack all this shit up.”
Clark’s lack of sentimentality is deceiving. What the songwriter submerges in person surfaces in the deeply personal poetry of his songs, from “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” to the elegy for his father in “The Randall Knife,” and the title track of his new album, “My Favorite Picture of You,” an ode to his wife Susanna, who passed away last year after an extended decline from cancer.
Guy and Susanna’s marriage stands as one of the great relationships in music. As strongly devoted as it was tumultuous, their union and the art it produced became the locus for a new community of songwriters that emerged in the Seventies, a wave of scrappy expatriate Texans overtaking Nashville that included Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, and most notably, Van Zandt, whose lifelong friendships with both Clarks remain inextricable from the couple’s relationship.
Those days feel impossibly far away in the quiet of Clark’s house as he draws slowly on his cigarette.
“If you want good friends, they’re gonna cost you,” he notes as he exhales a thin line of smoke.
(click here to continue reading We Were From Texas: Guy Clark and the high price of inspiration – Music – The Austin Chronicle.)
from Thom Jurek’s review at Allmusic, where I learned that Steve Earle played on this album…3
If only every country songwriter could release a debut album as auspicious and fine as this one. Houston’s Guy Clark, well known to the outlaw movement for his poetic, stripped-to-the-truth songs about ramblers, history, the aged and infirm, the drunken, the lost, and the simple dignity of working people who confront the darkness and joy of life quietly, issued Old #1 when his compadres had already been making waves with his songs. Jerry Jeff Walker had already cut “L.A. Freeway” and other tunes by Clark, as had Gary Stewart, Billy Joe Shaver, and others. But the definitive versions come from Clark himself. On this disc with help from Emmylou Harris, fellow Houstoners (a young) Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell, guitar wizards Chip and Reggie Young, Mickey Raphael on harp, pianist David Briggs, fiddle boss Johnny Gimble, and the angel-voiced Sammi Smith, Clark executed a song cycle that is as intimate and immediate as it is quietly devastating with its vision of brokenness and melancholy, loose wild times, and unforgettable characters.…Old #1 was unequaled in 1975 for the depth of its vision and the largeness of its artistic and empathetic heart; only Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run came close to it in terms of aesthetic merit.
(click here to continue reading Old No. 1 – Guy Clark | Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards | AllMusic.)
I’d rather listen to this album a million times more than having to plod through Born to Run again.Footnotes:
- album, usually, but sometimes a particular song, or artist [↩]
- Desperados Waiting for A Train [↩]
- Steve’s first known professional recording was with Guy Clark on Guy’s 1975 album Old No. 1. Steve sang back-up vocals (along with Rodney Crowell, Sammy Smith, and Emmylou Harris [“The first time I met Emmylou, she came in to sing on Guy Clark’s first album. She gave me half of her cheeseburger. I wasn’t the same for weeks.”]) on the song Desperados Waiting For A Train. Steve toured with Guy from early ’75 until late ’76. Steve also may have appeared in Robert Altman’s 1975 film, Nashville (he was part of a large crowd scene in Centennial Park, but it’s not clear whether he actually shows up in the film via [↩]