With such an extensive catalogue, and songs written over four decades, it has been no easy task picking out my top 10 Guy Clark tracks. While the top six picked themselves quickly, beyond that there is such a depth of great songwriting to choose from that if you were to ask me again in a month, other songs may edge in front.
Number 10: ‘Baby Took a Limo to Memphis’Appropriately for a song featured on Guy Clark’s 1995 album ‘Dublin Blues‘, ‘Baby Took a Limo to Memphis‘ is a rare excursion into the blues for him, it’s acoustic guitar treatment featuring slide guitar and blues harp. Clark demonstrates his mastery of painting vivid pictures of his subjects, here we are with him as he depicts his character travelling in appropriate style to Memphis, ‘”she knows what she wants, she knows how to get it“. We know that Baby is making a fresh start, and we know there are better things ahead for her, a theme Clark returns to often in his writing.
From the same album comes ‘Dublin Blues‘, Clark singing “I loved you from the get go and I’ll love you till I die“ in a song dedicated to his wife, Susanna, who died in 2012, reflecting on favourite watering holes, the titular Dublin apparently its namesake in Texas, though the song features an appropriately Celtic arrangement. Notable cover versions include Steve Earle, on his recent Guy Clark tribute album, ‘Guy’, and Joe Ely on ‘This One’s For Him: a tribute to Guy Clark’, my personal number one on my top 10 Americana albums.
Clark is a master storyteller, and here he tells of a sad descent from rejection in love into despair and a life on the edge, alcohol his subject’s only solace. Taking us from a story recounted to the singer, “and he told me a story that I heard before, how he fell in love with a Dallas whore” the song ends at the character’s funeral, attended by few, but with the aforementioned Dallas whore, now with silver hair, sitting alone at the back of the church.
Many of Clark songs are clearly autobiographical, one suspect that “Instant Coffee Blues“ falls into this category, the story of a drunken one night stand, both parties keen to depart as soon as possible the following morning; however we have a clear hint that a songwriter is involved, as he sings “and she felt wholly empty like she felt it every time, and he was feeling just the same, except he was trying to make it rhyme“. Like all of Clark’s songs, his lyrics are observational, but never judgmental. The song featured on his ‘Old Number One’ album release in 1975.
Comes from his last album release, of the same title, released in 2013, the year after his wife passed away. It is well known that their relationship was not an easy one over the years – the song describes a Polaroid photo, capturing an uneasy moment in their relationship: “it’s just a moment in time you can’t have back, you never left but your bags were packed just in case“. This final album has a gentle vibe, with Clarks’ vocals mature and reflective.
One of Clark’s best-known songs, ‘LA Freeway’ featured on ‘Old Number One‘, but was written five years before, when he left LA behind, to move to Nashville to accept a publishing deal, having struggled to find his way, with wife Susanna, in Los Angeles. The song first came to prominence when recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker in 1972, quickly becoming a hit and drawing attention to Clark as a songwriter. Its memorable chorus “If I can just get off of this LA freeway without getting killed or caught/ I’ll be down the road in a cloud of smoke to some land I ain’t bought, bought, bought“ reportedly originated in a chance comment from Clark to Susanna, driving home late at night from a gig in San Diego.
Also on ‘Old Number One‘, ‘She Ain’t Going Nowhere’ features one of the great opening lines “Standing on the gone side of leaving, she found her thumb and stuck it in the breeze”, as our heroine sets out for a new life, destination unknown, but “she ain’t going home, that’s for sure”, as she leaves a troubled life behind. Emmylou Harris adds delightful harmony vocals.
Clark casts a sympathetic light on the human stories behind the all too many homeless of US cities, in this song from 2002 release ‘The Dark’, singing “Cardboard sign old and bent, says “Friend for Life 25¢”/When did this start makin’ sense man it’s really getting cold/Sometimes I forget things and I get confused/I could still be working but they refuse/Now I’m livin’ with the bums, the whores and the abused/Man I hate gettin’ old”.
Title track of ‘The Dark‘, Clark captures with perfection the sounds of the still of the night, and how striking are the lights that break the darkness, then takes us to a philosophical reflection on human existence “One way or another we’re all in the dark“. A stunning rendition of the song by Terri Hendrix is found on the aforementioned ‘This One’s For Him: a tribute to Guy Clark’.
Title track from his 1992 album, co-written with long time collaborator Verlon Thompson, ‘Boats to Build’ takes the combination of art, graft and craft of boat building as a metaphor for songwriting, wrapped up in a delightfully gentle arrangement, acoustic and slide guitars, with subtle percussion, seeking a change from “same old words, same old lines, same old tricks, same old rhymes”, but still “Sails are just like wings/The wind can make ’em sing/songs of life, songs of hope/songs to keep your dreams afloat”. A perfect song about songwriting, from one of the greats of the art.