I Write the Songs – Susanna Clark

Susanna Clark in 1997

In the month when we celebrate International Women’s Day, it would seem appropriate to shine a light on a songwriter who has often been overshadowed by her husband’s writing. When it comes to songwriting, Guy Clark is, rightly, considered one of the greats, especially in Americana circles. The downside of this is that he often eclipses the writing achievements of his wife, Susanna, and that’s unfortunate because, while not as prolific as Guy, she was an excellent songwriter in her own right.

Born Susanna Talley in Atlanta, Texas in March 1939, to parents, John and Virginia Talley, she was the sixth of nine children. As her father’s businesses blossomed the family moved to Oklahoma City to better serve his entrepreneurial spirit. On her mother’s side, the family were from a wealthy oil dynasty and Susanna and her siblings became members of high society. She met Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt in 1969, when she was teaching art at a private school, funded by money from her mother’s side of the family, and they were in Oklahoma City to perform in a local coffee house. Clark originally dated Susanna’s sister, Johna (Bunny) Talley, but it was Susanna who moved to Houston with Guy Clark in the July of 1970. Susanna was really the force that pushed Guy Clark forward, and she would quickly move them to Los Angeles so that Guy could better focus on his songwriting, before finally moving them to their permanent home in Nashville, in the autumn of 1971, where they became the focus for the more bohemian set in Music City. Roseanne Cash has said that “People would go out there and sit around the table and carve their names into the table, and talk about songs, and play each other new songs.”

Susanna became a muse to both Clark and Van Zandt but hanging out with two such outstanding talents meant her own songwriting prowess, linked to her ability as a poet, would soon start to show. In 1975 the country singer, Dottsy, took Susanna Clark’s song ‘I’ll be Your San Antone Rose’ to the number 1 slot on the country chart and, over the next few years, she would have a number of her songs, both individually written and from co-writes, recorded by the likes of Don Williams, Kathy Mattea, Emmylou Harris, Miranda Lambert, Jerry Jeff Walker and many others. She co-wrote with her husband but also with other musicians, such as Carlene Carter and Townes Van Zandt. Her song ‘Come From the Heart’, which she co-wrote with Nashville songwriter, Richard Leigh (best known for ‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue’), boasts some of country music’s most quoted lyrics – “You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money / Love like you’ll never get hurt / You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watching / It’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work.”

She wrote ‘Easy From Now On’ with Carlene Carter and ‘Heavenly Houseboat Blues’ with Townes Van Zandt. The songs she co-wrote with her husband, Guy Clark, included ‘Black Haired Boy’, ‘Old Friends’ and ‘The Cape’. In addition to her fine songwriting, Susanna Clark was an excellent painter and her accomplished paintings were used on a number of occasions for album covers, most notably Guy Clark’s “Old No. 1”, Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” and Emmylou Harris’ “Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town” (which takes its title from a line in Clark’s song ‘Easy From Now On’).

Susanna Clark was a fascinating woman and a strong, creative force in her own right; songwriter, painter and poet, she was commercially successful in all these fields but her value in creating a flourishing songwriting community around the house that she and Guy Clark established in Nashville, cannot be underestimated. The music historian, Brian T. Atkinson, who has written about the likes of Mickey Newbury, Townes Van Zandt, and Ray Wylie Hubbard in his ‘Songwriting Legacy’ books, said of Susanna Clark, following her death in 2012, “Susanna Clark was a candle. Many gravitated toward her flame. She was the muse to two of our greatest songwriters, and the seamstress that held together Nashville’s songwriting community throughout the 1970s and beyond.”

Susanna Clark was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2020. She’s probably destined to be forever in her husband’s shadow as a songwriter, but it’s unlikely that ever bothered her. She knew her value as a creative individual and the contribution she made to other artists’ work, as well as the quality of her own.

About Rick Bayles 354 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!
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Jim McKay

Great article on a fascinating person. She had a major impact on Rodney Crowell too, and features in several of his songs as a major protagonist. If I could go back in time it would be to Nashville 1975 to meet Susanna and Guy. She was obviously someone cut from a very special cloth. RIP Susanna, Guy and Townes – probably all having a picking party somewhere celestial.