The Essential Guy Clark Songs

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Guy Clark’s songs are exacting bits of detail that turn into revelatory looks into the dignity, humanity, tragedy, vulnerability and sometimes joy of being alive. His simple language yields profound realities. There is a warmth to the melodies — even the foreboding ones—that draws the listener in.

Whether celebrating escape from chaos (“L.A. Freeway,” “Magdalene”), the depth of abiding comradeship (“Ramblin’ Jack & Mahan,” “Desperados Waiting for a Train”), the empty side of love (“Instant Coffee Blues,” “Let Him Roll”) and the transfixing qualities of the certain kinds of girls (“Rita Ballou,” “I Don’t Love You Much, Do I?”), Clark’s songwriting reveals his distinct American brand of storytelling.

In his ability to find universal connection in the common — “Homegrown Tomatoes,” “Stuff That Works” — and personal truths that ignite meaning for so many individually — “The Randall Knife,” “Black Diamond Strings” — Clark is a man who exhumes the reasons and the resonance of the unseen, unnoted and seemingly humble people, moments and things that are within all of our grasps.

And he has maintained a consistency that’s spanned from his early records for RCA Nashville, where he emerged as a potent songwriter with a voice that was equal parts strength, musk and wisdom, to his more organic acoustic records of the late-’80s forward. A craftsman who knows the chambers of the human heart, his quality has not just maintained, but in many ways increased over the years.

Here are my Top Ten Guy Clark songs:

Classic Clark

1. “L.A. Freeway”

2. “The Randall Knife”

3. “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”

4. “Instant Coffee Blues”

5. “Let Him Roll”

6. “Rita Ballou”

7. “Desperados Waiting for a Train”

8. “Like a Coat from the Cold”

9. “Homegrown Tomatoes”

10. “Anyhow, I Love You”

Contemporary Clark

1. “Black Diamond Strings”

2. “Old Friends”

3. “Stuff That Works”

4. “I Don’t Love You Much, Do I?”

5. “Magdalene”

6. “Ramblin’ Jack & Mahan”

7. “Boats To Build”

8. “Maybe I Can Paint Over That”

9. “Sis Draper”

10. “Dublin Blues”

Holly Gleason’s feature on Guy Clark can be found in the September/October issue of American Songwriter magazine.