Exclusive Excerpt: Without Getting Killed Or Caught — The Life And Music Of Guy Clark

Guy wrote "Let Him Roll" after he nailed himself in a bedroom to escape Susanna and Townes
Guy wrote “Let Him Roll” in 1972 after he nailed himself in the bedroom in the East Nashville house to escape Susanna and Townes, who Guy said were “denigrating his intelligence.” Courtesy Guy Clark

By the time John Lomax III, son of the Houston Folklore Society’s John Lomax Jr., came to Nashville in the summer of 1973, Guy and Susanna had left East Nashville for good. They now lived next to Mickey Newbury at 159 Sunset Drive in a log cabin with an incredible view on the north side of Old Hickory Lake.

“I moved into an apartment out in Goodlettsville, primarily because it was reasonably close to where Guy and Susanna were out on the lake,” Lomax says. “I got to hang with them some and meet a bunch of people that way. Townes, Rodney Crowell, and Steve Young were hanging out. Skinny Dennis. They were the ones who were having the salon at the time. They would pool the money and buy a bottle of whiskey of some kind. They’d get it and break the seal and just throw the cap away. Pass the bottle until it was gone. They didn’t need the cap because they weren’t going to keep it.”

Sunbury Dunbar continued to pitch Guy’s songs around Nashville. The Everly Brothers had a string of number one country hits on the Billboard chart in the late 1950s with “Bye Bye Love,” “Wake Up Little Susie,” and “All I Have to Do Is Dream.” The brothers had impressed Guy with their harmonies back in ’69 at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, right about the time he was inspired to write “A Nickel for the Fiddler.” Now the Everly Brothers were in the studio to record that song for their 1973 album Pass the Chicken and Listen.

Guy was in good company on the Everly Brothers album, which included songs by Mickey Newbury, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, and Willie and Waylon’s “Good Hearted Woman,” although Chet Atkins’s production of the album is about as countrypolitan square as one can get. The brothers weren’t happy with the result and were fighting among themselves, and it would be ten years before Don and Phil cut another record together.

Back in Texas, Willie Nelson rolled out his first Fourth of July picnic in the Hill Country hamlet of Dripping Springs. Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, John Prine, and Charlie Rich were all on the ticket. Jerry Jeff Walker invited Guy to open for him at Castle Creek in Austin the same week. Drunk and eager for Walker’s brand of redneck rock, the rowdy throng booed and catcalled. Guy gave up midway through his set and left the stage.

Despite that fiasco, Walker played an important role in Guy’s life during this period. No slouch in the songwriting department himself, especially after the success of “Mr. Bojangles,” Walker had options—either to write his own songs or let his artist and repertoire (A&R) people find songs for him. While it’s true that Walker and Guy were old friends, Jerry Jeff backed Guy because of the superiority of his songs, and many fans discovered Guy thanks to Walker’s recordings.

In his song “Pissin’ in the Wind,” Walker references the ways in which he extracts songs from Guy:

About the time I called Guy it was four in the morning
Teach me the words to the song I was humming
He just laughed and said that ol’ gray cat is sneaking down the hall
But all he wants to know is who in the hell is paying for the call.

“Sometimes he’d teach me the words on the phone when I was in a session,” Walker says. “Sometimes I’d call him, sometimes we’d be on the road and cross paths, and sometimes we’d be drinking together. I know Guy doesn’t write bad songs, and he’d always have something of interest.”

Susanna and Guy planned to go back to Texas in August to hang out with Walker while he recorded a show at Luckenbach; the session became Walker’s famous ¡Viva Terlingua! album. Luckenbach (“more a state of mind than a town”) was named for Albert Luckenbach, the first postmaster of an 1849 Comanche trading post. Ranchers Hondo Crouch (who Guy had met as a kid in Rockport) and Cathy Morgan bought the entire town in 1970. The outpost quickly became a place to relax and get away from it all. To this day chickens scratch the ground in front of singers strumming acoustic guitars under a shade tree while the audience lounges on picnic tables sipping longnecks and eating barbecue.

“I found a mobile sixteen-track truck that was willing to go to Luckenbach,” Walker says. “I just decided to record with the birds and the trees. I wanted to get away from the world and just make music and play. That’s what people do in Texas. On the weekend you put your shit in the car and you drive off into the Hill Country and visit some old windmill towns and stuff. You wind around and you have a couple destination spots. Some people go to Gruene Hall. There’s a river where you can river raft. Or you wind around and go to Luckenbach. You get out, somebody drinks a longneck beer, and they pitch washers, and the kids get their feet dirty.”

The night before they left for Texas, Guy and Susanna partied at Chips Moman’s Music Row studio. Moman had made his name producing Elvis Presley’s 1969 album From Elvis in Memphis, which included “Suspicious Minds,” “Kentucky Rain,” and “In the Ghetto.” Guy was more impressed with Moman’s writing chops on Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” and a song called “The Dark End of the Street,” recorded by soul singer James Carr. As they sat around and drank, Guy amused Moman with stories about Luckenbach.

“Guy and Susanna were at the studio all night, and Guy told me great stories about Hondo Crouch and Luckenbach,” Moman says. “It sounded like an interesting place: one store, a post office and a dance hall. The next morning Bobby Emmons showed up to write, and I said: ‘Hey Bobby, let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas.’ I had my guitar, he played piano, and we just wrote the song.”

Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band loaded into the dance hall at Luckenbach on August 18, 1973. The band included Kelly Dunn on organ, Craig Hillis on guitar, Bob Livingston on bass and vocals, Michael McGeary on drums, Gary P. Nunn on piano and vocals, Herb Steiner on steel guitar, Mickey Raphael from Willie Nelson’s band on harmonica, Mary Egan on fiddle, and Jo Ann Vent on background vocals.

Guy was there to witness Walker and the band record “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” the third Guy Clark song Jerry Jeff recorded. No one could know then that Chips Moman and Bobby Emmons were in the middle of writing a classic song, one that would put Waylon Jennings (with guest vocalist Willie Nelson) on top of the Billboard country chart in 1977. Unless you’re a regular at Luckenbach, few people know that it was Guy Clark who sparked the idea.

Let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas
With Waylon and Willie and the boys
This successful life we’re livin’
Got us feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys
Between Hank Williams pain songs and
Newbury’s train songs and “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain”
Out in Luckenbach, Texas, ain’t nobody feelin’ no pain.

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