The “Eulogy” and Meaning Behind Guy Clark’s Bittersweet Ballad “Desperados Waiting for a Train”

When Guy Clark was writing his “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” he was sharing the story about the man he considered his grandfather, Jack Prigg. The boyfriend of Clark’s paternal grandmother, Rossie, Prigg was someone Clark looked up to as a young boy and became close to while his father was away serving in World War II.

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The closest thing he had to a paternal grandfather, Prigg would often take the young Clark to get haircuts, wade in the pool, and see cowboy movies.

“Desperados Waiting for a Train” was written in remembrance of Prigg and the small adventures they often had.

The Meaning

A pioneer of Americana music, Clark helped define the genre from his early stories, including his tribute to Prigg. “Desperados Waiting for a Train” was more of a “eulogy” song, according to Clark.

“’Desperados Waiting for a Train’ was another song-as-eulogy, written for an oil driller named Jack Prigg,” said Clark in 1996. “That one’s as true as I can make it, about a guy who was kind of like my grandfather. He lived in my grandmother’s hotel [Clark Hotel in Monahans, Texas] from the time I was born. During World War II, my dad was overseas [in the army], and he [Prigg] was the male figure around.”

Clark continued “[Grief] is a cathartic experience, and it’s worth writing about, I think.”

In the lyrics, Clark tells the story of his grandfather figure and idol, and how they moved around like desperados together.

I’d play the Red River Valley
And he’d sit in the kitchen and cry
And run his fingers through seventy years of livin’
And wonder, “Lord, has ever’ well I’ve drilled gone dry?”
We was friends, me and this old man

We was like desperados waiting for a train
Like desperados waiting for a train

He’s a drifter and a driller of oil wells
And an old school man of the world
He taught me how to drive his car
When he’s too drunk to
And he’d wink and give me money for the girls
And our lives was like some old western movie

Like desperados waiting for a train
Like desperados waiting for a train

From the time that I could walk he’d take me with him
To a bar called the Green Frog Cafe
And there was old men with beer guts and dominoes
Lying ’bout their lives while they’d played
And I was just a kid that they all called his sidekick

[RELATED: 7 Songs You Didn’t Know Guy Clark Wrote for Other Artists]

Towards the end of the song, Clark witnesses Prigg slow down in his elder years.

One day I looked up and he’s pushin’ eighty
And there’s brown tobacco stains all down his chin
Well to me he’s one of the heroes of this country
So why’s he all dressed up like them old men
Drinking beer and playin’ Moon and forty-two

Just like a desperado waiting for a train
Like a desperado waiting for a train

And then the day before he died, I went to see him
I was grown and he was almost gone
So we just closed our eyes and dreamed us up a kitchen
And sang another verse to that old song
“Come on, Jack, that son of a bitch is coming”

Pre-Clark Releases

Before Clark had a chance to record “Desperados Waiting for a Train” himself, it was recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker on his 1973 album Viva Terlingua. A year later, it appeared on three more albums: Tom Rush’s Ladies Love Outlaws, Rita Coolidge’s Fall into Spring, and David Allan Coe’s The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy.

Clark finally released the song on his 1975 debut Old No. 1, which also featured “L.A. Freeway.”

The Highwaymen

By 1985, The Highwaymen country supergroup of Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson covered “Desperados Waiting for a Train” on their debut album Highwayman. Their version went to No. 15 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart.

In 1998, Nanci Griffith also recorded the song on her 1998 album Other Voices Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful), which featured Clark, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, and more guests.

Nelson also covered “Desperados Waiting for a Train” for the 2011 release This One’s for Him – A Tribute to Guy Clark, while Earle later took it on with his band the Dukes for his 2019 album Guy.

Photo: Rick Diamond/WireImage

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