The documentary movie, Without Getting Killed or Caught, is as much about Susanna Clark as it is about her husband Guy. Which makes sense, because you can’t tell the story of one without the other.
This may mystify those who know only of Guy, the tall, square-jawed Texan who wrote and recorded such enduring songs as “L.A. Freeway,” “Heartbroke,” “Randall Knife,” “Worry B. Gone,” “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” “New Cut Road” and “She’s Crazy for Leavin’.” But Susanna wrote some enduring songs of her own—most notably “Come from the Heart,” “Easy from Now On” and “I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose.”
More importantly, Susanna was the emotional and artistic inspiration for an important community of late-20th-century songwriters and singers: Guy, Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Steve Young, Jerry Jeff Walker and Carlene Carter. For the men she was a muse, for the women a role model. She was the glue that held this group of disparate characters together. And that’s the central thrust of this film, which has its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival, on March 16-20.
“Susanna was very influential in this circle,” says Tamara Saviano, co-director of the movie, which is based on her biography of the same title. “She was the muse for all these songwriters; she had hits. But she was not interested in being a public figure at all. She just wanted to create and hang out with her people. She came from a very high-profile family, a wealthy family in Oklahoma City, a debutante with a coming-out ball. She’d gotten a taste of society when she was young and didn’t want any more.”
“We were trying to impress Susanna more than Guy or Townes,” Earle told me in 2019. “She was such a good painter that she taught us how to carry ourselves as artists. She once told me that the best thing about living in Nashville was not living in the same town as Andy Warhol. I like Andy Warhol, but I appreciated that her standards had nothing to do with fame or success.”
Susanna was an accomplished painter before and after she became a songwriter. Four of her paintings were the album covers for Guy’s Old No. 1, Willie Nelson’s Stardust, Emmylou Harris’s Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town and Nanci Griffith’s Dust Bowl Symphony. Those pictures, recognizable portraits and landscapes with a Van Gogh-like intensity, were useful clues to her impact on people.
“At a certain time when I was an open book absorbing everything around me,” Crowell says over the phone from Tennessee, “Guy was there to show me the mechanics of songwriting and Susanna showed me how to infuse it with spirituality. If you can figure out how to fuse the two, then you’ve really got something.”
If you’ve never heard much about Susanna, that’s the way she wanted it. She never released a record nor performed in public. She shrank from large crowds, but she sparkled in small groups and could be overpowering in one-on-one situations. She had zero interest in fame, but she craved strong personal connections.
“There’s an enigma there,” Crowell admits. “She had a bit of agoraphobia; she avoided large groups of people. She would only sing her songs to one or two people at a time. If I was over there at nine in the morning, drinking coffee, Susanna would pick up a guitar and sing. She was very charming; she sang in a conversational voice, and she played guitar conversationally.
“One on one, Susanna was very formidable,” he adds. “It was a challenge to hold your own when talking with her. Those conversations fed the path that I was on to become a more realized artist and to write songs. To hold my own with her contributed to my skills as a songwriter, because I couldn’t afford to slack off for a moment. Susanna was above it all and looked down on us with this goddess-like wisdom. ‘It’s just songs,’ she’d tell us. “It’s just art; it’s not a competition.’ It was all very enticing; it was hard not to fall in love with Susanna.”
In the ‘70s, Earle and Crowell were the acolytes, younger by a decade or so, hovering around the older masters, the odd triangle of Susanna, Guy and Townes. The latter two had bonded in 1965 via the Houston folk-music scene. When Susanna’s sister Bunny committed suicide in 1970, the older sister inherited Bunny’s boyfriend Guy. Susanna moved from Oklahoma to Houston to live with Guy; they moved to Los Angeles for a year and then, when Guy got a music publishing deal, to Nashville.
They were married there on January 14, 1972 aboard the houseboat of famed Texas songwriter Mickey Newbury. The best man was Townes, who promptly moved in with the newlyweds for eight months. The close links of that triangle were forged during that year. Just how intense things got is revealed by this poem from Susanna’s journal, quoted in Saviano’s book and spoken by narrator Sissy Spacek in the movie:
It was one of them parties they give us newlyweds
That I started to crave another man’s bed.
He told me he’d rather give his own life
Than take the love of his best friend’s wife.
“Susanna and Townes were very close,” Crowell observes. “I think Townes opened up with her in a way he never did in his conversations with me, which were playing games as if we were riding skateboards together. Townes was Susanna’s best friend. They talked every day, and when Townes died, that’s when Susanna folded her tent.”
In the movie, Susanna is heard on one of her cassette-tape diaries, saying, “Guy and I paint, and all three of us write songs. We’re starving artists.” Guy says of Townes, “We became friends, because we had the same sense of humor. I think he liked my songs, and I liked his.” Later on, Susanna adds, “Guy and I were married; Guy and Townes were best friends, but Townes and I were soulmates.”
“Guy was Susanna’s husband,” Crowell notes, “but he didn’t communicate with her the way Townes did or I did. He probably enjoyed her formidability the same way we did, but Guy was more down-to-earth than Susanna and Townes; they floated a lot of the time. Susanna was a different person during the separation from Guy; she became more business-like in a way, because she had to run her own life. When she was with Guy, she could afford to be that floating muse.”
In the mid-‘80s, Susanna and Richard Leigh wrote a near-perfect country song called “Come from the Heart.” With its earworm melody and its ready-for-framing lyrics, the chorus was irresistible: 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 watchin’. It’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work.
Guy took to performing the song live, always prefacing it by explaining that his wife had written a great song that no one could record because country superstar Don Williams had put a hold on it. Williams’ underwhelming version was eventually released in 1987, but it was Kathy Mattea’s enthusiastic interpretation that turned it into a #1 country hit. And with the money from those royalties, Susanna moved into an apartment of her own.
She and Guy never stopped talking and seeing each other, but the six-year separation recalibrated their relationship. When they reunited in 1994, it was in a newly purchased house in West Nashville. Susanna got the upstairs and Guy the basement. That basement room—where Guy wrote songs, built guitars and held court—became so legendary that it would end up in the Country Music Hall of Fame—workbench, tools, skulls-ringed ashtray and all. But when Townes died on January 1, 1997, Susanna holed up in that upstairs bedroom and rarely came out during the 15 years before she died in 2012.
“When Leroy Parnell took me over to Guy’s house for the first time on April 1, 2000,” Saviano recalls, “I sat down by Susanna’s bed and she told me stories about Townes for hours. In the 12 years I knew her, that was the only time I saw her in street clothes. She didn’t like many women, but she liked me, maybe because she didn’t see me as a threat of any kind. I don’t wear make-up and I had come over in sweats. She told me, ‘Don’t take shit from these guys. Don’t take shit from any guy.’”
Saviano wrote a story about Guy for Country Music Magazine, and they struck up a friendship, often going out to lunch in Nashville. In 2002, Sugar Hill Records hired her to write the press notes for Guy’s album The Dark. In 2006, she became Guy’s publicist. In 2008, during South by Southwest, she found herself in Austin’s Chili Parlor Bar, the hole-in-the-wall joint made famous in Guy’s song, “Dublin Blues.” She was talking to Gary Hartman, at the time the Director of the Center for Texas Music History, when her phone rang.
“My phone was playing ‘Dublin Blues,’ which is my ringtone for when Guy calls,” Saviano remembers. “When I hung up, Gary said, ‘How would you feel about writing a biography of Guy for our book series? That was March and it was September before I had the nerve to finally ask Guy.
“He said, ‘Let’s do it,’ but I didn’t believe him. I said, ‘Guy, if we do this, I’m going to dig into every corner of your life, then I’m going away to write, and you can’t see the book until it’s published. He said, ‘That sounds fair.’ I still didn’t believe him, so I did an interview to test him out. I asked about the turquoise ring he always wears, and he told me the story about Bunny. That’s when I knew it was real.”
Two days after Susanna died, Saviano was visiting the newly widowed Guy. As she was getting ready to leave, she saw two boxes by the door. “What are these?” she asked. “Susanna’s diaries,” Guy replied. “Have you read them?” she asked. “No, but whatever’s in them is the truth.”
Saviano quotes extensively from the journals in the book. But it wasn’t until after the book was published that she checked out the 16 cassette tapes in a shoebox. In the movie, Spacek gives voice to Susanna’s written journals, but Susanna’s voice is heard on the cassette diaries. As a result, her words dominate the movie.
By the spring of 2014, Saviano was halfway through writing her meticulously researched biography when Clark called again. He said that a filmmaker had approached him about making a documentary. By this time, the legendary songwriter had spent dozens of hours with Saviano, going over every aspect of his life.
“I don’t want to start over with someone else,” Clark told her. “I’ve invested all this time with you. I don’t really care if there’s a movie about me, but it anyone’s going to do it, it has to be you.”
Saviano didn’t know what to do. She had never made a movie, and she was chin-deep in the swamp of her book. On the other hand, she didn’t want to be the reason that there was never a documentary film about Guy Clark. Adding to the pressure was the knowledge that Clark’s cancer was getting worse and the clock was ticking.
On the other hand, Saviano’s husband, Paul Whitfield, had been the chief video engineer on Bruce Springsteen’s tours for more than a decade, and he agreed to help out on the technical side of things. The couple immediately starting shooting as much footage of Clark as they could while he was still alive. They were committed to the project then.
In 2016, Guy died in May; Saviano’s mother died in August, and the book version of Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark was published. In January of 2017, Saviano and her friend Bart Knaggs took an eight-week screenwriting workshop in Austin. The workshop was about writing a fictional feature film, but the co-writers found that the information could be easily applied to a documentary film. It helped that Saviano had written scripts for the Great American Country TV channel and had served as a consultant on Ken Burns’ Country Music series for PBS.
“A lot of documentary filmmakers don’t write the story first,” she comments. “But as a journalist, I wanted to map out the story. I’d already written the book and I’d interviewed 200 people. I had to go back and reinterview everyone you see in the film. But it was easier because I already knew what I wanted to drill into.”
The resulting movie, Without Getting Killed or Caught, is more than just the definitive portrait of a great songwriter. It’s the story of the unusual three-way relationship between three artists at the center of a movement that changed country music. And it shines a light on the crucial, often overlooked contributions to that movement by Susanna Talley Clark.
Without Getting Killed or Caught, will be screened virtually by the South by Southwest Film Festival March 16-20.
Main photo courtesy of Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark