Alice Randall sought out the wisdom of Guy Clark when she arrived in Nashville as a budding young songwriter. Here, she explains some of those early mentoring sessions with this iconic Texas poet. A novelist as well, Randall is currently Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University, where she teaches the course “Country Lyric in American Culture.” Her song “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl)” was a number one hit for Trisha Yearwood.
Twenty years ago I stopped by a Music Row office for a drink on an ordinary Friday night. Some other folks stopped by too. Suddenly it was a guitar pull and nothing was regular about it. Maybe seven or eight songwriters. Clash of two very different kinds of titan. Guy Clark and Garth Brooks. Usually you pass a guitar around the circle. Everybody plays a song. This night everybody but Guy and Garth fell out for a few unforgettable rounds. We listened mesmerized as a battle took place.
Both writers got some powerful hits in. Garth’s “Much Too Young To Feel This Damn Old” packs a wallop. Before the night was over cash money was being thrown. Some bills got set on fire. Some got torn in pieces. A writer who wasn’t Guy or Garth taped one of the torn hundred dollar bills back together. He had rent to pay and no skin in that round of the game. Sometime before morning Guy took Garth down with a Joe Ely tune – “Indian Cowboy.”
Guy Clark is widely acknowledged as a songwriter’s songwriter. He is more than that. He has been husband and lover, best friend, true ally, and admirer of some of the great songwriters of our time. Susanna Clark. Townes Van Zandt. Rodney Crowell. Steve Earle. The list is not long but it is significant.
There is a longer list. Guy Clark is many a songwriters’ good enough friend. If you are determined to capture the ten seconds, gesture, mistake, small triumph, or turn in the joke of life that mattered – in two or three verses with precisely chosen syllables – he will help. For a while he had a kind of open door policy. I know because I walked through that door when I was twenty-nine years old.
The five songs below are the songs he drew my attention to when I was just getting started as a Nashville songwriter. They helped me set my bar high. I’m not sure he remembers all this. I was holding onto his spoken lines like words from an oracle. He was tolerating me like a priest tolerates a promising young acolyte, as someone to be encouraged then set off to go about the business of finding some significance of her own. I did that, with a little help from my friend, Mr. Guy Clark.
I offer these songs, as I remember conversations about them, as a Music Row translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet.
“Indian Cowboy,” Joe Ely
Who stands between us and danger? In this song it’s a forgotten Indian cowboy and the artist who tells, remembers, and makes sense of his tale. The one who warns: we are all living in “the full dead middle of danger” does much to help us survive.
“To Live Is To Fly,” Townes Van Zandt
Guy invited me to go with him to see Townes play at the Bluebird one night in the early 1990s. We sat in the pews. We shared a single glass of brown liquor as a communion cup. And listened to Townes. Listening to Townes sing live was a religious experience. Back then you could smoke in the Blue Bird. Between puffs of smoke Guy helped me hear that the genius of Townes was his innocence. Guy covered this song. Steve Earle covered it after Guy. All three versions slam-hard the truth that innocence and wisdom co-exist in the great and grown heart.
“Devil’s Right Hand,” Steve Earle
Back in the day, October was a magic month in Nashville. Many writers and artists took the whole ten days around the CMA’s off. Folk would drive out to the airport just to see the big tour buses waiting to pick up stars flying in from off the road. The community was so small and close it seemed everybody who wasn’t winning something was invited to the parties to cheer for the ones who were winning or at least nominated. Pretty women, called October girls, would get brought to town for the short season. There were so many after parties held by publishing companies and record labels that they would pop up in locations that typically didn’t see many Music Row denizens. It was at an ASCAP after party in a fancy Belle Meade restaurant that Guy and I started talking about Steve Earle. Steve was the only person who ever sat down determined to teach me to write a country song. He did it week after week for more than a year. Steve’s brilliance scared me. Guy encouraged me to learn everything I could and should from Steve – and make sure not to learn anything I shouldn’t. I paid attention.
“Good Ole Boys Like Me,” Bob McDill
For a long time Guy had an office on Music Row. The one I knew was a magical upstairs place with a slanting roof and a high window. We were tucked in talking about writing when we got in a car to grab some food. “They Rage On” came on the radio. Perceiving that I was interested in texts that talked back to other texts – Guy pointed me to one of the masters of that trope in the country world, McDill. Soon enough, “Good Ole Boys Like Me” was my theme song.
“Come From The Heart,” Susanna Clark
Before Clark wrote “Baby Took A Limo To Memphis,” Susanna took a real limo to gritty Memphis. Susanna was both a powerful painter who created the cover for her husband’s greatest album Old No. 1 and the muse who inspired “L.A. Freeway,” “Coat From The Cold,” “My Favorite Picture Of You” and so many other unblinking, seamless and unsentimental, blazingly brave love songs. When I knew him best Guy liked to say, “Love is largely a matter of paying attention.” The attention Guy paid to Susanna, and captured in “My Favorite Picture Of You,” was extraordinary. “Come From The Heart,” written by Susanna (with Richard Leigh) is the song Guy quoted to me as precise direction, as instruction to abandon self-consciousness, as the only writing way forward.
I once co-wrote a song about Guy and showed it to him. It was called “Texas Cowboy Poet.” I was thinking about “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” “L.A. Freeway,” and “Let It Roll,” as I wrote. He told me to strike out the word cowboy.
He was right. He’s a Texas poet. And he’s either the greatest Texas poet that ever lived, or the best friend of the greatest Texas poet that ever lived.