In “Without Getting Killed or Caught”, Guy Clark defies categorization

Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark Texas A&M University Press

Few country music careers are rooted in nighttime poetry recitals at the childhood dinner table, but Guy Clark was not your average barn-born country singer. As producer / writer Tamara Saviano reveals in her biography Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark, worms were not only valued in House Clark, but were also part of the family’s genetic makeup: the Clarkes were descendants of 15th-century English court poet John Skelton. And Guy Clark revered Dylan Thomas, holding in high regard the use of the language by the Welsh poet. Clark’s songs, especially modern Western classics such as “Desperados Waiting for the Train”, “Texas 1947”, “LA Freeway” and “Let Him Roll”, exude a sort of protean poetry.
sensibility using a decidedly Texan vernacular – or as Saviano describes his particular brand of song, “short four-minute stories about exotic people and places”. He’s been compared to everyone from Larry McMurtry to Kris Kristofferson to Joe Cocker, but few of them really stick. Clark’s finger-picked, southwest-flavored acoustic songs were too country for folk and too folk for country – and the Nashville hit factory never knew what to do with him.

Clark, who died in May at the age of 74, was one of the few country singer-songwriters who could include “troubadour” in his job description. Ernest Tubb of Crisp was the first to earn the nickname “Texas troubadour” after hitting it big with “Walkin ‘the Floor Over You” in 1941. Today, old-fashioned road warrior Dale Watson makes the lonely work to preserve the legacy of Tubb’s electrified and crass brand of attitudinal honky-tonk. But if you apply a more traditional dictionary definition of the word – as in, a poet setting his verse to music – then Clark may well have been the truest troubadour Texas has ever produced.

Saviano’s book starts before the start, in a sense, as we’re introduced early on to the small town West Texas characters who populated the Dust Bowl world of Clark’s parents and grandparents: the bootleggers. , drunks, domino players, guitar pickers and oilfield savages who will serve as inspiration for Clark’s oldest and best-known songs. Saviano also traces Clark’s crisp formative years and his fairly comfortable middle-class upbringing in the sleepy coastal town of Rockport. Although after high school Clark flirted with the hippie drifter life in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco, it was his time in Houston that turned out to be a real transformation.

After unceremoniously dropping out of the University of Houston, Clark cut his teeth in Montrose’s café and the then flourishing beatnik folk scene. His bachelor pad on Fannin Street was home to Clark’s quirky triumvirate; his future wife, Oklahoma debutante Susanna Talley; and the talented but troubled singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt would form their lasting bond. Clark eventually finds himself at the center of an eclectic psychedelic H-town folk scene in the mid-1960s, and Saviano does a terrific job of saving this lost bohemian enclave from the black hole of Houston history. She brings together an impressive oral micro-history of Houston’s 1960s music scene, using colorful quotes from local luminaries (including Clark himself) who witnessed events in long-gone places like the Jester, Purple Onion and Old Quarter. At Jester, Clark opened not only for Texan blues legends Lightnin ‘Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, but also for future pop-folk superstars such as John Denver and Judy Collins.

Yet, then as now, Space City was not exactly an ideal launching pad for serious musical careers. So the tight-knit trio of Guy, Susanna, and Townes hit the road in the early 1970s to ply their trade in Nashville, where Clark had gotten a $ 75-a-week job writing songs for a tiny house in Nashville. ‘editing. And it’s in rendering those lean years that Saviano’s writing excels, delivering vivid anecdotes highlighting the trio’s whiskey and weed-picking evenings and the romantic lifestyle of starving artist. .

While Clark’s early songs would prove to be commercially viable when sung and recorded by more established, chart-conscious singers such as Johnny Cash or Jerry Jeff Walker, his own albums – the lost classics Old No. 1 and Texas Cookin ‘, among others – made no concessions to fickle Nashville standards. In Without getting killed or caught, Susanna clings to her reputation as a commercial hit-maker (she scored a No. 1 with “I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose”), while Clark is portrayed as the uncompromising difficult artist with no affinity for sounds popular. Still, this ongoing rotation somehow rings false. Ricky Skaggs, for example, would take Clark’s single “Heartbroke”, which was previously dead on arrival, change the lyrics “pride is a bitch” to “pride when you’re rich”, and presto – he shoots it. the country’s No. 1 graphics.

But where most musical biographies attempt to build a Behind the musicA career arc rise and fall style, Clark’s trajectory does not lend itself to standard musical-bio sensationalism. If anything, Saviano portrays Clark as a rock consistency figure in his craft, as well as in his alcohol and drug use. Clark frustrated one intrusive Nashville producer after another, still keeping his acoustic-folk roots even if it meant sabotaging his relationship with the majors. He never really adapted any format until the Americana subgenre came along in the early 1990s to claim Clark as his own. Clark eventually found his place with smaller country-folk labels, including Sugar Hill, and regained control of the recording process. Finally, in the mid 1950s ravaged by cocaine and whiskey, he was released to be the standalone fingerpicking acoustic-folk singer he always wanted to be.

The book’s coda, while somewhat thematically dispersed, skillfully navigates emotionally unwieldy territory. It’s gratifying to read that Clark is finally reaping the rewards of an ever-growing musical legacy, finding contentment in mentoring and collaborating with young songwriters, not to mention building his own guitars. It was also a time when advanced age and years of alcohol and drug abuse began to dissolve the once inseparable trio of Guy, Susanna and Townes.

It was Van Zandt’s untimely death in 1997 that sent Susanna into a slow spiral, aided by pain relievers and terminal depression. But Saviano has a firm pearl on Clark until the end. To Saviano’s credit, his tone, while respectful, is never too sentimental. In fact, his epilogue features a morbidly humorously but perfectly scored observation made at his funeral, an observation that the poetry lover in Clark would have appreciated for its metaphorical value. Saviano notes that Clark’s body was crammed into a coffin too small for his 6-foot-3 body: “The top of his head was pressed against one end of the box and his feet pressed against the other. Guy Clark does not fit in a box.

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