Guy Clark: Singer-songwriter linked to Texas troubadour movement

Obituary: ‘Desperados Waiting for a Train was one of a handful of originals now regarded as standards from his 1975 debut album, Old No 1’

Guy Clark, who along with Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker and others patented the rugged, imagistic brand of narrative-rich songwriting that became associated with the Texas troubadour movement of the 1970s and 1980s, has died aged 74.

Clark's recordings never received much airplay on mainstream radio, but his treasury of songs, including L.A. Freeway, as recorded in 1973 by Walker, was as indelible as that of anyone working in the Americana idiom in the last decades of the 20th century.

"Guy is the kind of writer who is too strong to fade out," the singer John Hiatt said of Clark in a 2013 interview in American Songwriter magazine. "His songs will remain long after he does. They get in your heart and mind, and they become part of you."

Clark's songs have been recorded by scores of musicians, including progressive country singers like Ricky Skaggs, who had a No 1 country hit with Heartbroke in 1982, and Rodney Crowell, who in 1988 reached the top of the country charts with She's Crazy for Leavin', a song he wrote with Clark.

Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and Brad Paisley, among others, also recorded Clark's songs. Singer-songwriters such as Steve Earle and Crowell looked to him as a mentor.

His songwriting evinced not just a keen eye for narrative detail but also an unerring ear for spoken vernacular and a wry, existentialist bent akin to that of Kris Kristofferson or John Prine.

In Desperados Waiting for a Train, one of a handful of originals now regarded as standards from his 1975 debut album, Old No. 1, Clark reminisced about a grandfatherly figure at whose feet he used to listen to stories as a boy. For the brooding title track of his 1995 album, Dublin Blues, Clark used an unlikely juxtaposition of images to effect an arresting shift in perspective – in this case, casting an old mountain folk song in a shimmering new light. "I have seen the David, I've seen the Mona Lisa too," he sings over a simple folk-blues melody. "And I have heard Doc Watson play Columbus Stockade Blues."

Guy Charles Clark was born on November 6th, 1941, in Monahans, a small town in west Texas. His father, Ellis, was a lawyer, and his mother, Frances, worked for a time in his law office. Clark's grandmother, who ran a 13-room hotel, also played a major role in his upbringing. Some of her guests later appeared as characters in his songs; one was Jack Prigg, who became the old oil speculator in Desperados Waiting for a Train.

The Clarks moved to Rockport, on the Texas Gulf Coast, when Guy was 16. He joined the Peace Corps in 1963 and studied briefly at the University of Minnesota before opening a guitar repair shop in Houston in the mid-1960s. It was around that time that he began performing in clubs and formed lifelong friendships with Van Zandt and singer-songwriters like Mickey Newbury and Kay (later known as KT) Oslin.

Clark’s marriage to Susan Spaw ended in divorce. Their son, Travis, later played in his father’s band. Clark moved to San Francisco in the late 1960s, returned to Houston and then moved back out west, to southern California, where he worked in the guitar factory of the Dopyera brothers, who patented the Dobro model resonator guitar.

Clark's second wife, the former Susanna Talley, died of cancer in 2012. She was a painter (and occasional songwriter) whose rendering of the Pleiades constellation in the night sky graced the cover of Willie Nelson's 1978 album, Stardust.

In 1971, the couple moved to Nashville, where Clark signed a publishing deal. They were married there the next year. A photograph of Ms Clark appears on the cover of Clark's album My Favorite Picture of You, which won a Grammy for best folk album in 2014.

Clark released 13 albums. He was elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004 and was the subject of This One's for Him (2011), a Grammy-nominated tribute album featuring contributions from admirers such as Lyle Lovett and Prine.

In addition to his son and two grandchildren, Clark is survived by two sisters, Caroline Dugan and Jan Clark.

– New York Times Service