For a songwriter who lived in Austin for just a few months more than half a century ago, Guy Clark forged an unusually strong and close bond with the city’s music community.
Clark died Tuesday morning at 3:41 a.m. in Nashville, Tenn., according to his friend and biographer Tamara Saviano. Clark’s longtime guitarist Verlon Thompson and caregiver Joy Brogdon were at his side.
Clark lived in Austin during summer 1961 while taking classes in life drawing and philosophy at the University of Texas, said Saviano, whose biography on Clark is due later this year along with a documentary film. Born Nov. 6, 1941, in the West Texas town of Monahans, Clark moved with his family to the Gulf Coast town of Rockport during his teenage years.
His summer at UT came between semesters at Texas A&I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville). A stint at the University of Minnesota followed, as well as a Peace Corps assignment in Puerto Rico, before Clark moved to Houston and began playing music. It was there that he met lifelong compadres Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury and Jerry Jeff Walker.
“Townes and I were playing at the old Sand Mountain coffeehouse in Houston” in the mid-1960s, Walker said Tuesday. “Guy came in and he was in a suit with his collar open. He got up and played a few songs, and he was way ahead of us in terms of his ability to play and present songs.”
It was Walker who first brought Clark’s songs to wide attention a few years later. Walker moved to Austin in 1971, and the following year he released a self-titled album on MCA that included the iconic “L.A. Freeway” was well as “That Old Time Feeling.” Clark had married Susanna Talley after they spent a short time together in Los Angeles, and the couple had settled in Nashville. Walker said he visited them there en route to New York to cut the album.
“I remember telling him that I was going to record ‘L.A. Freeway’ and that he was on the verge of being a great songwriter,” recalled Walker, who continued to record Clark tunes on subsequent albums. And when Clark’s own debut album, “Old No. 1,” came out on RCA in 1975, Walker wrote the liner notes.
Informal picking parties at the Clarks’ house in Nashville were commonplace around that time. The documentary film “Heartworn Highways,” shot in 1975-76, vividly captures the spirit of this era, concluding with a Christmas party at the Clark residence with peers such as Rodney Crowell, Steve Young and Steve Earle singing and playing together.
Clark eventually released 14 studio albums, plus a handful of live and best-of collections, on labels including Warner Bros., Asylum, Sugar Hill and Dualtone. His final release, 2013’s “My Favorite Picture of You,” earned Clark the first Grammy Award of his storied career, for Best Folk Album.
In the meantime, many major artists recorded Clark’s songs. Ricky Skaggs took “Heartbroke” to No. 1 on the country charts in 1982, with other cuts coming from George Strait, Bobby Bare, Jimmy Buffett, Vince Gill, Brad Paisley & Alan Jackson, the Highwaymen and more. In 2011, more than two dozen artists contributed tracks to “This One’s for Him,” a two-disc tribute to Clark.
In 1998, Lyle Lovett used “Step Inside This House,” the first song Clark ever wrote, as the title track to a two-disc collection of songs by Texas songwriters. Clark played an integral role in helping Lovett get his first record deal in the mid-1980s.
“Guy Clark was my friend and mentor,” Lovett said in a brief statement Tuesday. “The world is a better place because he lived. I pray for comfort, for his family and for all of us who loved him.”
Most of Clark’s Austin performances since the 1980s were at the Cactus Cafe in the UT Student Union Building, along with its associated Texas Union Ballroom and Texas Union Theater venues. Griff Luneburg, who booked more than a dozen Clark shows during his nearly 30-year tenure at the Cactus, said Tuesday that Clark had the rare distinction of being one of the very few acts to play all three Union venues.
“He could have played anywhere in town, but he just felt at home there. He was very loyal,” Luneburg said. “And the crowds always felt a connection to him. Every time I had a Guy show on the calendar, it was like looking forward to Christmas.”
Austin turned up in a couple of Clark’s songs. “Ramblin’ Jack and Mahan,” from the 1992 “Boats to Build” album, recounts a memorable night of spinning tall tales with folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and rodeo great Larry Mahan at the Driskill Hotel. And the title track to 1995’s “Dublin Blues” begins with the immortal lines: “I wish I was in Austin, at the Chili Parlor Bar/ Drinkin’ mad-dog margaritas and not carin’ where you are.”
In 2015, Clark was inducted into the “Austin City Limits” Hall of Fame, part of the second class of inductees to the new institution launched in 2014. Clark appeared on the program seven times, first in 1977 and last on a 2008 special with Lovett, Joe Ely and John Hiatt based on the foursome’s frequent songwriters-circle tours together.
For the Hall of Fame induction ceremony last June at ACL Live, Lovett and Jason Isbell performed a few of Clark’s songs, and Lovett gave an eloquent induction speech. Clark had made the trip from Nashville to attend and was at the venue, but he wasn’t able to go onstage to accept the award.
“ACL” executive producer Terry Lickona’s official explanation at the time was that Clark “apparently had a bad reaction to a medication.” An ambulance took Clark to the hospital, where he stayed overnight but was released the next morning.
There was a little more to the story, as it turned out. “The next day, he admitted that he had eaten two marijuana brownies before the show,” Lickona said Tuesday. “Someone offered them to him, and he took them. I’m not sure he knew what he was getting into.” Lickona says Clark later sent him a letter “apologizing for making a damn fool of himself. But I know he had a good laugh about it, and he told the story to friends back in Nashville.”
Much as that incident showed Clark’s penchant for mischief, a characteristic many of his friends and peers mentioned on Tuesday, Lickona’s most poignant memory of Clark involved an all-star tribute to Townes Van Zandt after the latter’s death in 1997. Clark and Van Zandt were best friends, so “there was nobody better than Guy to pull the show together,” Lickona said.
“He was the centerpiece for that. He helped us decide who to invite, and it was an amazing cast,” Lickona remembered of the night that featured Lovett, Crowell, Earle, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Peter Rowan, Jack Clement and J.T. Van Zandt. “With Guy sitting there right in the middle, as master of ceremonies, that was really one of the all-time best shows.”
Susanna Clark died in 2012 from lung cancer complications. Surviving family members include son Travis Clark and daughter-in-law Krista McMurtry Clark, grandchildren Dylan and Ellie Clark, and sisters Caroline Clark Dugan and Jan Clark. Funeral arrangements are pending.