My favorite picture of you is the one where your wings are showing.” — Guy Clark, “My Favorite Picture Of You”
Born in Texas in 1941, Clark died today, May 17, at the age of 74 after many health complications that the Tennessean reports included a long battle with cancer. Clark didn’t really hit his stride as a songwriter until the early 70s when he moved to East Nashville with his second wife, Susanna Talley. Nashville became their home, and they were married for forty years. A fellow musician, painter, and artist, it’s hard to overstate the impact she had on his life. His last album to include original material, My Favorite Picture Of You, came out the year after her death in 2013. Like all of his albums, it’s a deep dive into his folk, Americana and country influences, but the devastating beauty of his work always resided most clearly in the stories his lyrics tell.
Most Guy Clark fans have a song of his that got them through something–“Hemmingway’s Whiskey,” “LA Freeway,” or what is his best-known, “Desperados Waiting For The Train.” I’ve used all of these to nurse myself back to health in moments of crisis, many reading this probably have, too. The one that resonates with me the most is the first Guy Clark song I ever heard. The song is called “The Guitar,” and it’s about destiny tracking you down in a pawn shop. Or really, it’s about recognizing the latent talent inside yourself. It’s a prophecy that your purpose is lurking up on a shelf somewhere, if you begin paying attention to your heart. A friend played the song for me in college, while we drove down PCH late one night, and hearing of his passing today I tried to hold back the tears by hanging onto that image of us. I think it’s the kind of image he would’ve liked.
The girl who played this song for me was trying to remind me of me. That’s the best thing about Clark: his songs are both mirrors and windows. I never really learned how to play guitar that well, but hearing the track was a “fingers turned to lightning” moment, a catalyst. Clark’s music was not just a catalyst for me, but an entire generation of country and folk musicians and music obsessives. His death makes today a hard day, but as he would say: Some days you write the song, some days the song writes you. Ain’t a damn thing you can do. Clark reminded us there’s comfort to be found in our helplessness if we lean into it, that giving up control can also be an act of courage.
Since his debut, Old No. 1s, came out in 1975, Clark released over twenty critically-acclaimed albums, including several live albums and compilation, and was nominated for and won several Grammys, including the 2014 Best Folk Album for My Favorite Picture Of You. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame–where he was also honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award for songwriting by the Americana Music Association–and in 2013 he won the Academy of Country Music’s Poet Award. Though he never achieved much mainstream or commercial success, the impact of Clark’s songwriting was deeply felt throughout the country music community. He counted Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, and Emmylou Harris among his friends, and influenced and co-wrote with countless other songwriters. Several of his songs have been recorded and by artists like Johnny Cash, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Brad Paisley, Alan Jackson, George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and many more.
For over forty years Guy Clark unspooled threads of memory so simple and so strong that many people stitched their lives together with them. The best songwriters, the monumental ones, become so ingrained in our lives that it’s hard to tell where the fabric of ourselves begin and where the stitches of their influence come in to hold us together. He wrote songs that addressed the overwhelming immensity of life’s greatest heartaches by funneling them into single, manageable moments. He wrote about his own struggles with unflinching self-awareness, inviting us into compassion by turning out his own dirty laundry first. Clark’s music gave dignity and grace to the quiet everyday minutia of working-class people. He saw beauty in the people that others would’ve dismissed as ugly, unhinged or worthless. The title track of My Favorite Picture Of You is a song he wrote about his wife in a moment when she was furious, livid with him and Townes Van Zandt for some drunk and stupid shenanigans they’d gotten up to. Others might’ve seen her anger as hideous, dangerous–Clark saw her with wings, an angel.
It’s always tempting to assert “I was never the same” when it comes to an artist’s impact on you, but that’s not quite right. After listening to Guy Clark I was more the same than ever, I was more me, I was able to go further into what I already loved about myself. The musicians who move our hearts deepest do so not because they give us themselves but because they give us back to us; every great song reflects something we already knew to be true but thought no one else remembered. The songwriting of Clark captured these fleeting memories and spun them back, gold from straw. Or better, he showed us that it was our straw that was gold all along.