Who is Guy Clark? The King of Texas Troubadours

by Clayton Edwards
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In his 74 years, Guy Clark filled many roles. He was a singer, songwriter, poet, musician, storyteller, and luthier. Some call him the King of Texas Troubadours. More than that, though, he was an inspiration to generations of artists. Without Clark’s influence and undying independent spirit the landscape of American music in general and Americana and country music, in particular, wouldn’t be the same.

We’re going to dig into the history and importance of Guy Clark here. While you’re reading about his life and career, take some time to check out our playlist. Guy Clark: King of Texas Troubadours contains some of the best songs included in Clark’s vast discography. After you’re done listening to the playlist, be sure to follow Outsider on Spotify to get the best music from our favorite artists.

Guy Clark: The Early Days

According to the Ken Burns documentary Country Music, Guy Clark grew up in West Texas. When he was young his family didn’t own a record player or radio. Instead, they would read poetry aloud to one another around the kitchen table in the evenings. These nights spent immersed in family and poetry helped to shape Clark as a writer. “I always liked the storytelling poets like Vachel Linsay and Stephen Vincent Benét,” Clark recalled.

Later the Clark family moved to South Texas. There, the young Texan would experience more formative moments. At the age of 17, Guy Clark bought his first guitar. However, he wasn’t inspired by early country singers to pick up the instrument. Instead, his father’s law partner, Lola Bonner, lit that fire in Clark’s heart. About that early influence, he said, “She played guitar and sang Mexican songs. Mariachi and South Texas music. And I was captivated by it. I thought ‘Wow! I want to do that.’… So I went to Mexico and bought a twelve-dollar guitar and started trying to learn how to play it. “

Clark Meets Townes Van Zandt

After high school, Guy Clark lived in Houston for a decade. There, he repaired guitars and became involved in the folk music revival of the 1960s. More importantly, Houston is where Clark met Townes Van Zandt. The pair hit it off immediately. Before long, Townes’ songs inspired Guy to try his hand at songwriting. Clark and Van Zandt encouraged one another as they both honed their chops as writers.

Before moving to Nashville with his wife Susanna in 1971, Guy Clark spent time in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In LA, Clark worked in a dobro factory while doing everything he could to land a publishing deal in Music City. This time before making the move across the country inspired the song “L.A. Freeway.”

From Writing to Recording

Guy Clark never really found consistent chart success as a performer. Instead, other artists consistently landed hits with songs that he wrote.

Clark released his debut album Old No.1 in 1975, three years after he had his first hit as a songwriter with Jerry Jeff Walker’s cut of “L.A. Freeway.” He released his final album, My Favorite Picture of You in 2013, three years before he died of lymphoma at the age of 74 in May 2016. He left behind more than 20 albums and a musical legacy that will outlive even his youngest fans.

Guy Clark’s Impact on American Music

Some say that Guy Clark helped to jump-start what we call Americana. Others say that he was a major player in the genesis of Outlaw Country. One thing is certain: Clark influenced and inspired generations of musicians. Some needed only to hear Clark’s songs to feel the fire inside them grow. Clark also mentored a handful of songwriters personally and helped them hone their craft.

Author Lee David Zimmerman asked Clark about his role in the formation of Outlaw Country in an interview for his book Americana Music: Voices, Visionaries, & Pioneers of an Honest Sound. “I was never a hit songwriter in country music in that sense,” Clark said. He went on to say, “I was trying to do it my way, whatever it took. I don’t know about being an outlaw… I just did what I could until I was able to do what I wanted.”

While doing things his way Guy Clark lifted up other artists whose music he enjoyed. For instance, he helped to push Townes Van Zandt and mentored Steve Earle in the early days of Earle’s career. About this, Clark said, “Whenever I hear someone who I think is really good, I make sure they get heard. They should be heard.”

Clark’s Impressive Reach

Guy Clark’s prevalence in country music is impossible to overstate. While not everyone knows his name, it’s hard to listen to quality country music without hearing his songs. The list of people who have added their voices to Clark’s words reads like a who’s who of country and roots music. It includes artists like Chris Stapleton, Brad Paisley, Lyle Lovett, Johnny Cash, Jimmy Buffet, The Highwaymen, Emmylou Harris, The Everly Brothers, and many more. However, I would contend that you’ve never heard the definitive versions of his most popular songs like “Desperados Waiting for a Train” “L.A. Freeway” or “Boats to Build” until you’ve heard the man himself sing them.

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