The Unbroken Circle: Guy Clark – “Desperados Waiting For a Train” (1975)

Craftsman, the name of a 1995 compilation album of Guy Clark songs, is also one of the best terms one can use to describe the artist in question. His meticulous approach to his work meant there was always a respect for its pacing and heritage, as well as a fine attention to detail that, next to contemporaries like Townes Van Zandt, K.T. Oslin and Jerry Jeff Walker, helped elevate storied songwriting to yet another time-honored Texas tradition. He was the sort of songwriter that younger artists studied, like Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle, among others. He was never a solo success as a singer, but as a writer, there’s another story to be told.

The subject of today’s discussion, then, is as much a true story as it is an homage to how other artists might have viewed Clark himself. The son of an attorney, Clark grew up in Monahans, in West Texas, and in Rockport, near the Texas Gulf Coast. His childhood provided the bulk of the inspiration for many of his songs – the first of which he learned in Spanish – like a community gathering to watch the train in “Texas 1947” or the philosophical musings of wood, sail and distant shores in “Boats to Build,” inspired by a summer job he once held. One of his most moving examples came elsewhere. In Monahans, his grandmother ran a hotel, and one man who stayed there frequently happened to be her boyfriend, who Clark grew fond of. The man was a wildcatter and worked in the oil fields in West Texas. He drilled the first oil wells in South America and the Middle East, in the 1920s.

Clark would later describe “Desperados Waiting for a Train” as a biographical tribute to the man, and would claim that every event described within that song happened. He’d play songs for him, he’d tag along with him wherever he went when he was little, and as he got older, he’d tag along with him to a bar where old men played cards. The man Clark describes in life and song is free-spirited, a sharp contrast to a songwriter who would become known, in time, for his attention to detail and care in his slow-rolling approach to his craft. Perhaps fittingly, as a way of coming full circle, Clark’s own version of the song featured a young Steve Earle as a backing vocalist. The most successful version of “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” though, came courtesy of the Highwaymen collective (featuring Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash), and Clark has stated his favorite version is by cowboy-actor Slim Pickens. But Jerry Jeff Walker was the first artist to record it, as well as the first artist to give Clark his first songwriting breakthrough with 1973’s “L.A. Freeway.”

Before that, in the 1960s, Clark played folk clubs in Houston and Austin, where he met blues singers Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb and learned to refine his folk and blues-influenced country music. He eventually moved to California, where he built dobros at a factory in Long Beach. After eight months in Los Angeles, where he grew fatigued over his direction in life (a sentiment expressed in “LA. Freeway”), he signed a songwriting contract with Sunbury Music and moved to Nashville in 1971 with his wife, Susanna, an accomplished painter who would also make a name for herself as a songwriter in time (her biggest success story being Emmylou Harris’ “Easy From Now On”). Some might say the Clarks’ arrival in Nashville was perfectly timed. While older, traditionally minded artists waged war with artists who indulged in the slick Countrypolitan sound that mostly dominated the 1960s, another group emerged that had its own idea of country music’s future direction.

Guy Susanna clark
Guy and Susanna Clark. From Texas Monthly.

Guy Clark was one such artist, and he and his contemporaries found acceptance at the Exit/In, a small live-music venue near Vanderbilt University that allowed progressive-minded songwriters to try out material on a young, equally progressive audience. The Clarks’ home became another gathering place – albeit unofficially – for this exercise, and in time attracted younger songwriters like Rodney Crowell. Like how Clark admired the man behind “Desperados Waiting For a Train,” Crowell looked up to Guy as a mentor. “I remember Guy Clark telling me,” Crowell says in Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary, “the second time we ever sat in conversation, he said, ‘You’re a talented guy. You can be a star, you probably have the talent to do it. Or you can be an artist. Pick one. They’re both worthwhile pursuits.”

Clark himself chose the latter, though while his own albums sold poorly, they clearly impacted several aspiring artists – from 1975’s landmark collection Old No. 1 all the way through to 2009’s Sometimes the Song Writes You, and even a little bit beyond, until his death in 2016. The proof started with Jerry Jeff Walker’s take on “L.A. Freeway” and extended to Ricky Skaggs’ “Heartbroke” (a 1982 No. 1 hit), Crowell’s “She’s Crazy For Leavin’,” Bobby Bare’s “New Cut Road,” Vince Gill’s “Oklahoma Borderline,” John Conlee’s “The Carpenter,” and Steve Wariner’s “Baby I’m Yours,” among so many others. So, if you ever get to missing Clark yourself at times, close your eyes, dream up a kitchen, and sing another verse to one of his old songs. You know, like a desperado waiting for a train.

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