Guy Clark tribute hits all the right notes at Texas Book Festival

All the planets were in alignment for this one. On what would have been legendary songwriter Guy Clark’s 75th birthday, the Texas Book Festival brought author Tamara Saviano to town for her new Clark biography “Without Getting Killed or Caught,” with two of Clark’s closest musical peers joining in to share some of his songs with a big crowd at the Paramount Theatre.

The book, issued last week on Texas A&M University Press, is a welcome chronicle of Clark’s towering stature as one of the finest songwriters Texas ever produced. Born in the small west Texas town of Monahans, Clark lived most of his professional life in Nashville, but his music always was strongly associated with his native state.

Joe Ely, flanked by Terry Allen (right) and Michael Hall and Tamara Saviano (left), speaks to the crowd about Guy Clark at the Paramount Theater during the Texas Book Festival on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

Joe Ely, flanked by Terry Allen (right) and Michael Hall and Tamara Saviano (left), speaks to the crowd about Guy Clark at the Paramount Theatre during the Texas Book Festival on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

Saviano spoke early on about how the book was organized into sections that covered Clark’s songwriting influence and legacy, the twists and turns of his career as a recording artist, and his deep bond with his wife and fellow songwriter Susanna Clark (who died in 2012). The panel also spent some time talking about the Clarks’ very close friend Townes Van Zandt, with whom Guy often toured.

Renowned Austin troubadour Joe Ely also spent a lot of time on the road with Guy, often on songwriters-circle tours with Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt (who’ll pay their own musical respects to Clark tonight in a duo show at Gruene Hall in New Braunfels). After telling a couple of road stories, Ely offered up a sterling rendition of Clark’s “Dublin Blues,” a perfect fit in a venue that sits just a few blocks from a place mentioned in the song: “I wish I was in Austin, at the Chili Parlor Bar.”

Terry Allen, the famed sculptor and musician who grew up in Lubbock with Ely and now lives in Santa Fe, N.M., is at work on an unusual task: Before Clark died, he asked Allen to use his ashes in a sculpture. That’s still in progress, though at the Paramount, Allen revealed he’d told Clark that it might involve a bronze goat: “I’m going to take your ashes, and I’m going to shove it up its” nether region. Allen’s story elicited wild laughter from the audience, especially with the punchline: “And his response was, ‘Perfect.'”

From the ridiculous to the sublime, Allen subsequently hushed the crowd with a touching rendition of “Old Friends,” a song Guy wrote with Susanna and their pal Richard Dobson. “Old friends, they shine like diamonds/ Old friends, you can always call,” he sang, echoing the memories that Saviano had earlier shared about a wake many of those old friends held for Clark after his death this past May.

READ MORE: Austin remembers Guy Clark as one of the best-ever Texas songwriters

He’d been ill for years, Saviano noted, but Clark pushed her hard to complete the book. “The sicker he got,” she said, “the more intent he was on getting this finished.” He died just as the final draft was going to press.

Though Saviano says Clark gave her full run of everything in his house for research, including Susanna’s journals, he had a couple of illuminating requests regarding how he was portrayed in the book. “I tried to put him in this ‘mentor’ box, and he would never let me do that,” she said. Rather, he saw himself simply as a peer to writers such as Crowell, Shawn Camp, Steve Earle and others who sincerely felt indebted to Clark.

And then there was this: “I want people to quit calling me a craftsman,” Clark told Saviano. Because he was also a skilled luthier who who loved to build things in his workshop, there was a tendency to compare that part of him to his songs. But Clark considered himself a poet, Saviano explained.

Clark’s friend Rodney Crowell suggested to Saviano that both could be true. “I don’t think being a craftsman and a poet are mutually exclusive,” he told her. She agreed. “He was crafting songs, and I think he was the best at it,” she told the crowd. “And he was also a poet.”

 

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