When I asked my wife to marry me, one of this first things she said to me (after “yes,” thankfully) was to ask if the Gourds could play our wedding. It wasn’t really a question—she was telling me that we would hire the Gourds to play, and that our wedding budget would have to work around whatever it cost. As I happen to love the Gourds, too, I had no objection.
I mention the Gourds because they are part of a long, proud, twangy tradition of Texas country/folk/bluegrass/etc. musicians. The Gourds certainly had their own unique sound, distinct from just about any other band I know, but they also belong to a tradition pioneered by people like Guy Clark, who died a few days ago at the age of 74.
This has been a bad year for music. Guy Clark’s death has hit me much closer to home than others, and it’s not just because he’s from Texas, or because he is a legend of Texas music. I don’t even know all that many of his songs. He wasn’t a singularly unique artist like David Bowie or Prince. It’s doubtful that anyone could call him a “visionary” on the same scale as Bowie or Prince. Guy Clark was an old guy with a guitar, writing and singing what he knew. He did it very, very well. And a whole lot of people loved him for it.
I knew Guy Clark’s iconic song “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train” long before I knew who Guy Clark was. I discovered him when I learned that Jerry Jeff Walker did not, in fact, write that song, and I decided to learn about the guy who did. He wrote, recorded, and performed many incredible, powerful, and beautiful songs, but “Desperadoes” will always stand out for me.
On Tuesday, I noticed that a friend had posted a video of Guy Clark performing the song on Austin City Limits in 1990. I played the video, which includes him telling the story of Jack Prigg, the man who inspired it.
Even though I’ve heard the song hundreds of times at least, it still made me get teary-eyed. Only then did I actually look at what my friend had posted, “RIP, Guy Clark.” Then I bawled for a bit.
For me, the song captures the enormity of a life, and the impossibility of ever fully understanding someone else’s life. Despite that, it celebrates the simple ways that we can touch the lives of others. We see this old man through the eyes of an admiring child—as Guy Clark says in the video above, Jack Prigg was old before he ever met him—and hear about their adventures together. These were things that probably were not a big deal to Jack, but were obviously formative for the child (“Our lives were like some old western movie…”) Then we see the despair of watching this person succumbing to age:
One day I looked up, and he’s pushing 80
And there’s brown tobacco stains all down his chin
To me he’s one of the heroes of this country
So why is he all dressed up like them old men?
The song ends on a surprisingly upbeat note, or at least as upbeat a note as possible. He goes to see Jack just before he dies, and in their last moments together, they reminisce about their times together:
The day before he died, I went to see him
I was grown, and he was almost gone
So we just closed our eyes and dreamed of supper kitchens
And sang another verse to that old song
Come on Jack, that son-of-a-bitch is comin’.
Death, and reminiscing on a hard-lived life, are hardly new ideas in country music, but Guy Clark wrote and sang about it in a way that made you feel what he was feeling. He wasn’t the only one, of course. I couldn’t talk about this song without mentioning Jerry Jeff Walker’s ode to an old man in a New Orleans jail cell, who wouldn’t let the weight of a difficult life keep him from dancing:
I met him in a cell in New Orleans I was
down and out
He looked to me to be the eyes of age
as he spoke right out
He talked of life, talked of life, he laughed
clicked his heels and stepped
Townes Van Zandt sang about how growing old won’t protect you from the wrong that you’ve done in your life:
Pancho needs your prayers it’s true,
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do,
And now he’s growing old.
Here are the Highwaymen singing their eponymous song (written by Jimmy Webb) about a truly old soul:
Finally, here’s a song I heard for the first time a few months ago, but clearly comes from the same place as these other songs:
Here I am, inviting you to throw your life away
A victim of nostalgia, maybe Tanqueray.
But just tonight, I realized I am still in your back seat.
And nothing I’ve had since has meant a thing to me.
A musician may be lost to us, but those they inspire can keep the music alive for so much longer.
Also, the Gourds did play our wedding, and it was phenomenal.