Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Wait/Don’t Wait: Desperados Waiting For A Train

Nanci Griffith: Desperados Waiting For A Train

No personal story, no long history lesson, no political discussion today. Just a short discussion about a fine song, Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting For A Train.” (I mentioned this song a few years ago in a piece on Clark’s “Homegrown Tomatoes," but it’s worth its own post.)

As someone who backed into “country” music through alt-country/Americana/roots/folk music, I first became aware of the great songwriter Guy Clark from covers, particularly this version on Nanci Griffith’s 1998 release, Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back To Bountiful). On that album, Griffith performed the song with Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Eric Taylor. In fact, before Clark released a version, on 1975’s Old No.1, it had already been covered by Walker, Rita Coolidge, David Allan Coe and Tom Rush. And before Griffith’s version was released, it had been covered by Slim Pickens and probably most famously, The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson, some pretty fine songwriters in their own right). And there have been many other covers released and performed, including by Earle, on his recent tribute to Clark, and Jason Isbell, who performed the song at Guy Clark's induction into the 2015 Austin City Limits hall of fame ceremony. Which is just to say that many, many great musicians and songwriters have felt the song worthy of recognition.

Clark had the ability that some great writers, and not only songwriters, have of being able to economically create an entire world, and entire characters, with no wasted words. (On the same album, Griffith also covered Richard Thompson and Woody Guthrie, who have that same talent.) I’m jealous as hell. In less than five minutes, the song tells the story of the relationship between a boy and an old man, and you can feel the love they felt for each other, and the respect that the boy had for the man, an old school oil worker, who seemed to the boy like he was from an old western. And one day, the boy realizes that the man is old, and dying, and the metaphorical train comes to take him away. Two lives in about four and a half minutes of brilliance. I don’t know if the song is studied in songwriting classes, but it should be.

It’s a true story. Clark wrote it about his grandmother’s boyfriend, who stayed at the hotel that she ran in a small Texas town. You can read more about it here.

In 1998, when Griffith released her album, she appeared with all of the guys (including Guy) who sang with her on David Letterman’s show. And since readers of my work here know I’m a huge Letterman fan, and a huge fan of the song, here’s a video:

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