Friday, June 29, 2012

Susanna Clark, 1939-2012

Posted By on Fri, Jun 29, 2012 at 2:53 PM

Guy and Susanna Clark
The idea of professional songwriting that expresses something more than economic necessity is very American, and such esteemed tunesmiths as Stephen Foster, Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt made their marks writing about the commonplace joys and terrors of a democratic, expanding country. For a certain kind of songwriter, Nashville has been the place where you come to test your skills among your peers. From Texas, Susanna Clark came to Nashville in the early 1970s with her husband, Guy Clark, and both proceeded to write songs of great originality that pushed the boundaries of country music. Susanna Clark's songs came out of her own experiences — in this case, she moved within a world teeming with talent, energy and ideas — but gained currency through the interpretative machinery that the Nashville music industry puts into motion to sell those ideas and experiences to its audience.

That's to say that Susanna Clark wrote gorgeous songs at a time when, as Nashville lore has it, the likes of Mickey Newbury, Van Zandt, Larry Jon Wilson and many others gathered at her home to exchange ideas, try out new material and have a grand time making their marks as a new generation of songwriters. All were inspired by Van Zandt, but you'd have to include the influence of Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Chuck Berry and Hank Williams on these Nashville tunesmiths of the '70s and '80s. A visual artist whose work would grace album covers by Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris, Susanna Clark seems to have been energized by this hothouse atmosphere, and began writing songs.

Hitting with "I'll Be Your San Antone Rose" — a 1975 hit for country singer Dottsy — Susanna Clark went on to write songs that were covered by Rosanne Cash, Kathy Mattea, Emmylou Harris and Miranda Lambert. With Richard Leigh, Clark wrote "Come From the Heart," a 1989 hit for Mattea. If "San Antone Rose" situated itself on a dance floor and took a hardheaded view of romance, "Come From the Heart" amounted to a statement of purpose for songwriters and for everyday folks looking for meaning.

Born in Atlanta, Texas, in 1939, Susanna Clark met Guy Clark in the late '60s, and the couple moved to Nashville in 1971. Married the following year on the houseboat of fellow songwriter Mickey Newbury, the couple began writing and recording, and "I'll Be Your San Antone Rose" — apparently the first song Susanna Clark ever wrote — established her as a songwriter at the same time as Guy Clark released his epochal Old No. 1 full-length. With such house guests as the mercurial Van Zandt, Susanna Clark received the kind of inadvertent master class in songwriting that seems almost impossible to imagine in today's far more locked-down Music City climate.

A former art teacher, Susanna Clark put her training to good use, creating album-cover art for Nelson's 1978 Stardust, Harris' Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town and Guy Clark's Old No. 1. With Carlene Carter, Susanna Clark wrote the fine "Easy From Now On," which Carter recorded on her 1990 full-length I Fell in Love. Already recorded by Emmylou Harris in the '70s, the song later appeared on Miranda Lambert's 2007 full-length Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

"Easy From Now On" is your typical piece of genius songwriting, right down to the way Carter and Clark tease you with the song's title hook, which takes its time making its appearance. From Harris' 1978 rendering to Carter's 1990 recording and beyond, to the song's appearance at the end of Lambert's new-new-Nashville full-length, these versions of "Easy From Now On" makes something like a continuum. If the songwriters of 1970s Nashville combined the approaches of Dylan and Fred Neil with the time-honored practices of Music City itself — long hair tucked under a hat with a picture of Webb Pierce on it, and a big, fat joint in an ashtray next to a half-empty bottle of whiskey, you could say — such contemporary artists as Lambert attempt to pay their respects to a far more freewheeling, romantic time.

In poor health in recent years, Susanna Clark died on Wednesday in Nashville. In accordance with her wishes, there will be no funeral or memorial service. That seems fitting: The songs and the art she created will endure, and will serve as reminders of that glorious, life-affirming period in which Nashville songwriters created that Texas-Tennessee hybrid that artfully balanced sentimentality and realism, and looked back over its shoulder at those wonderful ten-cent towns.

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