Many of country music’s stories have been told time and again, to the point at which they’re enshrined like tall tales in pop history. But it’s a form that is so often rooted in narrative and storytelling, and there are a thousand more histories of country music that can’t be squeezed into one Ken Burns documentary, no matter how long. Aside from the stable of usual famous names like Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline, the role of women in country music in general is underrecognized, overlooked and ignored, but especially when it comes to the outlaw era. It’s often forgotten that, alongside Waylon and Willie, Jessi Colter was included on the famous RCA compilation Wanted! The Outlaws, which capitalized on country music’s rugged and raw new movement and turned it into a brand name, becoming the very first platinum-certified country album.
The man who at first seems like the central subject of Without Getting Killed or Caught is no stranger to documentaries — it’s his performances of classics like “L.A. Freeway” and “Texas Cookin’ ” that give the legendary outlaw-country artifact Heartworn Highwaysits structure. Of course, the film employs the talking heads and archival footage you’d expect from a music documentary, but it takes a unique, story-driven approach, recruiting Sissy Spacek to provide the voice of Susanna Clark, Guy Clark’s on-and-off partner from the 1970s onward, whose words and stories give the film a valuable narrative anchor and a perspective that helps to deepen and complicate a history of country music that’s been told so many times before.
Rather than presenting yet another fawning portrait of male genius, Without Getting Killed or Caught takes a more collective approach to the life of a country music legend, and as a project its genesis was similarly collaborative. This is the first feature directing credit for both Tamara Saviano and Paul Whitfield, but the co-directors both have accomplished careers in the music world. Saviano is a music historian (the documentary grew out of seeds planted in her book of the same name on Guy), the producer of Grammy-winning tribute albums to music legends like Kris Kristofferson and Memphis’ Sun Records, and an adviser on Ken Burns’ Country Music; Whitfield is a longtime cameraman and video operator and has worked on concert films by artists including Bruce Springsteen.
By writing Susanna back into the story, Saviano and Whitfield make it clear how crucial women have been to the genre’s creative development, in ways that often go unseen and unrecognized. Guy was known for his buoyant jam sessions and mentorship of other artists, offering the couple’s home as a space for artistic expression and experimentation. But unsurprisingly, so much of the labor of cleaning up after the party or keeping things in order fell to the woman of the house. But Susanna wasn’t just a means of support; she was an artist in her own right, an accomplished painter and graphic artist who designed the album covers for classics like Willie Nelson’s Stardust and Emmylou Harris’ Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, as well as a songwriter who penned tunes that would go on to be recorded by everyone from Jerry Jeff Walker to Kathy Mattea and Miranda Lambert. Her close friendship with Townes Van Zandt was also likely a formative encouragement and influence for one of the few undeniable poets of country Western music.
Hardcore country-heads are already a guaranteed audience for a film like this, but where so many music documentaries use familiar techniques to tread familiar ground, Without Getting Killed or Caught has a freshness that could appeal to newcomers to the genre — especially considering one of its central subjects is a woman who was something of an outsider. Susanna Clark was a prolific artist with a substantial impact on country music, but like so many women, her primary contributions — from songwriting to cover art to the emotional support and sounding board she provided other artists — have not been held in the same regard or considered art on the level of male outlaw auteurs like Willie, Waylon, Merle or her own husband.
As much as it is a testament to how hard women work with so little reward, Without Getting Killed or Caught is a valuable reminder that no work of art is the product of just one person alone.