“I never was a country singer. I’m still not a country singer. I just write songs and play ‘em. I’m Guy Clark.” He’s right. The Texas singer-songwriter was as singular a character as you’ll find across the history of Americana music. His songs are revered and indelible, his playing was beautiful and unfussy, and the man built and fixed guitars at a level so accomplished that it could’ve been a separate career if he weren’t so damn gifted at writing. But his life story is not simply his own. As journalist/producer Tamara Saviano spelled out in her 2016 biography, Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark, Guy’s story is inextricably linked to two other souls – fellow Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt and Guy’s wife, painter/songwriter Susanna Clark. Now that story has been captured in a bittersweet new documentary. Without Getting Killed or Caught, co-directed by Saviano and Paul Whitfield, pulls from interviews with Clark and other music luminaries, as well as Susanna’s journals, audio diaries and tape recorded conversations between the three that fully reveal both their deep ties and damaged souls.
One of the film’s biggest successes is demonstrating the incredible influence, in both length and depth, that Clark had on the Americana world (a term that was a long way from being coined when he started making music). Put another way – Clark’s first record, Old No. 1, was released in 1975, pre-disco. The tribute album to Guy, This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark (co-produced by Saviano and approved of by Clark himself), competed against Jason Isbell’s Here We Rest at 2012’s Americana Awards. That’s a long time to influence a whole lot of songwriters. And many of them show up in the doc – Vince Gill, Steve Earle, Verlon Thompson and particularly Rodney Crowell help tell the story of Guy and his relationships with Townes and Susanna.
As we learn through all of the first-person and eyewitness accounts of life amongst this trio, nothing was traditional or easy. Poverty was a possibility, if not a reality, particularly in the early years – of these three songwriters, only Susanna had what could be considered, at least in the financial sense, a hit record (among others, “I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose” was a Number 1 single for Dottsy in 1975). Any extra money that might be floating around was quickly absorbed by alcohol, drugs and, in one sweet anecdote, white paint that Townes bought, in lieu of food, so that Susanna could complete a painting. This story, in fact, epitomizes the relationship between the three – Guy was stubborn and frequently obtuse, whereas Townes truly connected with Susanna. As she says herself (voiced by Sissy Spacek in diary form): ”Guy and I were married, but Townes and I were soulmates.” To their credit, the filmmakers don’t dive into gossip about what “might” have happened – why ruin what even Guy called “a mythical love story?” And when Townes is lost – to the world, but more immediately to the Clarks, it’s Susanna that suffers irreversibly.
There are plenty of fun little nuggets in Without Getting Killed or Caught – how Guy scribbled down that line that Saviano borrows for her title and sat on it for two years – TWO YEARS! – before finishing “L.A. Freeway.” The story behind the ring that Guy is wearing in the photo on Saviano’s book cover, and how he always held onto it. His reaction to FINALLY winning a Grammy late in his life. And what happened to Guy Clark’s ashes after his death in 2016.
But the biggest takeaway from both Saviano’s book and film is the life of Susanna Clark – in fact, a decision was made early in the process of making the documentary to largely tell the story through Susanna’s eyes, via her diaries and tapes. Far from the “muse” often portrayed in popular culture, she was a gifted artist – in many forms – and her very own person. Because of that focus on her journals and recordings, she’s rightfully portrayed as just as talented – and, importantly, just as FLAWED – as Guy and Townes. She could drink and hang with the boys, often to her detriment. Guy and Townes, somewhat unwittingly, fought for her affection and admiration, not just out of love, but out of their respect for her mind – THEY got it, even if the rest of late 20th century Nashville failed to see it. She felt pain like no other when Townes passed, and Guy, in turn, did his best to take care of her until she left, too. Today, Susanna might well be the star. And the fact that her talent, as a function of the time that she lived in, was sidetracked might be the saddest part of this beautiful film.
Without Getting Killed or Caught was produced and directed by Tamara Saviano and Paul Whitfield and written by Saviano & Bart Knaggs. Executive producers: Knaggs, Jay Newberg and Barry Poss. Director of photography/film editor: Whitfield. Story editor/film editor: Sandra Adair. Associate producer: Connie Koepke Nelson. Music by: Guy Clark and Verlon Thompson. Music supervisor: Andrea Von Foerster. Art and animation director: Mel Chin.
Without Getting Killed or Caught will be available on-demand on November 6 (Guy’s 80th birthday): https://www.withoutgettingkilledorcaught.com/
Go here to order Saviano’s book and merch from the film: https://www.withoutgettingkilledorcaught.com/store