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One of my all-time favorite songs is Guy Clark's epic Desperados Waiting for a train. It is a brilliant narrative ballad about a young boy and a grandfather figure, someone worn around the edges, "an old-school man of the world." Guy has spoken about the origins of this song, and he said the song was written about his grandmother's boyfriend. His grandmother owned a hotel out in west Texas, "a town between Pecos and nowhere," and that setting informed a number of his songs. For example, The Last Gunfighter Ballad, which Waylon Jennings loved and lent his voice to the original recording.

Anyway, Guy wrote this song about his pseudograndfather. The song is a bittersweet tale of growing up with this man. The narrator recounts memories of tagging along while this man played 42 (a Texas tradition in local domino parlors, more like bridge or spades than standard dominoes), and driving his car when he's too drunk to drive himself. The narrator casts them as two charactes in an old Western movie, "like desperados waiting for a train." Later, when the old man is dying, the narrator plays an old song that they used to sing and eases him into death, with the iconic phrase, "C'mon Jack, that sonofabitch is comin'."

Growing up, I knew this song intimately. Jerry Jeff Walker recorded a version on his landmark album ¡Viva Terlingua!. That album was etched into my soul when I was a kid. It was constantly playing, on my mom's record player while I jumped on the bed, at the lake, in the car when we first had a cassette deck. Jerry Jeff's version of the song adheres to the wild spirit of his Hunter S. Thompson-inspired Lost Gonzo Band. The song reaches its peak on a surprisingly quiet note, with the lyric subtly changed to "Yeah, Jack, you know that son'a'bitch is comin'." It then builds to a frenzy, with the drums picking up into a fast shuffle and the bass and organ kicking into a frantic note, before the song fades out. This was the version of the song I knew and loved. In a way, the frenzied denouement was almost an apology for the heavy material. On the album, it goes straight into Sangria Wine, an ode to getting drunk with friends.

After Jerry Jeff's version, outlaw-country supergroup The Highwaymen did a version of the song. Despite the talent involved, the slick, keyboard-heavy version never really spoke to me. It was interesting to hear Kris, Waylon, Willie, and Johnnie do the verses, but overall, I always found it an oddity. Like most of the Highwaymen recordings, really. It was the 80s, I suppose.

When I was in college, I started to get into Guy Clark's catalog, and was faced with his version of the song. At first, I was repelled by his raw version, because it is so different from Jerry Jeff's gonzo version. Over time, though, I came to appreciate Guy's pure emotion when he sings the song, particularly since he is singing an ode he wrote to a person who was literally a real figure in his life. When the Nashville overlords gave Guy permission to record his first album. Old No. 1, he whittled his already-extensive catalog down to what he considered his best songs, and this one made the cut. That studio recording is great, but it was transformed into a largely piano-driven ballad.

For my money, the best youtube-available recording of the song is this one, a solo recording that was included in the documentary Heartworn Highways. This is the song as Guy wrote it, in a quiet, emotional solo guy-and-guitar performance. A song "about a man who was kinda like [his] grandfather, really [his] grandmother's boyfriend, a man named Jack Prigg." This is the tall Texan who migrated to Nashville and set up a salon for young songwriters, where anyone with a guitar and half a song could show up and know they'd find a tall long-haired guy with a chambray shirt and turqoise ring, who would help them make their songs better. This is Guy the icon singing the song that would later make his name when Jerry Jeff recorded it. No bullshit, no band, just a dude and a song.


As an aside, Heartworn Highways has some great footage, though it is not necessarily a great movie. Ostensibly, the filmmaker wanted to document Guy's scene in Nashville, but was distracted by flashier acts like David Allan Coe and Charlie Daniels somewhat. The film, and particularly the bonus footage, includes a number of songs from Guy, and a young Rodney Crowell, and an impossibly young Steve Earle (he must have been like 18 or 19), and even a young John Hiatt shows up. As the story goes, Guy and Steve Earle were irritated with how intrusive the filmmakers were getting, and on a lark they told them they needed to go to Austin to check out the best songwriter in the world, Townes Van Zandt. They did believe that Townes was the best songwriter in the world, but they knew Townes and thought he would generally be a wild goose chase. Ironically, Townes's scenes stole the movie, because he was the only one who unabashedly played to the camera. He shot some cans with a BB gun, held some chickens, and generally goofed off. He told a tall tale about how he was raising the world's biggest rabbits, and pretended to fall into a rabbit warren. He was shacked up in Clarksville, Austin, TX, which was traditionally an all-black independent neighborhood, separate from Austin's grid. He brought over an old, black, traveling blacksmith, who sat in on his performances and cried during his performance of Waiting 'Round to Die. Townes jokingly said "let me play you the medley of my Hit," and did did Pancho and Lefty. It had then been a minor "hit" for Emmylou Harris, but a decade later it would later become a much bigger hit for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Willie admitted he had didn't know the song before they recorded it, and it was his daughter who suggested it as a track. Not that Willie owes any credit to other songwriters for making his career, but in concert I have always seen him give props to Townes for the song.
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