They don’t make ’em like they used to, whatever it is. Automobiles, houses, guitars, kitchen tables, songs, souls, and warm moments of friends and family, and home and hearth that remain in the hearts of those that were there, forever.
When songwriters like Steve Young, Townes Van Zandt, and Guy Clark were plying their craft on a regular basis, there was still untilled ground left in the English language, and in the country music mold. There were still human emotions, and important moments in everyone’s life that had yet to be set perfectly to song and poetry. There were still nooks and crannies of the human experience that we had all felt, but struggled mightily to put into words.
But these titans of songwriting, they could re-imagine those emotions and moments in lyrics that resonated almost as potently as the emotions and moments themselves, and with such spellbinding alacrity and ease, they almost seemed as gods on earth, weaving magic out of thin air, and allowing the listener to drift off to somewhere miles away from the malaise of modern emotional automation.
It was Christmas Eve, 1975, at the house of Guy and Susanna Clark, and the gang was all there. Sitting around a table cluttered with packs of smokes, whiskey and wine bottles, half-full glasses of libations, heapings of home cooked food growing cold, and a few oil lamps beating back the dark and cold was a cadre of songwriters and musicians who would go on to define the sound of a generation. But they did not know that at the time, and that’s one of the reasons that made the moment so special. They were still hungry, still mostly unknown, and looking to carve out their niche and make their mark.
It was a guitar pull, a jam session around Guy Clark’s kitchen table. There was Guy himself, leading the parade with his wife and fellow songwriter/artist Susanna by his side. Around the table sat a young Rodney Crowell, still nearly 15 years away from recording an impressive five consecutive #1’s. There was a bushy-headed Steve Earle, who nobody had heard of at the time. There was Steve Young, who would become famous for writing “Seven Bridges Road.” And songwriter Jim “James” McGuire, playing dobro. They were expatriated Texans and musical tradesman trading licks in Tennessee, trying to create a sense of home during the Christmas holiday, and trying to express who they were, undoubtedly struggling with their demons and doubts, tired of being poor, and trying to hold on to who they were inside.
In Guy Clark’s kitchen on that Christmas Eve, Steve Young led everyone in a rendition of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Steve Earle sang the old Bob Wills /Tommy Duncan tune “Stay A Little Longer.” Rodney Crowell led the kitchen in “Silent Night.” And Guy Clark sang “Country Morning Music.”
You get the sense that such moments happened all the time in the late 60’s through the mid 70’s, beyond the bright lights and big fame of the country music mainstream. They happened at the Dripping Springs Reunion, and at Tompall Glaser’s Hillbilly Central recording studio. But there weren’t any cameras around to capture these moments. It wasn’t like today where people walk around with video cameras on their hips, and a penchant to share everything. It only happened to be that a few guys for a film called Heartworn Highways were looking to document what was happening in the Outlaw underbelly of American country music, and happened to be in that very room with the cameras rolling.
Today, many musical artists attempt to mimic the poetic candidness and camaraderie of that moment in Guy Clark’s kitchen in their personal lives, purposely drinking and smoking too much, making a mess of their own kitchen tables under a false sense that it was the symbolic gestures and careless nature of the whole thing that made these country music songwriting titans cool in their time. The reason the moments around Guy Clark’s kitchen were so magical was because they captured these soon-to-be stars and legends as they genuinely were in that moment in time, totally unaware of what the future would hold for them and their music.
It was catching lightning in a bottle. And that is what we’re all searching for when we listen to a record, go out to a live show, pen or play a song ourselves, invite some friends over for supper and songs, and search for the manna of life with friends that is enhanced that much more through the incredible gift of music.
But too often today that magic isn’t there. All the songs have been sung, all the stories have been told, and all the greats of the past are falling by the wayside. Those nooks and crannies have been discovered, and those emotions sung about ad nauseam. There’s no more frontier. Those moments in Guy Clark’s kitchen are what we live for, but they’re too often fleeting, and too far between in the priority of modern life, and lost in the falsehood of much of today’s music.
A couple of modern day songwriters named Willy “Tea” Taylor and Tom VandenAvond have been touring together under the title of “Searching for Guy Clark’s Kitchen” for years while a camera crew shooing in Super 8 and other formats follows them around. The idea is to try and rekindle the magic that was forged around Guy Clark’s kitchen table that one night, even though that elusive moment may never be found. “It’s gonna be at least 10 years, maybe 20 years before we finish it,” says Willy “Tea” Taylor of the documentary. “I mean, do you ever find Guy Clark’s kitchen?”
That moment may be more than 40 years past now, but it’s still going on strong in our memories. 2016 has taken Steve Young from that legendary lineup in Guy Clark’s kitchen, Guy wife Susanna left us in 2012, and now its host has left us. But it has only made that moment that more special. The jam session is still going on, all day and well into the night. Friends, food, and music. And will never stop. It just happens to be that the lineup in the afterlife keeps getting better, and the rest of us stuck in this mortal coil have to keep looking back to find the magic.
But Guy Clark’s kitchen is out there, waiting for us all—a place of home and happiness, where friends and promise are all around, and where the music never stops.