The year 2016 has been a tough one for the music world. We have lost so many of our heroes, icons, and shining stars to death – across all styles of music.
Many of these have been exceptional singers – David Bowie, Prince, Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner – but the ones I will miss most will be the songwriters, including Merle Haggard and especially Guy Clark.
Singers give to their audiences, but songwriters do that and give to other singers too. While we often say that no one can perform a song as well as the original songwriter, that isn’t always true. Songwriters’ voices – the indefinable soul that inhabits their songs – can never be duplicated, but singers with smoother or more powerful voices or more skillful instrumentality or arrangements can be technically far superior. Think Patsy Cline’s rendition of “Crazy,” which was written by Willie Nelson.
Songwriters have informed and shaped my musical tastes. Say what you will about John Denver, but his albums introduced me to phenomenal songwriters. His Aerie album alone contained songs by Buddy Holly, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Goodman, and John Prine. Other Denver albums introduced me to songwriters including Bryan Bowers, Hoyt Axton, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Tom Paxton. That’s quite a widening of the musical horizons for a young teen. Without that introduction, I would never have heard “Paradise” or “Sam Stone,” or dozens of other songs that are now living in my head and my memories. I would never have known who wrote the hits “Joy to the World” or “(God Damn) The Pusher,” either.
I noticed the songwriters and actively sought out more of their work. Perhaps I noticed the words first, being an aspiring poet myself, but later I learned how the skillful blending of lyrics and music make for a truly great song.
Songwriters tend not to get as much attention as singers. Audiences frequently don’t notice which songs their idols wrote themselves and which are “covers” of other songwriters’ works. Awards and Hall of Fame inductions for songwriters are vastly outnumbered by those for performers.
Because of the musical idiom I grew up in – country, folk, and what is now called “Americana” – the two recent deaths that have affected me most have been Merle Haggard’s and Guy Clark’s.
Haggard was well known for “Okie From Muskogee,” but he wrote much better songs than that – “Mama Tried,” “Workin’ Man Blues,” “If We Make It Through December,” and “Today I Started Loving You Again,” to name just a few.
Guy Clark was never as famous with the public as Haggard, but in songwriters’ circles, he was a hero. His songs became hits for others – often for multiple artists. “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” “L.A. Freeway,” and “The Last Gunfighter Ballad” were among his most-recorded. Perhaps surprisingly, they are all about everyday subjects – memories of a beloved relative, leaving a home, and an aging man’s delusions. Clark even wrote a song about home-grown tomatoes.
Every time I hear of another celebrity death, I fear for my remaining heroes. Many – including Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson – are in their 80s or nearly so. Billy Joe Shaver has cancelled nearly three weeks of performances for medical reasons. And, let’s face it, all have abused their bodies in various ways over the years. They can’t last forever, however much we might wish it. No matter when they go, they will be gone too soon.