THREE’S COMPANY

How Guy and Susanna Clark and Townes Van Zandt made history in East Nashville

Like so many properties these days in East Nashville, the white stucco house that stood at 1307 Chapel Ave. in the early ’70s is no longer there, razed a number of years ago to make way for a new and larger structure. There was nothing particularly special about the tiny, two-bedroom house that sat one property west of the intersection with Douglas Avenue — nothing except Guy Clark wrote the song there that launched his celebrated career. Oh, yeah, and the incomparable Townes Van Zandt wrote one of his best-loved songs there, as well.
     For six or seven months at the end of 1971 and the first half of 1972, decades before East Nashville had an internationally recognized music scene, Clark and his wife, Susanna, lived on Chapel, along with their friend Van Zandt. Van Zandt was already a legend in songwriting circles, but Clark’s career was just getting started when he moved to the little house on Chapel. It was where he wrote “L.A. Freeway,” as well as where he first played the song for Jerry Jeff Walker, who would release it as his first single for MCA later that same year.
     Clark’s time in East Nashville is covered extensively in writer/producer Tamara Saviano’s new book, Without Getting Killed Or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark (Texas A&M University Press). “Guy and Susanna and Townes were in that house very briefly, but it was a pretty creative few months that they were there,” Saviano says during a recent interview with The East Nashvillian.
     While living in Los Angeles in the fall of 1971, Clark signed a songwriting contract with Sunbury Dunbar, the music publishing arm of RCA Records, and they gave him the option of continuing to live in LA or relocating to New York or Nashville, where the company also had offices. He chose Nashville, in part because his friend Mickey Newbury was here.
     “They moved to Nashville in November of ’71, and they lived on Mickey Newbury’s houseboat [on Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville] for a few weeks,” Saviano continues. “Then a secretary at Sunbury Dunbar found them the house on Chapel, and they moved in there in December of ’71 before Christmas.”
     The couple decided to tie the knot about a month after they moved to Chapel Avenue (on Jan. 14), and Clark asked Van Zandt, who was in New York City at the time, to be his best man. After the ceremony at the Sumner County courthouse, and a raucous reception on Newbury’s boat, the Clarks and Van Zandt went back to the East Nashville abode. The house had four small rooms (two bedrooms, living room, kitchen) and a bath. With the arrival of Van Zandt, the second bedroom would double as Susanna’s art studio and his bedroom. In her book, Saviano describes how they found a mattress discarded behind a neighborhood grocery story that night and dragged it home for Van Zandt to sleep on.
     Although he came up with the hook for “L.A. Freeway” while living in California, Clark didn’t write the song until he got to East Nashville. “Guy had written on a burger sack with Susanna’s eyebrow pencil, ‘If I could just get off of this L.A. Freeway without getting killed or caught,’ ” Saviano says. “He carried that little piece of burger sack in his wallet until he got to Nashville, and he wrote the song in the house on Chapel.”
     “L.A. Freeway” wasn’t the first song he wrote at the little house next to the alley between Douglas and McKennie. That was a song called “Old Time Feeling,” and it was the one Clark played first for Walker during Walker’s fateful visit to East Nashville.
     Walker and Van Zandt both knew Clark from the days when they all were playing the folk clubs in Houston. “Guy was basically a folk singer,” Walker says from his home in Austin. “He came through folk music, he knew the tradition, that’s what he was before he became a songwriter. He was the first one of all of our group who actually toured. He wore a suit, played a 12-string, a six-string, and a banjo, told stories, and played that kind of stuff. I remember sitting in the audience and watching him perform, and I thought, ‘Oh, no, I’ve got to be slicker than I am, you know.’ ”
     Walker had been working on his first album for MCA with his band at a studio in Austin, but after hearing the results, his manager, Michael Brovsky, wanted him to cut a few sides in New York with some musicians from Woodstock. He agreed, and decided to make a connection in Nashville so he could pay Clark a visit.
     “I had heard Guy was back from LA, and that he was in Nashville,” Walker recalls. “How I got the Chapel Street address I do not know. But I stopped (in Nashville), got off the plane, and got a rent-a-car, drove to that address, and went to the house.” According to Walker, Van Zandt wasn’t around during his visit, which he said “probably helped, because Guy had time to be face-to-face with me.”
     As he remembers it, Clark told him, “You know, I was always kind of envious of you and Townes writing songs,” then added, “I had a breakthrough.” After that, he played “Old Time Feeling.”
     “That’s the first song of his I ever heard,” Walker says. “As we were finishing, I said, ‘I’m on my way to New York, and I’m going to cut that song.’ He said, ‘Yesterday, I wrote this song, “Pack Up All Your Dishes,” ’ and he played me that song. When he got to the chorus, (sings) ‘If I could just get off of this L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught,’ I said, ‘Guy, that’s really good.’ After that, I went back to the [airport] and flew into New York.”
     In New York, Brovsky asked what he was going to record and Walker told him, “I’m going to record this song of Guy Clark’s called ‘Old Time Feeling.’ ” After Walker played it for him, the manager said, “OK, another introspective Jerry Jeff ballad.”
     He encouraged Brovsky to consider working with Clark. “He can perform, and he’s writing, and he wrote this other song,” Walker told him, then played the chorus to “Pack Up All Your Dishes,” which is all he could remember. His manager loved it and said, “That’s a hit!” And I said, ‘OK, I’ll record both of them.’ “So I called Guy back and got the lyrics over the phone, and then we went in and I cut both ‘Old Time Feeling’ and ‘L.A. Freeway,’ ” he says.
     It was Walker who convinced Clark to call the song “L.A. Freeway” instead of “Pack Up All Your Dishes.” As Saviano relates in her book, Walker called Clark and told him all the musicians were calling it “that ‘L.A. Freeway’ song,” and asked if they could change the title. Clark agreed.
     Although it wasn’t a Top 40 hit, “L.A. Freeway” did make it into the Billboard Hot 100 and was a hit in select markets, including LA and cities in Texas, giving Clark’s fledgling songwriting career an important boost. Clark also wrote “Let Him Roll” at the house on Chapel under some hilarious circumstances vividly described in Saviano’s book: He nailed himself in the bedroom to avoid his wife and Van Zandt, who he felt were “denigrating” his intelligence. That song, along with the two recorded by Walker, all appeared three years later on Clark’s debut album for RCA, Old No. 1.
     Naturally, the prolific Van Zandt wrote songs while he was living at the house on Chapel, including “If I Needed You,” which would become a hit nine years later for Emmylou Harris when she recorded the song as a duet with Don Williams for her album Cimarron. Van Zandt recorded it for his 1972 album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, produced by “Cowboy” Jack Clement. Watching her husband and Van Zandt ply their trades, Susanna decided she could write songs, too. Her first song was a drunken cowrite with Van Zandt, “Heavenly Houseboat Blues,” which also appeared on The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. Van Zandt included “Don’t Let the Sunshine Fool Ya” on that album as well, becoming the second artist to record a Guy Clark song. (Shortly before that, Harold Lee recorded Clark’s song, “The Old Mother’s Locket Trick,” as a single for Cartwheel Records.)
     By the time summer rolled around, the Clarks had left the house on Chapel and moved to Hendersonville to a log cabin next door to Newbury’s home at 159 Sunset Drive, where they had a picturesque view of Old Hickory Lake.
     Decades later, Saviano asked Clark about his time in East Nashville. “He said when he was there, East Nashville was not like East Nashville now, you know, where the hipsters all want to live there,” she recalls. “It wasn’t like that — it was a cheap house, and it wasn’t about the fact it was in East Nashville. But a lot of good stuff happened in the short time they were there.”

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPH: The photo accompanying this story was taken sometime in 1972 by the late Al Clayton, a renowned photo journalist best known for his work for Look and Life magazines. His assignments took him from his home in Copper Hill, Tenn., to the warfront, to the most impoverished areas of the U.S., and to Nashville’s Music Row, where he fell in with a group of songwriters who were changing the face of the city, writers like Mickey Newbury, Kris Kristofferson, Chris Gantry, and Townes Van Zandt. Clayton knew Van Zandt from his work for Look, which led him to East Nashville and the house at 1307 Chapel Ave. Clayton is the subject of a forthcoming documentary, Look Out Lord, Here Comes Al Clayton, being produced by Steve Colby and Katy Powers for Pogo Pictures in conjunction with Clayton’s immediate family. For more information about the documentary, visit http://pogopictures.com/tv-film/.