Song of the Week: Texas 1947, Guy Clark

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Click Here to listen to “Texas 1947” by Guy Clark

If you know your country singer-songwriters, Guy Clark is probably old news to you. You already know that he was close personal friends with Townes Van Zandt and has mentored dozens of the most successful names in alt-country, like Lyle Lovett. But if you’ve never dug deep into 1970s outlaw country, please believe me when I tell you Guy Clark is one of the best songwriters of the past 40 years.

“Texas 1947” shows you why. The plot of the song: train isn’t there, train is, train isn’t. That’s probably as simple as you can get, narrative-wise, but Clark describes this vignette with such color, such a vivid sense of detail and ability to describe old things in new ways that the song is hardly about the train at all. That’s why, I suspect, it’s called “Texas 1947” and not something trite about trains.

Take the opening verse: “Bein six years old I had seen some trains before/so it’s hard to figure out what I’m at the depot for/trains are big and black and smoke and steam, screamin’ at the wheels/bigger than anything, at least that’s the way she feels/Trains are big and black and smokin’, louder than July 4/but everybody’s actin’ like this might be somethin’ more.”

Right away, the narrator gets established. Know-it-all six year old, avid train fan. You get an impression for how the kid feels about the trains—giant, loud machines, but with an inexplicable allure (the feminine pronoun is very much intentional, I think). But despite our narrator’s jaded view, there’s something new going on here, something that’s captivated the whole town.

Or as Clark puts it (again in the voice of this six-year-old Texan): “you’da thought that Jesus Christ hisself was a-rollin’ down the line.” This is actually the real theme of this song—never mind trains and six year olds. It’s called Texas 1947 because there’s a feeling throughout the song that this modern new train has irrevocably changed this town. It has brought the future speeding through the lives of everyone in town: “Texas 1947” thus denotes both a beginning and an end.

When the train finally passes, the words get percussive and rhythmic, mirroring the chug of the train—lots of repeated “s” and “sh” sounds. The train itself only gets outlined in the barest terms (colors, speed), and then it’s gone. It’s another shrewd narrative choice: how do you describe something that’s so fast you never really see it? Like in every other type of writing, Clark shows that less is always more.

If there’s one knock on Clark’s songs, it’s that musically a lot of them sound the same, but “Texas 1947” is a bit of an exception. There’s that great descending riff to open that generates momentum immediately—it sounds like the ending to an overture that you just missed because you walked in the theater late, and bonus points for the sheer nuttiness of sticking a bass clarinet in the mix.