I first heard this song properly at The Red Lion Folk Club in Woolmer Green near Knebworth in 1980. I was vaguely aware of it, as I may have heard Captain Beefheart's Magic Band's version (then called Mallard - possibly after the train not the duck. Hear them on the ubiquitous YouTube - it's not very good.). It's all a long time ago, now. But the first time I heard it properly was performed by Martin Simpson, played solo. Later he recorded it on Special Agent (1981) where he plays a beautiful slide guitar solo. More of that later.
Guy Clark's version - the original - recorded on his first album Old No.1 - had been released in 1975 but was difficult to get hold of over here in Blighty. I'd read a big interview with him in Melody Maker and was intrigued by his stories of growing up in Texas. The whole album is full of dusty landscapes and old cowboys looking back on better days.
The song tells the true story of a character Clark hung around with when he was a kid who was brought up by his grandmother. She ran a hotel and this old man had been a well-driller. The song tells of the great times Clark had driving this old bloke around ("when he's too drunk to") and "he'd wink and give me money for the girls". The story has a killer pay off, a real tearjerker. Clark's version features piano and Clark's own acoustic guitar (he builds his own). There is some light bass and drums in the background along with some steel guitar and a little violining on an electric guitar. Emmylou Harris sings backing vocals. The imagery of old guys "with beerguts and dominoes, lying about their lives while they played" is very filmic. The song returns to the kitchen that it starts in. The man was the closest Clark had to a father figure - the complete opposite to Johnny Cash's imaginary one in A Boy Named Sue. The sound conjures up old sepia photographs and an era not unlike Walter Hill's Last Man Standing (1996; yet another attempt to remake Kurosawa's Yojimbo). You know, the one with Bruce Willis playing Clint Eastwood's part from A Fistful of Dollars. No? Oh well, the loneliness of the long distance Film Studies teacher, I guess.
Martin's version starts with a quiet tune played solo on his acoustic, gradually a bass joins in. The drums are a little tub-thumping (that's the curse of English folk singers in the 1980s) but they don't overpower. In the background Martin introduces a slide part played on his hybrid Dobro/Fylde. Simpson's voice is slighter than Clark's gruff old cowboy croak but he sings it well. But his slide playing is (of course) so emotional. One of our absolutely greatest guitarists who is beginning to get the recognition he deserves. As the song ends, there is a short uptempo semi-jig in that way Martin has of frailing his guitar ( a banjo term I believe - quite legal).
There we have it, one of the finest songs out of America from last Century - already a classic. It's been recorded many times since I first heard it - Nanci Griffith recorded it on Other Voices, Too. Try to hear Guy Clark's version if you can. Unfortunately YouTube has got loads of cover versions but not Clark's own - plenty of him on there though. Plenty of Martin too - but not Desperadoes. Oh well, there's always iTunes.