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The Secret History of Texas Music

“L.A. Freeway” (1972)

Written by: Guy Clark Recorded by: Jerry Jeff Walker

Los Angeles in 1970 was a mecca for songwriters, and Guy Clark, who was determined to become one of them, moved there from Houston with his girlfriend, Susanna. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like the pollution, he didn’t like their landlord (who chopped down their grapefruit tree one morning), and he didn’t like the fact that publishers were ignoring his songs. But Clark kept at it, and one night, he and his string band landed a gig in a San Diego bar (the doorman was another struggling songwriter, Tom Waits). On the trip back to L.A. after the show, Clark, drunk and tired, began to doze off in the backseat. Suddenly, he started awake and mumbled aloud, “If I could just get off of this L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught.” Clark remembers, “It was like lightbulbs went off. I said to myself, ‘I can’t forget this.’ ” 

He knew if he didn’t write down the words before going back to sleep, they’d be lost forever. So he grabbed an old burger bag, asked Susanna for her eyeliner, and scribbled the phrase. Then he tore it off, stuck it in his wallet, and passed out again. Not long afterward, he finally got a publishing deal and he and  Susanna moved to Nashville. About a month later, he pulled out his wallet and retrieved the phrase. It was time to start writing the song. As the previous year in L.A. came back to him, the words followed—about the concrete, the landlord, and his stand-up bass player, Dennis Sanchez, a.k.a. “old skinny Dennis, the only one I think I will miss.” 

“I didn’t quite know what I had until it was done,” Clark says. Two years later, Jerry Jeff Walker covered the song and made it a hit, and soon everyone in Nashville was recording Clark’s songs.   

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