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'Without Getting Killed or Caught' is a documentary about musician Guy Clark

(SOUNDBITE OF GUY CLARK SONG, "L.A. FREEWAY")

NOEL KING, HOST:

The singer-songwriter Guy Clark once talked about being cursed with artistic integrity. It's not clear how serious he was. Clark led a quiet revolution on the margins of country music, starting in the '70s. While other singers were writing radio-friendly hits, he was writing poetry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "L.A. FREEWAY")

GUY CLARK: (Singing) Throw out them LA papers and that moldy box of vanilla wafers. Adios to all this concrete. Going to get me some dirt road back street.

KING: Guy, his wife, Susanna Clark, and a small group of friends committed themselves to these kinds of songs. You couldn't always find them, but once you heard them, you'd never forget them. Tamara Saviano directed a new documentary about Guy and Susanna called "Without Getting Killed Or Caught." She worked as Guy's manager and biographer, and she knew them both well.

TAMARA SAVIANO: He and his wife, Susanna, were really ringleaders in the genre we now call Americana. They hosted a salon at their house all through the '70s, '80s and '90s that hosted such songwriters as Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell and Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Emmylou Harris - just a really creative, interesting bunch.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WITHOUT GETTING KILLED OR CAUGHT")

SISSY SPACEK: (As Susanna Clark) Songwriters with lofty ideals knew where to find Guy. He didn't care about mainstream music. His only desire was to write songs as great literature. Our house was a hippie poet salon.

KING: I noticed that the word literary and literature comes up again and again and again as people testify in the film to Guy Clark's talent.

SAVIANO: Yes, that's true. And while in Nashville, people were cranking out hit songs for the radio, Guy really wanted to write literary songs. As Steve Earle says in our film, his songs could have been short stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE AIN'T GOIN' NOWHERE")

CLARK: (Singing) Standing on the gone side of leaving, she found a thumb and stuck it in the breeze.

SAVIANO: Guy considered himself a poet first. He really was just more of an author than a songwriter, I think.

KING: Tell me about Susanna Clark. This is Guy Clark's wife. And in many ways, she is at the heart of his story and of this film's story.

SAVIANO: She is. We decided to tell the story of Guy Clark through Susanna's eyes because you really can't tell the story of Guy without Susanna and without their best friend Townes Van Zandt.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WITHOUT GETTING KILLED OR CAUGHT")

SPACEK: (As Susanna Clark) I'm Susanna Clark. Now I live in Nashville with my husband, Guy, and our best friend, Townes Van Zandt. We're starving artists (laughter), but we have each other.

SAVIANO: Susanna was an artist. She was a painter, and she was a songwriter. And she really was the heart and soul of these salons that they hosted. All the songwriters in Nashville of a certain era considered Susanna their muse. She was just incredibly talented herself.

KING: She wrote her own songs.

SAVIANO: Yes.

KING: Some of them turned into hits.

SAVIANO: She was the hit songwriter of the trio.

KING: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME FROM THE HEART")

KATHY MATTEA: (Singing) It's got to come from the heart if you want it to work.

KING: And so this becomes complicated because you have a husband who is a self-described poet and artist and a wife who has managed some mainstream success. What does that do to their relationship?

SAVIANO: It was an issue at times, especially in the early days when Susanna was having hits and Guy was really struggling for anybody to even care about him.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WITHOUT GETTING KILLED OR CAUGHT")

CLARK: She considered herself a painter who dabbled in songwriting (laughter).

SAVIANO: Guy kind of laughed about it when he said she would write a hit song like it was nothing and then say to them, is this what you're trying to do?

KING: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WITHOUT GETTING KILLED OR CAUGHT")

CLARK: She just watched Townes and I go through all of this angst, and she could just sit down and write anything off the top of her head and have a hit number-one song, you know?

SPACEK: (As Susanna Clark) Guy and I got married, and Townes was our best man. He was with us on our wedding night and lived with us for the next eight months.

KING: Susanna was married to Guy Clark, but she was in physical relationships with at least one man in the salon, Townes Van Zandt, and possibly others.

SAVIANO: Yeah, I think it was just kind of accepted that that's the way that they lived their lives. Susanna would say that she and Guy were married, Guy and Townes were best friends, and she and Townes were soul mates. Unfortunately, after Townes died, Susanna - she just had this complicated grief that never lifted.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WITHOUT GETTING KILLED OR CAUGHT")

CLARK: Oh, it really destroyed her. She was very grievous at Townes's death.

KING: Susanna just kind of drops out of life. I don't know of a better way to put it. But to envision a woman who's so full of life, who's so talented, who, from the jump, has been just, like - honestly manages to drag the attention away from these two men with big personalities, and then to see her fade like that. Tell me what you think happened to her exactly and why?

SAVIANO: Well, of course, I'm not a doctor, not a psychiatrist.

KING: Yes, very fair.

SAVIANO: Yeah. I mean, I can't figure it out. I - you know, of course, we've all gone through grief, and we somehow muddle through to the other side. And she just didn't.

KING: Was Susanna alone? Did she have people with her?

SAVIANO: Guy was with her when she died. She died in her sleep, and it was very peaceful. And Guy was there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY FAVORITE PICTURE OF YOU")

CLARK: (Singing) My favorite picture of you is the one where you're staring straight into the lens. Just a Polaroid shot someone took on the spot. No beginning, no end.

KING: What do you want people to take away from this film, whether they know Guy Clark or not?

SAVIANO: You know, I've spent 13 years of my life on Guy Clark for the sole reason that I want everybody to immediately start going down a Guy Clark rabbit hole and listen to all his songs and become Guy Clark fans.

KING: (Laughter) You've succeeded with me.

SAVIANO: (Laughter) Well, good.

KING: You should see my iTunes right now (laughter).

SAVIANO: I'm so happy to hear that. One down.

KING: (Laughter) Tamara Saviano is the director of the new documentary. It's called "Without Getting Killed Or Caught," and it's about the life and music of Guy Clark. Tamara, thank you so much for being with us.

SAVIANO: Thank you. Really fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY FAVORITE PICTURE OF YOU")

CLARK: (Singing) A thousand words in the blink of an eye. The camera loves you, and so do I. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.