Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Lyrics of the Day

I've been listening to a bunch of Robert Earl Keen concert recordings lately. A very good songwriter in his own right, Keen chooses exceptional cover material, including James McMurtry's "Levelland," Dave Alvin's "4th of July," and Townes Van Zandt's "Snowin' On Raton." On his 1994 album Gringo Honeymoon, Keen recorded a song Steve Earle wrote almost 20 years earlier, "Tom Ames' Prayer."

Tom Ames is a small-time outlaw sent away by his father: "I can tell you're headed for trouble son and your momma wouldn't understand." He takes off and graduates to robbing banks. The song finds Ames in a precarious situation where he contemplates praying, something he never tried before. He begrudgingly asks God for help and then remembers a previous encounter with the clergy:

Judge Parker said guilty and the gavel came down just like a cannon shot
And I went away quietly and I began to file and plot
Well they sent the preacher down to my cell, he said, "The Lord is your only hope
He's the only friend that you gonna have when you hit the end of Parker's rope"
Well I guess he coulda' kept on preachin' 'till Christmas but he turned his back on me
I put a homemade blade to that golden throat and asked the deputy for the key

Earle finally released his own version the next year on Train A Comin', his first album after getting out of prison. He wanted to make an album fast, so he dug up half a dozen old tunes and a couple of covers to complement a handful of newly written songs. Amazon calls the album an "essential recording," and I concur. Then again, I think most of Earle's albums are essential. Hardcore Earle aficionados can find a 1970s "songwriter's demo" of "Tom Ames' Prayer" on a bootleg known as Mexican Demos (17-track version).

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