10 songs for lovers of great writing

Mark Underwood continues his irregular feature on music by great songwriters with great lyrics, this time taking you through classics from the likes of Guy Clark, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams.

Guy Clark ‘Desperadoes Waiting For A Train’
A song Guy Clark is said to have written about an oilman who used to rent a room at his grandmother’s hotel, it depicts a boy idolising an older man who shows him the ropes. But as the boy watches the oilman age, he sees him become just like all the other old men. Throughout the song, he compares the two of them to the desperados of the song title, until the old man takes his final train journey to the great beyond.

Steve Earle ‘Ft Worth Blues’
Desperadoes Waiting For A Train’ featured a young Steve Earle as one of its backing vocalists. 44 years later, Earle released ‘Guy’, a tribute album to his songwriting hero. Steve Earle wrote ‘Ft Worth Blues’, one of the most poignant numbers on the ‘El Corazon’ album, when he received news about the death of another of his heroes, Townes Van Zandt. Its lyrics powerfully evoke the sense that, for Steve Earle, Townes literally blazed a trail for him: “And every place I travel through / I find some kind of sign that you’ve been through”.

Elvis Costello ‘Indoor Fireworks’
Elvis Costello once said “there’s probably only about five subjects in all human song – “I want someone, I lost someone, I believe in something, someone died, and a Dukla Prague away kit”. ‘Indoor Fireworks’ falls within the second of these categories – a stripped back song from the ‘King of America’ album – it uses typically brilliant wordplay and a single metaphor to depict a failing relationship, but one whose effects still endure:
“Don’t think for a moment, dear, that we’ll ever be through / I’ll build a bonfire of my dreams and burn a broken effigy of me and you.”

James McMurtry ‘We Can’t Make It Here’
Not without justification, author Stephen King wrote that McMurtry “may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation”. A 2004 composition during the George Bush era, the core message of McMurtry’s song – that the working man gets stiffed by the billionaire class – is hardly groundbreaking stuff, but over its seven-minute duration he brilliantly deconstructs how the “hourglass” economy means people have to work two jobs just to get by and globalism has led to the outsourcing of jobs overseas – to the point US industry literally “can’t make it here” no more. McMurtry couldn’t have anticipated how the financial crash four years later, and more recent events, would make things even worse for millions. His anger in the song is palpable and its sentiments just as relevant today: “Some have maxed out all their credit cards / Some are working two jobs and living in cars / Minimum wage won’t pay for a roof, won’t pay for a drink / If you gotta have proof just try it yourself Mr CEO / See how far $5.15 an hour will go /
Take a part-time job at one your stores / I bet you can’t make it here anymore”.

Lucinda Williams ‘Pineola’
There’s only a few things you can write about,”
Lucinda Williams told New York magazine in 2005. “Life, death, love, sex.” Pineola from 1992 tells the story of the suicide of southern poet Frank Stanford. It’s the song that brought Lucinda Williams to the attention of novelist Annie Proulx, who described it as “the best alternative country song I’d heard in years.”

John Prine ‘Hello In There’
Maybe an obvious choice given the recent tragic passing of John Prine, but this song is important for so many reasons. A report last month by the Centre for Ageing Better showed the widespread stereotyping of older people as incompetent, hostile or a burden on others. The Covid-19 crisis has also exposed the extent to which older people are treated as collateral damage, with thousands dying in care home deaths right now and many older, vulnerable people asked to sign “Do Not Resuscitate” forms. Written from the perspective of an old man sharing an empty nest with his lonely wife, Prine’s song feels like a timely plea for understanding what it means to get old and what’s even more impressive is that he was only in his early 20s when he wrote it. One of Prine’s abiding strengths was not just his humanity, but in his ability to fully inhabit the characters of those he often wrote about. “So if you’re walking down the street sometime / And spot some hollow ancient eyes / Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare / As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello”.

Tom Russell ‘California Snow’
There aren’t many people able to write about, and for, the underdog so movingly, but Tom Russell is that rare breed. A co-write with Dave Alvin, the song is a first person narrative from the standpoint of a border patrol guard who gets to witness the tragic effects of migrants attempting to make the journey from Mexico, unprepared for quite how cold California can be in the winter time. Utterly lacking in sentimentality, it’s a number that’s been known to reduce people to tears in a live setting. “Last winter I found a man and wife, Just about daybreak / Layin’ in a frozen ditch, South of the interstate / I wrapped ’em both in blankets, But she’d already died / The next day we sent him back alone, Across the borderline”.

Drive By Truckers ‘Ever South’
From the most important band working in America today, another song written about the migrant experience, this one drawing on the Scottish-Irish roots of the Drive By Truckers, with Paterson Hood tracing his ancestors’ journey from Ellis Island to Appalachia, before his eventual move out west. An incredibly nuanced, well-crafted number about growing up in Alabama, it not only speaks to “the duality of the southern thing”- the idea that liberalism and racism can co-exist in the same place and the same people – but is also an almost poetic reflection on the duality of the immigrant experience: “Ever Southern in my carriage, ever southern in my stance / 
In the Irish of my complexion and the Scottish in my dance / In the way I bang my head against my daily circumstance / Let this blue-eyed southern devil take you out upon the prowl / With decadence and charm we’ll take it into town / Tell you stories of our fathers and the glories of our house / Always told a little slower, ever south”.

The Jayhawks ‘Save It For A Rainy Day’
Gary Louris pulls no punches on the ravages that time can inflict on the body: “Pretty little hair-do / Don’t do what it used to / Can’t disguise the living, all the miles you’ve been through / Looking like a train-wreck / Wearing too much make-up / The burden that you carry, more than one soul, could ever bare.” However, Marina, the subject of the song, is encouraged not to get too downcast because in life there’s always a second act: “Don’t look so sad, Marina / There’s another part to play/ Don’t look so sad Marina / Save it for a rainy day”.

Chuck Prophet ‘Bad Year For Rock and Roll’
Another song which feels really apposite now – its opening line is about David Bowie (“the thin white duke”) but could just as easily refer to John Prine: “Took a final bow / There’s one more star in the heavens now”. 
And for those of us for whom gig going is such a massive part of what makes life worth living, it’s chorus lines probably speak to what a write off 2020 is proving to be: “It’s been a bad year for rock and roll / I wanna go out, But I’ll probably stay home”. Here’s hoping for better in 2021. Stay safe everyone.

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Ken Beveridge

Nice stuff, Mark.
Every song a gem.