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Music is important around the offices of 4381 and I was discussing a music project I had worked on using a Steve Earle song from long ago. I was drawing a damn blank on the name of the song. I knew the album, I even new the artwork for the album, but I couldn’t remember the song title. Some people started rattling of Steve Earle song titles and none were the one I wanted. Someone read the songs of the album. I had remembered it being track six, but no, that’s “Billy Austin”. I wanted track 8 “Have Mercy”.

What became quickly apparent was just how many incredible story songs Steve has written. Now, he might not be everyone’s taste. In fact, based on what most of the people hanging around the office these days listen to, well, I don’t think Steve Earle pops up on their playlists very often. My taste’s have never been the same as the mass populace and of course I have to remember this when spouting off on music. Just because I am right about what to listen to doesn’t mean everyone else will realize how wrong they are. I might be kidding here, maybe.

Anyway the story songs on The Hard Way album include:

Esmeralda’s Hollywood
(Steve Earle, Maria McKee)

Nights fall hard on Hollywood
The stars don’t come out like they should
Up above the world so high tonight
They can’t outshine the neon lights
Now the golden days are gone for good
In Esmeralda’s Hollywood
She comes out when the sun is gone
But she don’t have to walk alone
Cause once the darkness takes this town
She ain’t the only ghost around
Waitin’ by the public phone
If it don’t ring she heads back home
Esmeralda, Esmeralda girl, what are you waitin’ for
Esmeralda, Esmeralda, can’t hang around this place no more
Searchlights rip the L.A. sky
When you look in Esmeralda’s eyes
The people come from miles around
To see the kings and queens they crowned
Behind the barricades they stood
In Esmeralda’s Hollywood
Aw, wait until the sun goes down
Listen for the lonely sound
Esmeralda’s hanging round
No one shed a tear that day
When Esmeralda passed away
All up and down the strip they say
It was just like any other day
The evil struggled with the good
Down in Esmeralda’s Hollywood

Billy Austin
(Steve Earle)

My name is Billy Austin
I’m Twenty-Nine years old
I was born in Oklahoma
Quarter Cherokee I’m told
Don’t remember Oklahoma
Been so long since I left home
Seems like I’ve always been in prison
Like I’ve always been alone
Didn’t mean to hurt nobody
Never thought I’d cross that line
I held up a filling station
Like I’d done a hundred times
The kid done like I told him
He lay face down on the floor
guess I’ll never know what made me
Turn and walk back through that door
The shot rang out like thunder
My ears rang like a bell
No one came runnin’
So I called the cops myself
Took their time to get there
And I guess I could’a run
I knew I should be feeling something
But I never shed tear one
I didn’t even make the papers
‘Cause I only killed one man
but my trial was over quickly
And then the long hard wait began
Court appointed lawyer
Couldn’t look me in the eye
He just stood up and closed his briefcase
When they sentenced me to die
Now my waitin’s over
As the final hour drags by
I ain’t about to tell you
That I don’t deserve to die
But there’s twenty-seven men here
Mostly black, brown and poor
Most of em are guilty
Who are you to say for sure?
So when the preacher comes to get me
And they shave off all my hair
Could you take that long walk with me
Knowing hell is waitin’ there
Could you pull that switch yourself sir
With a sure and steady hand
Could you still tell youself
That you’re better than I am
My name is Billy Austin
I’m twenty-nine years old
I was born in Oklahoma
Quarter Cherokee I’m told

Justice In Ontario
(Steve Earle)

Oh you who hail from Ontario
Know the tale of the Donnelly’s Oh
Died at the hands of a mob that night
Every child and man by the oil torch light
Jim Donnelly was no angel sure
But they burned his barn, broke down the door
Well the children cried while they killed old Jim
Then they killed his wife, then they turned on them
No judge, no jury, no hangman, no justice in Ontario
A hundred years or more have turned
And you always hear how much we’ve learned
Well a man lay dead in a Port Hope bar
And the blood ran red on a hardwood floor
And the big men ran through the nearest door
Only one man knew what had happened for sure
Well one and all wore the outlaws’ brand
And the big bikes roared through the Great Northland
When you live on the edge of the law
You know, justice in Ontario
Blue smoke still hung in the air
No one spoke when the cops got there
Well the local constable made the call
Send us Corporal Terry Hall
They all sang a different tune
When Corporal Hall walked in the room
With his picture book and a list of names
One by one the witnesses came
And they told him what he wanted to know
Justice in Ontario
The provincial cops searched far and wide
And the outlaws ran but they could not hide
And they brought em in every single one
Save the man who actually fired the gun
It was down in London, they were tried
And the guilty man stood free outside
When he took the stand to pay his debt
The judge was blind and the jury deaf
In Kingston Town they’re locked up still
When the sun goes down and the air is chill
You could swear you heard Jim Donnelly’s ghost cry
“Justice In Ontario”

Have Mercy
(Steve Earle)

He was standin’ on the corner
A hundred dollar bill in his hand
Said I could feed a lot of these people with this
But that ain’t the business at hand
Ain’t but one reason for a white boy to be
Over on this side of town
He gave that money to the man and he
Bought a little mercy for now
Have mercy on me
Have mercy on me
I’m a sinner Lord can’t you see
Have mercy on me

Old Joe don’t know how it got started
I guess it was the fire in her eyes
He loved his wife and children
And he wasn’t into telling all these lies
But she gave herself so freely
In that room at the top of the stairs
He’d go to her in hope he’d find a little mercy there

Tears were made to fall
Hearts made to break
Sometimes it feels
Like they just want to know
How much you can take
She was all alone that evening
What was she thinking about
Her mind was made up and
I guess it was the only way out
There’s a pistol in a pawn shop window
Made of cold, blue steel
She took it home to find out
How warm a little mercy could feel
God knows that mercy ain’t free
Have mercy on me

Country Girl
(Steve Earle)

She’s a country girl
Young and pretty
She wanna see the world
So she headed for the city
She was entertained in all the right places
Knew half of the names, and all of the faces
Just a country girl
If her daddy could see her now
Just a country girl
Well you’d never recognize your little angel now
She comes down from way South,
She talks slow and lazy
When she opened her mouth the city boys went crazy
They fed her pink champagne, give her a headache
Cheap cocaine makes her meaner than a rattlesnake
Reelin’ and a rockin’ couldn’t get enough
Crawlin’ when the sun comes up
And payback’s hell
There’s a bag lady talkin’ to her shopping cart
Don’t you know the scary part
is she saw herself

And you could argue there are a couple of others on that album that fit the mold. None of those were thrown out tonight. Copperhead Road is a three generational epic of a family on the wrong side of the law running moonshine and eventually cocaine and weed from a holler up on Copperhead Road. Devil’s Right Hand is an anti gun story of a young man seduced by a love of pistols and gunfighting. No. 29 about a former High School football star remembering back when he was No. 29. The Week of Living Dangerously about a married man’s impulsive decision to toss the car seat in the dumpster and head down to Boy’s Town across the Mexican Border. Ellis Unit One about a guard in Huntsville assigned to the death row unit. Taney Town about a young black man that sneaks over to the white sound of town and gets in trouble way over his head and kills another young man. He runs an escapes only to learn another man was put to death for the crime. Telephone Road about Telephone Road in Houston in the 70’s. N.Y.C. about a truck driver picking up a hitchhiker headed for New York. The Unrepentant about a uncompromising truck driver who kills himself so he can travel down to Hell and stare down the Devil with a .44. Tom Ames Prayer, an incredible song about a gunfighter stuck in alley with only four bullets left and a posse waiting to kill him out in the street. He realizes he’s never prayed and the song is his remembering his life while talking to God. When all is said and done he sings “Who in the hell am I talking to? There ain’t no-one here but me.” Then the protagonist cocks both of his pistols, spits in the dirt and walks out into the street.

Too damn many to mention. I found this article about his “Feel Alright” album being the greatest country album ever. give it a read and then give the album a listen and also check out this beautiful song about remembering a painful breakup, knowing it’s over, but not being able to recall if you ever said Goodbye. It, as he says in the link, is the first song he ever wrote sober. See, Steve started heroin when he was in his early teens, rode it out, eventually developed a $1,000 a day habit, spent four years down and out and only wrote a couple of songs in those four years and was arrested for drug and weapons charges and did some time in prison. He got out and has been a creative force since. So, the albums Guitar Town, Exit 0, Copperhead Road, The Hard Way, Sidetracks and Shut and Die Like an Aviator were done under the influences of “what have you got, I’ll smoke, drink, snort or shoot that” living. Goes to prison for stint, gets out and record the acoustic Train a’ Comin, I Fell Alright, El Corazon, Transcendental Blues, Jerusalem, The Revolution Starts Now, Washington Square Serenade, Townes, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, The Low Highway, Terraplane, So You Wannabe An Outlaw, Guy, The Mountain (with Del McCoury Band), Colvin & Earle, Together at the Bluebird Café (with Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark) in the following years.

Here’s that thing I did long ago…


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