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The A+ List: “Tom Ames Prayer” by Steve Earle


Steve Earle


In 1993 Earle was arrested for possession of heroin and in 1994, for cocaine and weapons possession, jailed for a year, he coulda fallen apart, instead he got out of jail, stopped the drugs,  and recorded two of his best albums, Train A Comin’ And I Feel Alright,the former folk country, the latter rock country. By 1996, I was seeing him on stage every chance I had, indeed, around this time, he performed one of the best sets I’ve yet to see (15 years later he would play its equal opening for levon Helms at the Beacon Theatre, my review). Yeah, I was obsessed with the guy and why not? I loved the Guitar Town guy as a Nashville maverick and preferred him as the rock and roll fan, covering “Dead Flowers” and “I’m Loving Through You”.

Maybe a hundred great songs by 1996 and “Tom Ames Prayer”ain’t even the best, it ain’t even the best on Train A Comin’ (that would be “Goodbye” but with the aid of hindsight, just knowing how the 21st century would treat him, it isn’t just my favorite it is a reminder of how great songwriting works, plus one of the great lines ever, read it here:


Now, listen folks, that’s old time religion, and catch the line right before it: “You don’t owe me nothin’ and as far as I know
Lord don’t owe nothin’ to you…” That’s a wonderful view of God, indeed, it coincides with mind about as well as I can see.

Tom Ames was born bad, stealing by the time he was ten years, finally “one day his daddy took a ten dollar bill
and he tucked it in his hand: He said I can tell you’re headed for trouble son, and your momma wouldn’t understand.”

Ames took to robbin’ banks, and had some close calls, nearly at the end of a hang man’s rope. But as the song opens, Tom is “trapped in an alley in Abilene with all but four shells spent”, and with the end near and that’s when he asks God for a little bit of luck and doesn’t get it. But before that he yelps with joy at the memory of a close call.

The song is addictive country and western, with a gorgeous finger picked solo and a gruff straightforward reading by Earle. A masterpiece, of course, it is the essence and explanation and also the embrace and the final frame of very bad behavior. A humanism of sorts because if Earle does nothing here, he makes Ames story, he explains, via the Daddy’s words, that Ames was simply heading for trouble, there was no escape from his fate. His Dad saw it and knew and so do we..

But in that is the miracle of bad behavior, of lucky, good and bad though, as the narrator warns “Outside the law your luck will run out fast…” There is a certain magic to this but it is a black magic, it is a little like the end of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid”, so melodic and cheerfully bad mannered and yet there is a sterling steel backbone here. The truth is, who can’t respond well to this tough guy.. and to the finally finishing end of him.

I ain’t looking for a miracle, Lord…


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