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15 UNRELEASED

Song List

Sun City

Angelou (alternate version)

Wild Wind Blowing (live)

Dance With Me Girl (live)

Brakeman’s Blues (live)

Out Here On The Farm

Hone, Honey, Honey (alternate version)

Rita Memphis And The Blues/

James Dean Coming Over The Hill (live)

Reputation (live)

Little Child (live)

These Days

Backroad Blues (alternate version)

New York City

Killing Me (live)

River Girl (alternate version)

Credits

1.  Sun City (3:42)

     Recorded October 2001, Austin, TX

     Tom Ovans - vocal, guitar

     © 2001 Tom Ovans

2.      Angelou (6:30)

Recorded 1994, Nashville, TN

Tom Ovans - vocal, acoustic guitar

      Larry Chaney - electric guitars, cuatro

Kelly Looney - bass

Ken Coomer - drums

      © 1994 Tom Ovans
 

3.      Wild Wind Blowing (3:29)

Recorded "live" January 1992, Douglas Corner Nashville, TN

Tom Ovans - vocal, acoustic guitar

Bob Britt - electric guitar

Ken Moore - keyboards

Bob Kommersmith - bass

Craig Wright - drums

      © 1991 Tom Ovans
 

4.      Dance With Me Girl (4:56)

Recorded "live" May 1999, KUT Austin, TX

Tom Ovans - vocal, acoustic guitar, harmonica

Larry Chaney - acoustic guitar

Lou Ann Bardash - background vocal

© 1994 Tom Ovans
 

5.    Brakeman's Blues (4:08)

Recorded "live" May 1999, KUT Austin, TX

Tom Ovans - vocal, acoustic guitar, harmonica

Larry Chaney - acoustic guitar

Lou Ann Bardash - background vocal

      © 1994 Tom Ovans
 

6.    Out Here On the Farm (3:00)

      Recorded 1985, Nashville, TN

      Tom Ovans - vocal, acoustic guitar

      Denis Colby - electric guitar

      Ken Moore - keyboard

      Bob Kommersmith - bass

      Jack "Bullet" Harris - drums

      © 1985 Tom Ovans
  

7.      Honey, Honey, Honey (2:26)

Recorded 1987, Nashville, TN

Tom Ovans - vocal, acoustic guitar, harmonica

Denis Colby - acoustic guitar

Ken Moore - keyboards

Tom Skinker - bass

Lou Ann Bardash - background vocals

©1988 Tom Ovans
 

8.      Rita, Memphis and the Blues/James Dean Coming Over The Hill (7:49)

Recorded "live" November 1, 1999 The Borderline, London, England

Tom Ovans - vocal, acoustic guitar, harmonica

Lou Ford - bass

Danny Preece - percussion

Lou Ann Bardash - background vocal

© 1996 Tom Ovans/Bug Music

9.      Reputation (4:10)

Recorded "live" November 1991, Douglas Corner, Nashville, TN

Tom Ovans - vocal, acoustic guitar

Larry Chaney - electric guitar

Ken Moore - keyboards

Bob Kommersmith - bass

Craig Wright - drums

©1985 Tom Ovans
 

10.  Little Child (4:52)

Recorded "live" January 1992, Douglas Corner, Nashville, TN

Tom Ovans - vocal, acoustic guitar

Bob Britt - electric guitar

Ken Moore - keyboards

Bob Kommersmith - bass

Craig Wright - drums

©1991 Tom Ovans
 

11.  These Days (4:34)

Recorded 1985, Nashville, TN

Tom Ovans - vocal, acoustic guitar

Bob Kommersmith - bass

©1985 Tom Ovans
 

12.  Back Road Blues (3:35)

Recorded 2002, Austin, TX

Tom Ovans - vocal, acoustic guitar, mandolin, bass, percussion

      © 1993 Tom Ovans
 

13.  New York City (5:31)

Recorded 1996, Nashville, TN

Tom Ovans - vocal, acoustic & electric guitar, harmonica, percussion

      ©1996 Tom Ovans
 

14.  Killing Me (4:37)

Recorded "live" November 1999, The Borderline, London, England

Tom Ovans - vocal, acoustic guitar, harmonica

Lou Ford - bass

Danny Preece - percussion

Lou Ann Bardash - backing vocal

      © 1996 Tom Ovans
 

15.  River Girl (3:27)

Recorded 1986, Nashville, TN

Tom Ovans - vocal, acoustic guitar

Ken Moore - keyboards

©1986 Tom Ovans

 

6, 7, 11 - Recorded at True West Studio, Nashville, TN 

15 - Recorded at Star Track Studio, Nashville, TN 

3, 9, 10 - Recorded "live" at Douglas Corner, Nashville, TN

2 - Recorded at Sound Vortex, Nashville, TN  Robb Earls - engineer

      Mixed by Mark Hallman at The Congress House, Austin, TX

13 - Recorded at Barking Dog, Nashville, TN

4, 5 - Recorded "live" at studio (1A) KUT Radio, Austin, TX. "Live Set" hosted by Larry Monroe. Walter Morgan - engineer  

8, 14 - Recorded "live" at The Borderline, London. Gerry O'Riordan - engineer

1, 12 - Recorded at Barking Dog, Austin, TX

Mastered by Mark Hallman at The Congress House, Austin, TX

 

All songs by Tom Ovans (BMI)

© & Ⓟ 2002 NSR

photo by Akhtar Hussein

Lyrics

 

SUN CITY

I went down to Sun City 
Down in Memphis town
I was so young and pretty 
And boys I sure went down

Well I just wanted to sing
That's what I told the man
But when I picked up my guitar boys
Things just got out of hand

First came gold records
Then came Hollywood
A lot of long legged women
I done the best I could

Now I'm surrounded by fools
A manager with gambling debts
The money, the people they come and go
And I can't even get out of bed

Now I know God is waiting
Just outside my door
But I've seen the twelve gates of heaven boys
And I ain't afraid no more

I went down to Sun City
Down in Memphis town
I was so young and pretty
And boys I sure went down

 

ANGELOU

 There's An Ill Wind Blowing 
Across The Plain
I Mean Somewhere Down Near Texas
Towards A Town With No Name
Where The Vultures Prey
Upon The Broken Wheel
Where The Terminally Ill
Come To Get Healed
Where The Graves Are Dug
With Names Already Marked
Where Jesus Christ
Waits Glowing In The Dark
Where They Take Dead Aim
When They Get You In Their Sights
Where They Drop You Like A Stone
In The Middle Of The Night

Angelou
Angelou

Them Good Ole Boys
In Their Pick Up Trucks
Drinking On Their Beer
And Pissing On Their Luck
While The Latest Mandate
Rolls Across The Land
Where The Science Of Control
Has Gotten Out Of Hand
Where The Air Is Rotten
Where The Kingsnakes Crawl
Where The Minimum Wage
Has Made Slaves Of Us All
Where A Kid Is Taught
Not To Think Too Much
Where A Girl Is Betrayed
By A Lovers Touch

Angelou
Angelou

I Was Standing In Line
When I Heard The News
A Girl Of Nineteen
With A Couple Of Tatoos
I Grabbed My Gun 
I Hit The Interstate
I Drove All Night
But I Arrived Too Late
I Stood On The Hill
And Watched The Battle Below
While The Media Gathered
And The Souvenirs Sold
And I Watched With Horror
When The Flames Touched The Sky
Couldn't Believe My Ears
Couldn't Believe My Eyes

Angelou
Angelou

Now The Desert Is Cold
The Sun Has Set
I'm Stoned On Peyote
And There's Liquor On My Breath
Don't Know What I'm Saying
Barely Know What I'm Doing
Seems Like Everything Here
Has Fallen Down In Ruins
From The Lines On My Face
To All The Tears I've Cried
From A Few Lousy Good Deeds
To A Lifetime Of Lies
Never Felt So Helpless
Never Felt So Torn
Thinking About You Baby
And The Day You Were Born

Angelou
Angelou

 

WILD WIND BLOWING

Oh pretty baby
Don't do me no damage
You know I ain't looking
For no football scrimmage
Well I've come down the road
And my eyes are on fire
You know I've seen too much
To believe all these liars 

And there's a wild wind blowing
There's a wild wind blowing
There's a wild wind blowing
There's a wild wind blowing

Oh your boys in Washington
I don't know what they're doing
They're selling you out
There's trouble a brewing
From your New York island
To the San Francisco bay
This melting pot is melting
It's getting hotter everyday

Cause there's a wild wind blowing
There's a wild wind blowing
There's a wild wind blowing
There's a wild wind blowing

Oh pretty baby
Please open up your eyes
See the pollution at your feet
Hear your sick and homeless cry
Before it gets too late
Before they throw you in chains
Before your torch of freedom
Is left to die in this rain

Cause there's a wild wind blowing
There's a wild wind blowing
There's a wild wind blowing
There's a wild wind blowing

 

DANCE WITH ME GIRL

The Sun Is On The Highway
Moon Sitting Sideways
Dance With Me Girl
I've Been In The Headlines
Another Man Out Of Time
Dance With Me Girl

Don't Turn A Cold Shoulder
I Can't Get Much Older
Dance With Me Girl
Amuse Me For A While
I've Come A Ragged Mile
Dance With Me Girl

I Was Born Inland
Just Another Victim
Grew Up On The Back Streets
Running From The Heat 
Hands On The Trigger
Til One Day I Pulled Her
Now I'm In The Bright Lights
Fighting For My Life 

I Know The Man Is Coming
But I'm Tired Of This Running
Dance With Me Girl
Just A Song On The Jukebox
Come On Let's Make It Rock
Dance With Me Girl

 

 BRAKEMAN'S BLUES

They're Fighting In The Middle East
Fighting In Ireland
Fighting On The Streets
Tomorrow They'll Be Fighting Again
You Know It Ain't Easy
To Be Somebody's Son
You Think I'm Guilty
You Can Shoot Me In The Morning Sun

Well They Crucified Jesus
Shot Joe Hill
Murdered King, Kennedy
Now Look At Poor Phil
You Know It Ain't Easy
To Be Somebody's Son
You Think I'm Guilty
You Can Shoot Me In The Morning Sun

Little Girls And Little Needles
Big Men In Big Suits
People Ducking Around
Trying To Get A Piece Of The Loot
You Know It Ain't Easy
To Be Somebody's Son
You Think I'm Guilty
You Can Shoot Me In The Morning Sun

Well I Got Myself A Job
On A Bankrupt Railroad Line
At Night I Chase The Women
And I'm Drunk All The Time
You Know It Ain't Easy
To Be Somebody's Son
You Think I'm Guilty
You Can Shoot Me In The Morning Sun

 

Out Here On the Farm

Wake up sleepy head
Sun's coming 'round the world
Pull your body out of bed
Quit dreaming about them girls

Ah here I am 
Just hanging on
Just a kid going on 65
Out here on the farm

Grandpa's at the breakfast table
Eating up a thing or two
Talking about some UFO
He'd seen back in '52

Ah here I am 
Just hanging on
Just a kid going on 65
Out here on the farm

Got a sister went away got married
Got a sister come home divorced
Got my Ma praying and my Pa cursing
And I don't know which is worst

Ah here I am 
Just hanging on
Just a kid going on 65
Out here on the farm

Got a tractor that blows some oil
Got a big old hog named Hank
Got crops a growing and prices falling
And a mortgage due at the bank

Ah here I am 
Just hanging on
Just a kid going on 65
Out here on the farm

Well Pa says let's go son
We got lots of work to do
And talking don't mean a dam thing
Except to women and fools

Ah here I am 
Just hanging on
Just a kid going on 65
Out here on the farm

Now we'll see you later ma
Hey Sis' don't you be crying again
Hey Grandpa you stay away from those chickens you hear
Don't worry Pa everything's going to be alright
At least the sun is coming up

 

HONEY, HONEY, HONEY 
(HOW WE NEED SOME MONEY)

Waking in the morning
Another day is dawning
Perking up with coffee
Flipping on the TV
Trouble in the government
Denials from the president
Honey, honey, honey
How we need some money

You've been out there working
I've been out there working
But we're getting nowhere
Just getting poorer
Guess it's time we face it
We'll never be rich kids
Honey, honey, honey
How we need some money

Well where did all the time go 
Where did all our futures go 
Seems like only yesterday
We were the ones who had it made 
Now take a look at us
Driving around in buckets of rust 
Honey, honey, honey
How we need some money

It's getting late we better go
Off to work to make some dough
So we can pay our bills
So we keep our bellies filled
Another day, another night
What a way to spend a life

Honey, honey, honey

How we need some money

RITA, MEMPHIS AND THE BLUES

Hanging on the corner working for the man
Running these numbers, pushing cocaine
Going up to Memphis to sing me some blues
Oh pretty baby I'm tired of being used
Rita, where you been so long
Rita, where you been so long

Down by that river in the middle of the night
Tumbled them dice right into a fight
When the smoke cleared now I'm telling you the truth
You pull a gun on someone you just better shoot
Rita, where you been so long
Rita, where you been so long

Shackles on my feet, hounds on my trail
Made it all the way from that county jail
Then I took a wrong turn in the wrong part of town
Now I'm coughing blood up man I'm going down
Rita, where you been so long
Rita, where you been so long

Well listen up friend don't say another word
You ain't seen me why you ain't even heard
Go tell my mother, my poor sister too
I'm still up in Memphis, still singing them blues
Rita, where you been so long
Rita, where you been so long

 

JAMES DEAN COMING OVER THE HILL

The sky is blue the sky is black
John Train he ain't ever coming back

Papa was a rolling stone
Now he ain't nothing but a coughing bag of bones

Hang around this old town
They'll build you up just to cut you back down

Going down to New Orleans
Gonna make a deal gonna get myself clean

Hey babe got my eye on you 
A rambling girl knows all about these blues

Jesus saves Jesus kills
James Dean coming over the hill

 

REPUTATION

Sister have you seen him
They say it won't be long 'til his coming
Dry your eyes brush back your curls
They say he's going to bring a change to this world

They say he's bad 
Don't get him mad
They say beware of the man 
With the big reputation

Brother you better watch it
All you're double deals and double crosses
For reasons we don't understand
We'll be murdering each other all in his name

They say he's bad 
Don't get him mad
They say beware of the man 
With the big reputation

People get ready
That train around the bend is rocking steady
For no power on this earth
Can save a thing he declares has no worth

They say he's bad 
Don't get him mad
They say beware of the man 
With the big reputation

LITTLE CHILD

You've seen the fighting
You've seen the fires
You've seen the soldiers
Killers for hire
Little child

Little child
Little child
Little child
Don't forget to smile little child

They shot your father
Tortured your mother
They raped your sister
Took away your brother
Little child

Little child
Little child
Little child
Don't forget to smile little child

I would give anything
To dry your tears
I would give anything
To stop this fear
Little child

Little child
Little child
Little child
Don't forget to smile little child

 

THESE DAYS

Standing alone on the edge of town
My old car finally broken down
Watching the sun sink over this old highway
Headlights passing by my thumb
Folks don't seem to stop for anyone
Guess I can't blame them any these days

Strange how the years just roll on by
So much gone in a wink of an eye
Looking back it seems like only yesterday
When I settled down to start a life 
With my kid and with my wife
But those memories just make me sad these days

These days back out on the road
Cast adrift with no place to go
These days I don't even know what I'm searching for
These days when lovers meet in the dark
Only to break each other's hearts
These days when nothing matters much anymore

Truck driver finally picks me up
Throws it into gear as my door shuts
Says I'm headed for Salt Lake City I said that's okay
As we ride on through the night
I hear about a troubled life
I guess I ain't the only one these days

 

 BACK ROAD BLUES

Had a woman in New York one down in Tennessee 
Had a woman in New York one down in Tennessee 
One call me a rebel one call me a damn Yankee

Never needed nobody to tell me what to do
Never needed nobody to tell me what to do
Don't care if he's a king or some hobo passing through 

If the river was whiskey you know I'd drink it dry
If the river was whiskey you know I'd drink it dry
If I had me some wings straight from this hell I'd fly

When it rains now baby are you afraid to get wet
When it rains now baby are you afraid to get wet
When I'm in trouble will my name you forget

Skull and crossbones nightmares around my head
Skull and crossbones demons around my head
Well, I'm dying with the living 
And I'm living with the dead

Well I'm going to the wall gonna sing my song
Going to the wall gonna sing my song
Well don't wait for me baby 
I hear that wall is pretty long 

Well the night is dark night is getting cold
Well the night is dark night is getting cold
Well just thank your lucky stars you're not on this road 

Had a woman in New York one down in Tennessee
Had a woman in New York one down in Tennessee
Well sometimes I wonder if they still remember me

 

NEW YORK CITY

Well I'm standing waiting on a bus
I'm at the station thinking about us
I got my suitcase in my hand
I got my ticket but I don't give a damn

I don't know what to say no more
I don't know what to do
I love you more than ever before
With a love that's true 

I see the cities drifting by
I feel so empty I could cry
Well there goes Denver, Kansas City
Here comes Chicago, New York City

I don't know what to say no more
I don't know what to do
I love you more than ever before
With a love that's true  

Well I'm back here on the avenue
I'm back here to start a new
Well here I am can't you see
Here I am if you want me

I don't know what to say no more
I don't know what to do
I love you more than ever before
With a love that's true 

 

KILLING ME 

Train whistle blowing over the hill
Sun going down but the day is still
Walk that line, dig that ditch
Do everything to keep the rich man rich 

Gabriel, Gabriel blow your horn
I ain't alive I ain't even been born
Jesus, Jesus where you be
In the name of Christ you're killing me 

I ain't a kid you know I've been around
I've seen lots of good men cut down
I've been soaked in oil, I've been washed in blood
I've been through the fires, I've been through the floods 

Gabriel, Gabriel blow your horn
I ain't alive I ain't even been born
Jesus, Jesus where you be
In the name of Christ you're killing me 

Well I'm going south, I'm going deep
I'm going where nobody sleeps
I'll pop these pills, I'll take a drink
I don't care what nobody thinks 

Gabriel, Gabriel blow you horn
I ain't alive I ain't even been born
Jesus, Jesus where you be
In the name of Christ you're killing me

 

RIVER GIRL

I've been down the Mississippi
The Missouri and Ohio too
I've seen a lot of pretty women
But I've never seen the likes of you

Oh river girl
Standing on the shore
Don't let this rolling river
Roll me away anymore

I'd give to you this diamond
To wear upon your hand
I'd quit my rambling gambling ways
If only to be your man

Oh river girl
Standing on the shore
Don't let this rolling river
Roll me away anymore 

They say love makes a heart shine on
Like the stars above so high
Well that's where mine be falling from
If you ever say good bye

Oh river girl
Standing on the shore
Don't let this rolling river
Roll me away anymore 

 

 


All songs written by Tom Ovans
©    1985-2001 Tom Ovans

Liner Notes

You can’t fake experience. In a world of cheap thrills and computerised fantasy, Tom Ovans is one of our last connections to the real world. His music is steeped in the traditions of Delta Blues, folk protest and ragged rock’n’roll. Yet his unflinching eye remains focused on the people of today, and their struggle to survive in a culture where morality is bought and sold.

 Like an Old Testament prophet, he spares his audience nothing. His songs scratch at the wounds that society prefers to conceal, at the corruption, the greed, the poverty, and the lives that they leave brutalised in their wake. As he says, “If I depended on good news, I would have stopped doing this a long time ago.”

 For Ovans, songwriting is a necessity, not a hobby. Across a succession of albums, from 1991’s Industrial Days to 2001’s Still In This World, he has chronicled his era in songs which strip away artifice and expose raw nerves. The deeper his knife, the more painful the process of discovery. “I don’t write as much as I used to when I was young,” he admits. “There’s more at stake, the older you get, because you’re running out of time. There’s a heavier responsibility.”

 Even in the darkest of his work, Ovans’ own life is never far from the surface. “Part of me is in every song,” he says. “I’d be a liar if I denied it. 99% of my stuff comes from experience, or at least it starts out there, and then grows in the imagination. You’ll hear someone come out with a great line during a conversation, and it will stick, and maybe years down the line it will trigger a song.”

 His music wasn’t created overnight. He came to New York in the mid-70s, scuffling for quarters on the streets of the Village as the last vestiges of the 60s folk scene decayed around him. There he learned his craft; the ensuing decades added the spice of experience. He survived more than a decade as a spy in the citadel of the country music industry, in a town he prefers to call NashVegas, Tennessee, before finally escaping in 1999 for the more tolerant air of Austin, Texas.

 It was there that he assembled this album, a retrospective that stretches across the years to bring together material from every stage of his life. “I figured I could put together a record of some unreleased songs,” he explains, “and some of the strongest live stuff from down the years, and it would be like a three-dimensional picture of where I’d been and what I’d done. I like the fact that it goes back to 1985, way before I started making records.”

 Throughout many of those years, Ovans has felt estranged from his times, and from a music industry that has long since shed its integrity and purpose. Yet his defiant adherence to his own path has reaped rewards. “I still feel connected to all these songs,” he says. “There’s nothing fashionable about them, nothing forced. Nothing here strikes me as false.” You may need to shade your eyes: welcome to the glare of the real world.

 

SUN CITY

The most recent composition on the album, ‘Sun City’ revisits the ghost of the Delta Blues. “In a way it’s about Elvis and his decline,” Ovans says. “But it fits a lot of other people besides Elvis, and not just musicians. Lots of people are isolated and lost, searching for the key.” An old Reverend Gary Davis blues tune provides the shadow of salvation, inspiring a mysterious line about the twelve gates of heaven. But the suspicion remains that Ovans’ hero may be too mired in the real world to find anything but a mirage.

 

ANGELOU

Brooding, intense and as desolate as the landscape which inspired it, ‘Angelou’ reflects the clash between David Koresh’s Branch Davidians and the forces of Texas law and order outside Waco in 1993. “I didn’t know what the song was about when I started writing it,” Ovans remembers. “It wasn’t consciously about what happened in Waco, though that affected me a lot. I ended up writing a fictional account, about the siege and the politics surrounding it.”

 A sparse solo rendition of this song was a highlight of Ovans’ 1995 album, Tales From The Underground. A fuller recording appeared on the subsequent compilation, Nuclear Sky. “We cut two different versions late at night with the band,” he explains, “and we didn’t know what we had. One was more rock, one was more country, but I still didn’t know if I was getting the song over. I knew that if I did it solo, I could get it across, so I went back in the next day and cut it that way – and that’s what ended up on the album. But I like this cut too. I remember that in my head I was imagining something like Neil Young meets ‘Purple Rain’, and that’s the way it came out.”

 

 WILD WIND BLOWING

This live cut from Douglas Corner in Nashville is wired with unhinged energy. “That was a fantastic band,” Ovans recalls, “and a great venue, cut off from all the Music Row industry bullshit that goes down in Nashville. It’s tough to keep a band together if you’re continually struggling. If they’re searching for another dollar to pay the rent, it can be hard to persuade them to keep digging deep into the songs. But this cut explains why we kept on struggling.”

 Beneath the breakneck blues-boogie is a song that tracks a familiar course in Ovans’ work, from personal angst to political despair. “It’s another case of idealism being corrupted,” he says, “which is a subject I keep coming back to. The song just came out real direct. You don’t need to watch TV or read the papers to know what’s going on in the world. Just listen to what people are saying on the street, and you’ll find out what’s really going down.”

 

DANCE WITH ME GIRL

This 1999 radio cut from KUT in Austin reunited Ovans and his partner Lou Ann Bardash with guitar-player Larry Chaney, a sometime member of his early 90s band. “We’d just moved down to Austin, and Larry Monroe offered me the chance to play an hour’s live show, which was beamed all over Texas,” Ovans says. “Fortunately Larry Chaney had moved out there a few months before us, so he was around to play.” 

 The lyric takes a clear-eyed look at romance, in the knowledge that romance is doomed. “It’s another anti-hero, outlaw kind of tune,” Ovans explains. “And it reflects on the American empire as well. Is it going to swing back, or is it going to keep on getting worse?”

 

 BRAKEMAN’S BLUES

Another track on the KUT show found Ovans reprising a song he’d recorded on Tales From The Underground, but written much earlier. “It dates back to 1976,” he recalls. “It was inspired by Phil Ochs and Gary Gilmore. It’s a piece of instant journalism, like ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’ or something like that.”

 1976 was the year Phil Ochs hanged himself – a stark conclusion to the life of one of America’s great protest singers. “He hadn’t really been a musical hero of mine,” Ovans says, “but when I arrived in New York around 1974, I was at Gerde’s Folk City one day and there was Phil – dirty, bloated, this speed-talking guy trying to score drinks off the owner, Mike Porco, or anyone else who was at the bar. I used to see him play sometimes back then, and he was astounding. His voice was shot, since he’d been attacked and suffered a throat injury a couple of years earlier, but he was such an intense performer. Tim Hardin was around back then too, junked out of his mind. So I had no illusions about how a songwriter’s life could turn out. Any that I had were knocked out of me pretty quick.”

 

 OUT HERE ON THE FARM

“On one level, it’s a song about a kid on a farm,” Ovans says of this 1985 recording, which he began writing in the late 70s under the influence of Randy Newman. “But there are many different kinds of farms. By then I’d seen people in Nashville writing formula songs on Music Row, and that’s definitely one sort of farm. But there’s a human side to the song as well, which is closer to the spirit of Tobacco Road. Whatever the farm is, the system is always bigger and more powerful than the man. You can’t escape from that.”

 

 HONEY, HONEY, HONEY

Call it acceptance or resignation, this song maybe cuts closer to the heart than Ovans would like: “It’s about the bare bones of getting up every morning to work, and how it wears you down. Suddenly you realise you’re not the up-and-coming generation anymore.” The inference for a working musician who has had to take a succession of day jobs to survive is obvious. Asked if it gets tougher to carry on as each year grinds into the next, Ovans pauses for a moment, then says: “I don’t know. Of course I wish I could work full-time as a musician and not do anything else. But then maybe I wouldn’t be able to write these songs, and that’s something I have to do, I don’t have any choice about it. I do it because I love to do it, there’s no ulterior motive about it.”

 

 RITA, MEMPHIS & THE BLUES / JAMES DEAN COMING OVER THE HILL

Two of Ovans’ most ominous blues tunes merged into one dark rumble during a memorable gig at the Borderline club in London. “The first time I put those two songs together, it was an accident,” he admits. “But then I found that it was cool to segue from one to the other, as they were both John Lee Hooker-style stomps. They fit well, and every night they sound different.” 

 Together they fetch up a lifetime’s worth of outsider imagery, from drug deals to a grim reference to Phil Ochs’ schizophrenic alter ego in his final months, ‘John Train’. And at the end of the road, “Jesus saves, Jesus kills”. “Living in the South for so long,” Ovans says, “you see so many people leading hypocritical lives in the name of Jesus.”

 

 REPUTATION

The almighty makes an equally enigmatic appearance in this turbulent live shot from late 1991, fired by guitar solos from Larry Chaney which tip the hat to Mike Bloomfield and Jimi Hendrix. “It’s about the power of God and all those forces that represent something bigger than humanity,” Ovans explains. “You can call it Jesus, Mohammed, or whatever you like. It’s the same story.” Why did such a powerful song never make it onto a studio album? “It was great to jam, but we never recorded it because we played it so often, we got sick of it!”

 

 LITTLE CHILD

“It was the 80s,” Ovans says simply of the landscape which inspired this bleak tale of innocence confronting brutality. “The whole Reagan contra thing was going down in South America. There was a nightmare happening every day in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Now it’s come around again in the Middle East – in fact, it’s all over the world at the moment, if you look for it.” The actual spark for the song was a news photo of a child, “standing alone in a war zone, orphaned by the bloodshed.” This live rendition extends the brooding atmosphere of the Industrial Days studio take.

 

 THESE DAYS

The central image of this song, of life passing someone by as he waits at the side of the road, isn’t a metaphor but, as Ovans remembers, straight autobiography: “I was stranded once on the highway outside Reno for ten hours, waiting for a ride. The cops would come by every hour to make sure I was still just outside the city limits. I looked up at the back of this road sign, and saw that other people had already carved all these messages up there – ‘I was here for six hours’, and they’d list the date. It was a tough time: the economy was in bad shape, and the working-class people were suffering first, as they always do. It’s gone full circle today.”

 The song was recorded six years before Ovans’ first album, back in 1985, when he was working construction. “I discovered that it wasn’t that expensive to hire an eight-track studio, if you worked quickly, and I always cut my stuff live. So I’d put songs like this onto cassettes, and pass them around. I met a lot of great musicians that way. Then one day I met a distributor who said, ‘Put those songs onto a CD, and I can sell it’. That was the first album.”

 

 BACK ROAD BLUES

The most recent recording on the album reprises a song from a decade earlier, newly invested with the living spirit of the Delta Blues. “That was a live staple, but I was never really convinced by the studio version on Unreal City,” Ovans explains. “The performance was OK, but there were technical things I didn’t like. So I was pleased to have the chance to get it right this time.”

 The nightmare imagery of the song wouldn’t be out of place in the work of Robert Johnson, but as Ovans reveals, the inspiration was more specific: “I travelled around a lot in the 70s, living in flophouses, and I ran across a lot of Vietnam veterans. After a while it was easy to think myself into their heads, and imagine heading out to the memorial wall in Washington.” He catches the inescapable anguish of the vets in one devastating line: “I’m dying with the living and I’m living with the dead”.

 

NEW YORK CITY

In the 60s, New York was the mecca of every folksinger, but by the time that Tom Ovans arrived there in 1974, the circus had left town. “I came in with a rucksack and a guitar,” he remembers. “I lived in an abandoned apartment for a few months, and then in various flophouses, playing on the street to stay alive. I was down on MacDougal Street in the Village for a while, and my apartment had the reverse number to Dylan’s – maybe his was 94 and mine 49, or something like that. But the two places didn’t exactly have much in common.

 “I was there for the last gasp of the old romantic ideal of Greenwich Village. I used to hang out at CBGBs and shoot pool, and you could see the future coming, as all these bands were starting out – Television, Talking Heads, the Ramones. But the old places were dying. Gerde’s Folk City was on its last legs, the Gaslight and the Café Wha? too. Nobody was making it out of the Village anymore. It was tough to get gigs. Maybe there was an occasional writer’s night, but otherwise it was the street, living in the wind, soaking stuff up and writing songs.”

 

 KILLING ME

Like the other Borderline cut on this album, ‘Killing Me’ proves that losing a band doesn’t mean sacrificing intensity. “I started going over to Europe in 1993,” Ovans says, “and it was too expensive to take a band, so I went back to playing solo again. In a way, I felt a real sense of freedom. It gave me the chance to strip the songs back to what was essential. With a band, you can sometimes start thinking about how to arrange the songs in a way which is going to keep them happy, by giving them solos or whatever, and the song starts to become secondary. Also, the bands I had were so great that people tended to overlook the songs. When I play acoustic, everyone can hear that the song is what’s most important.”

 Ovans’ acoustic performances also allow him to expose the blues heritage which runs through his music like an artery. “I see guys like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf as protest singers,” he says, “talking in a kind of coded language. I discovered that I could speak that language after I moved to the South. Every place has its own unique rhythm, and after a while you soak it up, and eventually it comes out of you.”

Lou Ann Bardash makes a telling contribution to many of Ovans’ songs, but none more dramatic than the ghostly blues holler which haunts ‘Killing Me’. “It’s like the soul of the song,” Ovans agrees, “coming out of the background into the spotlight. It’s real effective.”

 

 RIVER GIRL

After the paranoia, righteous anger and despair which trail much of this album, ‘River Girl’ offers a final moment of hope and transcendence. It was included with a verse mysteriously omitted on Ovans’ second album, but this earlier recording features the whole song.

 “I’ve always been fascinated by rivers,” he says, “ever since I read Mark Twain’s Life On The Mississippi. I’ve crossed a lot of rivers in all the years I’ve been travelling around. This song just popped out as a gift from nowhere. It sounded as if it should already have been written, but it hadn’t, and I was happy to accept it.”

 

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