Sonora's Death Row
"Sonora’s Death Row" is a story song written by California songwriter Kevin "Blackie" Farrell and published by Drifter Music/Bug Music (BMI), ©1975. Recorded covers of the song have been performed by Robert Earl Keen, Leo Kottke, Michael Martin Murphey, Tom Russell, Richard Shindell, Dave Alvin, Johnny Rodriguez and others. The song was also printed in the 1995 Spring issue of Sing Out! with the following introduction:
Legendary Texas Ranger and Arizona Border Guard Jeff Milton once described Sonora as a hell and a paradise, Michael Martin Murphy tells us. Blackie Farrell's classic Old West ballad, Murphy says, "captures the dangers implicit in cowboys on a tequila spree."
A plot develops over the song's six verses (the song has no chorus). The song tells the story of a cowboy who rides into the (Sonora is an actual Mexican State) Mexican town of Sonora with his partners from the "Broken 'O'" ranch on a Saturday night. After considerable drinking and gambling in "Amanda’s Saloon" he imagines himself being robbed by his friends. His dream becomes a nightmare when in a drunken rage he shoots and kills one of his friends. He soon finds himself contemplating his situation as he awaits his execution. The story is told in the first person and the final verse touches on many of the song's earlier motifs and ends with a repeated lament by the narrator:
- A nightmare of mezcal was all that it was
- No one had robbed me at all
- I wish I was dreamin' the sound of the gallows
- They're testin' just outside the wall
- And the mezcal's still free in Amanda's saloon
- For the boys from the old Broken "O"
- I'd pay a ransom to drink there today
- An' be free of Sonora's Death Row
- Yeah I'd pay a ransom to drink there today
- An' be free of Sonora's Death Row
Although the time period is not made clear in the song, a reference to a Winchester rifle suggest the account takes place in the late 19th or early 20th century. Also, though the song describes a town called Sonora, it is difficult to say whether the writer had a specific location in mind. Sonora is actually a Mexican State that accounts for a long stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border adjacent to the U.S. states of Arizona and New Mexico. Regarding his inspiration, Farrell himself has said: "I just envisioned a guy, saddling up his horse, riding off with his pals off the ranch, going into town just to blow off some steam on a Saturday night and winding up living a nightmare."
The song has been recorded numerous times over the course of a thirty-year period. Many of the cover artists are talented songwriters themselves. Versions by Alvin, Murphy, Keen, and Shindell have all received airplay in recent years by folk music DJs throughout the United States. The most recent album to include the song before Johnny Rodriguez's 2011 Live from Texas, Dave Alvin's West of the West reached the top five on the Americana Chart in June 2006. Frequently this song has been included in recordings with other songs having themes dealing with the American Old West.
Most of the recordings present the song in an acoustic or country rock setting, in some cases including an accordion or other instrumentation that give the song a traditional Mexican feel. Some include complex guitar arrangements that employ alternative tunings. In a couple of cases artists have edited out a verse of the song to reduce its length. The individual tracks vary in length from 4:10 to 5:35.
Discography / notes
- The first to record this classic song, singer and guitarist Bill Kirchen has become a long-time collaborator with songwriter Kevin Blackie Farrell. Kirchen describes their first meeting:
- Kirchen's 2001, Tied to the Wheel, inclucdes two new recordings of songs by Farrell and features Farrell on several tracks.
- Kottke performs the song solo on guitar, apparently tuned to open G and using a mix of fingerpicking and slide work.
- Keen has recorded the song twice, first as a largely acoustic studio performance and then years later in a live concert employing his full electrified band. His recording has been transcribed for guitar in E-flat, placing a capo at the 3rd fret and playing the chords in C-position
- As with Kottke's recording, Russell omits the first verse of the song. Russell once referred to the song as "the best cowboy twist-of-fate song ever written."
- (See comments above in introduction.)
- Shindell performs a version on guitar in DADGAD tuning with a capo positioned at the third fret (key of F).
- Alvin's recording omits the song's second verse. Regarding his own recording Alvin has stated: "'Sonora's Death Row' has been recorded by people like Robert Earl Keen, Leo Kottke and Michael Martin Murphy, and they all did fantastic interpretations. I tried to make my version different than the others by giving it less of a Mexican border song groove. I wanted it to sound more like a traditional Appalachian folk song that somehow got lost in the middle of Death Valley on the hottest day of August with no water and no sun screen."
Sources and notes
- Sing Out!, Vol. 39 #4, p. 86, Spring 1995 (see Sing Out! index).
- The early Leo Kottke recording lists the publisher as "Asleep at the Wheel/Drifter Music (BMI)" (Farrell was once involved with the band Asleep at the Wheel). Publication, however, is now administered by Bug Music.
- Songwriter’s art mimics life – and vice versa (accessed Sept. 13, 2006 from realcountrymusic.org), story about Kevin Farrell by Brooke Bryant, originally published in the Contra Costa Times, January, 2006, and accessed June 8, 2006 here.
- FolkDJ-L, the global discussion forum for Folk Djs, (use search form to find playlists including "Sonora's Death Row").
- Archive playlist for week of June 19, 2006 accessed October 12, 2006. Shows West of the West ranked 5th (w/ 374 spins on 54 stations), down from 4th (w/362 spins on 53 stations) in the previous week. See here for current chart.
- Tom Russell's version appears to be the shortest at 4:10, while Dave Alvin's comes in at 5:35.
- The Moonlighters entry at Allmusic.
- Moonlighters album entry at Allmusic.
- Bill Kirchen, Tied to the Wheel notes.
- Leo Kottke's Cover of "Sonora's Death Row" from the Acoustic Guitar Forum.
- Robert Earl Keen lyrics and chords from getsome.org.
- Tom Russell, Cowboy Real entry at Allmusic.
- Richard Shindell lyrics and chords.
- Michael Martin Murphey, Cowboy Songs 3 entry at Allmusic.
- Richard Shindell at fishrecords.co.uk.
- Dave Alvin, West of the West entry at Allmusic.
- "Under Cover: Dave Alvin paints it blue" by Andrew Marcus, Phoenix New Times June 22, 2006 (accessed October 12, 2006).
- Interview with Dave Alvin from hello.apo.nmsu.edu, (accessed September 2006).