Track of the Day: 'Desperadoes Waiting for a Train' by Jason Isbell

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader recommends a cover song that doesn’t dramatically diverge from the original, but it’s an exceptional pick:

I’ve been liking your choice of cover songs lately, particularly the Lyle Lovett cover of “Friend of the Devil” (my dad was a deadhead). I’ve got a suggestion of my own, by my favorite artist of today on Austin City Limits, Jason Isbell: “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train.” That rapturous opening guitar especially.

Here’s the original from Guy Clark. And here’s a harmonized version from The Highwaymen—Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson. The Western Writers of America named “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train” the #45 Western song of all time.

Update from a reader, Jim Jolly, who helps with a clarification: The song was written by Guy Clark but first performed on an album by Jerry Jeff Walker, Viva Terlingua. Jim adds, “None of the other recordings comes close.”

One more reader, James Thoroman:

First time I heard this song was when I bought an album by Mallard, which consisted of several members of the The Magic Band who formed a group in England after they separated with Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart. Since I didn’t listen to C&W music, I always heard the great songs when they were covered by a group or offshoot that I followed. When I got the album, I expected and wanted more Magic Band-type tunes. At first I was perplexed by why they would include it. Over time, I’ve come to like it. It’s a great song.

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