Always thought “Papa Was a Rodeo” was a genuine love song. Satirical disclaimer, of course, written in uncharacteristically referential homage to Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood, apparently. But the best tributes take on their own lives and layers, and Merritt’s ode to American country balladry still seems like a sketch of legendary romantic foils: Romeo and Juliet, David and Maddie, Son of Rodeo and a woman with questioning eyebrows named Mike. Is there a more airtight excuse for being incapable of sustained connection than the narrator’s classic yellow-lined upbringing? “Home was anywhere with diesel gas/Love was a trucker’s hand/Never stuck around long enough for a one-night stand.” You know you want this song played at your wedding.
So Conor Oberst’s straight take on “Papa Was a Rodeo” for SCORE! 20 Years of Merge Records: The Covers doesn’t seem sacrilegious to these ears. This isn’t popular opinion, but the earnestness perceived here isn’t actually a problem–one has to recognize the tune’s comic absurdity to play it straight. Other possible sources of outrage about this cover: it takes balls to cover a modern classic from 69 Love Songs. But if you’ve heard “Ten Women” on Oberst’s upcoming record Outer South, you know Conor’s cajones have grown large enough to take those forgotten Dylan comparisons and just ape Bob’s inflection exactly. Fortunately, “Papa Was a Rodeo” is far better than “Ten Women”–and three million times better than the Apples in Stereo’s version of “King Of Carrot Flowers Pt. 3,” which is also on the Merge anniversary record. After that mess, please someone plug Robert Schneider’s mouth with a beer.