The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #267: Papa Was a Rodeo by The Magnetic Fields (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #267: Papa Was a Rodeo by The Magnetic Fields.

***FYI: I write these posts on FB before posting them on my blog. Prior to putting the original post on Facebook, I posted an earlier link to a performance of a cover of the Magnetic Fields song, “Book of Love” by Chris Thile and friends, from his show, “Live From Here”. Chris does a good job of introducing who Stephen Merritt is, for those who don’t know of him. The link for that video…which was given as “homework” for my FB friends…is here. Watch it, if you wish. I shall begin the actual post for today’s song now. Enjoy.

If you were good and did your “homework” then, you will have been introduced to the exquisite writing of Stephin Merritt, the lead singer/songwriter of a group called, The Magnetic Fields. Music critics have thrown many bouquets his way, comparing him to the great American songwriters such as Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim. He is a poet who writes songs about Life and Love and everything else in between, in the same manner that a poet like Leonard Cohen did. His singing voice is canyon-deep. His demeanour is detached and observational, rather than attention-seeking and loud. In a documentary about his life and career, there is a scene where he climbs into a NYC taxi, complete with videographer recording the scene. The cabbie asks what is going on. Merritt replies that it a documentary about him because some people feel he is famous. The cabbie asks for his name. Merritt replies, in kind. The cabbie snorts derisively, “Never heard of ya” and then, drives away without further remarks. So begins our story about Stevin Merritt and “Magnetic Fields”.

I had never heard of Merritt, either, until I started listening to the songs on the KEXP list of greatest songs of all-time. Most songs on the list I knew but, “Papa Was a Rodeo” was new to me. If I accomplish absolutely nothing from doing these 500 posts besides finding this one song then, the whole exercise will have been worth it. Simply put, “Papa Was a Rodeo” is one of the most crisply written, warmest and greatest storytelling songs I have ever heard. Period! It is an epic novel disguised as a song. A song that tells the story of the lifetimes of two separate characters in a rich, detailed, very human way that spans entire generations and yet, comes in at a reasonable 3-4 minutes in length. It is deeply personal and detailed yet, the stories are told in a breezy, conversational way. It is a song that borrows from the tears-in-my-beer style of Country music yet, it is not a country song at all. It is a painting…..a portrait of two people….with verses for brush strokes and delicate notes for textured hues.

“Papa Was a Rodeo”, as well as “Book of Love” that you heard of you did your homework, were both part of a debut trilogy(!) album set called “69 Love Songs”. The idea came to Merritt while sitting in various bars in NYC. He decided to attempt an exploration of the concept of Love in, as many musical styles and from as many story angles as possible. Merritt started out with 100 songs in mind and then, settled for 69 because, as we all know, 69 is one of the numbers of Love. In any case, Merritt, along with a cadre of friends, fellow writers and musicians, recorded all 69 songs and released the album to much acclaim a decade or so ago. And, like you, I had no idea of the magnificent writing this work contained.

“Papa Was a Rodeo” is not “hit song” material, in the same way that Shakespeare is not the same as the usual blockbuster summer movie fare. This song is a treat for anyone who likes “story songs” and tales that are well-told. I will leave you with the video for this song, as well as, the trailer for the documentary that was filmed about Stevin Merritt (several famous folks appear in the trailer so, please check it out). The setting for “Papa Was a Rodeo” begins in a dive bar at Last Call. One character is a trucker. The other is not. I will leave the rest of this stunningly-told story for you to enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Papa Was a Rodeo” by The Magnetic Fields, can be found here.

The link to the video for the trailer for the documentary about Stephen Merritt, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Stephen Merritt/Magnetic Fields, can be found here.

Thanks to KEXP for helping me to discover this excellent song. I am indebted. The link to their official website can be found here.