There is nothing like life experience.
I’ve always admired songwriters who have pursued ‘real work’ before finding their path as an artist. For every Bruce Springsteen—who has proudly never held a job—Marty Stuart, and Ricky Skaggs, there are thousands who found their way to artistic endeavor after and while living real life.
Whether a school teacher (John Wort Hannam), an environmental scientist (Jay Clark), bartender (Kelsey Waldon), or a mailman (John Prine, a major Rodney Rice influence—more on that in a bit), working for a living provides colour and perspective, elements that come through to the music, providing heft and substance.
Rice is one of those, a geologist who worked south Texas oil rigs.
You may never have heard of Rodney Rice prior to today. That’s fair. The West Virginia-native has a previous album that I also missed (give it a listen at his website), and when the new set SAME SHIrT, DIFFERENT DAY arrived last month, I had no clue who he was. A few seconds into the album’s lead track, I was fully informed.
With a vocal cadence reminding one of a youthful Steve Earle, Rice lays it out: “A man from TV now is president, the bible belt thinks he’s heaven sent—because he’s made lots of money, he’s gonna take our troubles away; by the sound of that, my troubles are here to stay.” As Rice says, “I wanted that song to the first on the album and I wanted to put it out there to say if you’re offended there then you probably don’t need to listen to the rest.”
A true-damn protest anthem, y’all. Love it.
There is more of that to come in the form of “Company Town” (taking on Massey, the coal company responsible for the Upper Big Branch disaster) and “Pillage and Plunder” (in general, the elevation of corporate, financial, and selfish political interests over the environment, society, and neighbours).
Rice has a singing style that adjusts to the needs of his song. By the time you’ve listened to the album a couple or three times, initial comparisons fade, his personal approach to song and subject matter becoming increasingly individualized.
Still, Hayes Carll (“Right To Be Wrong”) may come to mind in places, as will the wry observational outlooks of Jerry Jeff Walker (“Walk Across Texas”) and Billy Joe Shaver (“Can’t Get Over Her,”) both gone these past few days. Certainly, there are elements of John Prine’s (“Free At Last,” “Rivers Run Backwards”) acerbic outlook and way with rhyme.
“Free At Last,” “Can’t Get Over Her,” and “Middle Managed Blues” (“My boss gave my review, he said, ‘here’s what we think of you; before I rip you apart, just know I never liked you right from the start’”) capture elements reflecting universal experience. The part about “I can’t stand the way you dress, and your hair is always a mess…) could have come from my scathing, first-year, vice-principal evaluation, dropped the last day of June!
“Hard Life” provides gentle flashes of hope, but remains firmly cemented in reality: “you got to fight for the beauty in this world…” The closing “Don’t Look Back” encourages a mindset of facing challenge without dwelling on mistakes and regret: “do what you’re gonna do, but don’t look back.”
Naturally, Rice doesn’t always take his own advice. Reflecting on seemingly more tranquil times, Rice takes a turn. Rather than filling “Memoirs of Our Youth” with pleasant, sepia-toned reflections of the innocence of teenage years, Rice provides observation on the burdens of parenting: “Mama had a way with words, Daddy not so much…” It contains the album’s most frank observation: you’ll know it when you hear it! Elevating the performance, Bonnie Whitmore–who seems to be everywhere this autumn–joins Rice, her vocals adding something indescribable but surely special.
Recording in Austin, Rice had access to some pretty impressive talent. Besides Whitmore, folks like Rick Roberts (drums), Mark Hallman (Hammond B3, and more), David Carroll (bass), Andre Moran (producer, electric guitar, and organ), and Jeff Plankenhorn (Dobro) create an instrumental soundscape that is supportive, lively, and essential to SAME SHIrT, DIFFERENT DAY.
I sometimes hate reading one-sheets, especially those written by those whose talents exceed mine; too often they acutely capture the jumbled thoughts my fingers are incapable of expressing. Such is when Karen Leipziger closes her material for this album with the following: “…inspired by the musical explorers who came before him, but ultimately shaped by [Rice’s] uniquely fresh perspective.”
Yeah, that’s what I meant.