I own three Rod Picott albums, which is not nearly enough so I am fixing that this evening by downloading a couple or three more.
See, Rod Picott is one of those singer-songwriters you just have to love, the kind you want to spend more time with each time you listen to his music. I think I’d like to share a couple cold beverages with him, just shooting the shit and talking about music and maybe books. I pretend he would find that a good way to spend a few hours.
But here’s the thing: I’ve never fallen down the Rod Picott rabbit hole. It just didn’t happen, and I’m not sure why. Certainly, it wasn’t his fault. The guy has, as far as I can tell, no bad songs. But while I’ve gone all-in completist on folks like Mark Erelli, John Wort Hannam, Otis Gibbs, Fred Eaglesmith, Chuck Brodsky, and the like, I have missed out on much of Picott’s music. Like I said, I am fixing that tonight.
How did I come across Rod Picott, then? Slaid Cleaves, another one of those folk-slanted, singer-songwriters whose CDs fill my shelves. The second Slaid Cleaves song I ever heard was “Broke Down,” a Picott co-write, and I noticed his name on the CD disc notes. By the time I worked my way backward and forward through Cleaves’ albums, I had encountered more than a few Picott songs, and handful of Picott-Cleaves co-writes. I purchased downloads of Tiger Tom Dixon’s Blues and Welding Burns, and eventually wrote about his most recent album to this, Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil, which still sounds like an Ian Rankin novel, in name and substance, tell the truth.
Aside: Why am I just discovering now a bonus digital EP of tracks related to Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil?
So here we are at Wood, Steel, Dust, & Dreams, a limited-edition, double album of Picott/Cleaves songs, about 100-minutes of artistic friendship tracking back to Grade Two, which is freakin’ amazing: I can remember two kids from Grade Two, and couldn’t begin to find them—imagine staying best friends for five decades? Sheesh.
More than friends. Collaborators. Sounding boards. Artistic challengers. Co-writers, natch.
Cleaves only makes a solitary vocal appearance, singing harmony on “Bring It On,” a song from Picott’s long ago debut album, as well as Broke Down. Fitting then that the pair sing together on one of this new set’s older songs. It is a harsh song, dark in mood and outlook with a challenge in every exclamation of the refrain.
But while Cleaves only appears the once, his presence is significant as many of these songs are familiar—at least to me—from his recordings. So for a Picott novice, which I admittedly am, it is incredibly satisfying to hear them in another voice. And perhaps that is the purpose of this double disc album, to celebrate an artistic partnership that is unique within this roots world we inhabit—I don’t know another like it.
While Cleaves went to university and started making music as his primarily living mostly from the get-go, Picott took a different route. Sometime after The Magic Rats, the pair’s teenage garage band and chronicled herein on the album’s only solitary write, fell apart, Picott got to work making a living, hanging drywall.
I think we know which of the boyhood pals got the better deal. But, to each their own path and the artistic bug, which had never left Picott, bit again and he started down his own road which was about the time I too started writing seriously. Difference is, one of us was really good at it.
Because here’s the thing that made me sit up and notice Picott again a couple years back—we are the same age and heck, had I been raised in Maine or he in rural Alberta, we may have been the buddies who met on that school bus on the way to second grade.
The connection is strong, then—at least, to me as a listener. And really, that’s what matters—connecting with your audience. Picott does that as well as anyone.
No one is going to ever give him an award for his voice—he’s closer to Ray Wylie Hubbard than he is Cleaves. I suspect he is just fine with that. His is a great voice for these songs, full of character and nuance. A bit of gravel. These intimate performances, reimagining songs with sympathetic and supportive musicians like Will Kimbrough (Aah, Will!) on guitar, Matt Mauch on acoustic slide, and Lex Price on mandolin and bass are a revelation.
Wheras the previous album (Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil) was a true solo effort, this time out Picott allows his studio band to flesh things out, adding their own accents. Neilson Hubbard, who worked on TtT&StD produces this set, adding percussion as well. Hearing the slide notes (I think they are slide notes; I could be wrong—wouldn’t be the last time) Mauch contributes to “Welding Burns” makes the listening experience all the fresher and more impressive because they aren’t anywhere near the original.
I am entirely supportive of an artist revisiting his catalogue, especially when there are folks out there who missed things the first time around (hands up, me) and can be encouraged to delve deeper into the collection (keep your hands on the wheel, Donald). Highlights? Pretty much every song, one after another. “Dreams.” “Wrecking Ball.” “Drunken Barber’s Hands.” Pick one.
Picott frequently writes from a first-person perspective, something songwriters have been doing since the start. They create characters and assume their personalities, and sometimes make us believe they are writing about themselves. Of course, they aren’t: if they were they’d be documentarians, not songwriters. But, when done well, it feels like they are writing of their experience.
That’s the genuine authenticity that hooks us, whether we are staring down a mythical Copperhead Road, or giving a hometown kiss-off (“Where No One Knows My Name,”) contemplating the impact of cheaper jobs across the border and over the ocean (“Rust Belt Fields”), leaning in hard on ill-considered decisions (“Black T-Shirt”), looking for a type of salvation (“Sinner’s Prayer,” a song given a bit of Ray Wylie here) or looking at the destruction of a relationship (“Broke Down”).
Wood, Steel, Dust, & Dreams is a work of art, a communication and commitment between artist and audience, an acknowledgment of friendship and support, and a damn fine collection of outstanding songs and performances. The packaging is lovely, Picott’s ’72 Plymouth Duster immortalized on the cover, and a 32-page book of personal song notes and illuminating stories accompanies the gatefold sleeve jacket; kudos to Nichole Wagner for the design.
So I now own seven Rod Picott albums, and an EP. It’s a good start. I’m truly glad that he and his PR team saw fit to send Wood, Steel, Dust, & Dreams my direction. It isn’t available digitally, and I have no idea if Picott will ever allow it for streaming: I suspect not. So buy it. Hold it in your hands. Read the words. And listen to the songs. Really listen.
Like we used to, back when we were waiting for real life to start.