A year ago, I tried to write about Rod Picott’s latest album, a collection of songs written with Slaid Cleaves across a lifetime of friendship. I wrote a lot of words in that review, but I suspect I didn’t fully capture the depth of my appreciation of Picott.
I couldn’t. Picott is among the best of the singer-songwriter, folk troubadours of a certain age with whom we relate rather strongly. Sam Baker is on the list. So is Mark Erelli, Steve Forbert, Mary Gautier, Otis Gibbs, John Wort Hannam, and Cleaves. A bunch of others, too.
Picott may be the closest to a songwriting novelist amongst that inspired group. Like those mentioned, he doesn’t waste a song, doesn’t ‘fill’ an album with a tossed-off ditty. Nope, Rod Picott likely trashes anything that doesn’t sound as if it is a true slice of stellar story telling. Within the album’s PR sheet, Mary Gautier is quoted: “Great writing is all about story, and Rod is so damned good at story.” 14 words to say what I couldn’t in 49; showing me up again.
This new album is a product of the pandemic, an opportunity for Picott to take time while not touring to ‘dig in’ to the pile of songs he was writing. From all appearances, the dozen songs benefit from the time they were allowed to ‘marinate, to simmer and to chisel in the way I wanted,’ writes Picott, mixing his metaphors in a way he doesn’t within song.
Opening with the lonely but hopeful “Lover” (“Lover come find me, I know most of my best is behind me…”) Picott brings us a new cast of characters and situations. In “Revenuer” he takes us to rural Appalachia and a chase involving federal agents (“I got the good stuff cooked down in hell, ain’t no blind men from what I sell…”) and to the tragedy of “Sonny Liston” (“They found him dead on his bed at home…the cops left him for his wife to find…”)
Picott can most certainly communicate the bigger than life stories, but I always find him most satisfying when examining substantial moments of ‘smaller’ lives. He brings a bit of John Prine’s approach to “Mona Lisa,” some ragged pride to “Valentine’s Day,” and hard-found wisdom to “Lost in the South.”
As always, the songs are originals supplemented by co-writes. One of the album’s strongest songs is “Frankie Lee,” co-written by Jennifer Tortorici. Google doesn’t help me with information about Tortorici, but this is a sparse, dark, and sharply-written first-person narrative that comfortably sits with Picott’s best. An impressive vocal performance, Picott channels the honesty of the protagonist within a flickering b&w clip of desperation.
This time, Picott features two Cleaves co-writes as well as one with Mark Erelli, facts that brought smiles to this fan’s face. His and Cleaves’ “Through the Dark” and “Make Your Own Light” are two sides of the same life, the one shared and the one internal. Erelli and Picott explore the working poor and the impact of money coming in ‘from aways’: life has changed, likely forever and not for the better, not when you’re contemplating “the roads all end out at the cold Atlantic, I could walk on in and surely be released.”
While every song contains the magic we expect from Picott, “Mark of Your Father” and “Dirty T-Shirt” stand out. The various challenges of being a son, here climaxing in Marvin Gaye’s murder, are documented in the first song, while the second is a celebration of unbridled passion, of lust; these speak to the diversity of Picott’s approaches.
Fervor Coulee favourite Neilson Hubbard (Gautier, Farewell Drifters, Caroline Spence, Kim Richey) produces, plays, and sings, while Lex Price (bass, guitar), Evan Hutchings (drums), and especially Juan Solodzano (pedal steel and slide) further augment the songs.
Rod Picott doesn’t leave anything to chance. His songs are expertly crafted, living creations filled with marks of the human condition. He continually impresses, constantly grows within his art. Paper Hearts and Broken Arrows reveals an inability to rest on well-earned laurels.