“Ditch digger” gets a “puncher’s chance” of being “next man in line”. Rod Picott releases his Starlight Tour album.
Release Date: 20th October 2023
Label: Welding Rod Records
Format: CD / Digital
Picott is an old jacket you can’t quite ever throw away, a comfy pair of shoes or maybe just a simple convenience meal that you return to, time and time again, when exotica palls and you just want something straightforward and sustaining. He has been at his game a fair old while now, and, if anything, maturity adds to his appeal, like an old scotch or a vintage motor. So it comes as a shock to realise he is but a callow youth of 58, just over a week away from his next birthday. Or that his first album, of now 15, came out in 2001. Possibly it is his battered and roadworn chic, or possibly, and more likely, the timelessness of his music, a long simmering broth incorporating country, blues and folk; americana, if you must, where an acoustic guitar and harmonica are never that far away.
Starlight Tour is his latest, the title just possibly ironic, and exposes perhaps his most personal writing yet. And, if that mines a thread of melancholia, well, he calls that his “stock-in-trade“; “this is the album where I wrote my own story and tried very hard not to hold back either the tears or the anger“. A lot of that equates to raw, but never ragged. He thinks it his best work so far. I am disinclined not to believe that. Produced by Neilson Hubbard, himself no stranger to rounding out the sound of such contrary souls as Lucinda Williams and John Prine, Picott has asembled a tight little band, comprising the producer on drums, Lex Price on bass and mandolin, with everything else, bar Picott’s input, coming from multi-instrumentalist Juan Solorzano, who, if you can pluck it or plink it, is your man.
It is with a classic shuffle that this album opens, immediately evoking comparison with J.J. Cale, from the flip flop of drums to the shimmery electric piano. Next Man In Line, it is a reflection on being the next one along, the relentless chase of life and the fickle impatience of fate. Next in line for what? With lyrics like “in the rear view mirror is the devil you know “and “each beat of your heart is counting down time“, it certainly isn’t the lottery, with a distant and detached guitar solo arriving as you gulp and realise, the buoyancy suddenly stuck in your throat. Picott’s voice comes again, as always, as a surprise, a clearer and pleasingly wobbly instrument than his grizzled exterior belies. OK, no Garfunkel, but much sweeter than the coarse honk expected. Digging Ditches is then a bluesy chug, again the electric piano all of an echo, strummed guitars like a blurred heat haze. Positive? Uplifting? Probbly not, a glass half empty treatise, with swirly organ, on which side of the slippery pole most of us end.
Televison Preacher could be off Nebraska, with hollow voice and acoustic, had Bruce had been forward enough or able to include pedal steel on that album, the sweep thereof here just perfect, pathos and paradise vying for attention. The downwind in tempo is chilling, drawing in any less than full attention immediately. A Punchers Chance remains still slightly subdued, even as the band slot in, some more rueful musing built around a melodic guitar motif: “I’m no butterfly, I can’t sting like a bee” but “I’ll be in your corner what ever will be“, a song of dogged love and its pursuit. Combine has him drop a semi-tone, his mood and the tempo, for another slice of wideplains middle America country folk, uplifted by both steel and mandolin, an update, maybe of Nanci Griffith’s Trouble In The Fields. Probably a metaphor.
Homecoming Queen makes no mention of any sleepy Jean, but is a broadly conventional 4:4 daydreamy reminisce, with a charming country waltz accompaniment, until you clock the lyrics , with a verse around the trajectory of a schooldays love and her subsequent trajectory as “a footnote in Rolling Stone“. If this references Picott’s pre-Isbell relationship with Amanda Shires, it is disguised well, with me reading maybe too much into Picott’s claim that the record digs deep into his own experiences. It is, after all, a co-write, with screenwriter, Brian Koppelman, as are a couple of other songs, with longtime buddy, Slaid Cleaves, and country chanteuse, Amy Speace. The title track tells the tale of a Daddy “good to my Mama and the liquor store” and the singer being the “walking reminder of an other man’s sin“, again possibly tapping hard on the door of Picott’s own background. If it starts as the stuff of cliche, it becomes increasingly and impressively poignant, the Starlight Tour a reference to the aftermath of an early and unatural death. Think of it the possible next chapter of Springsteen’s Highway Patrolman, this time from the perspective of Frankie’s son, rather than his brother, referencing the next stages of his life. It is a belter.
Needing an uplift, the next song is a good old rockabilly rollick, Wasteland, perfect placing in the running order, and leading to a quite reflect on quite how well put together this whole set is, and if anything is going to give some break-through traction, it is this album. Pelican Bay is his The River, I guess, if the Springsteen references aren’t beginning to pall, (But, hey, if he’s going to call her Mary…… ) One of the simpler songs here, it has a downbeat ambience of wry acceptance . Finally we get the closing track, and I’ll swear his voice has been sequentially getting lower and lower, track by track. Time To Let Go Of Your Dreams, which could have jumped out of a later American Recordings by Johnny Cash, with a similar hymn like structure, is just voice and guitar, unadorned. The title says it all, about running out of tomorrow. What sounds initially like some mournful harmonica, turns out to be trumpet, but it adds to the feel of dashed hopes and dreams, until the final line, offering some sliver of opportunity: “time to find a new dream.”
I think it is clear just how much of a quantum leap forward this album is for Picott. It deserves time to take it all in at one sitting, to absorb and accept the build, rather than any casual cherry picking in and out. I wish it well, and likewise wish the author well, hoping his real life is just a little lighter than the tales told here
Here’s the opener, Next Man In Line: