Rod Picott, Master Of “The Dark Stuff,” Plays Finally Friday
Rod Picott was possibly the first “real” songwriter I met in Nashville. I arrived in the fall of 1996 with an interest in at least exploring avenues of writing and performing, and the first place I was able to do that on a stage was a tiny pizza joint on 21st Ave. with a by-invitation weekly showcase called the Fireside Whiskey Hour. Rod was the host and curator. Happily, he made it easy to get an invitation if you were reasonably serious, and I made myself a regular there for most of a year, meeting some of my early friends and enjoying Rod’s own material, including songs that would come out on his debut album, Tiger Tom Dixon’s Blues, in 2001. It was working class, literary, visceral and honest. And before long, Rod was out touring with some major names in roots and folk music and able to give up his day job hanging sheetrock.
Now he’s a veteran with 12 studio albums to his credit and a trail of great reviews, though not the recognition his steady hand and persistence deserve. We do know that he’s playing the hallowed stage of 3rd & Lindsley on Finally Friday where he’ll be celebrating release day for his new album Starlight Tour, produced with East Nashville guru Nielson Hubbard. Also on this Friday’s bill are 1970s throwback country-rock band Gwen Levey & The Breakdown, vocally gifted English trio The Wandering Hearts.
While you plan to join us, here’s a catch-up conversation I had early this week with Rod Picott, edited for length and clarity.
You seem like you've been in a bit of a tear recently, I counted four new releases since 2019. What's going on?
Fear of death? (laughs) Mortality sneaking up on me? I don't know. I love the work. I'm not married. I don't have kids. I don't have pets. And I like building things. So you keep building - albums and beds and tables and chairs and all kinds of things.
Do you feel like your motivation behind writing the next song, the next record, has changed in profound ways since early on?
No, I don't think it's fundamentally changed. Because when I went into this, I made myself a promise, and it might sound silly or pretentious in an interview, that I was not going to make an album until I felt like I had 10 songs that were worth people hearing. So I got started a little late, you know? I was 36 I think when the first record came out. And I just kept my head down, kept swinging my hammer, and just kept going, you know?
We’ll step back in a minute, but tell me more about this stretch of the last four years, and apparently coming up with 10 songs every few months? Do you feel like you've been in a good space writing and producing?
A lot of people won't tell you this, but the truth is, for a lot of musicians, for a lot of songwriters, it gets harder as you get older. You use up good ideas. You use up good titles and great metaphors. You use up the ideas that kind of simmer in the back your head for a long time. I'm not comparing myself, but like, Guy Clark was in the same position. He did a lot of co-writing towards the end of his career, because he basically said, you know, it just got harder to get fresh ideas. So bring in a co-writer, you know, and if just the concept is good, I've honed my tools. I know how to write if I can get an idea that's worth hanging four minutes on. Sometimes a co-writer can be helpful that way.
I met you in about 1997 through your Fireside Whiskey Hour, which was a wonderful welcoming kind of community and place. What do you remember about that and getting established in town?
It was a complete accident and one of the smartest things that I ever did, okay? I was brand new in town, going around and playing for publishers. I had a great manager. But I didn't have an outlet. This pizza place had an open mic in the basement. I was there a few times. And they seemed to think I’d be good at hosting. I said let me think about it for a couple days. And then I realized I don't want to do an open mic. But I would if I could book it. Because I know who I want to hear. Like you couldn't just walk in. So that was the agreement that we made. And you know it didn't really last that long. It's like a myth. But it was like a home for a lot of great writers who ended up being really successful. Dave Berg and Georgia Middleman both had number one hit songs. Jason White had that hit with “Red Ragtop.” So it was really fun. I surrounded myself with incredibly talented people.
You recently did a marathon tour in Europe. How important has your overseas audience been?
It's been really important. You know, I didn't realize how radio worked in England. If you got played on a BBC 2 show, that was national. This wonderful DJ named Bob Harris, who was a real tastemaker, took my first record and played a few songs, but it went out to millions of people, right? So I got to just walk into a career in the UK, which translated to, you know, going to Italy and Belgium and the Netherlands and getting a good strong following.
I've been told that European audiences can be almost intimidatingly quiet for songwriters and that there’s a more substantial audience for pure writers than often in the US.
I would say that that's accurate. They're great listeners. They're incredibly focused. And the English are very polite people. So hardly anybody would think about getting up during your set to, you know, go to the bar and order a drink. And also, Europeans are not afraid of the dark stuff. Which is great for me, because it's what I specialize in, you know? You have a lot more freedom in terms of material when you put a set together in Europe than you do in the States. In Europe, you're free man. You can you can play six ballads in a row, and they'll sit and listen to all six of them!
Yes your work can be dark, including on the new album. What’s going on there?
I'm attracted to art that has a certain amount of weight to it. I'm attracted to the big emotions, you know? And this will sound funny on the radio, but I'm even fascinated by violence, you know, as men, how we view our masculinity and how that's changed. You know, I had a very, very hard time with my dad, when I was a kid. He was a really tough guy. He wasn't a mean guy. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. But he was really tough. And I was not built from that same armor. So those things have just always been interesting to me. (Also) people's jobs - what they choose to do with their lives. And the sad parts of life, the hard parts of life - losing people, falling out of love. We all understand those things. And we all have some common and some unique understanding of how those things affect us. And so I'm looking for the commonalities in the details.
I think of the new song “A Puncher’s Chance” which is one you didn’t write lyrics to. But you have history writing about boxers and your dad was a boxer. Why have you related to that universe for character and story?
I just always found the sport fascinating, you know? I have a kind of love/hate relationship with boxing. You see the damage that it's done to so many of these poor guys, now that we really know, but there's so much money to be made in boxing. It's an interesting sport. It's one person versus another person, and you're both agreeing that we're gonna go into this space and we're gonna follow these rules and be incredibly violent with each other - try to knock each other out, but only in this particular way. So it's just kind of interesting to me, you know, the kind of mind that that is willing to accept the intensity of that, you know, to challenge themselves. And of course, for a lot of the older boxers, there was no opportunity, so it was a sport that they went to out of desperation sometimes.
In the song “Combine,” you investigate a different kind of desperation. A farmer is right at the edge of holding it together and praying for a break and one last chance.
Yeah, he's reaching out to somebody. He's looking for a small loan. He’s squandered the family money, and he's just trying to get through one more year. To me songs like that are interesting. People that are desperate are fascinating. They're so incredibly, highly motivated for something that they're looking for. And sometimes it might not even be a thing. I mean, in this in the song, obviously, the guy's trying to get through one more year with this machinery. But you know, I think for a lot of people, they don't even know what they're desperate for. I mean, who was who was it that said, most men live lives of quiet desperation.
Take me inside the title track “Starlight Tour.” I've looked at the lyrics and there's a situation and I'm still kind of wrapping my head around what It is.
Let's see, was it Saskatchewan? The police in a certain area of Canada used to pick up indigenous drunk guys in the middle of the night and drive them out to the edge of town and leave them in the winter. They were taking them on “a starlight tour.” You can look this up on the internet. But nobody ever went to jail for this. And this is a thing that went on from the 70s to as recently as the 90s. They would find these people out on the edge of town dead of hypothermia. The idea for the song was brought to me by a young guy named Nick Nace who's quite a good writer here in Nashville. And yeah, we just kind of hammered it out, you know, tried to find that balance of being truthful and vivid, but also not being too graphic about it.
You and Nielsen Hubbard, your producer here, have done four albums together and are a great match. What's your history with him?
I did a drywall job for him 20 years ago, I think! That's where I met Nielsen. You know, I just kept hearing records that he was making that sounded great. He's recorded a couple of those Amy Speace records that sound great. And just a lot of different people. And when Nielsen and I first talked, I knew immediately that he was an artist. Know what I mean? It's that old John Lennon thing. You could give him a piece of macaroni and a can of paint, and he'll make you something. So I like working with a producer like that, who doesn't have rules. I like guys who can fly by the seat of their pants. And Nielsen has that.
Now that it’s about to come out, where does this album land for you in your heart and your body of work as you close in on 60? This is a really exceptional project. But it's not your only one.
The whole group of people that worked on this album, we were all proud of the record. When we finished, we knew we had something really good. What I do is not for everybody. I do know that, and that's totally fine. Because I'm driven to do what I do. I think this is probably one of the best three records I've made. And out of out of the 12 studio albums, and with just a little bit of distance, you know, because we finished recording it last summer, I do think it's one of the best. Everybody wants to say that about their new record. But I can honestly say there are times I put records out where I felt like this one falls short a little bit. And it's inevitable. You know, not every Faulkner book is as good as every other Faulkner book.
I'm so glad you're feeling satisfied about that and fulfilled at this point.
I feel great about it. And, you know, here's the big test, too. I like playing the songs live. I want to play the whole album when I when I play a show now. I think the songs fit together nicely. There's a tone that sort of runs through - my tone melancholy and striving, but also a tone of defiance and strength. And so yeah, I'm really happy with it. You know, in some ways, it's no different from any of the others. I got records. It's just a really good version of a Rod Picott record.