Although my top-10 records list is constantly changing, Good Old Boys will always have a place in it. The record feels central to Randy Newman’s impressive 70s output, which is crammed with sneaky hooks, painfully oblivious characters, and fearless historical reckonings. Good Old Boys further expands Newman’s artistic vision as it grapples with the South and a past that, as William Faulkner once said, “is never dead. It’s not even past.”
There may never be an album opener quite like “Rednecks.” Much ink has been spilled* over the proudly racist Southern male narrator who points out that discrimination is alive and well in the ghettos of Northern cities such as Boston, Chicago, and Cleveland. The cognitive dissonance emerges as his boasting, over a fanfare of horns, damns his own people:
We got no-necked oilmen from Texas
Good ol’ boys from Tennessee
College men from LSU
Went in dumb, come out dumb too
“Rednecks” was intended to introduce a “good old boy,” Johnny Cutler, whose life would be traced over the course of the album. Newman decided to downplay this concept in order to offer multiple perspectives, past and present, on the South.
Yet the songs about Cutler are striking for their directness voiced through Newman’s use of irony. In his ode to his hometown, “Birmingham,” Cutler never gets that his bragging, such as about his dog—“the meanest dog in Alabam’”—reflect none too kindly on him. There’s also little need to read between the lines in his confession to his wife, in “Marie,” that he has to be drunk in order to tell her he loves her. The orchestral arrangements that have slyly commented on the distance between what Cutler says and how the listener perceives him then shift into a bracing dissonance as we accompany him, in “Guilty,” on a boozed-up and coked-out journey that ends with his bleak reflection: “It takes a whole lotta medicine/For me to pretend that I’m somebody else.”
The second side of the album—if you’re listening on vinyl (which you really should)—kicks off with “Louisiana 1927,” the emotional counterpart to “Rednecks.” Just as “Rednecks” has an uncanny relevance during Trump’s reign, “Louisiana 1927,” a history lesson about a flood devastating the region, became an anthem in the aftermath of Katrina. The accusatory chorus, “They’re trying to wash us away,” and the slow, stately chord progression are on the side of those waiting for federal disaster relief that came too little, too late, but the song can offer no sense of closure.
Next appears the jaunty political jingle written by Huey Long, “Every Man a King,” with Newman leading the singalong, before Newman’s take on Long’s rousing speeches, “Kingfish.” The verses are upbeat—filled with Long’s boasts, like about “whipping the asses” of big oil companies; the chorus, having a dissonant cadence somewhat similar to “Guilty,” suggests Long is paying lip service to the angry rural voters who, after the flood, elected him as Louisiana’s governor in 1928.
Newman understands that Long saw himself as larger than life, and his speeches tangled his mythos in a living, breathing history. While Long’s rise and fall inspired a melodramatic and messy film, Newman regards Long’s outcome as an absurdist spectacle catalyzed by the Southern tradition of telling stories, not for their truth value, but because they excuse taboo breaking.
Newman fits into this tradition, pushing boundaries in seeing what he can get away with, which animates his songs about a rogue’s gallery of misfits. There’s “Naked Man,” having a ridiculously catchy synth-driven chorus, about a purse-snatcher who confesses his twisted past. A more elegant melody introduces “A Wedding in Cherokee County,” where all the freaky friends of a mute bride can’t wait to join her in the humiliation of her pathetic groom when he can’t get it up on their wedding night—the guy knows what’s in store, and his lament is one of the funniest in all of popular music: “She will laugh at my mighty sword.”
One of the more unreliable of Newman’s narrators is a man trying to argue his way out of a mental hospital in “Back on My Feet Again.” Performing a long-winded defense of his social status, he says that his sister ran off with a white millionaire who passed himself off as a black man to ward off any women who wanted him for his money. Riffing on Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, the song spotlights Ry Cooder’s slide guitar, which builds on a country-rock groove.
Cutler returns for “Rollin,’” the last song on the album, where he discusses his end-of-the-day drinking ritual. The rippling of the strings in the chorus, meant to evoke Stephen Foster’s minstrel song, “Old Folks at Home (Way Down Upon the Swanee River),” imagines Cutler floating on a stream of whiskey, straight to psychic oblivion.
That Good Old Boys ends on a profound absence of hope seems far from fashionable these days, leading Jon Blistein in Rolling Stone to argue that its giving voice to such a politically reactionary character “can feel about as necessary as another New York Times report from a diner in Trump country.” At the present, however, Newman isn’t terribly interested in writing songs about Trump supporters, and, on his latest album, Dark Matter (2017), he goes after the puppet master, rather than the puppet.**
* Winston Cook-Wilson gives a particularly detailed examination of the song in his album review.
** Newman did write a song about Trump’s penis, but left it off of Dark Matter. He explained, “I just didn’t want to add to the problem of how ugly the conversation we’re all having is.”