Americana Highways had a chance to talk to Rod Picott in advance of his new release Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil. He has a book of short stories out already, and a second book of short stories, as well as a novel and a screenplay in the queue.
AH: The title, Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil, is really potent, and it’s not even taken from one of the songs.
RP: That title just fit the group of songs; the songs on this album are so personal and a little bit less narrative than on my other albums. During the writing of this record I went through a bunch of frightening and profound health issues, and although I made my way through them it really affected my writing. I was in the middle of pushing toward this record and there were a few weeks where I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. So the result is: this is what it’s like when I go as deep as I can.
AH: You have a whole new perspective once you’ve been in fear for your life!
RP: It absolutely puts you in a different frame of mind. A lot of these songs are me confronting my own demons and asking questions of myself. And although I am a very private person — I woudn’t normally have such personal accountings — but I’ve seen this happen to a lot of artists at one point or another, you end up spilling your guts in the art form that is your particular outlet. And this was my turn for that.
AH: Sometimes we all get stuck in the mundane routines of life and forget what’s really important.
RP: Most people struggle with that, especially with today’s social media world. You feel like you have to be connected constantly and you can lose track of proper perspective on your life and what’s really important and what’s really not. I am enormously grateful for the small audience I have, and they are incredibly loyal, so I do feel comfortable sharing my personal stuff. Some of the conversations in these songs I might not even have in private, so if you listen to the album you’re getting a more personal expression than you might in real conversation with me.
AH: “Ghost” is the first song on the album, with its profound lines like: “I’m hard as nails, thin as hope, I’m the punchline of my own joke, and I’m broken as a bone.”
RP: That is one of the songs that came directly out of the health scare, this song is me confronting my own demons and acknowledging things that I struggle with. There’s a self-loathing that pushes me to make my art, and I think this is somewhat common among artists, there is this striving to become a better version of yourself. “Ghost” is addressing the lesser version of myself and confronting him to do better. At the time I felt like although I am enormously grateful for being able to do what I do, and to the people who have allowed me to do it and helped me to do it, I also go through periods of struggling with depression and wanting more than what I’ve accomplished.
AH: “Mama’s Boy” is another song that is remarkably touching, it provides a rare glimpse of the other side of what happens when we raise people to be only one of two separate genders. We are seeing information come to light now about what happens when girls are restricted to feminine gender roles, but this song highlights what happens to boys who are limited to fit into masculine gender roles.
RP: I have also started writing about this same idea in the fiction and the prose that I’m working on, I’m really interested in that idea.
My father and I are very different; my father came from very rough people and I was a very sensitive, shy, quite kid. And I look back and see the fascinating mark of growing up, the fighting that I put into that song, it was like my father didn’t see me. It’s interesting to investigate what it means to be masculine and what it means to become a man. It’s been an interesting arc to watch. As my father has grown older he has grown much, much softer. He was a very tough guy and I was a very sensitive child and it was hard for us to connect when I was a boy.
After I got out of high school I went into construction, and in that construction world you have to learn how to be tougher than the others in the trade or they will run over you. So as I got older I got thicker skin and I got more confident. And I learned when it was comfortable for me to inhabit that kind of skin, and that’s what the song is about, although it’s from a kid’s perspective.
I do think things are different today, there is a wider range of what’s acceptable as manhood and masculinity, but that was a long time ago, and particularly in my own family there was a very narrow view of what it meant to become a man, or to what it meant to be a man.
Although it’s also very hard still, though, for those sensitive kids who color outside the lines.
AH: You mentioned a screenplay.
RP: I write constantly, I’ve been writing songs for so many years, and about 5 years ago I started working on poetry and prose and I started this screenplay. It’s just sitting there right now, it needs to simmer a little for now and then I’ll go back to it. It’s a modern day story Amadeus Mozart. Mozart was a competitor with Salieri, and one had an enormous amount of natural talent, and the other had some talent but not that natural sort of genius. My screenplay is a modern day take on that, in the folk singing world, where the same dynamic still exists. There are people who work very very hard and they can get somewhere, whereas there are other people who have buckets of talent, they just have all the pieces and it’s effortless for them to fly. This is a sort of dark comedy version of that.
AH: What about the novel?
RP: The novel is nearly finished. I also have a new version of my collection of short stories that I put out last year, but with a new publisher now, and two new stories and a new edit. And then another collection of short stories will come out after that, and then after that, the novel. The novel is written, but it’s waiting its day in the sun. Sometimes with these things It’s really good to let them sit for awhile and come back to them with a fresh eye. I tend to write very quickly and then for me it’s good to let them sit a bit.
AH: So you are writing all the time, but within different media. How do you direct the ideas as they come to you?
RP: Ideas come to me in different ways, sometimes they are simmering for awhile. But as far as what form I am going to write them in, I just follow my spine. I get up in the morning, and I read, and I drink my coffee and I turn on the computer and I write, and I just turn to whatever piece feels like it’s calling to me that day. It’s not a mystical kind of thing, but it is sort of following whatever feeling comes to me that day.
AH: For you, your inspiration comes from your spine?
RP: Yeah, my backbone tells me what to do. I try to keep my antenna up all the time. I’m always looking for phrases or interesting language I hear people use.
It works best also not to edit while I’m writing. I throw it all on the page and come back and edit after. If you try to edit while you’re writing, you won’t get anywhere. You will be stuck on how to construct the sentence while you’re in the middle of it and the story doesn’t move along. It’s so much easier to just come back to it after. You have to trust that you will fix it later.
AH: “A Beautiful Light” is a song you co-wrote with Ben de la Cour. What is the best process to use when writing with another person?
RP: Back in the day, when I first moved to Nashville, I used to write with a lot of different people. I’d go to these co-writing appointments where the publisher sets you up with somebody. I did that for about a year. I found that I didn’t enjoy it very much. This is how Nashville works, publishing companies will set you up with writers from their company, or from another publishing company. They feel like you’ll be a good match for whatever reason, and they find a room and book it and make you an appointment to meet and write there from like 10-2 or from 2-6. It’s an unusual thing, so you try to come armed with a few ideas and cross your fingers that the other writer will take to one of them, or hope that they will come with an idea that you will take to. And sometimes it works and it’s beautiful when it works, but when it doesn’t, it’s the most painful four hours of your life. It’s the opposite of beautiful, it’s like a bad date, but it’s a four hour bad date, it’s not a coffee. (laughs)
But these days I only write with people I really want to write with and with people whose writing I feel know will match up with mine, or with people who have a skill that complements my skill set. And Ben is a really good writer, he’s really fast, he’s young, he’s got a really nimble mind. I tend to be more of a workhorse, so it was a nice match. It reminded me a lot of the writing I’ve done over the years with a guy named Slaid Cleaves. Ben moved things really quickly and I was maybe the more vigilant, and I’d pick through things that he was throwing out, and we landed on that version of that song.
As for the song itself, we took on a complicated issue to address in a song. Some things have layers, and there is a lot of subtext in that song. I felt like we got it right, though. We were trying to demythologize the blue collar world that’s presented in art and in song, and particularly I think in mainstream country radio songs. So often it’s painted that the simple working life is so beautiful, there’s a romance attached to it that in fact is just false. It’s false. That’s a very difficult life, I lived it right out of high school. There’s a wide range of how people feel, living that life. And for me it was very complicated living that life, being a guy that was drawn to the arts and I always felt like I had one foot in one world and one foot in the other. There are a lot of people who feel that way, there’s a braggadocio about living that blue collar life and being proud of it, that’s a forced pride, a defensive pride. And that’s what we were trying to get to, to expose that part of it. And I’m happy with the way it came out.
AH: A few of your other songs, like “Bailing,” also confront the concept of family.
RP: Yes, you know, there are two ways to think of your family, it’s the people you choose to be your family, and it’s also the people who are your DNA. And you can lean one way or another. I know people whose best friends are their brothers and sisters or their parents and they are so close. I grew up in a family where there was a bit of distance, where there was a kind of hollowness in our home life. And a sort of anger that was unspoken but that sat in the house and was kind of heavy. And they are good people, I’m not denigrating the people in my own family but I am saying that was part of my growing up. So to get older and see how other peoples’ families work and function has been interesting, and it’s a subject I am drawn to over and over. You keep exploring these things that you’ve experience, and you try to unblock them and sort them out.
AH: What’s on the horizon for you?
RP: For the book of short stories, Out Past the Wires, I have a lot of bookstore appearances, and then for the album there will be a lot of shows: a tour in Europe, and then more shows here in the US. My calendar looks like a spaghetti dinner!