REVIEW: Rod Picott’s “Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil” Is Songs of Mortality and Longing

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Muddling your way through a major health scare can change the way you live. And not in a faux-inspirational, Hallmark-movie-with-a-schmaltzy-musical-swell-at-the-end kind of way, but in a more subtle, almost mundane (to outsiders, anyway) manner. Priorities get shifted around, some things become clearer, others fade into the background. Nashville-based singer-songwriter Rod Picott wrote much of his latest album, Tell The Truth & Shame The Devil, after suffering a life-threatening heart problem with a side of back surgery. Then he decided to strip his already-modest sound all the way down to his guitar, the occasional harmonica, and his clear, expressive voice.

The first track is called “Ghost”, and it starts a theme that’s consistent across the album – the fear of not being seen, especially for an aging singer (and an aging man): “No one can hear me even when I shout/The louder I yell, well, the more I’m filled with doubt.” “Bailing” brings that harmonica in for the first time, with Picott relating the story of bucketing out the flooded home of his youth to bailing out of life – “So I traded myself and the dream inside/I had no faith, I had no pride” – before finally leaving home for the fame (or anonymity?) of Nashville. 

Picott looks at mortality from another angle in “Mark,”  a story of a kid – truly, one of too many kids – who couldn’t make his way through his teenage years and took his own life. The boy’s existence is framed in historical events and the music that he loved – really, he’s not even the main character in his own life story and not well-known by his peers, which makes his death even more of a mystery: “No one knew what to say and still nobody knows.” “Mark” and several of the other songs on the record are set in and around Picott’s home state of Maine (an aside – why are there not more Americana songwriters from Maine? It’s about as South as you can get up North). “Spartan Hotel” is set in a dying New England mill town and the bar that ties it together, complete with surly bouncer Tom and in-house heartbreaker Juanita. Those kind of rough-hewn characters populate “A Beautiful Light”, a harsh take-down of beer commercial-friendly bro-country’s romanticizing of the blue-collar existence: “Those radio country songs got it all wrong/Bragging all about the simple life.” In his spare tunes, Picott has no time or patience for prettified reality. 

With that heavy dose of reality, though, there is some room left for longing. “Sunday Best” recalls childhood church visits and family dinners with both the jaundiced eye of adulthood and a wistfulness for a seemingly simpler past. In an almost whisper that sounds like Tom Waits on his sweetest day, Picott recalls that, “Everyone stopped cursing/For a couple of hours.” He even shows a child’s fondness for his mostly mucked-up family: “Most of them were drunks I guess/Drinking in their Sunday best.” And the album wraps with that ghostly feeling again –  “Fold Of Your Dress” has Picott seeking out ways to disappear: “Pills make me rattle and cocaine’s worse/Whiskey is a slower ride to the hearse.” But it’s the connection he’s missing that haunts him the most: “Did I set you free just like I did the rest/Wish I was in the fold of your dress.” This is what Picott calls one of the “lighter” songs on the record. Clearly, the man’s been through some stuff.

Tell The Truth & Shame The Devil was recorded by Picott at home alone and given to Neilson Hubbard for mixing. All songs were written by Picott, with the exception of “Beautiful Light” (co-written with Ben de la Cour), “80 John Wallace” (with Stacy Dean Campbell), and “Mama’s Boy (with longtime friend Slaid Cleaves). 

You can find the album here: http://rodpicott.com/physical-cds/m5akls8sl4086fcjy9gk85cyi6h0hp

Check out tour dates here: http://rodpicott.com/tourdates

 

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