Here’s a handy little mathematical equation to keep in mind when considering the state of popular music: Modern Country = lies. Americana = truth.
To prove it, give a listen to a Modern Country radio hit like Lee Brice’s “Drinking Class,” a fantasy about blue-collar guys who celebrate workweek’s end with drinking and dancing. Just perfect for a lame beer commercial.
Then there’s the song “Where No One Knows My Name,” by the Nashville, Tenn.-based Americana singer/songwriter Rod Picott. It’s about an angry, despairing guy trapped in a small town and the crummy blue-collar jobs it offers: “I swear if I could find enough guts and gasoline/I’d burn the bridge to 95, that’s the last they’d see of me/I’d sit and watch the whole damn thing go up in flames/And say kiss my ass/You never knew my name.”
Picott has never heard Brice’s “Drinking Class,” but he’s all too familiar with Modern Country songs like it and the hypocritical values they display. He’s devoted his career to offering an alternative. That’s evident on last year’s Hang Your Hopes on a Crooked Nail, which features accompaniment from a fine band. It’s his seventh studio album since his 2001 debut, Tiger Tom Dixon’s Blues.
“When I hear those kind of [Modern Country] songs, I don’t feel they represent what it’s like to live that life,” Picott says by phone from Nashville. “I feel like they’re trying to write a reflection of how people would like to see themselves, not a reflection of what it feels like to live that life. I hung sheet rock for 18 years and I know what it feels like to walk into a bank on Friday afternoon with your feet covered with drywall shit and construction stuff and be cashing that check. It does not feel the way those mainstream Country songs want to make you feel.
“I’m more interested in exploring what that life actually feels like. It’s a lot more complicated than, ‘Yee hah, it’s a Friday afternoon and I got my truck and a six-pack.’ ”
This doesn’t mean Picott’s songs, which have a hard Country Rock edge and keen descriptive details reminiscent of Joe Ely or John Hiatt, are inherently downbeat. They can be funny, like Hang Your Hopes’ “Mobile Home”: “Your neighbor plays Aerosmith all goddamn day long/It’s him and Joe Perry jamming along/He’s got a Peavey amp and fake Les Paul/He bought from a store at the Fox Run Mall.”
Picott, who is 50, once owned a mobile home in southern Maine.
“Yes, that one comes right out of my own life,” he says. “I got out of high school and started hanging sheet rock and got a mobile home in a mobile home park. That environment has limits.”
Another of the album’s songs, a sensitive break-up ballad called “I Might be Broken Now,” was written with the woman he broke up with as their affair was ending. She is Amanda Shires, a heralded singer/songwriter in her own right who went on to marry Jason Isbell.
“We always supported each other in our work no matter where we were in our relationship,” Picott says. “We wanted to make a lovely piece of art that communicated something. We felt completely comfortable exploring that stuff even as we were in the midst of it. She’s a great writer.”
Growing up in rural Maine, Picott became interested in music early. Even as he finished school and started work, he kept up his interest.
He eventually left Maine for Boulder, Colo., and then Nashville in 1994, holding on to his construction-related work while trying to start a career as a songwriter.
“I spent the first four or five years as one of those crazy Nashville guys who works eight hours, comes home, locks himself in a room to write for a few hours, and then comes out to go and play all the open mics and anything else I could get into,” Picott says. “I was one of those obsessed guys.”
A break came when, as a result of being signed to Alison Krauss’ management company, he was able to open for her. He’s done well enough since then in Nashville — he has his own record label, Welding Rod — that he can hang up hanging the sheet rock, but he is still aiming for greater national visibility. But it has to be on his terms.
“As a writer, I have a white-knuckle grip on that concept of writing what you know,” he says. “So everything I write about comes from either my own life or somebody around me. I really don’t step outside of it. It works for me.”
ROD PICOTT performs Wednesday, March 4 at Southgate House Revival. More info: southgatehouse.com.