Rod Picott’s new readings of all his co-writes with Slaid Cleaves add up to an instant classic collector’s item (and it sounds damn good too).
Over the course of around a dozen albums, Rod Picott, a former drywall sheet hanger (plasterboard to us in the UK) has built up his reputation as an excellent singer/songwriter. While characterised by many as a “blue-collar” songwriter, able to transform the daily grit and strife of the working man into lyrical and quite magnificent songs, this does the man a disservice. Casting around to try to describe him, this quote from veteran country music writer, Alan Cackett, came up and it does a far better job of doing so than this writer could ever come up with… “Rod Picott has a gift for writing songs about the everyday experience of being human and all the flaws, hardships, failures, and heartache that come with it.”
Those who are aware of Picott will know that he has an ongoing songwriting partnership with Slaid Cleaves. The pair have a friendship going back to their schooldays with Picott saying, “ We met on the school bus when I was eight years old and the new kid in school. Slaid says we recognized each other as the two singer-songwriter types among the hardscrabble blue-collar kids.” They had a teenage band (more of which later) and while both have carved separate careers, they have continued to co-write, with the songs appearing on one of the other’s albums and sometimes on both of them.
On ‘Wood, Steel, Dust & Dreams’, Picott revisits the songs the pair have co-authored, 26 in all, and recorded them with an excellent combo consisting of Will Kimbrough on guitar, Matt Mauch on acoustic slide, Lex Price on mandolin and bass and Neilson Hubbard who provides percussion and who also produced the album. The songs are, for the most part, given a spare delivery allowing the words to stand tall while Picott delivers them with a fine sense of world-wearied patina. There’s a lonesome harmonica on several songs, along with some wonderfully delicate slide guitar and mandolin frills. The overall sound reminds one of the likes of early Guy Clark records along with Dylan circa ‘Blood On The Tracks’ and Springsteen’s ‘Tom Joad’ songs. Mix in some voodoo blues on ‘Until I’m Satisfied’ and the gravelly ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ and you have a fine collection. Altogether, it’s all perfectly played and delivered.
If you buy the album you could spend an interesting couple of hours searching down the originals for a comparison, but suffice to say that here, Picott reassembles the songs to fit the moment. ‘Welding Burns’ is given a starker and more direct interpretation while ‘Broke Down’ is stripped back from both writers’ earlier countrified versions of the song. ‘Bring It On’ cleaves more to the Cleaves’ version of the song, abandoning the grunge element of the Picott version on ‘Tiger Tom Dixon’s Blues’. Of more interest is the booklet in which Picott offers his thoughts on each of the songs and examines the ongoing collaboration between the two writers. This is quite fascinating as he describes how one or the other will call in for help on a song or, at times, disagree on whether there’s a need for a bridge in a particular song. Ultimately, Picott writes, “We don’t keep track of who writes what…The song is king and rules with omnipotence.”
With magnificent performances of songs such as ‘Black T-Shirt’, ‘Fire Inside’, ‘River Runs’, ‘Rustbelt Fields’ and ‘Take Home Pay’, at times the album eclipses the earlier versions from both performers. Picott seems inspired, bursting to deliver after a tough lockdown. He closes the album with a new song, his sole solo write which is kind of a talking blues about the band he and Cleaves set up back in their teens. ‘The Ballad Of The Magic Rats’ is part Lou Reed, part Holden Caulfield (had he been in a band) and it is gently hilarious. A song which surely should feature once Picott gets on the road again.
As if it weren’t desirable enough, ‘Wood, Steel, Dust & Dreams’ is destined to be a collector’s item, as it’s only available as a very limited edition CD package via Rod Picott’s website. It was originally crowdfunded and the response has allowed him to finance a run of the discs which will not be available on streaming platforms. As the man said when he launched the project, “It’s a collector’s edition. I’m thinking of it as a run of folk art prints. This album is for the folks who have sustained me over the years and want to help get me to the other side of 2020.” We’ve reviewed this via a fully paid for copy and urge all to support your favourite musicians.