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One of pop music's intellectual peaks...
on September 5, 2004
Randy Newman's portrait of the Southern United States represents a peak in his career and a culmination of four albums. Begged and beaten into the music industry by friends and colleagues (one of them supposedly John Lennon, who called Newman to say that all of the Beatles had heard his demos), Newman's fourth album of original material provides evidence that those friends and colleagues provided us a great service. "Good Old Boys" stands as one of Newman's greatest acheivements, and arguably one of the greatest albums of the 1970s. Rolling Stone even proclaimed it the 393rd best album of all time in 2003 (though it probably deserves to be put much higher).
A furtive glance at the album's title, and an accompanying peek at the song titles ("Rednecks", "Birmingham", Naked Man", "Guilty") would suggest a slam dunk satirical no holds barred slash at the south. Not so. Newman approaches the subject with dignity and a balance not often bequeathed to the United States' southern states. Not to say that "Good Old Boys" eulogizes the South (this is no "Gone With The Wind"). The bad and ugly also creep in: racism, prejudice, drunkedness, poverty, populism, obscenity. Newman, himself a Southerner by birth, has forayed into this territory before. 1970's "12 Songs" included "Old Kentucky Home" and "Yellow Man", though the former contained more nudge nudge satire than "Good Old Boys". This album expands on the themes explored in those songs and expands it into the length of an entire album. The results come out more in context than they do on a song-by-song basis. For example, "Birmingham" and "Marie", both amazing songs, take on a different tone when following "Rednecks". "Rollin'" represents the sigh of denial after a long arduous inhale. The song feels different in isolation than it does at the end of the song cycle of "Good Old Boys". This entails a tightly composed and well thought out collection of amazing songs. They all stand on their own but nonetheless take on a different life in the context of the album.
"Rednecks" has to be Newman's most shocking song for more reasons than its abrasive lyrics. Somehow it manages sympathetic, vindictive, satirical, racist, and anti-racist sentiments all at once. It puts the 'redneck' stereotype under the microscope and proclaims that the issues are more complex than they seem. It revels in Southern stereotypes while pointing the finger northward in the justifiably famous lines about the the northern 'cages' where blacks are kept in the "free" states. Indirectly it says "at least we're honest about it down here". It does all of this without promoting stereotypes or racism. This incomprehensible dichotomy pervades the entire album. Especially in Newman's portrait of Huey Long in "Every Man a King" which leads into "Kingfish".
Newman takes the orchestral lessons and arrangements learned from his previous albums and puts them to incredible work here. Strings, horns, steel guitar, and Newman's distinctive piano all fall together here in perfect balance. Completely gone are the instrumental excesses and self-conscious arrangements of his first two albums (i.e., he overused the orchestra on his first album and abandoned it on his second). "Louisiana 1927" contains one of the most beautifully orchestrated choruses in all of pop music, and stands as one of Newman's best. The amazing strings on "Kingfish" and "Rollin'" also deserve mention, though all songs are notable.
The 2CD set includes the demo for "Good Old Boys" called "Johnny Cutler's Birthday". This reveals the album's origins in a concept album revolving around one person. This focus proved too narrow for the subject matter, and at least six of the songs on the demo did not make the final album. One of them revolves around extreme profanity. Others fill in the story line (narrated by Newman in between his solo piano and voice takes). All are top notch Newman and will leave listeners wondering what else lurks in Newman's vault.
"Good Old Boys" stands as one one Newman's most impressive achievements. Every Randy Newman fan needs this CD set. Both the original album and the demo remain on firm solid concrete hard ground some thirty years later.