Good Old Boys
Released: October 1974
Chart Peak: #36
Weeks Charted: 23
The Ambrose Bierce of rock & roll has released another selection of his bitter and desperately sardonic fantasies. Good Old Boys has a conceptually "Southern" atmosphere; it also has drunkenness and depression, fun celebrations of political figures, lunacy, congenital birth defects and obsessional portraits of stereotypes that can leave the listener confused as to whether Newman means what he sings or not. The music is fresh -- especially Newman's piano. But between flashes of genius and transcendance comes morbidity. After repeated listenings, one impression lingers -- Newman is a troubled man.
He has made a career out of confusing his audience using dazzling irony and dreadfully warped images as setups for laughs -- a new version of the old shadow play of the poor spastic hitting himself in the forehead with an ice-cream cone. In earlier songs Newman presented the Apocalypse (burning rivers and atomic bomb jokes) and somehow you had to laugh. He showed us his adipose little freaks and the commonplace nightmares we all hve in which "everybody scared me, but you scared me the most." Even slavery became absurdity, poignantly comic in his great "Sail Away."
Then the sone moves up North in a savage litany of the names of the black ghettos; they're doing a fair job of keeping the niggers down up there too. "Rednecks" is a staggering song that is also topical: The week the record was released there was a brutal racial incident in Boston over school desegregation. Like all effective satire the lyrics are rooted in bare hostility and aggression, but the sprightly reeds and horn fills give this angry screed a sardonic ragtime air.
"Birmingham" is similar to the earlier "Dayton, Ohio 1903" and Newman's writing again sounds like Stephen Foster after a prefrontal lobotomy. But within the context of Newman's broiling psyche this innocuous tune becomes portentious and malevolent. The same is true for "Marie," a whimpering dirge about being drunk. A weeping, slinking arrangement and an unhealthy dose of maudlin self-pity also mark "Guilty." Along with his pearls Newman gives us his swine.
Newman leads a deadpan male chorus in a short rendition of "Every Man a King," Huey P. Long's ruthless, populist campaign song of the Thirties. This segues into Newman's symphonette to Long: "Kingfish." Newman has his latest hero (who was assassinated in 1935) asking his cracker constituents,
With its shifting tempi, rocking lines and hilarious vocal accents the portrait is brilliant, the high point of the record.
It's followed by a trio of totally schizoid songs. "Naked Man" boasts outrageous lyrics and a superb, delirious arrangement. "Wedding in Cherokee County" is a monody describing a cracker's impending marriage to a desultory, slatternly madwoman way off in the bogs. The hero of "Back on My Feet Again" is trying to convince his shrink to let him out of the mental hospital. Over Ry Cooder's understated slide guitar Newman tells a story about how his sister married "a Negro from the Eastern Shore" who later turns out to be a while millionaire incognito because he was looking for a woman who didn't love him only for his money. The side ends with "Rollin'," the third lament of heavy boozing on the album.
Good Old Boys is another dark, dark record. Though it contains nothing as monumentally grim as "God's Song" on Sail Away (in which a deranged and vengeful deity rubs the faces of his children in humiliating shit) it is a continuation of Newman's deceptive, mercurial work. It mystifies, it confuses, it entertains, it swings. You don't know whether to laugh or cry, and that is Randy Newman's rare and bizarre skill.
- Stephen Davis, Rolling Stone, 11-21-74.
The Good Old Boy has been America's favorite problem child lately. Lots of folks from Up North have made sport of him. Haven't even been above it myself, in fact, although I began to suspect the fun was about over a few months ago when I read, in one of those "little" magazines made famous for solemnity and dull writing, a fashionably unfashionable defense of the redneck. Surely, I thought, Time magazine would think of a way, any day now, to nail the subject shut forever. But good writers like Randy Newman can take up old themes and show us several new -- and, in retrospect, obvious -- ways of holding them up to the light. The most important thing about Newman's Good Old Boys is that it is hilarious, but the nifty side benefits included some damned good sociology, if one is into that, and a musical meeting of the high standards Randy set in Sail Away.
Right off the bat, as they say in Cracker Country, Newman goes ruthlessly about his business in "Rednecks": "We got no-neck oilmen from Texas/ Good old boys from Tennessee/ College men from L. S. U./ Went in dumb, came out dumb, too/ Hustlin' 'round Atlanta in they alligator shoes...." But, slashing as this summary is, Newman refuses to form cheap alliances with some of the people he has set to laughing. Later in the song he says: "Down here we're too ignorant to realize/ The North has set the nigger free/ Yes, it's 'free' to be put in a cage in Harlem, New York City/ It's 'free' to be put in a cage in the South Side of Chicago...," and goes on through a list of our Northern cities famous for their ghettoes. From somewhere, Newman found a song written by Huey P. Long (with someone named Castro Carazo -- I assume Long wrote the words and sang it when he was campaigning for for governor of Louisiana) called "Every Man a King," and Randy performs that as an introduction to his "Kingfish," which was Long's nickname and which here purports to be something like a campaign speech: "Everybody gather 'round/ Loosen up yo' suspenders, hunker down on the ground/... Who took the Standard Oil men and whipped their asses?/ -- Just like he promised he'd do/ Ain't no Standard Oil men gonna run this state/ Gon' be run by little folks like me and you."
The funniest of all, and -- seeing as how it strikes right at the home and fambly -- the most outrageous, is "Wedding In Cherokee County," in which an old boy takes a look at his bride on their wedding day: "Her papa was a midget/ Her mama was a whore/ Her granddad was a newsboy/ Till he was eighty-four/ (What a slimy old bastard he was)...." Another of Newman's old boys seems to be speaking from a nuthouse, going on about how his sister ran away with a rich Negro from the Eastern Shore, and still another, subtler, gets drunk in order to tell "Marie" how much he loves her.
Newman and producers Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman know that the aesthetics of album-making call for some relief from a theme of this sort, so he has included "Guilty," already accepted as straightforward self-flagellation. The way Bonnie Raitt sings it, it is that: Randy's vocal, of course, makes it start to smell like one of those "He Gives Us All His Love" deals, a matter of enough exaggeration to put it just this side or just that side of the line separating a romantic from a put-on artist. Bonnie's vocal remains untouchable, but Newman's too has its uses. He has his own way with history again in "Louisiana 1927," which fits the theme as a backgrounder, recalling apolitically one of the elements -- levee-breaking weather -- that shaped a good old boy's pappy. "Naked Man" is, pardon the word, bathos that could be set just anywhere, although a number of people seem to think, wrongly, that the South has a corner on incest. And "Rollin'," arranged with shaky strings hovering above a sashaying piano beat, is an example of Newman being ambiguous (he is never vague) with such an air of finality that the case has got to be stamped CLOSED, UNSOLVED: "I never drink in the afternoon/ Never drink alone/ But I sure do like a drink or two/ When I get home." Is this a redneck talking? Could be. "Never though I'd make it/ But I always did somehow." Is this poking fun at two-bit complacency? Maybe. Is it showing understanding of the tough haul we all face? Maybe. CASE CLOSED. It's alright; if you don't likeambiguous sings, just turn it over and listen again to "We're rednecks, we're rednecks/ Don't know our ass from a whole in the ground...."
The song "Birmingham," whose lyrics are supposedly the talk of a redneck who has the meanest dog in Alabam', is arranged so the black man's ragtime blends into the white man's ragtime blends into the white man's country-and-western -- forces at work in real life in that city -- and I can't help wondering how much less soul and vitality all our musics might have if we were in one of those small, homogeneous countries where it's easier and less painful to become civilized. Scars are good for you, once the pain stops -- that's a romantic notion, probably, but somewhere down in the nap of Newman's music I think I hear it confirmed.
- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 12/74.
The lifestyles and politics of the South provide some of the most fascinating stories in U.S. history, and Newman's latest project tackles them full force, primarily from the viewpoint of "good old boys." If you're expecting a satirical set, however, forget it. Newman treats his subject matter with knowledge and respect, as well as his usual musical expertise. What we have here is a grouping of superbly arranged songs with the kind of lyrics that literally paint a picture of different places, different eras. Newman's vocals are perhaps the best he has yet come up with, expressing an empathy rarely found in a pop project. He also finds a fascination in the legendary Huey Long, one of America's most misunderstood political figures, even including a long-penned cut that helped him gain 9,000,000 presidential votes one year. A coherent, well done, most definitely deserving of exposure album. Best cuts: "Mr. President (Have Pity On The Working Man)," "Louisiana," "Kingfish," "Guilty," "A Wedding In Cherokee County," "Rollin'."
- Billboard, 1974.
On Good Old Boys, Newman increasingly focused his obsessions on the South, but his slant seemed to be rooted more in Steppin' Fetchit and Shirley Temple Little Rebel Hollywood films than in reality. As distorted as viewing things through that particular lens may be, the South in Good Old Boys is undeniably poignant. "Louisiana 1927" is an affecting account of a spring flood, while "Marie" (a love song from a drunk) is one of the most touching songs written in popular music. The grand, sweeping melodies and arrangements are quite simply beautiful. Newman's sloppy, soulful mumble and understated piano keep this great record from tumbling into drippy sentimentality. * * * * *
- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
Good Old Boys, a rollicking concept album about the South, is celebrated for skewering redneck ignorance but "Louisiana 1927," "A Wedding in Cherokee County" and "Marie" garner their emotional clout from Randy Newman's sympathetic narrative eye. * * * * 1/2
- David Okamoto, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
Randy Newman draws on his roots in the blues and New Orleans boogie to uncork this blistering portrait of the American south. He shows that he was pop's most cutting satirist on "Rednecks" -- a song that doesn't spare Northern or Southern racism; Newman said he still gets neervous playing it in some U.S. cities.
Good Old Boys was chosen as the 393rd greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.
- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.
Even today, Randy Newman's Good Old Boys is an album you think twice about playing in civilized company. The title track is one of the most startling musical contributions to America's troubled history of race relations. Newman was riding high after the critical success of Sail Away when he watched Georgia governor and segregationist Lester Maddox being mocked by a Northern TV audience. Annoyed by what he saw as inverted snobbery, hypocrisy, and liberal smugness, Newman wrote a song about the incident from the perspective of a Southerner. "Rednecks" was the result, a scathing indictment of, well, everything, which features a self-mocking singalong chorus "We're rednecks/we're rednecks/we don't know our ass from a hole in the ground" and frequent use of the world "nigger."
Realizing this would raise hackles, Newman intended to feature the song as part of a contextualizing concept album about a Southern man called "Johnny Cutler's Birthday." This never-released album came out in 2002, and included Newman's own original spoken preamble explaining each track to the producers.
Although the rest never reaches the same level of provocation, it is a beautiful piece of work, possibly Newman's finest. "Louisiana 1927" has a chorus that rolls off the tongue, "Mr President" is a curious contribution to post-Watergate politics, and Newman approvingly describes "Back On My Feet Again" as "a genuinely strange song." From here to Disney soundtrack? It seemed even more unlikely at the time.
- Peter Watts, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
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