Life at 33 1/3: The fine line between love and disgust

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Randy Newman, Good Old Boys (Reprise)

Randy Newman’s cleverly seductive satire and deadly accurate irony has never, before or after, been given better working conditions than in the sweet sounding songs on “Good Old Boys.”

The music takes you down memory lane, strolling along the dusty roads of the Deep South with a soft smile on its face, led by Newman’s playful ragtime syncopations on the piano.  The mood is nostalgic, recreating times and places when there was no rush and a man’s value was measured by the colour of his skin, his bank account and his connections within the all white political system.  “N***er” was just a word, as common in everyday life as “lynching”.  Idyllic times.  For some.

Randy enters the characters he portrays (with a slight “southern drawl”), poor whites and governors alike, and turns them into likeable, sympathetic individuals, until the views they so casually share with the listener start sinking in.  The effect is absolutely terrifying.  The marvellous opening track “Rednecks” sets the mood.  It’s the most scary song you’ll ever love.

What impresses me even more is how Newman actually manages to communicate both a knowledge of and respect for the traditions and values of The South that has nothing to do with segregation.  These are proud people in pain, he seems to be saying.  Time has left them behind, their world is dying, only their crippled views on life survive.  Newman walks a fine line between love and disgust, and it is some achievement that he succeeds.

As Randy’s journey through the mentality, the prejudices and the ideas of the white “Deep South” is so lovingly formulated and pleasantly conveyed, it appears even more vivid and real.  I know of no other album that is as funny and scary simultaneously.

“Good Old Boys” doesn’t leave the listener back in the 1920’s and 1930’s.  With an acidic twinkle in its eye it takes us all the way to the contemporary United States of 1974, in the wake of the downfall of President Nixon, the nation still shaken and in shame.

There are many beautiful moments here, but Newman wouldn’t be Newman if he didn’t inject them with hints of discomfort.  As in the two drunkard’s laments “Marie” and “Guilty”, the latter includes puny doses of self-pity as well.  Sweet songs with a dark twist to them.

The name list of musicians participating on this record is highly impressive: Ry Cooder, Eagles, Jim Keltner, Willie Weeks, Andy Newmark and Al Perkins to name a few.  But they are used with caution, the arrangements are stripped down and very organic.

“Good Old Boys” was definitely one of the albums of the year in 1974, and it has proven to be so durable that it still shines, equally valid, equally frightening, equally funny and, dear I say it, equally beautiful.  Thank you Randy!

Released: September 10, 1974

Produced by: Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman

(All songs written and composed by Randy Newman except where noted)

Contents: Rednecks/Birmingham/Marie/Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)/Guilty/Louisiana 1927/Every Man a King (Huey P. Long, Castro Carazo)/Kingfish/Naked Man/Wedding in Cherokee County/Back on My Feet Again/Rollin’

Personnel:

Randy Newman – arranger, conductor, acoustic and electric piano, synthesizer, vocals

Ry Cooder – bottleneck guitar on “Back on My Feet Again”

John Platania – electric guitar

Ron Elliott – acoustic guitar

Dennis Budimir – acoustic guitar

Al Perkins – pedal steel guitar

Russ Titelman – bass

Willie Weeks – bass

Red Callender – bass

Jim Keltner – drums

Andy Newmark – drums

Bobbye Hall Porter – percussion

Milt Holland – percussion

Glenn Frey – background vocals

Don Henley – background vocals

Bernie Leadon – background vocals