In the course of Justin Pickard’s musical pilgrimage, his songwriting has covered a gamut of subjects: smoking and drinking, the ins and outs of grave-robbery, love and loss, and UFOs that resemble bananas. His subjects fall somewhere in between old cult movies from the turn of the century to vintage Americana — between John Wayne and Ed Wood. These subjects in any other writer’s care may not coalesce as seamlessly as they do in the hands of Pickard, who ties them together with wit, passion and heart, most recently on display in the Thunderbird Winos’ third record, Heavy on the Heart.
The album's cover consists of Lichtenstein-inspired art with a mustard bottle labeled with a heart squirting mustard onto a floating hot dog on the backdrop of outer space. The mustard and the hot dog are imbued with a sense of abject silliness but also sustain a deeper meaning.
“Well, when we named the record Heavy on the Heart, I meant it in the same way you would describe to a hot dog vendor that you wanted him to go heavy on the mustard … and the mustard’s gotta go on something, I guess,” Pickard explains. “I guess hot dogs are pretty heavy on your heart, too,” he adds, “and I figured a hamburger floating in space would just be too normal.”
The hot dog-mustard motif shows the dichotomy of Pickard, and this album in particular. It embraces both the ridiculous and the serious earnestly and in equal measure.
Pickard has been playing in the Dallas music community since the days when live music abounded on Lower Greenville, when people could flock to outdoor graffiti galleries such as the trestle bridge by Flagpole Hill or the Good-Latimer tunnel in Deep Ellum. (Look it up, it was magnificent!) In a way, you could say that Pickard grew with the city, or grew as the city changed. In one of the album's slower tracks, "Light Rail," he laments over soaring pedal steel guitar the city's drive toward the future and its proclivity to occasionally barrel through its past, and past art, in the process: “The map’s always changing / The roads aren’t the same / tunnels full of dirt / buried in the name of a light rail train.”
With Pickard, such sentimentality is not in combat but balanced with such off-the-wall tracks as the opener to the album, “UFB,” which — of course — stands for “Unidentified Flying Banana.”
“I had seen this documentary about UFOs years ago where a guy was talking about seeing one and saying that it looked 'just like a big ol’ banana’ and then when I was driving back to town from Louisiana one day the song sort of wrote itself.”
The subject matter alone makes this song easily one of the oddest to come out of Dallas in recent memory. This is reinforced by the music, which recalls the pulp of a detective novel with a hint of old Reverend Horton Heat.
“I feel like with my first record it was a lot of polish and less substance and the second was almost the opposite. This one’s in the middle and a lot of that is because I have my band together now; it’s road-tested,” Pickard says.
The mixture of polish and substance is maybe most apparent on the title track “Heavy on the Heart,” which falls as the album’s only solo acoustic performance. A sparse chorus reminiscent of Tom Petty reflects the resignation one feels when considering the ills of this world.
“It’s heavy on the heart…” Pickard writes as the music fades to silence. “Yeah…”
The track's sparse acoustic feel is almost by necessity and not by design.
“That song was actually written after we finished tracking this record as sort of an afterthought," Pickard says. "I’ve noticed that whenever I record an album, I’ll write a perfect song right after, just too late to put it on, but this time we were able to get it on there.”
Like many albums, Heavy on the Heart could be said to be a culmination of its influences. As with the Petty-inspired title track, there's the Dwight Yoakam-inspired song “Mississippi Girl” (which could have easily been the record’s first radio single if not for its profanity-laden splendor — if only Pickard could go back to the studio, re-record and “afford to take out the ‘fucks’”) and the Bob Wills-inspired Texas swing song “Texas Heaven.”
The way Pickard lauds his predecessors is most perfectly represented in the culminatory “Chicken and Jesus,” where he ties all of these forefathers together with a series of this-or-thats. Pickard either needs “Jesus or Otis [Redding],” “Vision or Jim [Morrison],” “Breakfast or Elvis.”
One thing’s for sure. After this record, the world and, more importantly, Dallas, needs more of Justin Pickard and the Thunderbird Winos.