The power of storytelling in songwriting has given birth to some of our most unforgettable songs like "Crossroads" by Robert Johnson, "Drifter's Escape" by Bob Dylan or "A Boy Named Sue" by Johnny Cash. Songs that spin narratives from the art of nonfiction usually find a place in listeners' hearts and release oceans of memories when the tune is heard. ("Last Dane with Mary Jane" is one that raises my flood gates.)
Rod Picott knows the power of a good narrative woven into songs. It's an exchange that takes place between the narrator and the listener, a sacred bond that never truly ends once the song is over. He's been using stories from his own life experiences to pen tunes that some music writers have called "gritty, honest," "Thoughtful songs for the working man" and "a musical instruction manual for living with dignity and reliance."
"It's been slow and methodical," Picott said of his process to become a great songwriter and performer. "It's by building a reputation."
Picott's reputation of stripping away the mythology behind the archetypal "working class hero" has taken him across the country, opening for performers such as Alison Krauss. His songs document the unglamorous life of living in mobile homes, paying bills on a paycheck to paycheck budget and bleeding fingers and sore backs from working manual labor jobs. His first studio album Tiger Tom Dixon's Blues in 2001 was named after his great uncle who was a boxer during the Great Depression. He followed it with Stay Dogs in 2002, Girl From Arkansas in 2004, Summerbirds in 2007, Sew Your Heart With Wires in 2008 and Welding Burns in 2011.
Picott will be sharing his song stories with an old Gibson J-45 on Wednesday night at Dan's Silverleaf in Denton, supporting the release of his new album Hang Your Hopes On a Crooked Nail. It's full of songs that emphasize this rural upbringing.
But weaving tunes such as "Mobile Home," "Haunted Man" and "Welding Burns" takes a man who's not only familiar with the working class hero's life but also breathed it, tasted it, bled it. Someone who's family and family before them were part of society's blue collar venue. Someone whose ideal of using two forks involves dropping one of them before dinner is over. It's a way of life usually associated with the powerful tales of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" days.
In southern Maine, Picott grew up around the working class hero like his father who had rigid sets of rules about how you "walked through the world." "It's about getting by, being good enough," said Picott who spent 18 years of his life hanging drywall before releasing his first album. During that time, he was learning how great songs by The J. Geils Band, Bob Seger and Tom Petty created the magic they spun. Why were they so memorable?
"I just became obsessed with figuring out how the songs worked, which is different than just kind of learning them so you can get a girl's attention or play a dance," he said. "It was like solving a puzzle to me as a kid."
Picott was also searching for his voice. He had to travel to Nashville to find it, but he was looking for a publishing deal when he moved to the country music capital. He met with publishing houses on numerous occasions, but it wasn't until his meeting with Jody Williams of MCA Music that he'd realize the direction he needed to go.
After his last song, Picott said Williams wheeled his chair back and told him, "Well, Rod, what we do here at MCA publishing is we just write bullshit all week long. I think you're too good of a writer and you've got too much of a voice for us to take you and teach you how to write this bullshit we write. I think you're an act. I think that you're an artist. You should be making records. Figure out how to pursue that."
Picott set about pursuing Williams' advice and methodically and intentionally made himself get on stage.
"When you get on stage, you have to figure out which part of you is going to be you," Picott said. "It's not all of you. It took me a while to figure that out, which part of me resonated the songs. You almost have to figure out who the narrator is for your material."
It's the life of the working class hero experiencing Shakespearean motifs in Picott's songs that resonates universal experiences for people despite their socioeconomic backgrounds. Picott's songs have garnered more than just music writers' attention but also audiences across the world.
Be sure to catch the show at 9:00 p.m. on Wednesday, March 19, at Dan's Silverleaf in Denton. Tickets are only $10, a price a working class hero can afford.
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