As a lyricist, he has a remarkable talent for creating characters and presenting his tale through their voices. He's also a keen satirist, skillfully employing irony and wit to make a point. As a film composer and songwriter, Newman is a master of the pop song format, ably crafting memorable tunes with a strong sense of melody. It's a potent combination, and nowhere have these elements come together better than in these three albums.
GOOD OLD BOYS
In 1934, while driving to Louisiana State University to take a job teaching English, novelist Robert Penn Warren picked up a hitchhiker. Louisiana was firmly in the control of Governor/Senator Huey P. Long at the time, and Warren's "aging, aimless, nondescript" passenger waxed on about what "Huey" had done for the little guy in the state. Warren's hitchhiker emerged as a Southern Everyman, and helped provide what Warren called "a line of thinking and feeling" that resulted in the novel All the King's Men, Warren's literary masterpiece of political power shaped by the myth, folklore, and fact surrounding Huey P. Long.
Forty years later, Louisiana-born, Los Angeles-raised songwriter Randy Newman also found literary inspiration in Huey Long's Louisiana. Drawing on T. Harry Williams' biography of Huey Long, as well as his personal experiences visiting Louisiana as a boy, Newman's Good Old Boys, like Warren's All the King's Men, weaves fact and folklore to create a portrait of the 20th century South. Told through the voices of Newman's Everyman, Good Old Boys is Newman's masterpiece and stands as one of the finest concept albums in contemporary American music.
The album opens with "Rednecks," one of Newman's hardest-hitting and most controversial songs. Newman had seen Georgia's segregationist governor Lester Maddux on Dick Cavett's show, and the audience and Cavett were so hostile to Maddux that he couldn't get a word in edgewise. Newman wrote the tune from the point of view of someone sympathetic to Maddux. "He may be a fool but he's our fool," Newman's narrator proclaims, "if they think they're better than him they're wrong." The song's potent attack on racism cut across the Mason-Dixon line to expose racism's ugly grip on the American psyche, and Newman's stinging use of the "N word" gave the song a palatable, if unsavory, power.
What makes Good Old Boys so successful is Newman's ability to create a complex Southern Everyman, one with goals and dreams that can't be easily pigeonholed. He aspires to be a normal person, whether as a middle-class steel mill worker (in "Birmingham"), a love-struck romantic ("Marie") or a drunken and impotent loser ("Wedding in Cherokee County").
Perhaps most interestingly, this Southern Everyman not only lives in the early 1970s, when he watches Dick Cavett on Public Television, he's also very much alive in Huey Long's Louisiana. "Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)" paints a bleak portrait of the hopes of the Depression-era poor, while "Louisiana 1927," with its mournful chorus of "they're tryin' to wash us away," is about the 1927 flood that inundated the entire lower Mississippi River basin. Newman's "Kingfish" (which was Huey Long's nickname) is specifically about Long, as viewed from the perspective of a loyal constituent, and "Every Man A King" is Huey Long's own populist manifesto, sung by Newman and several members of the Eagles.
Newman's Southern Vision rings true because of the strength of his characters, his understanding of the reality and myth of Huey Long in particular and the South in general, and his ability to present his vision through perfectly crafted songs. In an ironic footnote that illustrates how Newman's songs echo both the past and present, he comments that "Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)" was recorded on the day that Richard Nixon resigned from office in the wake of Watergate.
Good Old Boys was originally conceived by Newman as "Johnny Cutler's Birthday," and Newman put together a 13-song demo tape that formed a rough map of what would become Good Old Boys. Rhino has included the entire "Johnny Cutler's Birthday" demo set as a second CD in this expanded edition, and it provides a fascinating snapshot of a work in progress.
Good Old Boys, originally recorded less than a decade after the passing of the Civil Rights Bill, still resonates today, primarily because Newman's vision is inclusive, embodying more than Southern history, reaching deep into the American psyche. It's about far more than Huey Long, or Southern rednecks, or racism -- it's a portrait of modern America through the eyes of Newman's emblematic Everyman.
Newman's satirical edge, which most Americans discovered with the hit "Short People," was rarely as refined and pointed as on Sail Away, his 1972 predecessor to Good Old Boys. Accompanied by himself on piano, Ry Cooder on guitar, a rhythm section and strings, Sail Away is a set of smartly constructed tunes about slave traders, nuclear annihilation, dancing bears, nightmares, polluted rivers and the loss of God in modern life.
In addition to the title track, a slave trader's pitch about how good life will be in America, this set also includes Newman's "Political Science," with its harrowing chorus of "let's drop the big one now." There's an eerie anachronism in hearing "Political Science" in 2002, with America's heightened sense of post 9/11 xenophobia and the Bush administration's new stance on the potential use of nuclear weapons. It almost begs the question: Is Randy Newman a seer or songwriter? Either way, the tunes on Sail Away stand the test of time, and this new edition contains five bonus tracks.
While he's made 10 solo albums, it's his work as a film score composer that pays the bills for Newman. It's in his blood -- he's the nephew of Hollywood film composers Alfred and Lionel Newman, who scored hundreds of films between them. Alfred is often regarded as the king of Hollywood film composers, scoring such films as How the West Won in a career that garnered over 40 Oscar nominations and won nine Academy Awards.
Ragtime was Randy Newman's first foray into film score composition and arrangement, and it's a brilliant synthesis of period-influenced original orchestration and lovely piano playing by Newman. The strings and piano, which work so effectively in the movie, also stand as compositions and arrangements by themselves. Listening to his instrumental film works illustrates what a fine composer and arranger he is, adding another level of appreciation for this unique American musician.