On Good Old Boys, Randy Newman approaches the South with an insider’s touch

On Good Old Boys, Randy Newman approaches the South with an insider’s touch

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More than any other region of the United States, the American South feels designed to baffle outsiders. If there’s a group of people left in America that it is still relatively easy and acceptable to mock en masse, it is white Southerners, usually coded as dumb, backward, poor, and bigoted. But outsiders who try to criticize the South often fall prey to oversimplification, unable as they are to see the layers—good and bad mixed together—that constitute Southern culture. That’s why the most effective critics of Southern culture usually spring from within the region itself: From writers like Walker Percy to political figures like Martin Luther King Jr., those who can critique the South’s flaws from a place of love and understanding, rather than derision, have the best chance of gaining the ears of Southerners accustomed to being burned by outside scorn.

On his 1974 album Good Old Boys, Randy Newman attempts the daring task of approaching white Southern culture with empathy from the outside. Though his later semi-autobiographical album Land Of Dreams sketches out Newman’s familial connections to the South (and particularly Louisiana, which takes a pride of place on Good Old Boys), Newman has always been identified as a Californian. Furthermore, his typecasting as a nebbishy intellectual in the world of pop music would seem to make him a particularly poor choice for approaching salt of the earth, working class Americans. But, as Good Old Boys demonstrates ably, beneath Newman the biting satirist lies Newman the populist, always ready to express viewpoints other than his own in his songs. Newman’s ability to adopt the perspective of an everyman Southerner makes Good Old Boys one of the few profound documents of the American South written by someone not from the region.

Originally conceived as a concept album featuring the same Southern narrator on every song, Good Old Boys eventually fanned out to adopt a more mosaic approach, taking the theme of Southern living and riffing on it in multiple directions and with multiple narrative voices. From the first song’s opening lines, Newman puts forward one of the governing ideas of the album:

Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show
With some smartass New York Jew
And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox
And the audience laughed at Lester Maddox too
Well he may be a fool but he’s our fool
If they think they’re better than him they’re wrong

Newman claims the inspiration for the song came from watching Maddox, a Georgia governor who supported segregation, getting mocked relentlessly on The Dick Cavett Show. Despite finding Maddox’s views repulsive, Newman can imagine the sting of seeing one of your own mocked, and his narrator spends the rest of the song, “Rednecks,” pointing out the discrepancies between the superior tone of white Northerners and their actions, showing through satire the sorry treatment of African-Americans all over the United States. There’s a joke in these opening lines too, though, one Newman makes at his own expense. Swap out “New York” for “California” in the phrase “Smartass New York Jew” and you have a good description of Newman’s public persona. A reference to Jews that should sound menacing given the context also takes on a layer of playfulness as Newman lays his own cards as an outsider on the table. Less successful is Newman’s decision to make repeated used of the N-word, in this song only. His use, meant to highlight the discrepancy between talk and action in the treatment of African-Americans, still comes across as uncomfortable, and represents the rare moment in the album where Newman fails to achieve his desired goal of balancing honesty with empathy.

Newman takes this ambivalent approach throughout Good Old Boys, highlighting both the good and the bad of Southern culture, but always exploring these themes from the perspective of an insider. This insures that his treatment of difficult subjects like poverty and alcoholism avoid both romanticism and straight condemnation, and that there’s plenty of room for the positives as well.

On occasion Newman has been lampooned for his tendency to weave mundane details into his songs, getting portrayed as a stream of consciousness lyricist who writes down whatever pops into his head. In reality, though, Newman’s eye for detail is an asset, letting him construct songs replete with what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz terms “thick description,” building not just characters but entire worlds. A song like “Birmingham” uses this talent to great effect:

On the surface an almost childishly simple song, “Birmingham” slowly builds a picture of one man’s life and sense of local pride out of snippets: his job at the steel mill, his house “with a pepper tree,” and his dog Dan. From the outside these simple components seem mockable, awaiting Newman’s eye for the absurd to puncture their fragile construction, but instead he plays things straight, imbuing his narrator’s plain tastes with dignity. The song’s music likewise captures an innocence that toes the line between infantile and magical.

If Newman excels at character studies, he can also pull back to examine the bigger picture with ease. The song “Mr. President (Have Pity On The Working Man)” features a narrator similar to the one of “Birmingham,” but here his focus turns outward, as he pleads with President Nixon to look past his distaste for the working class and come through with much needed relief. The song highlights Southern recalcitrance: Even in the midst of begging for economic relief, Newman’s narrator approaches his subject with suspicion, wary of being burned once more by shadowy, powerful outsiders.

Such frustration reaches a breaking point in the heart-wrenching “Louisiana 1927,” on a short list of the best songs Newman has ever written.

Here Newman’s simple lyrical style and slow piano chords create empty spaces for meaning to pour into, filling in the deliberate gaps like the waves of the devastating flood the song recounts. Tellingly, the song does not content itself with an account of the flood’s destruction. It also includes a verse in which then Calvin Coolidge visits the victims and offers words of pity that ring hollow and callous. An outsider like Coolidge surveys the damage and sees only “What the river has done/ to this poor cracker’s land.” He cannot comprehend the depth of damage done to a people deeply rooted in their sense of place. No wonder Newman sings, again and again, in the refrain, “They’re trying to wash us away.”

The situation becomes a bit more complex when Good Old Boys considers homegrown politicians. Southern populism has often played an important role in defending the livelihoods of the working class, but it just as often has been a conduit for discrimination and corruption. Newman provides a diptych on the most famous corrupt Southern populist, Huey Long. Long, the inspiration behind the novel and film(s) All The King’s Men, modernized Louisiana’s infrastructure and fought hard for more equal income distribution during his time as governor, but he also engaged in strong-arm tactics and back-room dealings.

The populist ditty “Every Man A King,” written by Long himself and performed by Newman as a sort of bingo hall drinking song, gets followed immediately by Newman’s “Kingfish,” where Newman-as-Long sings to his constituents, reminding him of everything he’s done for them. Here Newman’s talent for absurdity and satire creeps in, and he crafts a song that critiques Long even as it idolizes him. Long’s promises much in his bloviating speeches, but there’s a sinister undertone that seems to promise retribution for those who get in his way, a tone Newman mimics through rapid changes in the tempo and feel of the music. White Southerners have a long history of being beholden to towering figures like Long, but Newman shows that they possess the ability to criticize these figures, too.

In the album’s first two thirds Newman mixes politically charged songs like “Kingfish” with more personal tunes that capture a different perspective on Southern ambiguity. “Guilty” takes a favorite character type of Newman’s, the sleazy male begging his woman for something—see also songs such as “You Can Leave Your Hat On” and “Take Me Back”—and deep fries it. The narrator of the song plays up his sad-sack persona as a means of distracting from his real problem, an outsize appetite for drinking and drugs.

In “Marie” this same theme gets a more tender treatment. Here too the singer confesses to being drunk, but instead of focusing on his own needs, he praises the woman he loves. Strings swell in the background as Newman delivers uncharacteristically romantic lines like “The song that the trees sing when the wind blows/ You’re a flower, you’re a river, you’re a rainbow.” The magic here comes from Newman taking a fundamentally unsympathetic character, the drunk, ineloquent Southern man (forever clothed, in the public’s imagination, only in a tank top and underwear) and plumbing the depths of his soul for the poetry that resides in his everyday experience.

Songs like “Marie” and “Louisiana 1927” make for somber listening, and indeed the first chunk of the album feels largely devoid of Newman’s more playful tendencies. By the end of Good Old Boys, however, Newman has loosened up a little and captured the comic side of Southern life. This is a humor rooted not merely in the absurd, but the grotesque, a comedy of human failings with the power to shock as well as amuse.

“Naked Man” and “Back On My Feet Again” both traffic in laughter that comes from surprise, one by recounting the simple story of a man streaking through the streets stealing purses from old ladies, the other by sharing a series of snippets narrated by a mental patient insulting his doctor by bragging about his family and wealth. Both songs keep within the simple musical style that pervades the album, but here that simplicity gets ironized through an almost sing song quality, especially on the overly perky “Naked Man.”

The real gem of the back half, though, is “A Wedding In Cherokee County,” a song bursting with odd twists and turns.

As the narrator tells listener about his bride to be, things quickly get strange, as in his description of the bride’s family:

Her papa was a midget
Her mama was a whore
Her granddad was a newsboy ’til he was 84
What a slimy old bastard he was

Here Newman again uses short but densely evocative phrases to build a mental picture—in this case one that increasingly disturbs the listener. Anxiety over family gives way to sexual anxiety, as the singer becomes convinced that his new bride will “Laugh at my mighty sword.” The character, and the situation he finds himself in, have the Southern gothic shock humor of the stories of Flannery O’Connor, a writer adept at simultaneously poking fun at Southerners and taking them seriously.

Buried underneath the grotesque trappings of “A Wedding In Cherokee County” there lies a genuine sentiment, expressed in the repeated lines “Maybe she’s crazy I don’t know / Maybe that’s why I love her so.” That mixture of frustrated confusion and utter devotion marks many romantic entanglements, but the feeling can as easily be applied to a place, especially one as confounding and beguiling as the South. It’s a region that can make you slap your forehead in frustration, but those who love it can never quite seem to renounce that love. Randy Newman utterly understands that dynamic, which allows him to inhabit the Southern perspective, for an album’s worth of songs, at least. Good Old Boys is enough to make even the most suspicious Southerner believe that perhaps, every once in awhile, an outsider can adequately capture their culture.

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