A great poet and storyteller needs only a guitar to deliver the emotional rawness of soul searching and the ragged desperation of trying to come to terms with one’s place in the world. East Nashville’s Rod Picott creates stark, haunting, and poignant music with spare strums of his guitar and the sonic echoes of his harmonica that produce a spacious clarity in which his crystalline poetry can shine.
“Spartan Hotel” floats on a river of spartan guitar and harmonica as it tells the tale of a third-rate hotel where local bands or other musical acts play for their share of the take, if the manager decides to share it with them. The aptly named hotel is where you’ll find “the losers and boozers / and shoe shop workers / with new lies they can’t wait to tell / and dreaming and scheming and fighting tonight.”
A steady, mournful harmonica wends its way beneath bright, but somber, guitar picking on “A Beautiful Light,” an anthem that portrays the contract between the less than glamorous work of working-class men and women and romanticizing of such work in country songs. The opening lines are near-perfect in their depiction of a man working the only jobs he’s ever known but not wanting his son to follow in his steps: “My daddy tried to warn me but his only offer / Was busted knuckles on a monkey wrench / I guess a man will hold onto trouble when it’s all he knows / Hold on tight ’til he’s left wondering where all the time went.”
Picott’s ragged, raspy vocals mimic his tiredness and desperation in “A 38 Special & a Hermes Purse,” a song that’s he’s said grew out of a heart problem he had last year. (Read Picott’s ND essay about his health battles here.) The lyrics evoke someone in search of himself, but, more than that, someone searching for the incandescent line that lights the border between truth and illusion, the beautiful and the ugly, pleasure and pain, and life and death. “The silence keeps me going / If you can hear me make a sound / Looking for life among the living / Another lost soul waiting to be found.”
Spare guitar and harmonica accompany the lyrics on Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil, for the heart of Rod Picott’s songs pumps through the down-to-the-bone words with which he tells his stories. Like early Dylan, Picott draws us into his stories with the hypnotic cadence of a storyteller who knows that we’re compelled to listen to his tales of woe or joy because he’s seen inside our hearts.