Rod Melancon and the L.A. Insurgent Country Movement
In popular music over the last century there has been a pattern that goes from the birth of a genre, the popularization of it, the neutering of the music for profits in business and a purification followed by a new discovery of the roots of the music. Sometimes the result may end up being called a different genre. But, the cycle continues. A line can be drawn in jazz from Louis Armstrong to the peak of the summit meetings with Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker in the 50s. In rock music the punk rock movement of the 70s was a reaction to the stagnation of the corporate rock of the day, which stood in contrast to the rebellious rock of the late 50’s and 60s. The Sex Pistols and The Clash woke up the world to the roots of rock.
In country music the same line can be seen from Jimmie Rodgers to Hank Williams. It then goes from Hank Williams to the break out success of Roger Miller, Merle Haggard and George Jones in the 60’s. Then as country became sappy and syrupy in the early 70’s, the Outlaw Movement of the mid-70’s, which included Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, came along. Today, in country music there is a connection between the New Traditionalist Movement of the 80s, led by Dwight Yoakam, to the L.A. Insurgent Country Movement of today. One of the artists who best represents the new purification of this vital American genre is Rod Melancon. Today, he may be marketed as ‘Americana,’ but make no mistake; he is country to the bone. He’s even taking the Dwight Yoakam route to country success by using L.A. as his starting platform. This is not by design, although fate may have something to do with it; but simply because he started in Hollywood with hopes of an acting career. However, he’s recently taken to recruiting members of Yoakam’s band( Brian Whelan on pedal steel and Mitch Marine on drums) during live concerts.
As his debut, My Family Name confirms Melancon, born and raised in South Louisiana, is a natural country singer-songwriter in the tradition of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. At 24, he has written a series of songs that reflect the life and culture of his roots in a similar way we heard in Cash’s early work in Memphis. From the opening track, the outlaw influenced, “Living Like My Heroes,” to the eerie, haunting ballad, “Lord Knows,” he is renewing the landscape once cultivated by the best of the best in country music-where story meets poetry. It’s the purity of sound and song that most of today’s mainstream country singer-songwriters have long abandoned in favor of songs about a more modern and cliched country culture. It would be easy for many critics and A&R people to pass Melancon off as a retro-fluke who will soon fade. But Rod Melancon is not retro, he is real. It’s that reality and lack of posturing supported by some stunningly classic-based original country songs, that give Melancon his edge. It takes no effort for him to call up Elvis or James Dean in image. It’s who he really he is. It seems he may have been born in the wrong time. But, perhaps, it would be better said, he was born in just the right time to revitalize country music to its original glory.
On “Angola Blues,” Melancon portrays the shadows of Lousiana State Prison-aka Angola- near his hometown. It’s the place where the where father and son Lomax once discovered Leadbelly. It’s where the haunting story of Dead Man Walking was filmed nearly 20 years ago. It’s the same soul that runs through Melancon’s music. Like Cash’s opening on his classic “Folsom Prison Blues” ,”hear that train a comin..”; Angola Blues’ lyrical lead-in, “I left town when I was just sixteen…” casts the same immediate hook into the listener that doesn’t let go until the songs end. “Reggie,” humanizes the young soldiers sent to fight in the Middle East over the last ten years that digs deep with compassion and empathy. “South Louisan,” is a dark, true tale of white trash revenge that is as ironically humorous as it is tragic.
The album production is clean, lean and created with skill, vision and talent from start to finish. The credit on this goes to Sonora Recorders’ Richard Barron and legendary L.A. bassist(who is also in Melancon’s band) Chad Watson. The session musicians read like a Who’s Who of legendary L.A. country session work including Herb Pedersen, lead guitarist, Vern Monnett(Charlie Rich), Dean Parks on pedal steel, Matt Cartsonis (Warren Zevon) on mando and Lone Justice’s Don Heffington on drums. The music expertly supports each song in realizing its potential in mood and texture. Vern Monnett’s lead guitar is a consistent presence that weaves through the music in much the same way Mark Knopfler did on Bob Dylan’s classic, Slow Train Comin.’ It’s like a conversation between the singer and the player.
On Thursday, September 6, at 11:00 pm, Rod Melancon will be headlining his first show at The Satellite in Silver Lake-Los Angles. This is a major date in L.A. country music history, as important as Dwight Yoakam when he played the punk clubs around town. In support will be Brian Whelan-at 10:00 pm and The Ben Reddell Band at 9:00 pm. Joining Melancon in his band will be bass man, Chad Watson, Vern Monnett along with Brian Whelan on pedal steel and Mitch Marine on drums. Both Whelan and Marine are members of Dwight Yoakam’s current band. The show is being produced by Matt Farber who has produced this sesason’s Grand Ole Echo.
There is a sense of inevitable destiny with some artists early in their career. That sense surrounds Rod Melancon today. As he steps out on the stage at the Satellite this Thursday night, he may be stepping into L.A. Country history. To borrow from a statement made long ago about Springsteen, I have seen the future of country music. His name is Rod Melancon.
(Photo credit: Will Seyffert)