The Timeless Voice and Louisiana Roots of Rod Melancon
Timeless voices in country music, scattered down through the years, are rare. For those who have listened and heard; the sound of those voices stay in your soul like some restless wind. Hearing Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard or Waylon Jennings for the first time carries the memories and impressions which make country music universally great. The feeling of hearing an artist who has that natural gift in the resonate sound of his own voice is what it’s like to hear Rod Melacon the first time. His voice flows clear and unforced with the deepest country soul I’ve heard in quite a while. While it may be tempting to call his sound, ‘retro,’ it’s not a sound that has ever really gone away. He’s just bringing the true soul of country music back to us. He’s reminding us of where we’ve been and where we’re going; which is possibly the calling of the best of roots artists.
It’s easy to forget how young most of the greats were when they first broke on the scene. Hank Williams was here and gone before he was 30. Willie Nelson was 23 when he wrote, “Family Bible.” Johnny Cash was 21 when he recorded “Folsom Prison Blues,” and John Prine was 22 when he wrote “Sam Stone.” When we’ve heard these voices in the past, they’ve been labeled, ‘old souls,’ which helps explain why someone so young can seem so world-weary. But, there’s a deeper explanation, as though they can feel and hear the haunted rumblings of forgotten wisdom and the blue stories of all of those who have come before them. At 22 years old, Rod Melancon is poised to join their ranks. His upcoming EP, My Family Name is that good.
Recorded last year at Sonora Recorders in Los Angeles the six song EP isc0- produced by bass player and mult- instrumentalist, Chad Watson (who has worked with the likes of Charlie Rich,Janis Ian and Delaney Bramlett) and Richard Barron (who engineered and also plays accordian on this disc and has worked with Elliot Smith, Joe Henry, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlelwood). The sound is spare, rich and as deep as the Louisiana earth of his childhood. With studio support from Dean Parks on steel guitar, Don Heffington on drums, Vern Monnett on lead guitar. The sound of this record sticks close to its roots and keeps the focus on Rod’s rich voice and his lyrics laced with Bayou and south Louisiana imagery. The EP includes five original songs and one bonus track, an interpretation of Buffalo Springfield’s classic, “Kind Woman.” Each song weaves a story and uses characterization in the first person. A dark and brooding blues ballad, “Lord Knows,” tells of the plight of poor sharecroppers against landowners and corrupt lawmen. The story is a dark tale of obsession, revenge with no sign of redepmption. “Louisina Nights” is a straight-forward song for the oil workers along the Louisiana gulf. It comes from stories Rod knows well from his family and small town roots. “Lay Me Down,” is a song of surrender, hearbreak and hope for redemption. A simple melody is anchored by a haunting accordion and mandolin centered on his voice.
“Angola Blues” is Rod’s own “Folsom Prison Blues,” which pays homage to the convicts who wait their turn on death row at Angola, Louisiana’s state penitentiary. The clever twist in the stylization of this song is rather than giving it a hard blues shell, it has a feeling of gospel celebration.
The strongest of the original songs on this new EP is “Reggie.” A soldier in Iraq writes home to his friend and tells a universal tale of the cost of war and the everyday hope that must be kindled in order to survive. The added track, “Kind Woman,” gives the stellar session musicians a chance to shine. With strong instrumental leads from Dean Parks on Pedal Steel and Vern Monnett’s imaginative lead guitar spinning around the familiar melody along with Chad Watson’s ever sturdy and inventive bass, Rod re-invents the vocal from Richie Furay’s youthful vocal, with its sense of the discovery of first love, into a broken vulnerable man looking to a ‘kind woman,’ for comfort for at least one night. The subtle change adds a different dimension to the song and demonstrates Rod’s talent for handling the material of other great songwriters. The track also benefits from the support of Lone Justice drummer, Don Heffington, veteran instrumentalist, Matt Cartsonis on mandolin and Desert Rose’s Herb Pedersen on backing vocals.
As an upcoming singer-songwriter, Rod represents a new breed who are drawing more from Townes Van Zandt and Kris Kristofferson than from the previous generation of more reflective (and at times indulgent) singer-songwriters. He tells his stories from character perspective rather than from the worms-eye view of a tortured poet on the brink of suicide and/or self-inflicted angst. The result is themes that harken back to and echo Johnny Cash’s early Sun recordings and Mickey Newbury’s focus on characters and story. There are familiar enough melodies which sound newly born and song structure that leans on lyric rather than hook. And beneath it all is the room for great acoustic and electric instrumentation from bluegrass mandolins to big sounding Duane Eddy-like electric guitars.
How does a 22 year-old L.A. transplant from Louisiana find his way to such a rich musical heritage? It’s in his family name as Rod would be the first to say. While other American kids were taking in the pleasures of affluent suburbs during the 90’s, he was absorbing the Louisiana Bayou and his Cajun heritage and traditional southern manners from his father’s family. His mother, a high school theater arts teacher, gave Rod a taste for Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner and Jack Kerouac. From her he learned about dramtics, story and literature. He credits her for teaching him most specifically about symbolism,which he uses elequently in his songs. Like so many before him, he hit the highway after he read On The Road. He came to L.A. to pursue a career in acting but changed his mind three years ago on a Christmas visit to his family home. It was during the holidays that he gave his grandfather a life-changing gift. A Hank Williams disc. When he saw his grandfather’s tears as he listened to the timeless music, Rod knew he wanted to write songs that could bring the same feeling to others. Ironically and perhaps not coincidentally, his parents gave him an acoustic guitar that same Christmas. As Rod himself said, ‘that was the moment in the movie of my life when I knew what I was called to do.’ He came back to L.A. and began to learn guitar and write songs. The songs flowed out of him with a passion he’d never known before. He played them for his friend, actor Chris Thomason (Harper’s Island) who assured him he was on to something.
Since that time Rod has worked on refining his performing, writing and vocal skills and has been drawing from influences like Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Waylon Jennings, Jamie Johnson and Justin Townes Earle. Over the last few years he has appeared at Hotel Cafe, The Mint and in L.A.’s Echo Park district.
As times change and mainstream country music continues to go through its ups and downs with its own chronic and bland pop-leaning identity struggle, Rod is finding a strong following in L.A. for real country music through the local Americana scene represented by venues like The Echo which each week hosts a fine country music barbque cleverly called, The Grand Ole Echo.
With the release of this new EP, My Family Name, Rod Melacon, this rootsy Louisiana-fevered singer-songwriter, has established himself as a promising name to watch. It is young artists like this who are the future of timeless American music and what is slowly becoming a resurgence of the early 70’s singer-songwriter outlaw movement.
Rod Melacon will be playing with a band including Chad Watson on bass, Vern Monnett on lead guitar and Don Heffington on drums at The Mint in Los Angeles on June 27th at 10:15 pm. He will also headline July 17 with Chad Watson at Boulevard Music in Culver City.