Published on September 27th, 2015 | by Andy Sedlak
‘Good Old Boys’ – Randy Newman 
Summary: Randy Newman’s 1974 concept album about the south still packs a punch. Keep your phone handy for Googling – Newman namechecks people that aren’t household names anymore. In the end, however, it all underscores the southern experience through the eyes of a Louisiana-raised songwriter.
Released: Sept. 10, 1974 | Length: 33:28
Producers: Lenny Waronker, Russ Titelman
Peak Chart Position: 36
Top 40 U.S. singles: 0
It’s been two months since the Confederate flag was removed from its prominent position on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse. After 54 years, the subtraction crystallized a reconsideration of Confederate depiction.
I wonder … what would the characters on Good Old Boys have said about that?
It’s hard to say. Odds are they would have been opinionated. Heavy beliefs and stark observations run throughout Randy Newman’s 1974 masterpiece. The trials and downfalls of those characters paint a striking portrait of the southern experience through the eyes of a Louisiana-raised liberal songwriter.
Pop music has been writing about the south for decades. John Hiatt pleaded for South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from its statehouse in 2000’s “Take It Down.” Tom Petty’s 1985 release Southern Accents tackled, in part, a southerner’s complicated pride. The Drive-By Truckers released Southern Rock Opera in 2002, a conceptual record that crammed Skynyrd, back-road family drama and William Wallace onto one canvas.
The Band, Ryan Adams and Brad Paisley have all tackled the south and its oft-associated themes. Songs about the Civil War, race relations and value systems have been written hundreds of times over.
As a whole, however, Newman’s Good Old Boys may always reign supreme.
From the Lester Maddox cameo at the beginning of “Rednecks” to the complacent drunk in “Rollin’,” nobody got into the heads of the characters in his songs like Newman. Long known for writing about people who think and do the wrong things, Newman’s Good Old Boys isn’t to be dismissed as a concept album about simpletons, even though some simpletons populate it.
The record, at its core, deals with systemic and cultural gears that churn lifecycle after lifecycle and generation after generation. Empathy makes a stirring cameo in certain corners of the record – most notably on the blue collar-sympathizing “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man).”
But humor – not empathy – announces Newman’s direction out of the gate. In the album’s opening track “Rednecks,” Newman’s narrator cracks smartass remarks about the perception of southerners. The scathing roll-and-tumble number begins with an account of seeing Lester Maddox on TV.
The politician served as the governor of Georgia from 1967 to 1971. He was also a segregationist who openly defied the Civil Rights Act.
Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show
With some smart-ass 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
So I went to the park and I took some paper along
And that’s where I made this song…
Newman performs the album opener “Rednecks.”
The verse, according to Newman, was born out of an actual experience. Speaking to PerformingSongwriter.com, Newman said he “saw Lester Maddox on The Dick Cavett Show. They sat him next to Jim Brown, the audience hooted at him, and he didn’t say a word.
“I thought, Now, I hate everything that he stands for, but they didn’t give him a chance to be an idiot,” Newman said. “And here he is, governor of a state — these people elected him in Georgia, however many million people voted for him — and I thought that if I were a Georgian, I would be angry.”
Newman’s comedic timing is impeccable. Propped up against ragtime and Dixieland melodies, the satire in Good Old Boys is dry and dismissive. His tone matches the pace of the characters in so many of his best songs.
We got no-neck oilmen from Texas
And good ol’ boys from Tennessee
And college men from LSU
Went in dumb – come out dumb too
Released three years before Newman found an unlikely hit in “Short People,” Good Old Boys was originally envisioned as a tour of the south through the eyes of a character named Johnny Cutler. Newman wound up relaxing his use of a central character, instead relying on steadfast observations and introspective pondering by an array of characters on a song-by-song basis.
Some of their intentions change over the course of a single song. For instance, we may at first find ourselves relating to the gumption of the man at the center of “Marie.”
I’m drunk right now, baby
But I’ve got to be
Or I could never tell you
What you mean to me
Later the narrator reveals a history of weakness, immaturity and cowardly self-centeredness.
Sometimes I’m crazy
But I guess you know
And I’m weak and I’m lazy
And I’ve hurt you so
And I don’t listen to a word you say
When you’re in trouble I just turn away
Newman performs “Marie.”
The song ends with the narrator mumbling some of the same lines that opened the song. Is it drunken babble or hard-won sincerity? It’s tough to tell. “Guilty” and “Rollin’” also open with men who have been hitting the bottle. The medicinal use of alcohol – and its ineffectiveness – is a reoccurring theme in Good Old Boys.
I contend the album gets its power (and probably its humanity) from juxtaposing fictional accounts of the south (the happy-enough working man in “Birmingham”) with mostly factual songs like “Louisiana 1927,” which is about a flood that displaced over half a million people during prohibition. Right after “Louisiana 1927,” we get “Every Man a King,” Newman’s rendition of a campaign song written by democratic Louisiana governor Huey Long.
Although Long had presidential ambitions, he was assassinated in 1935 at the age of 42.
Newman plays “Louisiana 1927” over 30 years after its release.
The songs rooted in the headlines are sometimes accent pieces, but they still hit hard. My favorite song on the album, “A Wedding in Cherokee County,” takes place behind closed doors. Newman’s character can’t quite make sense of love, but he knows he feels it. At least he’s as sure as most young men are.
From “A Wedding in Cherokee County:”
She don’t say nothing
She don’t do nothing
She don’t feel nothing
She don’t know nothing
Maybe she’s crazy, I don’t know
Maybe that’s why I love her so
Although Jim Keltner, Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Willie Weeks and Ry Cooder all appear on Good Old Boys, several tracks are musically desolate. Newman’s iconic New Orleans drawl is left to guide us through the complicated grounds his characters lives are deeply rooted in. The pace doesn’t often crawl past midtempo, but the pieces are presented with tremendous care.
Elegant string arrangements on “Rollin'” and “Marie” offset the gritty nature of Newman’s characters. Narrative twists are also embedded into Good Old Boys. The troubled thief in “Naked Man” aches to get caught. The players in “Back on My Feet Again” navigate racial identity and socioeconomic status in … unconventional terms. The man in “Guilty” reveals his alcoholism and delinquency are rooted low self-esteem.
When it hit the marketplace in 1974, Newman’s Good Old Boys reached Number 36. It wasn’t a smash by any means but it was a success by Newman’s standards. His stock continued to rise with 1977’s Little Criminals, but plummeted with 1979’s Born Again, seen as more than a tad self-righteous. He found his step again on 1983’s Trouble in Paradise and 1988’s Land of Dreams.
But Newman’s album-long examination of a region and its people continues to endure. When I saw him play in Middletown, Ohio in 2011, “Rednecks” earned the biggest applause of the night. Years before, Rolling Stone ranked it 393rd on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
Newman was never interested in picking solely on the Deep South. He would later skewer West Coasters on “I Love L.A.”
So what really drove Newman crazy? People, of course. But they also fascinated him.
More than 40 years later, Good Old Boys will do the same for you.