Twelve albums in, we’ve long come to know Rod Picott as one of the most raw and honest songwriters in the genre, but he takes it to his most intimate, and deeply personal level with Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil. He leaves little room for interpretation here by providing all the lyrics and a brief description of the background of each song. Just like his lyrics, where he completely bares his soul, it’s all laid out for you. Picott sings and accompanies himself on guitar and harmonica, in the sparsest way possible, which not only proves effective; it may be the only way to deliver such emotional material.
This intensity was undoubtedly prompted by a health scare Picott faced several months ago. The initial diagnosis was that his heart was about to either seize up or “jump out of your chest and it will be messy”. Severe chest pains for a long period plus undergoing back surgery is certainly cause for reflection on mortality. Fortunately, Picott has a clean bill of health now.
In the most unpretentious way possible, Picott was not looking for perfect takes. He was focused on these songs, recorded alone at home without an engineer and later turned over to Neilson Hubbard to mix. You’ll hear sounds of nature at the beginning and end of the album that’s truly a song cycle, meant to be heard end to end. The intensity is not only in the lyrics; it’s in every guitar note and every breath he takes. He’s telling the truth and chasing down the devil with the rawness of a field recording. But, instead, of the marred sound quality found on those kinds of recordings. Picott here sounds like he’s singing to you in your living room. It’s both beautiful and scary.
The opening song, “Ghost,” for which there is a video, brings us right into the introspective vibe with its chorus – “Hard as nails thin as hope/I am the punchline of my own joke/And I’m broken as a bone/Going up in smoke/ I’m a ghost.” “Mama’s Boy,” a single now, was co-written with longtime cohort Slaid Cleaves. It probes questions of masculinity and self-worth in a world where fate can be cruel. Here, as in several places, Picott’s working class, humble bringing up is a foundational piece of his writing. “Bailing,” which has him recalling bailing out his home basement after a heavy rain because his parents couldn’t afford a sump pump is a prime example.
His deep memories are often anything but nostalgic. “Mark” is a song about an old schoolmate who committed suicide. It’s a sad tale and likely Picott’s way of saying that he’s been luckier than most. On the other hand, there’s a bit of nostalgia in “Spartan Hotel”, a real place in New Hampshire where the bands who weren’t quite good enough (like his) played. “Too Much Rain” is a musical metaphor that focuses compares relationships to growing a garden. “A Beautiful Light” is was co-written with Ben de la Cour. Among several strong verses, this one hits hard – “These radio country songs got it all wrong/Bragging all about the simple life/It’s a 40 hour week until you lose your heart/And you want to cut out the darkness with a knife.”
“38 Special & A Hermes Purse,” which Picott describes as a poem to himself is the one most directly related to his brush with mortality. “80 John Wallace” was co-composed with Stacy Dean Campbell and refers to the name of a wing in a Texas prison where a character reflects on missteps. “A Guilty Man,” a clear standout track, poses the universal questions of where we find ourselves in life. In Picott’s case, among other questions, he’s pondering why no one was there to hold his hand when he was hooked up to the heart monitors. “Sunday Best” explores the dichotomy between the sacred and profane with Picott commenting that his dad never stopped working but he wore a suit on Sunday. Although Picott describes the closer, “Folds of Your Dress,” as a lighter song, it’s a sad song of longing but again, one we can all relate to perhaps, as we think of past relationships.
Artists of higher stature like Dylan and Springsteen have gone down this raw, solo route. Arguably, Picott’s poetry and well thought out songs are on a par or superior to those efforts. At some point, this recording may stand alongside those. It deserves to.