The deeper I delve into Randy Newman’s discography, the more I am struck at the incredible extent of his talent.
February 1st, 1973: Newman recorded a heavily annotated, 13 track demo for a new concept album he was interested in producing, the kernel being the life and thoughts of a (deep) southern everyman named Johnny Cutler.
The album, tentatively designated Johnny Cutler’s Birthday (after a track later renamed “The Joke”), follows a single man through a slice of his “typical southern life”: from his memories of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, to his opinions on the president and the economy, to falling in love, and to the many racist viewpoints he holds true (leading to at least one explicitly racist track).
Over the course of the next year, Newman pared the demo down, added a few new songs, and modified the concept to be generally southern rather than to specifically follow a single character. The results were released in September of 1974, as Good Old Boys, and the album became a immediate success – lauded today as incredible despite its singles not tracking within the Top-100.
Not being southern, I have a hard time imagining how Johnny Cutler’s mind may have been working in the early ’70s and I am supremely curious how a starkly racist, yet sardonic, song fits into present day’s, supposedly “no-longer-racist”, culture. Can a song like Rednecks be enjoyed in polite company – with well dressed socialites quaffing at martinis and eating from cheese-plates, light-heartedly chuckling: “Oh, Those Southerners” – or should it be reserved strictly for pedagogical study?
Louisiana 1927 pours over the listener like a great biblical deluge, and is perhaps Newman’s artistically divine retribution; his attempt to cleanse the hopeless southern victims who cry out sadly, “they’re tryin’ to wash us away… they’re trying to wash us away!” If it is or if it isn’t, the album’s incredible, and the power of Good Old Boys will long outlast the power of racism (hopefully) before settling in snugly between The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Color Purple.
Recently the album has been re-released with the entire Johnny Cutler’s Birthday demo-session included, uncut, as a bonus disc. While it’s fascinating to hear Newman’s calm explanations, what is truly amazing are the polished songs on Good Old Boys: simple, beautiful and, on occasion, extremely provocative.
Listen away and, if you’re a southerner, let me know what you think. Well, let me know either way.