Music News

Randy Newman

From H.L. Mencken to the Coen Brothers, patronizing Yankees have always been quick to giggle at the rubes down south. Three decades ago -- after watching Harvard-educated Dick Cavett grill high school dropout and then-Georgia governor Lester Maddox on national TV -- Louisiana-born singer-songwriter Randy Newman decided he had seen enough.

Newman went to work on a scathing concept album that managed to pierce both the Southern Man's self-loathing as well as the condescending hypocrisy that festered north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Originally released in 1974, Good Old Boys was -- and, thanks to a new reissue, still is -- an ambitious and bold recording. It is an unapologetic, warts-and-all look at life in Dixieland that explains why dimwits such as Maddox and Huey Long could rise to the top in cracker country, but it also serves as a reminder that no corner of this country is free of racism, stupidity or politicians ready to exploit both.

Maybe Newman was expecting too much when he asked post-hippie music fans to reconsider their own knee-jerk politics. Certainly his liberal use of the N-word didn't help. Either way, the album tanked, and it quietly faded.

But now, the remastered version puts this overlooked gem in a new light, and gives listeners another chance to hear for themselves and consider that -- 30 years later -- little has changed on either end of the compass needle.

"Rednecks" -- the opening cut -- still stings as it throws every Southern-fried cliché right back into the listener's lap. Better yet is the sublime "Louisiana, 1927," where a deluge destroys nearly the entire state only to be met with Yankee indifference. Meanwhile, the drunken hick who croons the tender "Marie" will break your heart.

But it's not just the fine songs that make the record ballsy beyond belief. It is also the historical context. Most of Newman's mid-'70s singer-songwriter peers rarely ventured beyond their own navels, and when they did it generally took the form of a paint-by-number protest. Here Newman -- who now is mostly associated with catchy Disney scores -- defied liberal orthodoxy to consider far deeper, uglier truths.

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Jeff Hinkle