Growing up in Virginia, you end up spending an inordinate amount of time walking through battlefields. If your father possesses even one iota of interest in the war between the states, or if you see your grandfather even semi-frequently, or if you attend public school, you will, not just periodically but frequently, take a stroll through some battlefields. Again and again and again. Sometimes the same battlefields, reading the same numbers and names on the same bronze placards and even though they will feel the same always, they will always be slightly different. Because you will be slightly different. Every time. If you’re a savvy enough southerner, you can start charting your maturity based on battlefields.
I grew up and later went to college in Virginia, didn’t make it out of the state until after graduation, and for my last two years of higher ed, lived in a big white house three blocks from a battlefield. It meant nothing, and when I took the time to walk through the thing, it meant everything. About who I was, about what I thought I stood for, about what I thought could and couldn’t creep me out. One Sunday my senior year, mid-nap, cannonfire shook my house. The windows clattered like in a hurricane, the walls vibrated, the sound felt catastrophic. Between the second and third blast, I finally found online (by Googling my city’s name then “cannon” and the day’s date, of course) that cannons were going off just down the street in celebration of the battlefield’s birthday. Of course. Two more percussive explosions, then respite. It was like living near a battlefield. Because I was. And the land couldn’t not keep reminding me.
Nostalgia’s a mighty funny thing, the way it recolors and warps. Growing up in Virginia, you end up walking through a lot of battlefields—and for what? To remember. To remember what? The fallen. Who fell for what? And on and on. It feels icky to question it, but that’s all part of the game, isn’t it. To “live” history is to do the heavy lifting of understanding its undulations and patterns, of finding themes throughout the way you would of Faulkner. So what are we learning walking through battlefields? What undulations are we working to understand? For me: the limits of my patience, and not much more.
When Randy Newman began work on his important, unimpeachable Good Old Boys—my favorite album most days these days--he was thirty years old. Thirty years old with nostalgia like a Civil War vet, none of whom would have been kicking even then, in ‘73, but you get what I mean. By and large, the record’s a topical melange, but its A-side is purely conceptual: one southern man’s voice in all its recognizably backwards, whip-smart, purely glorified glory. Prideful and proud—not the same word exactly, but close—and heavy with great stories for the telling. From “Rednecks” to “Guilty,” again and again and again we hear the voice of the fictional Johnny Cutler, a character invented for the record but abandoned by name in the early goings. Instead, the thing came out just sounding like Randy Newman. Because was there ever any way around it?
Thanks to the nineties, Randy’s now got that Pixar sound, rather than the other way around. Rather than spicing up some animations with heavy irony and subtle winking wit, all we’ve got now are generations raised by Uncle Randy’s gentle bullfrog voice. And where’s the harm in that? If all goes well, one day those kids get curious and buy some Randy off iTunes for the hell of it and discover his perfect foursome of sardonic, beautiful early records. And Good Old Boys is the diamond on that crown, so full of careful, consummate songwriting, so big-hearted and dark-hearted all at once.
Why does its second side begin with a three-song concept suite based on the life and musings of slimy and brilliant Louisiana governor Huey P. Long? There is no answer, other than that that’s what Randy wanted, and that’s what he pulled off. They sit right there alongside a song called “Naked Man,” which is, yes, about the travails of a naked man just looking for love in a terrified world. And that sidles right up to “A Wedding in Cherokee County,” a song so funny and so romantic and so twisted you won’t know whether to laugh or weep or turn it off. But, no, I’m short-changing it. It’s better than that.
Here I am, trying the best I can to write something coherent and worthy of Good Old Boys, almost certainly the greatest southern record of all time, and very likely one of the few absolutely perfect albums ever put to wax. How does one do such a thing? Maybe by talking about walking through battlefields.
So look: listening to “Rednecks”—the opening track, for god sakes—is a little like walking through a battlefield. Every feeling you’ve felt about growing up a Virginian at heart and by blood but with a brain that sees all the history’s filthy bits, sees the petty anger, sees the rebel flags still waving in the front yards, sees everything you love existing only because and despite of all the bits of it you want to tear apart—every feeling is a part of it. All those bits are the same as all the good ones, the prideful and the proud conversing like a potluck. And can’t that be the whole point? Maybe history needs to be history, and that doesn’t mean maybe it should go away. Maybe it needs to stay real close, right here, next to the songwriters and the poets and the terrible men, too—always men—who want to hoist up all their evil like a shield that will forever protect them against the songwriters and the poets. Maybe that evil’s not a shield: maybe it’s a mirror. And maybe that mirror needs a good cracking every once in awhile. And maybe other days you need to let it catch the sun and glare.