Something that has been amusing - not only in Nashville, but the world of music in general - is the concept of a "road dog" (or is it "dawg?"). It's a common denominator, relatively speaking, as most every musician, band, etc. has spent an inordinate amount of time on the road in service of an artistic endeavor. So when the descriptor is referenced as a badge of courage, it's amusing, (because of the whole common denominator thing). But what would qualify someone as a legitimate "road dog?" Who can be certain? And really, why does it matter? But for the sake of this lede, let's say we've been forced to lay out (hypothetical) parameters, it's likely tenure and general experience would be at the top of the list of qualifiers. Thus, we're led to Rod Picott, a true "veteran" of the road (aka "road dog") and Nashville in general, as evidenced by his most recent 22-song LP, Out Past the Wires and its companion book of short stories. He's carved out a discernible niche in Nashville and the "Americana" scene as a whole (we dive deep into that). In turn, Picott has a supremely astute view point on not only the increasingly nebulous genre of Americana and Nashville in general, but the craft of writing, the aformentioned "road dogging" it, Springsteen, an artist's never ending quest for validation, and plenty more. One of the best interviews you'll read all year on Now/It's. Enjoy.
Now/It's met with Rod Picott at Brown's Diner in the Belmont/Hillsboro neighborhood of Nashville.
N/I - How have things been going lately?
Rod - I’ve just kind of been banging it out on the road.
N/I - Well for a little while, you were on the road with Ben de la Cour - is that right?
Rod - That’s right. I know Ben pretty well.
N/I - Great. I interviewed him - really solid dude. We wound up talking about Raymond Carver for about the first twenty-five minutes of the interview and had to cut a significant portion of that to publish.
Rod - [Laughs] Had to reel it in?
N/I - Exactly. Really great guy, and you actually came up in that interview, of which he had nothing but great things to say as well.
Rod - He’s a good guy. We kind of hit it off, there’s something…. You know how musicians are. Musicians are funny when they meet other musicians - they kind of sniff around like dogs, you know?
N/I - Absolutely.
Rod - “Is this guy going to be a big ego?” or “Is this going to go smoothly?” But I instantly recognized something in Ben - he’s like a younger version of myself.
N/I - That’s fantastic.
Rod - There’s just something about him.
N/I - So how was that run of shows?
Rod - The shows were good. This [most recent] run was just a short little three day run, but I’ve been on the road since February… 25th? Sometime before that, even. Because I did five days in The States before I went over to Europe. So I got back on a Monday night and left on a Friday morning.
N/I - So you’re not much one for a whole lot of respite in between runs?
Rod - No. I should, but I have a hard time saying “no.” The thing is, at this level, when you’re on the road, you just have to stay on the road.
N/I - That’s my understanding. I’m no musician, but I would imagine that upon getting into that rhythm, I’d be horrified of getting out of it and be messed up before heading out on the road again.
Rod - It’s getting harder as I get older - I’m 53 now - but I actually look forward to going on the road and going on tour, and at a certain point on the tour, I look forward to going home. So I’m kind of built for that kind of back and forth. I sort of like it. But I don’t like it to be real quick. I don’t like to go out for three days, go home, go out for three days, go home.
N/I - I can understand that.
Rod - I like to go and do a big chunk, make some money, do some good shows, some tough shows, so it’s a mix.
N/I - I’ve run into that a little bit in the past, having done some photography stuff on the side, and I try to stay in town because of this and working at a radio station as well….
Rod - What radio station do you work at?
N/I - 650 AM WSM. “The Station That Made Country Music Famous.”
Rod - [Laughs] That’s right. They did.
N/I - It’s sort of expanding its reach right now, so it’s a really cool time to be there. I’m sure this is something you’ve actually observed over the years - as Americana music becomes more vague but more prevalent….
Rod - [Laughs] That’s a great description, “More vague.” Less definable and more prevalent….
N/I - Truly. It’s great, because it opens up the door for a lot of different types of artists who wouldn’t necessarily get as much attention. But it’s interesting, because something I’ve noticed with you and other interviews that you’ve done, people like to place that question on your shoulders - “What is Americana?” And this isn’t a set up for me to ask you “What is Americana?” But the vagueness of it, I would imagine, has probably thrown you through a loop or two….
Rod - Look, the great thing about it is that it’s given the musicians who didn’t have a home, or didn’t have a genre, it’s given us a home. It’s given us a place to go. On the other hand, the way that the powers that be have gone about trying to build the brand of “Americana” is to do exactly the opposite of what the Americana scene is. In other words, the Americana scene is made up of guys like me and guys on higher levels, like Hayes Carll and guys that are the “elites.” We all play the same rooms, we’re played by the same radio stations - outlaw country and all that….
N/I - And that’s kind of had its own shift in meaning….
Rod - And it’s been crazy. So it gets on the radio. That’s great. That way, we know it’s a scene that exists. But then, what been happening lately is going “Okay, so John Mellencamp is Americana now. Let’s bring him in and give him some awards, put him up in a hotel, all expense paid, and now we have a big star at our thing.”
N/I - It can dilute the crop.
Rod - It’s like it’s being reframed. I keep wondering why they don’t - and this is my own personal thing - but I keep wondering why they don’t do things to connect the venues and the audience. Like why can’t a listener…. Because we have all these guys like me and Ben [de la Cour], who have these small audiences that are incredibly rabid. They’ll go to every show. They’ll drive three hours to go to a show. And why is the Americana Association not connecting the dots? Say I’ve got a big fan up in Minneapolis - why can’t he be a member, like a listener member? So the venues that he goes to, he gets ten percent off tickets or something. So then he goes to more shows.
N/I - So ostensibly a loyalty program?
Rod - Right. And those venues are connected to the Americana Association, but they don’t seem to want to work that way.
N/I - Obviously, that model seems like something that many would jump at the idea of, especially considering how entertainment has become very subscription or loyalty formatted as of late, so it seems like something people would absolutely jump on board with, but I almost wonder if it would be due to the fact that they are “just a fan,” and not necessarily someone who works in and around the world of Americana, or the Association doesn’t have much intimacy with it. But at the same time, that shouldn’t qualify someone to be into you, or Ben, or anyone else.
Rod - It’s a way to connect with the audience, to each other, to new artists.
N/I - And they’re probably way more receptive to a new artist in the Americana realm than whoever gets a comp ticket to the Americana Music Awards. It’s an interesting thought. It’s a very intriguing vantage point from my purview, because I’m not directly involved in it, but it is really interesting as far as Americana music and folk music and where it’s all headed. There are different takes or versions that people have when it comes to Americana music. I’m interested in seeing if there’s a glass ceiling - not to sound pessimistic.
Rod - No. I think you’re dead on. Because there used to be - twenty years ago, fifteen years ago…. Say fifteen years ago. There were roughly one hundred Americana shows. And there’s, what? Sixty-five now? Seventy? And half of those are one guy on a Sunday afternoon. Who plays two hours of Americana.
N/I - But at the same time, every radio station that plays local or independent music now seems to have it’s own roots revival block, and that’s where all the Americana radio spotlights come from. Obviously, if someone is on tour, there’s a strong likelihood they’ll pop up on a morning show or something, because they’re established enough to tour. But for a new artist to break, it has to be one of those blocks of Americana. That’s really the only spot they have to break through. It’s up to a handful of individuals to lay out the track for future iterations to hopefully latch onto.
Rod - It’s strange. It’s almost simultaneously shrinking and growing [laughs]. It’s hard to tell.
N/I - It is. I look at it in a way where my mother’s taste is music has improved exponentially, because like you’re saying, it’s expanded in the sheer number of people playing what most would qualify as Americana music, but at the same time, her rabidity as a fan of them is not the same as the people that might come to your shows. So then the question is where the in-between is. What can you do?
Rod - How do you cultivate it?
N/I - Cultivate and get that going. It’s a unique situation.
Rod - It is an interesting scene. With touring and all.
N/I - Absolutely. So when you go out on the road…. You have what, eleven albums? Or eleven-ish?
Rod - [Laughs] It’s tricky. I have nine studio albums, then a duo album…
N/I - Maybe “pieces of work” would have been better.
Rod - Yeah. And then a duo album with Amanda Shires, so that’s ten. And then a live record, which is out of print, so there’s eleven. So nine studio records.
N/I - Okay. So what does a set look like for you? Obviously, you’re promoting a new album, but there’s a lot of back catalog.
Rod - [Laughs] It’s easier and gets more difficult. I occasionally have to get out the old records and relearn my own songs.
So I spent the past couple days relearning a few songs, which is good. I think it’s good for me. So right now - this year, what I’m doing is that the first set I’m doing bits and pieces of the older records, and the second set is all from the new record. Because it’s 22 songs.
N/I - That’s right. I was going to ask - how long is that second set? Is it all 22?
Rod - No, no. I can’t do the whole record, it’s too much. With all my talking and stories, it would take 95 minutes to do the album. So I kind of pick and choose. I move them around to keep myself from getting bored and keep it fresh. I try to do what I think are the strongest tracks, so it’s ten or eleven, twelve songs. It’s about half the record.
N/I - Which is turn a pretty standard set. So with those 22 songs, are those all relatively recent writes? Or holdovers?
Rod - I don’t think there’s anything from over two years ago. [Looks at album liner] Okay, the exception would be “Coal.” “Coal” is the only song that came from the “junkyard,” you know what I mean? I write a lot with Slaid Cleaves - that’s what we call it.
N/I - The “junkyard?”
Rod - Right. You need a starter, you need a steering wheel, you need a bumper, you’re looking through everything.
N/I - You take bits and pieces. A little bit of everything that’s not entirely done. I understand that.
Rod - So “Coal” was a song I wrote with a guy named Bob Ray, who I barely know at all. He reached out and asked if I wanted to write with him, and I wrote with him one day, and it didn’t click, but it didn’t not click. It kind of felt like I wasn’t sure if I had something or not. It kind of sat there, I kind of moved on and forgot about it, but then…. It was interesting, during the election, they started talking about coal. And they talked about that region a lot.
N/I - “It’s going to come back better than ever.”
Rod - I was like “Man, I wrote that song with Bob Ray a long time ago. I’m going to see what it looks like now.” And it was great as it was.
N/I - So there wasn’t much tweaking or anything?
Rod - No. Sometimes you recognize the value of something and sometimes you can miss it. And I guess it just wasn’t right for the time when we wrote it, or I didn’t recognize it.
N/I - It sounds like there was some serendipity in that moment to realize its destiny.
Rod - Man, I was thrilled. I instantly had a song [laughs].
Rod - When you talk to a lot of creative people around the time of the election, and a number of them felt a need to enact a hyperdrive of creativity to assess things in whatever way they could. But for you, here’s this thing you thought very little of, and all of a sudden, boom….
Rod - It’s suddenly relevant.
N/I - Exactly. That’s pretty cool [laughs]. And “Coal” was one of the songs with a companion story, correct? So how many of the songs have that?
Rod - Ten. I took ten of the titles from the songs and…. It’s a little bit hard to explain. It’s not like I wrote this song and I went “Oh, it needs to be more.” There’s a range there. And there’s a range of how closely they’re tied to the song, depending how specific or narrative the song is. And obviously, the more narrative songs tended to lend themselves to writing more stories around them. So I kind of just followed my muse. This whole other aspect of writing - poetry, the short stories, the novel, and the screenplay - came out of nowhere.
N/I - Really?
Rod - Yeah. I had no idea. It wasn’t even in the back of my head that I was going to do that.
N/I - Really? Wow.
Rod - Two years ago…. Do you know the writer Jim Harrison?
N/I - Yes!
Rod - Okay, so I’m a big Jim Harrison fan.
N/I - I can sort of glean that.
Rod - So someone sent me this link to this poetry reading that he did, and it’s about forty-five minutes long. To me, it’s just about the most entertaining thing from the last five yeras.
N/I - I’m sure.
Rod - I’ve watched it over and over and over. He’s such a character. Wandering eye with his leather vest.
N/I - Absolutely. He always seemed kind of surreal in his existence. Of course he’s a writer.
Rod - He’s just unique. I was so captivated by that poetry reading and his presence, to the point that I just started writing poems. I would sort of make it part of my day. In the morning I would wake up with my coffee, and I would just write something. Some of them would just come to fruition, some of them wouldn’t. But I just kept collecting. And then there was this poet I already knew and loved named Nathan Brown. He’s the poet laureate of Oklahoma for 2012 or something? 2014 maybe? Somewhere in there. But he’s absolutely brilliant. He’s a little bit nuts, but brilliant. And he has this particular way of writing that’s very specific to him that I’ve never seen before. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist….
N/I - Just that you’ve never been exposed to it.
Rod - Right. So he sort of has this way of using the title to where you get to the end of the poem, and it brings you back to the title, and the title is almost the right cross of the poem.
N/I - It’s the poetic haymaker.
Rod - Exactly. So it’s a really interesting way to write. I was reading him and watching that Jim Harrison reading on YouTube, and I just sort of started writing. And I just read this collection by a writer named Ron Rash. Do you know who he is?
N/I - I don’t think I’m familiar.
Rod - He’s one of these sort of - he’s part of this group of Southern Appalachia writers. Gritty, dark.
N/I - Gritty realism and borderline sadomasochists.
Rod - Exactly. Like Donald Ray Pollock. So Ron Rash roughly fits into that group, and he’s got this book called Burning Bright that’s a collection of short stories. And it influenced me a lot. It was just really inspiring. I went to the Southern Festival of Books, and he was there. He did a little reading there. Was it in the Fall or the Summer?
N/I - I think they have sometime around late Spring early Summer.
Rod - I remember it was pretty warm out. So I got to meet him and we talked for a bit. We had some friends in common, which was kind of interesting and I had no idea. I’m just rambling now….
N/I - No! You’re fine!
Rod - Well that’s where the short stories came from. I was really inspired by this book. I talked to him about the book - the first story, I can’t remember the title - but the first paragraph is the most perfect piece of writing I’ve ever read. Just thrilling for me. I’ve read it a hundred times, the first paragraph. And I talked to him about that, and of course he was very flattered.
N/I - Of course. As anyone would be.
Rod - I loved how open he was, he kind of did this thing where he whispers “That’s my best book.” [Laughs] He owned up to it. It’s like saying which one is your best record [laughs]. You’re supposed to say the latest one.
N/I - I run into that. Obviously, I wouldn’t say which one is or isn’t, but every time I publish a new interview, I say something to the effect of “This one is my favorite one to date.” And you have people call you out on that.
Rod - [Laughs] But what can you do? How do you address that?
N/I - What are you going to do when you show up and play a show and the audience hears “I’ve got all these different songs, but this is the best one you’ll hear all night.” Ostensibly, saying otherwise gives license for people to pay less attention.
Rod - Exactly. I mean, is Jason Isbell going to say “These other two records are really good, but Southeastern is really fucking great,” [laughs]? He’s not going to say that. He’ll say it to you privately.
N/I - Absolutely. You can take Isbell and replace him with literally anybody and in private quarters they would own up to something like that.
Rod - Sure.
N/I - Obviously, you draw a lot of inspiration from other writing, but not necessarily for your songwriting? I don’t want to sound too presumptuous….
Rod - Not at all. I’ve been heavily influenced by certain people. I consider myself a hammer. I’m not inventing anything, and I know that. I’m just a guy who learned how to play guitar and took a long time to find my voice because I was a songwriter. People come at it from the others ends - there are great singers out there that learned to write songs, but they’re not great writers. They’re great performers and great singers. But I come at it directly from the songwriting point of view. That’s my reference. That’s why I consider myself as a songwriter. I learned to play the songs.
N/I - That’s fair.
Rod - But it’s been an interesting journey.
N/I - I would imagine so. You came to Nashville during that - what did Steve Earle call it - the “credibility crisis?”
Rod - The “credibility scare” [laughs].
N/I - The “great credibility scare.” Credibility is the hook.
Rod - That’s such a great quote.
N/I - It is! And it’s funny, I bring it up because we were talking about it earlier - it kind of feels like Nashville finds itself in something similar once more.
Rod - I agree.
N/I - Obviously, it’s not Lyle Lovett and Alison Krauss, but there’s the whole Jason Isbell thing, John Prine, all of a sudden.
Rod - I know what you mean. And there are these people - there’s Margo Price - there are these people who are sort of more connected to the rock, Americana world, but then there are also these people who are really…. What’s the woman’s name? She had that album Same Trailer, Different Park?
N/I - Kacey Musgraves.
Rod - That’s right. There are people like that who are pulling from this other thing. They’re pulling from that Prine world. I think it’s great.
N/I - I do too. But it is interesting, I’ve never spent too much time thinking about what it is about a Kacey Musgraves, but it’s absolutely a scenario in which she or her team has been highly intuitive in skirting the line of all these different worlds. She seems to be one of the few acts placed in the central portion of the Venn Diagram that is all….
Rod - Where everything crosses. You’re absolutely right. There’s like three people who can do that and she’s one of them [laughs].
N/I - And she can play a surprise set with John Prine or open for Harry Styles at Bridgestone, and nobody bats an eye. It’s interesting as far as all that’s concerned. So with that in mind, I wouldn’t necessarily describe present-day Nashville as having a “credibility scare,” but it’s almost as if there’s an genre conundrum.
Rod - I agree. There’s some similar thing happening now. And it’s happening - the funny thing is, as time has gone on since the 70s, the genres become more and more specific.
N/I - Absolutely. You now have butt rock, surf rock, shoegaze.
Rod - Exactly. Exactly. And people go down into their little rabbit hole and just experience that little rabbit hole. I like that there’s something a little bit looser going on in Nashville right now, where you’ve got somebody that people can discuss their response, if everyone has their own response at all. That’s how art works. So it’s not for me to say, but you have somebody like Margo Price, who's really making country music, but she’s bringing it to a rock audience.
N/I - And to do it in the Springsteen marathon set style. That's been cool to see.... Are you a big Springsteen fan?
Rod - He was a big influence when I was a kid, so you can definitely hear it.
N/I - That’s what I was going to say.
Rod - It’s something very specific. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with music from a very young age. It was great. I was born in ‘64, so say ‘72, you think about what was on the radio, anything could be on the radio.
N/I - Absolutely.
Rod - So if George Jones had a hit, and Johnny Cash had a hit, and The Doors had a hit, they might be right next to each other on the radio. Freeform FM stations would play deeper tracks, or whatever they wanted to. The DJs picked their songs, so it was a great time to experience that. But the Springsteen thing - I got a little older and I was in love with Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Deep Purple, and all these sort of fantastic hard rock bands. But Springsteen was the first person where I stopped and thought “Wait a minute, he’s writing about people I know.” Whereas Led Zeppelin were writing about….
N/I - Valhalla….
Rod - Mordor [laughs]. I had no connection. I’m living in Maine, sitting in my dad’s F-150 pickup. It might as well been from Mars.
N/I - There certainly is a disconnect of some sort.
Rod - It was beautiful and exciting, but it might as well been from Mars. I couldn’t see it eye to eye. So Springsteen was the guy - especially after Born to Run. I fell in love with that, but Darkness on the Edge of Town had all those really, highly narrative songs. And it was a dark record. But it felt like he was writing about people I grew up with. I recognized my own community on the record. So a light-bulb went off, and then I started finding other people who sort of wrote like that. Some were great, some were sometimes great, some weren’t great. Somebody like Bob Seger had some amazing songs, and also had some junk. But Springsteen led me to that concept, that idea that you could write songs about people in your own community. People that you recognized. So that was big for me.
N/I - So when you’re writing songs, to use that context of thinking of people you’re familiar with, or observational things - how much is actually pulled from literal observation?
Rod - Almost everything.
N/I - Almost everything?
Rod - Almost everything I write. I would say ninety percent of what I write is autobiographical, or biographical from people I know, my family, or the world around me. Everybody writes differently, but I use my own life a lot. It’s funny. It’s counter-intuitive in a way, because - this [interview] has been very easy - I’m normally a very cautious person. Quiet. Reserved. But I think you find that with performers. I think you find this strange isolationism.
N/I - I would agree. For myself, I keep to myself outside of a setting like this. I enjoy talking to people, but I’m not necessarily going to actively seek out talking to a stranger if we’re the only two people in the room. But I would agree. To your point, there’s a cathartic aspect to what you do on a daily basis….
Rod - Absolutely.
N/I - ….And to varying degrees, for everyone. So you almost have to be deluded if you can be both a performer and the ultimate extrovert. And even as a reserved person, you still have to be that way if you’re going to throw yourself directly into the inverse of what you’re accustomed to.
Rod - Everybody that gets on stage for a living - anybody that wants to do this - there is something that’s slightly off about them [laughs]. I would argue that to the end of the Earth. There’s something wrong with everybody who wants to expose themselves to strangers. Expose their [laughs].... And ask them for confirmation of that [laughs].
N/I - That’s fair [laughs]. There not necessarily an explicit appeal for confirmation, but at the same time, there’s an expectation that this has to be confirmed in order to be validated in whatever capacity..
Rod - Absolutely. That’s completely what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to move an audience. You’re trying to move them to tears. You’re trying to move them to laughter. You’re trying to move them to excitement, to be thrilled.
N/I - And every once and a while, fury or enragement.
Rod - Absolutely. You’re trying to bring them along that whole ride. But you are trying to make them respond to you. It’s like a piece of you never grew out of that five year old [laughs].... “Hey mom! Look!”
N/I - No matter how demure or composed someone is - I’m trying to think of a good example…. Let’s say Tony Bennett. Someone who has been around forever, and is still doing shows. If you step back and think, it’s kind of like “At this point, what does he have to gain from this?” But at the same time, to your point, part of it never goes away, that five year old part of the brain. Constantly yelling “Look at me!”
Rod - So I do think you get a lot of performers who have those two distinct sides - who maybe feel unheard, or unrecognized…. Actually, I think that goes for all of the arts. Not just the performing arts. I think there’s an element of being in the arts…. I think for a lot of people, there is an element of feeling unheard. It’s certainly the case for me. I felt profoundly disconnected from my family as a kid. And I suppose some therapist could tease that out somehow [laughs].
N/I - Probably so. I figure we should circle back to the album before we call it. On the road for a while?
Rod - I’m on the road pretty much for the rest of the year. I’m looking forward to that, because this last year was a year where I did all this other writing. I wrote two books of short stories, two books of poetry, a screenplay, a first draft of a novel. So I like that back and forth, but now I’m in this other world where I’m back to singing. I’m singing better this year than I ever have. Something sort of clicked in with that. I’m not sure what it was.
N/I - Some sort of muscle control thing? Or mental?
Rod - Some kind of confidence thing. Or as my booking agent calls it, “The not giving a fuck.” [laughs]
N/I - That could be it too.
Rod - It releases you from self-restricting.
N/I - Absolutely. The foibles of that confirmation are still there, but not nearly as heavy in terms of influence.
Rod - And I find I get more accolades and more confirmation the looser and more…. It’s a funny combination, because it’s looser, but it’s also more confident. That kind of swagger.
N/I - Shoot from the hip?
Rod - It’s a really interesting dynamic with an audience. If you think about this, you’ll find this is true - the audience will always reflect back to you what you’re giving them. If you act fully confident, and you have a great sense of rhythm, and time. The audience will get that, because they feel comfortable in that, because you are. And if you’re nervous on stage, and the audience senses that, they feel nervous. It’s such a fascinating thing.
N/I - It’s like when someone messes up and acknowledges it, everyone gets tense.
Rod - If you don’t care about it, the audience doesn’t either. But when you do, you have this little bit of discomfort. Isn’t that fascinating? So I’m always learning. I love the process. I’m fully engaged by it. I find it fascinating, still learning. So it’s still a lot of fun. People ask all the time, because I tour so much - I’m such a road dog - people ask where my favorite place to play is? Or my favorite region. Or favorite room. Man, I don’t care. The only thing I care about is having an audience that wants to hear, is engaged with what I’m doing, and they’re with me, waiting for songs they want to hear. I don’t care if it’s a cinder-block building in Alabama, or a beautiful theatre in Chicago. It’s no difference to me. It’s all about the interaction with the audience. It’s all about connection.