Randy Newman turned the notion of the singer-songwriter as a "confessional" troubadour on its ear. If his songs were confessions, they most often were confessions of characters whose initials were not R.N.; while his songs were certainly personal, they touched less on his own life than on the lives of others, all exquisitely rendered with sharp observation and scathing wit. Newman's songwriting reached a new level of maturity with 1972's gorgeous Sail Away, offering a host of disparate gems alternately moving and funny (and sometimes both at once): "Political Science," "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)," "Lonely at the Top," "You Can Leave Your Hat On," and the startling title track among them. For its follow-up, the composer-lyricist-pianist-arranger crafted an even more powerful song cycle. That album, 1974's Good Old Boys, was announced on Friday as the winner of Run Out Groove's latest fan vote. It will arrive from ROG as a 2-LP remastered and expanded edition with an entire disc of bonus tracks, the Johnny Cutler's Birthday demos.
Good Old Boys began life as Johnny Cutler's Birthday, with each song sung from the point of view of the eponymous southerner. The germ of the idea formed when Newman watched an appearance by Georgia governor Lester Maddox on Dick Cavett's talk show. He saw the cosmopolitan, erudite New York host and his guest, football hero Jim Brown, asserting their moral superiority over the racist, segregationist governor and by extension, the south. He then imagined how the televised conversation might have played to a southerner. For Good Old Boys' eventual opening track, Newman took on that southerner's bitingly sarcastic voice, shining a light on hypocrisy and employing an incendiary racial epithet more than once. That was just one envelope that the singer-songwriter would push in his quest to expose racism, both on and beneath the surface, and explore the southern identity from every angle. "Rednecks" was the starting point of the startlingly rich concept album that became Good Old Boys. The Johnny Cutler concept was dropped from the eventual LP as the multi-layered songs were sung by various characters, but his spirit remained.
Race, of course, informs the narrative of Good Old Boys. It's a deeply human album and profoundly American album, too. While Newman's albums generally were greeted with critical hosannas, some took him to task for the dark, satirical humor as heard on the album, however warranted the targets. But not all of the songs were unforgiving. "Louisiana 1927" is a ravishing reflection of the Great Flood, while "Birmingham" evinces empathy with the working class of the city despite an ironic tone that leaves it just ambiguous enough. The touching "Marie" is sung by one of Newman's famously unreliable narrators. It's a master class in writing for character (in this case, he's inebriated and struggling to express his affection for the woman he loves), matched with a peerless melody and a lush string arrangement by Nick DeCaro that works in perfect sync to reveal truths about the singer and his relationship to the song's subject. "Kingfish" explores Depression-era Louisiana governor Huey Long, and Newman takes the connection one step further by covering a song actually co-written by Long, "Every Man a King." He was probing territory that wouldn't have been touched by his more reflective contemporaries, humanizing persons real and fictional who seemingly didn't warrant a second glance. By frequently utilizing mordant, unsettling humor, Newman also invited audiences to confront their own prejudices.
Run Out Groove's reissue of Good Old Boys will be pressed on two LPs, with lacquers cut from the original stereo master tapes. The original album plus a demo of "Marie" is featured on LP 1, with Johnny Cutler's Birthday on LP 2. Rhino's 2002 expanded edition premiered Johnny Cutler's Birthday and the "Marie" demo on CD, and now Run Out Groove is presenting it in its vinyl premiere. The LPs will be housed in deluxe packaging, with every copy numbered to the amount pre-ordered by ROG customers. Pre-orders are open now through February 13, 2022 directly from Run Out Groove, and limited copies will be available at participating independent record stores.
Good Old Boys may well remain the most consistent, provocative, and insightful collection of songs in the rich Newman catalogue. With crisp production by Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman supporting Newman's finely-wrought musical portraits, adventurous pop music gets no better than this, and its rich picture of the darker side of American life remains as persuasive as the best musical theatre.
Meanwhile, three new titles are up for the vote now to become ROG's next release:
- Roberta Flack, Quiet Fire - 1971 album expanded as a 1LP/2CD set with previously unreleased (in physical format) bonus tracks, new liner notes, a custom turntable mat, and more;
- Kyuss, Muchas Gracias: The Best of Kyuss - 2000 compilation would be released for the first time on vinyl in the U.S. with additional live bonus tracks; or
- George Jones, Cold Hard Truth - 1999 album available for the first time on vinyl worldwide.
You'll find the pre-order link and track listing for Good Old Boys just below!
Randy Newman, Good Old Boys (Reprise MS 2193, 1974 - reissued Run Out Groove, 2022)
- President (Have Pity on the Working Man)
- Louisiana 1927
- Every Man A King (Huey P. Long)
- Naked Man
- A Wedding in Cherokee Country
- Back On My Feet Again
- Marie (Demo) (Bonus Track)
Side C: Johnny Cutler's Birthday
- If We Didn't Have Jesus
- The Joke
- My Daddy Knew Dixie Howell
Side D: Johnny Cutler's Birthday
- Good Morning
- Birmingham Redux
- Doctor, Doctor
- Albanian Anthem
Kindly asking if it was "Quiet Fire" that was released as a 1LP/2CD set or was it "First Take".
Joe Marchese says
"First Take" was released in that format in 2020; "Quiet Fire" is currently up for the vote at Run Out Groove to be released in the same format.
Thanks a lot, Joe! I voted for the Roberta Flack album now. Hope it wins.
Sad to say, I can't imagine that a young singer-songwriter would be able to release a song such as 'Sail Away' (not to mention 'Short People' or 'Pretty Boy' from elsewhere in his catalogue) these days.
Peter J Haas says
Was any of this on a previous “deluxe” re-release??
Joe Marchese says
Hi Peter. Yes, as the article indicates, all of the bonus material was issued on CD in 2002. This release will be the first time any of those tracks have been on vinyl.
Do you know someway to communicate to Run Out Groove to please press Sinead O'Connor's Faith and Courage? It was slated to appear twice (I guess not enough people voted for it). I've never seen them do it two times. But anyway it disappeared and it was never pressed. Criminally underrated album.