by Collyn Taylor
In his album Good Old Boys, Randy Newman does a masterful job describing the culture in the South during the 1970s. The 1974 recording satirically addresses issues of deep-seeded racism, xenophobia, middle-class lifestyles and stubbornness of people to make social change.
The South in the 1970s was predicated on discrimination against black people. Businesses would steer clear of areas whose population was over 30 percent African American. It was done to “avoid ‘complications’ in plant start-ups and operations,” (Coldough, Gleana.Uneven Development and Racial Composition in the Deep South: 1970–1980.Rural Sociology.). This significantly disparaged the black community, forcing them to live in poverty and thus limit opportunities later in life. It was also a way for whites in power to limit black’s voices (Coldough). In 1971, 9.2 percent of black children attended segregated schools in the South. The Equal Employment Opportunity Act was passed in the early 70s but Congress didn’t provide the commission with power to enforce the laws and blacks lagged behind whites in earning potential and education still halfway through the decade (The African American Legacy and the Challenges of the 21st Century, U.S. Department of the Interior.). Newman encapsulates that South in his album.
Newman wasn’t raised in the South. He was born in 1943 in Los Angeles, California. Music was in Newman’s blood; his uncles Emil, Alfred and Lionel all worked in Hollywood as writing and conducting movie scores (Pareles, Jon. Newman, Randy. Oxford Music Online). Newman spent a lot of time in New Orleans as a child, learned piano and absorbed different jazz, blues and soul influences. He was not shy about tackling issues plaguing America at the time of recording in a witty and satirical way. One of his songs, “Short People” was one of his most popular songs and satirized prejudices in the country (Pareles). Similarly, Good Old Boys is a concept album whose witty lyrics ridicule Southern culture.
The popular response to Good Old Boys was phenomenal given its sensitive subject material and as time’s progressed, the album’s status has become legendary. The album spent 23 weeks on Billboard’s charts, peaking at 36 (Billboard). After it’s initial success, Good Old Boys morphed into a classic. Rolling Stone ranked the album the 394th best album of all time (500 Greatest Albums of All Time, Rolling Stone). In a review, Steven Davis raved about the album, commending Newman’s lyrical skill, saying: “It mystifies, it confuses, it entertains, it swings. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry, and that is Randy Newman’s rare and bizarre skill,” (Davis, Randy Newman: Good Old Boys, Rolling Stone).
Pitchfork rated the album a 9.3 out of 10 and said its historical impact is still relevant and remains as “shocking, pristine, and regrettably relevant as the day it was released,” (Cook-Wilson, Winston, Good Old Boys, Pitchfork). Even though it describes problems affecting people in the 1970s, the issues he sings about are still prevalent today with racial tensions taking center stage with the election.
The album is a reflection of the times as Newman sings the songs from the point of view of a Southerner. Newman focuses primarily on Louisiana, Georgia and Alabama, and the regional tendencies there.
The opening track “Redneck” epitomizes Southern culture. Newman uses this song to give a general overview of the South and what the people value. He tells it from the point of a man from the region and sings the lyrics as if he’s proud of the things he’s done, even though the things in the song are awful. He sings, “Hustlin’ ’round Atlanta in their alligator shoes/Gettin’ drunk every weekend at the barbecues/And they’re keepin’ the niggers down,” (Google Play). That song features sarcasm from beginning to end.
The way he pokes fun of deep ties to arguably struggling cities like in the song “Birmingham” is masterful. In the song he sings, “My daddy was a barber/And a most unsightly man/ He was born in Tuscaloosa/But he died right here in Birmingham,” (AllLyrics.com) which shows how people in the South didn’t venture far from their hometowns and they suffer because they don’t get different viewpoints in life. It’s a subtle comment that it’s not easily detected on a first listen.
Newman satirizes the obsession in the South with drinking and drugs in “Guilty” when he sings “Got some whisky from the barman/Got some cocaine from a friend/I just had to keep on movin’” (Google Play). The song is about a breakup and how the man copes using addictive substances. It’s poking fun of Southerners’ unfaithfulness and dependency on illicit items while the song “Louisiana 1927” also delves into rooted regional ties and unwillingness to change with the times. In the song Newman sings about rains up North coming downriver to wash away the Southerners in Louisiana. It’s an indictment of Northern progressive ideas trying to corrupt and erode Southern values.
One of the songs to poke the most fun at the South, especially women and underperforming men is “A Wedding in Cherokee County,” which describes a wedding and a girl whose dad was a midget and mom a whore and the man, who in the song admits has a small penis, reluctantly get married and have to live together despite not wanting to be wed. It speaks to the insularity of a small town.
The album also has a drinking-style song in “Every Man a King,” in which Newman leads a chorus of men in song that might be sung around last call in a Birmingham bar. He also sings a loves song with “Marie,” and ridicules Southern resiliency with “Back on My Feet Again.” The song proves to be funny with the main character having rotten luck and screwing up but doing the same things nonetheless. Newman also pays homage in a non-serious way to the working-class mentality of the region with “Mr. President.”
The music on the album is upbeat. Newman’s piano playing creates a happy-go-lucky mood around each song while the lyrics are degrading of an entire region. The album is supposed to be parody and the music does help add to that, but if listeners aren’t paying full attention then they may miss the meaning. The simple instrumentation drives the listener’s focus to the lyrics.
Newman’s album is not just an album that succeeded at the time but one that applies today. It not only describes southern culture, but it creates an atmosphere that many people would recognize today.