We humans have a grand propensity to rank works of art. Numbered lists and “the Oscar goes to” awards attempt to measure the immeasurability of creativity, innovation, depth, and genius, while at the same time untangling the intersecting and often time-bound lines of achievement, accessibility, commerce, and comprehension. And although some artists are labeled “best” with surprising ease and frequency, others need a bit of advocacy on their behalf. Townes Van Zandt, for example, has Steve Earle, who said, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” And now Randy Newman has Sail Away: The Songs of Randy Newman. The liner notes of this collection from rootsy label Sugar Hill assert that “If you are reading these words and you write songs, know this much right upfront: You are not as good as Randy Newman.”
Sail Away showcases the Sugar Hill roster and offers mainly acoustic interpretations of Newman’s songs. Given the association of Americana music to the American South, it is apropos that the majority of covers come from Newman’s album Good Old Boys. This 1974 collection addresses a few of the South’s most steadfast archetypes: drinking, blue collar workers, rednecks, and racism. The album’s songs are largely told from a first-person imperfect point of view — with an emphasis on imperfect: these Good Old Boys ain’t too smart, sober, or sane.
The aforementioned Steve Earle — himself not one to skirt controversy — fittingly chooses one of the most controversial songs in Newman’s catalog, “Rednecks”. Earle transforms Newman’s sardonic ode to Southern ignorance and racism — featuring the couplet “we’re rednecks, rednecks…and we’re keepin’ the niggers down” — into a rocked-up, gritty, and spiteful anthem.
But there are also tender and earnest hearts in these Good Old Boys. Earle plays guitar for his wife Allison Moorer, who is perfectly suited to offer a sultry, maudlin reading of “Marie” — an elucidation of both love and apology told straight from an intoxicated heart: “I’m drunk right now baby / But I’ve got to be / Or I could never tell you / What you meant to me”. “Birmingham” is a tribute to both the city and to the blue collar worker, and bluegrass traditionalists the Del McCoury Band nail it — the banjo sounds much more texturally appropriate than Newman’s original piano reading. An acoustic version of “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)” by Sam Bush gives the song’s pleading lyrics a sense of authenticity and sincerity. Overall, the lyrical content of Good Old Boys greatly succeeds within the bluegrass context.
Newman has a deft awareness of history and the keen insight of a social critic, which may be why some of his songs seem to contain a sense of eerie prophecy. “Louisiana 1927” returned to public consciousness in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina made good on the chorus’s threat: “Louisiana, Louisiana / They’re tryin’ to wash us away…”. However, Sonny Landreth’s B3-drenched, almost jaunty rendition missteps the song’s core: the resignation of poor people to the more powerful forces of nature and politics.
Which brings us to the powerful force of American imperialism and “Political Science” — it’s a gem in Newman’s body of work, which ponders if (only slightly tongue-in-cheek) the U.S. should “drop the big one now”:
Every city the whole world round
Will just be another American town
Oh how peaceful it will be
We’ll set everybody free
You wear a Japanese kimono
And there’ll be Italian shoes for me…”
Two elements make the song nearly unbelievable: that it was written in 1972, and that, in 2006, the Bush White House seems intent on making it a reality. Sadly, Sail Away‘s rendition by the Duhks is pseudo-cabaret, with an over-abundance of scat singing that distracts and detracts from the song’s lyrical strength.
Ultimately, Sail Away offers what Randy Newman deserves — a tribute and the compliment of coverage. The songs are well-selected and finely interpreted, with only a few missteps. For either a Sugar Hill or Newman fan, this is a warm salutation to the witty, irony-filled, and unique world of this superb songwriter. And for songwriters, well, it’s a bit of “the best” to inspire you.