The cover of Rod Picott’s latest CD, Stray Dogs, says a lot about him. He’s gazing downward in a pose that’s both humble and melancholy; in his hand is an old fedora that connects him to a class of people not afraid to get their knuckles dirty. Stray Dogs is the second self-released album from Picott, a singer-songwriter whose hard work has parlayed his outsider status into a career.
“I thought I could come to Nashville and learn how to write what they were looking for, but it didn’t work out,” recalls Picott, who moved to Music City in 1994 after stints in the bar bands of Colorado and his hometown of South Berwick, Maine.
“One of the best meetings I ever had was with one of those Music Row guys who said, ‘If you want to learn how to make bullshit you can probably do that, but what you should be doing is making records.’ They let me know right away that I didn’t fit, but it ended up being fine because it pushed me in a direction I needed to go.”
Taking the advice to heart, Picott tried out several studios and producers, but ended up buying some recording equipment and starting a project himself. After having made “a big mess,” as he calls it, he took the tapes to producer/cellist David Henry, who helped assemble the pieces into a cohesive album.
The result was Tiger Tom Dixon’s Blues, a dark, stripped-down study of faded dreams and dying love that produced two of 2001′s best breakup songs: “Haunted Man” and “Broke Down” — the latter co-written with Picott’s childhood friend, Austin songwriter Slaid Cleaves. (The song originally had surfaced as the title track of Cleaves’ acclaimed 2000 release on Rounder Records.)
“I learned a lot making that first record,” Picott admits, “and one of the things I learned was that I wasn’t going to make the second one by myself.” When it came time to start cutting tracks for what would become Stray Dogs, Picott again turned to Henry, with whom he now had a collaborative relationship.
“David really produced the second record, and it was all done at his studio,” Picott says. “It’s not like I just threw my hands up and said, ‘Whatever you want to do,’ but I did let him drive.”
Released in November, Stray Dogs is a broader, more character-driven work than its predecessor. Naturally, much of Picott’s trademark melancholy is still present — “Need You Bad”, for example — but there’s also the anthemic title cut, whisper-quiet songs such as “Circus Girl”, and even a little whimsy: “I ain’t no angel, ain’t no acrobat/But when you love me, honey I fly like that,” he sings on “Angels And Acrobats”.
Along with his partner Alicia Bequette, Picott works long hours managing every aspect of his career, from releasing his own records to booking and promotion. Given the current state of the industry, he considers his autonomy an advantage.
“I remember hearing Prince say that having a record contract is like buying a house, but at the end of the loan, the bank owns the house. It’s insane!” Picott exclaims. “A record deal with a small independent label would destroy my career right now. Because I made the record and it’s paid for, I’m able to go from show to show and make a living off it. If I can get my thing to a point where somebody can come in and do a better job, then I’d probably do it, but I don’t see how that could work right now.”