Rod Picott had to learn to love his voice.
“It’s crooked and craggy, and full of knot holes,” said the Maine-bred singer-songwriter, whose latest CD, “Hang Your Hopes on a Crooked Nail,” features many layers of that knotty voice. The record, which Picott recorded in his adopted hometown of Nashville, is rough around the edges, but smooth where it matters most: The songs are intimate, honest and well-suited for Picott’s expressive vocals.
Born in New Hampshire and raised in South Berwick, Picott, 49, has been writing songs most of his life and released a string of self-produced CDs, beginning with “Tiger Tom Dixon’s Blues” in 2001. The son of a welder, Picott spent nearly 20 years hanging drywall and doing manual labor before releasing his first CD at age 30.
It took him many years to embrace his voice instead of apologizing for it. When he finally did, he learned to match the idiosyncrasies with his writing, telling tales of broken homes, wrecked cars, scars and welding burns.
“My voice has gotten better, marginally, over the years. But the voice is a funny thing,” he said by phone from Nashville. “I’m not a great guitar player. I’m sort of a functional guitar player. What I am really working with is a voice that will tell those stories.”
To illustrate his point, Picott talks about one of his favorite songwriters and performers, John Prine. Early in his career, Prine sang with a polished, finished voice. With age and illness, Prine’s voice has become a throaty rasp. His songs have become deeper and richer, Picott said.
Because Prine “settled into letting the roughness of his voice as it is now inhabit those songs, those songs are even more powerful,” Picott said. “The voice becomes a character, almost.”
That is what Picott is after: He wants his voice to take over his songs.
On “Hang Your Hopes on a Crooked Nail,” Picott tells stories of heartbreak and loss. The CD’s opening song, “You’re Not Missing Anything,” tells of a poor bloke who keeps making coffee for two even though he lives alone. “I made too much again, sometimes I forget,” he sings.
In a cruel twist on a break-up song, he co-wrote “I Might Be Broken Now” with his ex-girlfriend, Amanda Shires, who is now married to singer-songwriter Jason Isbell. “When you get Jesus, you get the devil, too. Open up your screen door, they both walk on through,” Picott sings, his hewn voice trailing out of the mix to allow space for the words to linger.
NOT YOUR USUAL BREAK-UP SONG
Writing a break-up song while you are breaking up is one thing, but doing it with the woman who is leaving you requires nerves of steel. He likened it to helping a thief break into your house.
It hurts just thinking about the ordeal, and he laughs awkwardly as he recounts the process.
“Amanda and I had a great relationship and a great working relationship. We’re both in it for the art, and we are both people who open ourselves up to the process and to the work in a completely open way. We were together for a long time, and she is a valuable part of my life,” he said.
“Mobile Home” laments – or celebrates, depending on your perspective – living in a trailer park. No trees, no yard, with a metal roof and metal on the sides. “They don’t really make ‘em like they should,” he writes. “You can’t hang a picture ‘cause the walls ain’t wood.”
“Hang Your Hopes on a Crooked Nail” is Picott’s eighth CD since 2001 and his first since “Welding Burns” in 2011. He paid for its creation with a Kickstarter campaign, raising $36,000.
For a major-label project, that sum is a pittance. But for an independent artist like Picott, it’s a huge amount of money.
Asking fans to help pay for a recording session “can feel a little weird,” he said. “It’s humbling to see how many people want you to do your work.”
He raised more money than he anticipated, enabling him to hire the musicians he wanted and to pay them a decent wage. Musicians are generous, he said, and will work for little money if they like the songs. “But it was nice to be able to cut people a decent paycheck,” he said.
His producer, RS Field, has produced CDs by Bill Joe Shaver and Justin Townes Earle, among others. Shaver is a grandfather figure of the Texas outlaw-country movement, and Earle is rising star in the Americana music scene.
Picott released the record in February and will spend most of the year on the road promoting it. He has shows booked across the South, and will work his way north in the spring. So far, the closest Maine date is April 12 at Atwood’s Tavern in Cambridge, Mass.
Picott gets back to Maine regularly. He and fellow singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves were best friends in South Berwick. They met in second grade when both were 8.
They remain tight. They write together often and record each other’s songs. Cleaves, who lives in Austin, Texas, helped Picott finish “You’re Not Missing Anything” from the new CD and contributed to three other songs.
It’s interesting that two guys from the same small high school (Marshwood, class of 1982) have made their living writing songs. That likely has to do with the rural nature of South Berwick, Picott said. Both viewed their horizons in the distance.
“We gravitated toward each other immediately,” Picott said. “We were interested in the same things: Music, art and stories. In that little town at that time, there were not a lot of people interested in those kinds of things.”
They went to Portsmouth, N.H., for culture. It had record stores and a music scene, and it was easy to grab a 15-mile ride down Route 236.
He appreciates South Berwick now and calls it idyllic. But it wasn’t always that way.
“It was always a bit of a fight as a kid to picture my place was in the world. Your experience as an adult is a lot wider, and you see things more for what they are than when you were a kid having to hitchhike over to Portsmouth to buy records. … I might have had a very different experience with the world if I had grown up in a city where was more access to art.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: