A Randall Goodgame song is like a great independent movie. Characters deliver lines like they were lifted from a break room, a truck stop, or a downtown diner. Seemingly incongruent scenes are juxtaposed and plot isn’t obvious; in fact, narrative–a good story–is often more evident than linear plot lines. An indie movie, like a Randall Goodgame song, seems to tell itself. Rather than being rudely yanked by a chain through a sequence of contrived events, with a Randall Goodgame song, I have the sense that I’m being allowed a willing, but vicarious sneak peak into the real lives of his real characters.
As I listen to Arkadelphia, the 2000 release from Goodgame, from song to song, I never feel like the writer is trying to lead me like an insistent, yet ungraceful dance partner. Conversely, a blockbuster movie (and its musical counterpart, the hit song) often make me feel as if I’ve been through fifteen rounds with Mike Tyson, still in his prime. Each punch means to score more points for the songs telegraphed meaning. Ouch. You get it? Okay, get it again. Take that. And that. No nuance, no subtlety, and no–dare I say it–intelligence.
Hey, the last thing I want is for these comments to sound negative, elitist, or to spark yet another debate about radio or CCM music. Honest. I hope readers and artists associated with The Rabbit Room continue to shun the idea that this web hangout is some esoteric musical cult, where only the select few are allowed. It’s not. But let me go out on a limb; one of the reasons you left-click into our humble abode might be because your spirit thirsts for something deeper; deeper than cliche, deeper than a formula, and deeper than paint-by-number worship. Simple, obtuse, repetitive nursery rhymes might be true, but they also might be truly boring. Hopefully and prayerfully, The Rabbit Room is a place in which you will find recommendations on art that rise above the “truly boring.”
Randall Goodgame doesn’t write of generic people, places, and things. His lyrics are peppered with authentic props like Cherry Chapstick, harvest moon, marmalade, and potpourri. His characters are as random as the telephone directory: crazy Gene, Sylvester’s ex-wife (we don’t learn her name), Sweet Aileen, Charlie Robin, and Jesus (another one). These characters frequent the laundromat on Arkadelphia Road, Ruby’s Bar, San Pedro, and a plane headed for Nashville. With unfathomable skill, Goodgame shuffles these random songwriting cards–and like a clever magician–lays the cards down as if they had always been that way. Check that; he lays the cards down like they are supposed to be that way. And because the songwriting trick is performed with nuance and style, we can revisit the songs with fresh wonder and significance upon each new listen.
“Sylvester” is my favorite song on this collection. Of all the insightful stories and sentiment contained in this album, this song delivers the most poignancy. It will shred your guts like a vortex of rotating machetes. Without judgment, the narrator shares the story of a sad lady he met on a commercial flight headed to Nashville. Quickly, because it’s related with such warmth and empathy, the song becomes hers and she tells it as if she had written the song herself.
Sitting in her seat like “a cat caught up in a tree,” as the narrator gently probes, she begins to describe the story of her ex-husband, crippled by a drunk driver. And rather than fight the good fight, she abandons her husband and child. Since then, “like a worn out piece of tape,” all the men she dates, “never stick around.” The children have long since accepted a new mother and the father a new wife, but despite that, the sad lady is invited to Christmas every year. As she makes good on finally accepting her former family’s holiday invitation–that’s when she she sits down next to the narrator on the plane, who ends up writing her story. Without explicit references and dronish moralizing, this songwriting showpiece communicates indelibly–about regret, pride, empathy, kindness, tragedy, redemption, humanity, and forgiveness.
Before concluding, since this is a music review, special mention must be made of Randall Goodgame’s eclectic musical chops. Without hesitation, Randall intrepidly ventures into jazz, honky-tonk, world music, pop, folk, bluegrass, classical, and more. Notwithstanding such routine diversions, and unlike–say four unhip white guys trying to do classic Motown–I never have the sense that Randall is treading into unfamiliar territory. To know the story of where and how such a diverse musical repertoire evolved would be fasinating indeed.
There isn’t a Randall Goodgame release that isn’t part of my own personal collection. I own them all and I treasure them all. Each one, Randall Goodgame, Arkadelphia, The Hymnal, and War and Peace are filled with compelling, original writing (though it must be noted that The Hymnal, as we might expect, contains some traditional songs). I deliberately avoid using the term “songwriting” because one has the sense that whatever context Goodgame might offer his work–the stage, a book, or yes, on the big screen–that his words would resonate with the refrain of truth. With artistic abandon, Randall Goodgame takes chances with wide ranging musical forays and unresolved narratives, drawing us to the truth–not with didactic exhortations or mind numbing repetition–but with moving pictures, like music in motion.