Film buff Rod Melancon headed west to pursue a career in celluloid, ditching his Louisiana digs for a chance to work either side of a camera lens. But like a college freshman suddenly shifting majors, Melancon locked onto music after a cinematic moment one Christmas holiday.
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Melancon’s grandfather gave him a Hank Williams album and listened to it with him the first time through. It was an elegiac, emotional epiphany for both men—young and old—and Ron soon found he couldn’t shake the Alabama songwriter’s rootsy guitar gems from his subconscious or his soul. So he sublimated with a guitar, transforming himself into a one-man crew for songwriting, with casting himself as both director and star. It wasn’t long before producer Dave Cobb (Jamey Johnson) heard a Melancon demo and called the kid to Nashville.
Rod explored his lineage and rural environs on 2012’s My Family Name. Now, with Parish Lines, the Louisiana native stretches out with an album of lovely acoustic ballads and diesel-powered rockers that pay homage to the legends of Americana folk and ‘50s rockabilly, as well as silver screen icons Elvis Presley and James Dean. Named for the political boundaries near his hometown—site of the creepy prison in Dead Man Walking—the disc plays like a Route 66 Triptik.
Closer inspection of Melancon’s lyrics reveals his heart’s still in swamp country, even if he and his band sound like they’re kicking up highway dust. It’s an effective, magical musical illusion that draws the listener in. The intimacy is authentic even if the wayfaring isn’t. Lured in for Melancon’s confidante confessionals, sometimes we’re rewarded with a free drink or a moonlight kiss. Other times it’s a back-alley mugging, punctuated by a swift boot to the ribs. There’s a Willy Vlautin novel in here somewhere—a Cormac McCarthy screenplay, perhaps; characters like “Pete” pop up more than once as Melancon unravels his yarn, a la Kristofferson, Springsteen, and Mellencamp. It’s story hour down on the bayou.
The trouble starts with “Duck Festival Queen,” wherein Rod’s 21-year old ne’er-do-well narrator makes off with the underage County Fair princess, runs afoul of her gun-toting father, and winds up Shreveport fugitive. Staccato guitar sets the rhythm for Melancon’s haunting first person vocal, which itself is anointed by a slight echo from the mixing desk—as if to suggest he’s speaking from the grave.
“Marella” introduces Melancon’s more uppity side. Propelled by stomp-clack percussion and a gritty guitar riff, it’s a turbocharged twelve bar blues ode to a Camaro-riding waitress who gets the boys “howlin’ at the moon” on and off the clock at some roadhouse called Desperadoes. Melancon’s vocal delivery pays tribute to Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison—but his lead guitar salutes Scotty Moore and Duane Eddy. Listeners visit another dive bar in “Curve Lounge,” only now things are dark and dreary instead of lusty, libidinous, and laughter-filled: This is an edge-of-town tavern where city workers their sorrows and duke it out in the parking lot to the sound of mournful slide guitar and hollow snare drum rim shots.
“South Louisian” is a high-speed chicken-pickin’ number that puts the spotlight back on Melancon’s antihero. Maybe it’s the same guy from “Duck Festival Queen” (the girlfriend here is also 17) and maybe it’s not; the pedigree’s the same and the musical outcome not dissimilar. With defiance in his eyes and a twang on his tongue, Rod gives voice to a rebellious Southern youth who’s been called “trash” one too many times. The tempers flare on “Mad Talkin’ Man,” with Melancon filling the shoes of a class clown who winds up a grizzled war vet, payin’ his dues only to be chewed up and spat out by the very society that made him. Cranked on Tennessee whiskey and Xanax, our guy takes on all comers—including his sister’s wolfish boyfriends—while Melancon’s band make like a rowdy Fabulous Thunderbirds / Stray Cats combo. Later, when Rod’s greaser invites another girl (or is it Jenny again?) for a spin (“Wanna Go For A Ride?”) in his muscle car, the double-entendres are matched only by the odometer.
The airy “Dreamer” recounts the life of a drifter who quits Montgomery for Memphis, ditching gas station jobs for drug dealing as mama frets his fate back home. Pretty guitar arpeggios and plaintive keyboard / organ help cushion the parable’s harsh truths and ugly ending. Again, the tune could be an afterlife apology or confessional. “Different Man” operates in third person, with Melancon slipping in the shoes (combat boots, actually) of an inured Iraq War veteran who no longer speaks coherently—but hears myriad voices in his head. The flags, banners, and Main Street parades are cold comfort to the soldier and his family, who aren’t sure what to do with the transformed Jimmy. Acoustic guitar strums, accordion, and organ conspire for a somber—if respectful—mood, and a lonesome military snare rat-a-tatters toward a big rock ending.
Melancon masters 3-chord heartland rock on “Cushing Avenue,” a fond “My Hometown” / “Small Town”-styled musing on old times spent working the local mill and sneaking cigarettes outside with the other pompadour punks back home. But Rod reserves his most poetic entry, “Feathers,” for album’s end, his syncopated guitar lines scoring a vision of more girls in doorways and grandmothers with old photographs. A hungry tomcat and a bird-on-a-wire become analogies for the hunters and quarry of everyday life, with Melancon’s hoarse (but not harsh) drawl lending an immutable Southern-ness to the proceedings.
Melancon will play SXSW for the second year running with a March 15th gig at Austin’s Continental Club. Meanwhile, you can check out the Brian Whelan-produced Parish Lines here: http://www.medinariverrecords.com/site/merch/merch-rod-melancon/