Sometimes the process of mining for melody in words eviscerates the raconteur, gutting them like a tornado through a trailer park. Sometimes, “the truth” is a revival of shit rather forgotten, igniting a coward’s desire to look away. With “Meltdown Rodeo,” Kym Register foregoes such consolatory diversions for visceral scrutiny and unbroken stares. The result is a body of tunes that forages the American South, dislodging its ducked bullets from pearly white sand.
According to Register, “Scottsboro,” the album’s opener, was years in the making. It recounts the little known history of “The Scottsboro Boys,” nine Black men falsely accused of raping a pair of white women in hyperpyrexic 1930s Alabama. One accuser eventually admitted the allegations were bullshit, but, for Black men in the Jim Crow South (as it is now), any assumptions of guilt are soon proven a permanent brand. Register wails against America’s foremost refrains—jury and peers and whole truths—in lyrics hefty with reconciliation and metaphor. “A blind eye, A blind eye is all justice knows / Of the truth of what happened in Scottsboro / Come on now, this story’s not that old.” Contrary to Register’s demand for account, the American South knows no shame.
Balancing the album is Register’s odes to white, working class reckoners—Ella May, Maureen, Soni Wolf—that encase their unsung acts of defiance in mid-tempo rhapsodies. The aptly-titled “Blue” is a diagnosis of Joni Mitchell’s unchecked iconoclasm. Little-known fact: the cover of Joni Mitchell’s 1977 album, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, featured Mitchell in a blaxploitation era pimp suit, afro wig, and Blackface. “Blue”’s gutsy call-out challenges the conditions that still allow Mitchell amnesty, even after she traded her counterculture folk for jive turkey racism.
Register’s literary acumen leads to exalting lesser-known white, southern, and queer freedom fighters and allowing leftist liberation struggles the air of legend generally reserved for America’s Wild West fetishes. Even in compositions that most closely resemble love songs (like “Water to Wine,” “Some Boy,” and “Traveler’s Cross”) Register never grabs the artificially colored bouquet or strums an acoustic verse to woo a corseted lover. Register prefers thorny things growing amidst the piss weeds, the fist-high, belligerent ballad that heralds love as the heartbeat of change.
Register is also contributing a queer lens to the southern rock ethos. By way of supporting cast, Sinclair Palmer (bass), Joe Westerlund (drums), and Matt Phillips categorically deliver. Check out the title track for a perfect example of the band’s ability to travel between gritty responsiveness and tender reflection at Register’s lyrical instruction.
Ultimately Register and Meltdown Rodeo (both the newly named band and album) have achieved in 11 songs something the South has only half-heartedly attempted — undoing generational curses by retiring “bless your heart” lip service.
Damn if we can’t all benefit from a little melting down.
– shirlette ammons