Nashville songwriter Rod Picott is preparing to release Out Past The Wires, a new double album due out March 30. Picott worked on the album, which follows 2015’s Fortunes, with producer Neilson Hubbard and players Will Kimbrough, Lex Price, Evan Hutchings, and Kris Donegan.
To accompany the album, Picott also wrote a book of short stories, also titled Out Past The Wires. It’s not Picott’s first foray into writing — he’s already published poetry and short fiction — but it is his first effort at bridging the gap between prose and song.
Ahead of the project’s release, Picott has shared a new song, “Coal,” and its companion story. Check out both below.
Ben Carmon’s hands were stained a permanent black. Daily, at the utility sink in the entryway to his home, he scrubbed them with harsh Lava soap, but the dark lines of his palms’ geography remained. Ben had worked the coal mines along the Pittsburgh seam for twenty years. Early on, he worked close to his home in Putnam County. As the years went by and the mines moved west, he was forced to drive further each morning in his Ford F-150 pickup. By the late 90’s, Ben was driving ninety minutes each way to work. Each morning, he rose quietly at five AM so as not to disturb his sleeping wife Nellie, a teacher at the local elementary school. He dressed himself for work in the hallway after softly shutting their bedroom door. His dirty boots waited in the mud room.
Ben found his way to the kitchen, poured strong black coffee into a Thermos for the long drive, grabbed his lunch pail from the ancient Frigidaire and walked out into the chilly black morning. He started the old Ford. The starter was failing, so he had to jab the metal housing with a long pole he kept in the bed of his truck. Money was tight now and he could not afford a new starter just yet, though he was squirreling a few dollars away to get one from the You-Pull-It junkyard. The starter was getting worse, though, and on this morning, Ben had to stab several times with the pole.
On his drive to work, Ben listened to the local AM radio station to hear the scores of the local football teams and the day’s news. The signal lasted until Perryville, where he switched to an FM country music station. In Williamson County, the signal faded again and he tuned the dial to a classic rock radio station until he arrived at the mine. The sound of Bad Company filled the cab as the old truck pulled to a dusty halt in the parking area.
“Mornin’, Ben.” Carl, the pit boss, said. “Yes it is,” said Ben.
“Not sure if the word got around, but we’re losing another twenty or so.”
“But we just got to the meat of the seam, Carl.” “I know, but these new shuttle cars are so much faster with the longwallers than those old shuttle cars. We can’t keep men on when we don’t need ‘em.”
“Damn. Have they made the cuts yet?”
“Not yet. I’ll put in a word for you. You’ve always been good here.”
“I appreciate it.”
Ben pulled a cigarette from a pack of Basic menthols and lit it. Most days, he arrived a few minutes early so he could enjoy a smoke before starting the long dark walk down into the hole. Today, he found he didn’t enjoy the cigarette as he pulled hard on it. There was a nervous feeling in his gut. He leaned on the fender of the Ford and watched Carl walk back to the portable metal building that served as the office. Ben locked the doors of the Ford and walked to the hole and went down in. The familiar smell comforted him and the cool darkness eased the tension wringing his body.
At the house, Nellie woke lying wide across the bed. She lay a few minutes, staring at the ceiling, listening to the birds outside the window, then got up, put on her robe and went to wake the children. Ben Jr. and Tina, two years apart, at twelve and ten were good kids who did moderately well in school without excelling at anything in particular. Ben Jr. played peewee football, loved sports, was small for his age but did well regardless. Tina was a quiet bookish sort and read constantly. In the room they still shared, Nellie gently shook the kids awake, then went to the kitchen to make breakfast. She scrambled eggs and made toast while sipping from the coffee Ben had left warming in the pot for her. As the kids ate, she looked over bills, wrote out a few checks, and looked at the latest bank statement. The mortgage would be late again, but so far they were staying afloat. Things had changed from years before when Ben had been in the Union. The wages were better then; there had been health insurance.
It took Ben nearly an hour to reach the wall they were working deep underground. He checked the hydraulics of the huge continuous mining machine and inspected its toothed drum. He walked around the machine, inspecting the moving joints, making sure they were properly greased. He put his ear protection on and started the beast to its chewing. Black soot immediately filled the air in the deep room, and he pulled his breathing mask over his face. The smells of menthol cigarette and coal dust mixed in his nose. For several hours, he operated the machine by remote control as it tore away several tons of coal from the vein. At eleven, he handed the remote over to another man. They nodded at each other in the noise, and Ben walked out of the depth to his truck and lunch pail. When he opened his pail, he saw sitting at the top a note that said “Love You!”, a heart shape drawn around the words. Ben ate his sandwich and sipped his lukewarm coffee in the driver’s seat. Both truck doors were open to let a small acrid breeze float through the cabin. Dust covered every inch of the truck’s interior save for the steering wheel and bench seat. A faint “Ben” was traced onto the dashboard in a child’s stiff penmanship. A man approached the truck, carrying the same lunch pail and sat himself into the passenger’s side.
“You hear about it?” asked the man. “Yeah, I heard,” said Ben.
“What you think?”
“I suspect they’re buying a longwaller.” “You think?”
“I do. If they are, it means a lot more than twenty of us are gone.”
“You’re right about that.”
“They’re saying twenty now, but it’ll be more than twice that. That machine can pull a hundred tons a day.”
“What are we gonna do?”
“I don’t know. Carl was trying to be cool about it, but I got a bad feeling.”
“Carl ain’t had to wash his hands in twenty-five years.”
“He’s okay. What the hell is he supposed to do about it? It’s the guys wearing ties that’s making this happen.”
“Well, fuck,” said the man, then bit his sandwich.
“I’d say that’s about right,” said Ben, pulling a cigarette from the pack lying between them. He lit the cigarette and pulled deeply from it.
Ben finished his smoke, the man finished his sandwich and they walked back and down into the hole.
At the elementary school, Nellie finished grading the day’s papers, neatened her desk and walked to her car. In the parking lot, she saw June Martin, another teacher, leaving for the day.
“Hi, Nellie. What do you think about this?” “About what?”
“The mine. I hear they’re switching to a longwall machine.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a bigger machine. There are going to be lay-offs.”
“I haven’t heard about it.”
“Eddie told me last night. He saw the paperwork at the office.”
“I don’t know. Eddie said maybe as many as fifty.”
“Oh, god, I hope not.”
“It’s not good.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Eddie saw the paperwork for it.” “How soon?”
“Could be soon, in a few weeks maybe.”
“If you hear any more, let me know?” “Sure, Nellie. Fingers crossed for Eddie and Ben…”
When Ben returned home he stood at the utility sink scrubbing hard at the black lines on his red calloused hands. He went into the kitchen. The two children sat at the table doing homework. Nellie was at the stove cooking. Ben sat himself at the table and was quiet.
“Jane told me something today, Ben.” “Yeah, I know. Not now, okay?” “Okay.”
Ben watched his son checking boxes on a multiple-choice paper. He looked at his son’s small frame and wondered when puberty would kick in, and if his son would catch up in size. He’d hoped that with his son’s natural ability at sports, there might be scholarship opportunities in the future. Looking at the boy now, he worried; a dark vague unknown.
“Clear the table, you two. Dinner is ready,” Nellie said.
The two children picked up their papers and scurried off to their rooms. Nellie set the table.
“I just don’t want them to worry,” Ben whispered.
“It’s been hard enough lately.”
“Is it true? June said Eddie saw the paperwork.”
“Yeah. I talked to Carl today. He said he’d put in a word for me, but I have a bad feeling. I’ve been doing room and pillar for so long, and they have other guys who’ve been on a longwaller before. I don’t know it. No one else is hiring. That Ford isn’t going to last much longer with this drive.”
“What would we do?”
“I don’t know.”
The two children returned to the table. Nellie served dinner and they ate. After the table was cleared, the children watched the television while Nellie made Ben’s lunch for the following day. Ben prepared the coffee machine and set the timer to 4:30.
After the children went to bed, Ben and Nellie lay side by side on their own bed. Ben reached out his hand and held hers tightly.
“It’ll be okay, Nell. We’ll figure something out. We’ve always figured something out.”
“I know. But it gets harder and harder. There’s nothing left. The mortgage is late again.”
They lay quiet, side by side for a long time – each in their own ponderings. Outside the window, the last of the day’s birds sang in the distance. Nellie moved to reach for Ben, but he stopped her hand.
“I can’t right now, Nell.”
The next morning Ben again had to crack at the starter several times with the pole. At last the starter caught the flywheel and the engine turned over. When he arrived at the mine, he saw it. The monstrous machine sat bright garish yellow in the morning sun. He saw Carl stepping into the office and followed him. Ben knocked at the door.
“Hey, Carl, can I step in for a sec?”
Ben walked into the office and closed the door gently.
“Yeah. It’s pretty, ain’t it?”
“You got names yet?”
“At the end of the day.”
“So do I need to worry?”
“You’ve always been great here, Ben.”
“Yeah, but do I need to worry?”
“C’mon, Ben, you know I can’t say anything. It’s policy. I gotta wait until the end of the day.” He did not look up from the papers in front of him.
“I know, Ben. I know.”
At lunch Ben was joined again in his Ford. “This is bad,” said the man as he bit into his sandwich.
“Yeah, this is bad,” Ben said, his lunch box unopened. Several cigarette butts littered the ground outside the driver’s side of the truck and another glowed between his fingers as he filled his lungs.
At the end of the day, the men gathered outside the portable metal office building as Carl nervously called names and handed out slips. An occasional curse was hurled.
“Ben Carmon,” Carl said without looking up from the slips in his hand. Ben walked forward. He looked directly at Carl, but Carl did not look up. Ben grabbed the slip from his hand. He walked to the Ford, got in, rolled the window down, lit a cigarette and sat silent watching the other, mostly older, men take their slips. Slowly, the parking area emptied. Ben sat smoking. Eventually Carl came out of the office, walked quickly to his shining new truck, then drove away. Ben sat alone in the lot.
He smoked another cigarette, then turned the key in the ignition. The engine turned over on the first try. Ben put the truck into gear and started to pull away. As he neared the exit, he saw the massive yellow machine gleaming in the low sun. He stopped the truck, then cut the engine. He sat for a moment staring at the machine. Ben got out of the cab and opened the rusted toolbox in the bed of his truck. He pulled out a pair of large metal snips, walked to the longwaller and started cutting. He cut hydraulic hoses. He cut wiring. He continued to cut everything the snips would bite into. Oil leaked freely from the machine onto the ground, a huge puddle of golden unspoiled oil pooled like blood in some strange abattoir. He walked back to his Ford, got in, and turned the key, but the engine didn’t turn. Ben grabbed the pole and knocked at the starter housing.
The engine did not turn over. He tried again and still the flywheel would not catch the motor. Again and he again, he knocked at the starter, but the engine would not catch. He sat in the truck smoking, tried again, but the truck would not start. Come morning, Ben sat in his dusty truck, smoking his last cigarette beside the felled beast.