Randy Rogers Band makes Aspen stop
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – “In My Arms Instead,” from the self-titled 2008 album by the Randy Rogers Band, finds a happy medium between the two poles of country music: the slick commercial stuff that finds a place on Top 40 radio, and the down-home sound that reminds you of country’s roots as rebel music. The song is about the sort of romance that could be seen as the country cliche: The singer is cold, lonely, longing for his old flame. The tune is catchy; Rogers’ voice is easy to take. From the more rootsy side, “In My Arms Instead” kicks off with the warm fiddle sound that has been largely banished from mainstream country. The interplay of minor and major tones gives it a complexity more associated with alt-country.
While their sound is in the middle of two ends, their ethic leans decidedly in one direction. The quintet, led by the 32-year-old Rogers, makes its home in Austin, Texas, which tells you right there that the band is on the independent wing of the country music divide.
“People in that area do their own thing, dance to their own beat,” Rogers, who grew up in Cleburne, just south of Fort Worth, said of his adopted town.
Rogers seems to fit into the Austin way of doing things. For one thing, the band spends more time playing live, and playing on the road, than it does trying to get its songs on radio. Its current tour – West Coast Struttin’, which has them opening for Cross Canadian Ragweed for 12 shows through January – stops at Belly Up Aspen on Saturday, Jan. 9. “If you’re going to make money playing music, you’ve got to go out and play show, because there are 5,000 other bands there,” Rogers said of Austin.
Rogers and Co. also think like an Austin band – which is to say, not operating at the whims of the Nashville-based corporate labels. Yes, the Randy Rogers Band is signed to Mercury Nashville. But with half of Tennessee, half of Texas, and all of Arkansas lying between band and label, Rogers feels he is far enough away that he doesn’t feel controlled.
“We kind of have a no-b.s. approach,” Rogers said by phone from Steamboat Springs, where he is making two appearances, one solo and one with the band, at the MusicFest. “We’re not going to record a record just to get it on the radio. Whatever we create is a representation of our band. We stick to our guns, keep trying to split those hairs.”
Little surprise, then, that the band is not a big player on radio. Rogers said that he hears everything from “We don’t have room for you, to ‘The song sucks.'” The shortage of play on Big Radio, however, is a different thing than being unsuccessful. The Randy Rogers Band has performed recently on both “The Late Show with David Letterman” and “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” and were named as one of the Must-See Tours of Summer by Rolling Stone. Last year, they made their debut at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, home to the Grand Ol’ Opry. The low profile on the radio hasn’t even kept them from selling albums – “The Randy Rogers Band” debuted at No. 3 on Billboard’s Country charts. Probably most important to Rogers, their recent record was named album of the year by the entity that matters most: Playboy magazine. “That’s a dream come true for any little boy, right there,” Rogers said.
Rogers grew up on equal doses of old-school country and classic ’60s rock, including loads of Creedence Clearwater Revival. When he switched from playing piano in church to playing along with the radio on his guitar, the style was mostly rock. But when it came time to write his own music, it didn’t have a choice but to play country.
“When you’re raised in Johnson County – my dad had a bunch of cattle. I opened my mouth and sounded like a hick. And the songs I wrote were about girls and love,” he said. “I never tried to be a rocker.”
Rogers had big aspirations for those songs. After he put together a first band, while attending Southwest Texas State – now Texas State University – in San Marcos, he was serious enough to focus on the musicians’ life rather than an ordinary job. He bought a 1980 Suburban – big enough to fit a bunch of music equipment – and found a ratty couch to live on in a friend’s outbuilding. But he watched his original bandmates, tired of living on four dollars a day, drift toward real life. One became an accountant; another, a computer guy. So a few years later, in 2000, Rogers got even more serious.
“When I found these four guys, I invited them over, bought a box of cheap wine, and drew a line in the sand and said, This is what I’m going to do: Play 300 shows this year and split everything with you, if you quit the jobs you’re doing. And I’ll take you to the top,” said Rogers, who is surrounded in the band by guitarist Geoffrey Hill, bassist Jon Richardson, fiddler Brady Black and drummer Les Lawless.
One of the gigs Rogers landed was Tuesday nights at San Marcos’ Cheatham Street Warehouse, a slot made famous by Stevie Ray Vaughan and George Strait. “It was a huge honor to play there on Tuesday nights,” Rogers said. Later on, the band found another enriching scene when they settled in New Braunfels, home to a thriving community of musicians. They lived at the River Road Icehouse, a compound of trailer homes where their neighbors included Cross Canadian Ragweed, Jason Boland and Stoney LaRue. During the week, when the bands were off the road, life revolved around daily floats down the river and nightly bonfires.
Rogers proudly points out that his band has played more than 2,000 shows. The aim has been to connect to live audiences who, they hope, will remain loyal fans, and to refine a sound that distinguishes them from the crowd. It’s not the path that is necessarily recommended by the country powers in Nashville.
“I think it’s a lot of stuff that sounds the same that gets played” on radio, Rogers said. “And that’s hard when you’re trying to make a sound that doesn’t sound like anybody else. We’re trying to make a record that’s going to sound good 50 years from now.
“The way certain acts are made is, they’re picked up, put together with a band, make a single – and then they learn to play together. I guess you could say we’re doing it the hard way. Or maybe the right way, I don’t know.”
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