By Mario Tarradell
The kid who loved baseball, yet suffered through pesky piano lessons, Houston-based Roger Creager is stepping up to the artistic plate with his third album, Long Way to Mexico, which arrives in stores Sept. 9. After two solid Texas country releases, 1998’s Having Fun All Wrong and 2000’s I Got the Guns, the 32-year-old former management consultant bust loose in the studio, incorporating a smorgasbord of instruments — trombone, percussion, clarinet, mandolin, accordion, pedal steel, dobro, organ and piano — to compliment the requisite guitar, bass and drums combo.
Mexico boasts a dozen tracks, 10 from Creager’s pen and covers of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Love Is So Sweet” and Clay Blaker’s “All for the Sake of the Song.” The album also sports nifty album photography from James Bland, who dreamed up an idea to shoot Creager in vintage cowboy wear, tack on Old West and Grand Canyon-like background vistas and then add Graphics that make the cover look like a movie poster.
An ambitious project, for sure. So it only makes sense to take another step up commercially. Long Way to Mexico is Creager’s first album on his new recording contract with Nashville’s Dualtone Music Group, the strong independent label that houses acclaimed country-rockers David Ball, Radney Foster and Chris Knight. “It’s been three years in the making,” says Creager from his cell phone. He’s calling from a tour stop in Beaumont. “One thing about doing this four nights a week, like anything else, the more you do it, the better you get. I was able to do some things musically that I wasn’t capable of doing before. I figured I might as well stretch.”
Tell me about the vision, the attitude you had in the studio while crafting Long Way to Mexico. The disc plays like the work of an artist boldly experimenting with sounds, moods and lyrics. It comes off honest, earthy and emotional at the same time that it’s grand in scope.
Primarily what I wanted to, and after having two CDs under my belt, I’ve got the confidence to widen the spectrum even more. I’ve always tried to make sure that the songs do not sound the same on the records. And I do that because I want people to listen to the record over and over and not be bored with it. If the songs sound the same, they may not get through it. I wanted to vary the tempo, vary the style, widen the spectrum between each song as much as I can. But in the past, I didn’t want to be scorned by stepping out of the boundaries and now it doesn’t matter. I’m ready to let it all hang out.
You sure did step out of the boundaries. Was it liberating to do that?
As people go through their career, and in my case I’m getting older, and as you mature as a person you mature musically as well. A part of me just says, “Hey, who cares? I’m going to do what I want to do now.” It’s a combination of all of those things. And the fact that I’m playing that swing kind of song like on “Shreveport to New Orleans,” that’s a hard song to play. I’m not sure I was capable of doing that two years ago and now I can do it.
Let’s talk about a few of the tunes on Mexico. For instance, there’s “Gypsyland,” with its heavily percussive beat driving a country-rock melody. Tell me a little about the origin of that song.
It sounds almost like Carlos Santana. It was a song that I wrote with Gary Nicholson from Nashville. I played it for Matt Baker, who’s the lead guitar player in my band, and he had this grand idea that it should sound like that Spanish, European gypsy music. Baker was instrumental in getting the sound of that song, the feel to Lloyd Maines, who produced it. A part of me is hearing the music going down and I’m thinking, “Oh God, what are people going think?” And the other part of me is going, “This is cool. Who cares what people think.” We originally wrote it a little more, sort of, Deep Purple-ish sounding, more straightforward, kind of a ’70s rock thing. It was a little darker. You write a song and you never know how it’s going to sound on a record. But with that little percussive, European gypsy sound we hit it on the head. That to me made the song exciting.
How about “Waiting on You,” a melancholy ballad about love gone wrong and the hope that someday it could be right again. Is that song about your own experiences?
The original inspiration for that was a really good friend of mine’s family, his parents. He told me the story of his parents 10 years ago and I’ve had it in my mind to write that song since then. I’ve always wanted to write it but I wanted to wait until I could do it right, until I felt the timing was right to write that song. I went to Nashville and was writing with Radney Foster and I told him that story and Radney just instantly became kind of emotional about it. He said his own life was very similar. He said if we take the specifics of that story out it will become a very personal song and it will relate to you and to me and to many people. You get sort of down on yourself, “Man, I screwed up. Do I even deserve another shot at this?” And then you get it and you’re thankful. We played it for Radney’s wife after we wrote it and she was very emotional. Obviously, it was written in part for her. But it probably does apply to some huge percentage of American society. We kept it vague enough to include Radney’s story and my friends’ story, which stems from a women’s point of view, a single mom. And it’s still vague enough to apply to everybody.
Then there’s “Delicacy of a Rose,” written with Clay Blaker, a provocative song about a promiscuous teenage girl who numbs her emotions with meaningless sex. Whew! That one should stir up plenty of conversation.
It’s obvious when you hear the song what it’s about. One of the cool things about the song, in my estimation, is I’ve never heard another song on that subject matter. We may be breaking new ground there on some respect. I told Clay my idea and he loved it instantly. That was a little bit scary, to tell you the truth. But the fact is, “Hey man, go for it.” It’s a sad story. The music is sad. Sometimes life leads you down a road and you try so hard to win and you still lose. You realize throughout the song that he’s in this position because of poor decisions that she made. By the way, the song is not about anyone in particular.
Finally, we must talk about “Late Night Case of the Blues,” which you wrote alone. It’s Roger Creager in lonesome, introspective blues mode. Is it the true story of one particularly somber night while you were out on the road?
I’m most proud of that actually because in my opinion the purpose of the song is to take you somewhere. You may or may not like where this song takes you, but you have to admit that it did take you there. You listen to the song and it will actually change your mood. I suspect they will sell a lot of beer during this song when they play it in a bar. It’s all a combination of many different nights and thoughts that I’ve had, and some of them are true. It’s bits and pieces of different truths thrown together.
Ok, let’s get the lowdown on your new deal with Dualtone. Did you go to them? Did they come to you? Give me some specifics of the recording agreement, since not only is the label releasing Long Way to Mexico, but they are reissuing your other two CDs.
They’ve asked me not to give out any details, but I will say I own the masters to the first two and I own this one as well. That’s a real plus from my point of view. Obviously, Dualtone is happy with it and they are allowing me to do things that other major records labels would not allow artists to do. Dualtone is a very artist friendly record label. They don’t try to change people like the majors do. They are into marketing what’s already there. They are a little bit more of a serious record label in that respect.
I always wanted to do something in Nashville eventually. I was pretty well content to stay doing what I was doing in Texas, but you have to make constant strides. If you don’t move forward, you’re going backward. We got some interest from a major record label in Nashville, which shall remain nameless. The offered a deal right off the bat and it was not what I wanted. They wanted to have a lot more control over artistic things. We declined to take the deal. Then we decided to throw together what we did want, just a general idea of what we were looking for, and we took it to Dualtone and they said, “That’s a great idea, let’s do it.” It just seemed like the next logical step. I had heard of Dualtone I knew what they were doing. Looking at their roster, Chris Knight, David Ball, Radney Fostser, and knowing what they were doing, it just seemed right.
What are some of the plans to promote this record?
We’re doing a show in Dallas with “The Wolf’ (KPLX-FM, 99.5) that Dierks Bentley and Jack Ingram are on as well. It’s Wednesday, Sept. 10, the day after the album comes out. Other than that, we’re doing a lot of different things in different cites. In Houston, we are considering doing the 10 Man Jam again. In Austin, we are doing stuff with KVET-FM. We are pushing it that way. We don’t have the huge budget of the major label, so we kind of have to use our resources wisely.
What about promotion outside of Texas? Is that part of the plan as well?
It’s primarily in surrounding states, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico. It’s really kind of a Southwest push. We’ll see how it goes. I’m sure it will be fine and we will take the next step on the next record. At this point that’s our goal.
And touring also remains Texas concentrated?
Primarily Texas and the surrounding states. Of course, eventually we have grand schemes of taking over the entire world, or at least the Western hemisphere. That’s one thing that’s really worked to our advantage, taking these smaller steps we take. Each step we take seems to be in the right direction but they are small steps. We are expanding our fan base, selling more records, our shows are drawing more people. We are happy with where we are and where we are headed. I still do feel like we’re just getting started. You hear the old saying, “You ain’t seen nothing yet?” That’s how I feel about it, even still. We’re seven years in and three records. Each step I take needs to be different from the last but hopefully in the right direction. It’s a big step going to Nashville and getting a record deal. It’s a big step changing up the music. Really, all we did was expand it. I don’t want people to think we went to Nashville and changed the music. It’s still Roger Creager music. I still have complete creative control. Dualtone allows me that.
I can’t let you go without talking about that CD cover artwork. Those photos are cool and they have this panoramic breadth about them. Looking at them gives you an immediate sense of what you will hear on the album.
It was all the photographer’s idea, James Bland in Dallas. He’s very artistic and he starts talking about this grand idea that he’s got and he’s trying to paint the picture with words and he’s using his hands and he’s looking off into space. I thought it was a great idea. We rolled with it. We get more compliments with this cover art and it’s not even out yet. It is a more ambitious album and the cover art reflects that. Now, what it doesn’t really reflect though is the music itself. The music on this — the sounds, the styles, the spectrum — is so wide there’s no way we can capture it. We just have to take the title and roll with that. It’s a little bit fearless, kind of like the music on the record.