By Gregory Barr
Randy Rogers may have grown up the son of a preacher, but he has built up a reverent — and fervent — following on the Texas music scene by taking his band’s authentic brand of musical gospel to the masses. And with the Sept. 12 release of his major label debut, Just a Matter of Time, Rogers seems ready to reap the rewards for his relentless touring and the countless hours of sweat equity he has invested in his career. The 12-track CD, produced by Radney Foster, who was also at the helm of the Randy Rogers Band’s acclaimed 2004 CD Rollercoaster, leaps out of the speakers with the hard-rocking, wall-of-sound opening track, “Better Off Wrong,” followed by the first single, “Kiss Me in the Dark.” Combining intricate, breath-taking production values and memorable songwriting with hooks big enough to snare the proverbial five-pound bass with ease — not to mention a nuanced vocal performance by Rogers that easily transcends his other work — the album seems already destined to secure a place on country music top-10 lists at year’s end.
For Rogers, the aptly titled Just a Matter of Time, released on Mercury Nashville, puts him just where he dreamed he would be even back when he had finished his public relations degree at Texas State in San Marcos and began dabbling in music. The new album also reflects just how far the group bearing his name has evolved. Already known as a tight-knit band, the individual players — Geoffrey Hill (guitar), Brady Black (fiddle), Jon “Chops” Richardson (bass) and Les Lawless (drums) — all get their chance to show off their improved musical chops, aided by Foster’s arrangements.
The group’s 2000 debut, Live at Cheatham St. Warehouse – recorded at the venue in San Marcos where the band returned last August to sign the Mercury contract — was followed in 2002 by Like It Used to Be, which, four years after its release is still one of LoneStarMusic.com’s top sellers. Then came Rollercoaster, the CD that gave the band its first national exposure and drew the attention of Mercury Nashville label chief Luke Lewis, and the band’s final independent release, Live at Billy Bob’s Texas in 2005.
When I sat down to talk with Rogers last summer over a beer at his Houston hotel, and then drove him to his show at a jam-packed nightclub, he was both excited and apprehensive about what it would be like to produce a major-label album. “Right up front (the label) said, ‘We don’t want to change you or screw up what is already going on’,” Rogers said. “I know there’s this anti-Nashville sentiment that’s always been around Texas and I’d be lying to you if I told you I wasn’t worried about people thinking we’ve sold out. But I want to tell people to let the music speak for itself. We’re going to go in to make a great record as a band, exactly the way we want to make it. I don’t see how that could be selling out.”
Fans certainly don’t need to worry. Rogers hasn’t invested in a huge black Stetson or ankle-length riding duster, or decided to start wearing his jeans one size too small. He still likes to hang out with fans at his concerts, he still swears by his country music idol, Merle Haggard, and his tour dates are still filled with gigs in the same small Texas towns and cities he has always played. He just now also happens to have released his most compelling work to date, that just happens to be on a label that has the muscle to help Rogers and his band ascend to yet another level to establish him as a bone fide national act. I recently got to talk to Rogers again, to find out what went on during the sessions to produce the new album.
Randy, after we last spoke, you had plenty of time to wonder what would happen to you when you signed a piece of paper that declared you were now a major-label artist. Did the process turn out as you thought it might or did it surprise you?
Actually, it was a little bit easier in some ways and less scary than I first thought. There wasn’t nearly as much pressure to make the record as I imagined. I think I was apprehensive because at the time we signed the deal, we got everything we wanted and had as much control as we wanted, and they just turned it over to Radney and me. We did most of the record at the same place in Austin (Cedar Creek Studios) as the last one, so that made it seem more comfortable. I couldn’t be happier with what we’ve come up with. I mean, that first song, “Better Off Wrong,” it just comes out at you and sounds so intense and full. And that kind of sound comes from having great people working in the studio for the mixing and all that. Justin Niebank mixed the record, and he’s worked with Keith Urban and George Strait, where the vocals come out just like they’re sitting on the couch right next to you.
For some people, making an album is like running a marathon that seems to go on forever, and some artists work really quickly. How did you approach this one, knowing that it was for a major label this time?
The biggest difference was that we could spend more money, especially on mastering (in Los Angeles) and also to spend a lot more time on the recording process. I mean, we did Rollercoaster in only four days. When you have the chance to take your time, you’re working on a particular guitar tone for an entire day. It gives you time to do all these little things in a studio that Radney knows about. As for the writing, we had put together about 25 or 30 songs to be considered for this record. We cut 14 songs and then ended up with the 12 that made it. The plan was to write as many as we could, and after that it becomes pretty obvious which ones are the good ones and which are not. The band lets me know pretty quickly if they aren’t digging (a song). The label also pitched us some songs, so we looked at every possibility. I wrote quite a few songs (last fall) and we even wrote some while we were in the studio. We recorded it in three different chunks during December, January and February, and we would go back out on the road in between.
How much of the sound on this record is a result of your long-standing working relationship with Radney Foster? You co-wrote songs with him for Rollercoaster, which he produced, and now you’ve co-written another four songs with him that are on the new CD. He also co-wrote the first single, “Kiss Me in the Dark,” with George Ducas.
It’s so much easier working with Radney. For this second record we had just gotten to know each other over time, and as friends we know what is going on in each other’s lives. It’s easier to collaborate with someone you know really well. He could read my demeanor while we were going through this whole process. I’m very fortunate to be able to work with someone like Radney, who I can look up to and know he will take care of me when I freak out about something.
Was there anything else you did differently this time going through the whole writing and production process?
We really didn’t play any of the new songs in our live shows ahead of time like we have done in the past. We worked up a few things with the new songs during sound-checks for gigs but we really didn’t run through them all live until the first time we got into the studio. It was kind of fun to know all these secrets about the songs that nobody had heard before the record was going to come out. We’re starting to play three or four songs a night from the new CD at gigs, and play different ones each night.
You really seem to have become comfortable with the whole concept of co-writing. Ten of the 12 tracks on the CD are your co-writes. But it seems to me you’ve hit on something that really clicks with Stephony Smith, who has penned hits for everyone from Tim McGraw and Faith Hill to the Dixie Chicks. Three of the best tracks on the new album are your co-writes with her, ranging from the melancholy title song, which could be the album’s biggest hit, to the hard-driving “You Could Change My Mind,” which kind of mixes up an old-school pop sound like the Guess Who with a kind of Rolling Stones roadhouse feel, to the introspective final cut, “Whiskey.” What was it like working with her?
For “Just a Matter of Time,” I had been working on that melody on my own, and she saw some things in there to help me finish it. We sat down and worked together at three different sessions, and we got three good songs out of it, so that’s a pretty good success rate. Some songs choose their own path. You can have a great idea and then try to work it out and it goes nowhere, and sometimes a song can hit you like a freight train within a couple of hours. That’s the fun, and scary, part of this business.
Two of those songs, the title cut and “Whiskey,” carry a lot of emotion in your vocal delivery, as do several of other songs, especially “Before I Believe It’s True.” How much of your own experience is reflected in these songs, or have you gotten to the point where it is more of a mechanical crafting sort of process?
Everything I write in some way, shape or form is honestly got something I’ve felt in there somewhere. Songwriting is honesty, and the themes are a reflection of how people live their lives. The last time I checked, country music is still about the same themes it has always been about – loving, losing, leaving and drinking. What I like about this record is that I think there’s a song here for just about everybody – there’s the “madly in love” songs and the “I hate you and I never want to see you again” songs. There’s a vulnerability in this record that I think is attractive for both men and women, young and old.
What about your vocals? You said you had the luxury of more studio time to tinker with things or re-record tracks to make things as perfect as possible. But you really seem to be pouring out all kinds of emotions here, especially on those songs you wrote with Smith.
There are different ways to get in the mood to sing. I like to sing at night, not during the day. I went up to a smaller studio in Nashville at night around 9 p.m. to get warmed up, and Radney was happy with what I was doing most of the time, but for some songs I did sing them seven or eight times if I wasn’t singing well. I really don’t like listening to myself sing and I’m very critical of it, and I never felt vocally like I am the best singer out there. I had a really good day in the studio when I was recording “Just a Matter of Time,” but I can tell you there was a lot going on in my world that night. I was in a tough position and going through some very emotional times, and I really can’t talk about it. But of all the nights we spent on the vocals, I could tell when I was singing that something special was going on. Radney just turned me loose and that’s what happened.
As for the song “Whiskey,” there was a lot of my own autobiographical experience in there that went through my mind when I was singing, about being man enough to realize that things could spiral out of control when the abuse of a substance is involved.
You told me last year you were going to hire a personal trainer and make some changes in your lifestyle. How did that work out?
Well, the trainer thing didn’t last too long. But there’s nothing like getting rid of drinking a lot of whiskey every night to make you get back on track.
Certainly the emotion of your vocals had a lot to do with how this album turned out. But the biggest change may be how much the band has improved. No matter how good a producer is, if he can’t coax a great performance out of the musicians, the songwriting would just fall to the side. Did the fact that you signed your record deal as a band — you’ve used the name Randy Rogers Band since the early days — and not just Randy Rogers with some studio sidemen set the right tone for the performances on here?
We operate as a family and everything is even, so nobody’s piece of the pie is bigger than anybody else. But we’ve all grown up as musicians. Geoffrey (Hill) did a phenomenal job and was the MVP in the studio as far as I’m concerned. His guitar work and just honing his craft really shows up. We’ve all become better by playing out on the road practically every night for the year and a half since we made Rollercoaster. The bar was raised for this record, and everybody came through.
So what’s in store for the band now that the CD is finished?
We’ll be shooting the video for “Kiss Me in the Dark” in Austin on Aug. 29. And we’re lining up a tour later on with Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley, so that’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s been quite a ride this past year. We can’t wait to see what happens.