Randy Rogers Band Q&A
By Richard Skanse
Five years ago, Kent Finlay — owner of San Marcos’ beloved Cheatham Street Warehouse — took a shine to a young up-and-coming singer-songwriter who began showing up at his weekly open mic night. Of course, this was not the first time Finlay had done such a thing; many a now-well-established Texas artist (Todd Snider and Terri Hendrix come immediately to mind) has acknowledged Finlay’s club, songwriter circle and encouraging words as instrumental components in the launch of their career. But Randy Rogers’ story is a little different, in that Finlay took the kid aside and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: “If you get it together and get a band, I’ll give you your own night.”
“Without Kent,” Rogers has said in the past, “I would probably be an accountant right now.” Instead, the Cleburne-raised preacher’s son is now, a few whirlwind years later, officially the next-big-thing in Texas music, poised to follow Pat Green and Cross Canadian Ragweed into the major league.
Shortly after Finlay’s proposal, the still freshly formed Randy Rogers Band recorded and released its debut album: Live at Cheatham St. Warehouse. Rogers and company were soon well on their way toward joining the ranks of Texas’ most popular young country bands, capable of packing Cheatham (among other central Texas haunts) to the rafters by the time they issued their first studio album, 2002’s Like It Used to Be. Then came last year’s Radney Foster-produced Rollercoaster, the RRB’s first release on Smith Entertainment (the folks behind the Live at Billy Bob’s Texas CDs) and the record that put them on the national map. The lead single, “Tonight’s Not the Night,” found its way onto the middle of Billboard’s country singles chart, and a deal with the big-time booking agency William Morris has expanded the band’s touring range well outside of Texas. And yes, the rumors are true: bar any last-minute stumbling blocks, the Randy Rogers Band is currently very close to signing a major-label deal: close enough that Rogers himself admits it, though he stops just short of saying on record with who. Rest assured though that once the final papers have been signed, that cat will come roaring out of the bag and you’ll be hearing a lot more about the Randy Rogers Band.
But before any official announcement comes out of Nashville about Music Row’s latest Texas music signing, the Randy Rogers Band has a new live album and DVD coming out: their very own entries in the aforementioned Live at Billy Bob’s Texas series, with both the CD and DVD (due Aug. 16) capturing the band in peak form at the world’s largest honky-tonk. LoneStarMusic caught up with Rogers in late June to talk about his road from Cheatham to Billy Bob’s and beyond.
Where are you calling from?
My cell phone, driving around New Braunfels. I was just on the phone with the Billy Bob’s folks, trying to get this record finished. It’s amazing — we recorded it in February, and we’ve had all this time to mix it and master it and all that stuff, but it always comes down to the last minute. We finally got it mixed, but we still have to choose what songs are going to be on the record. Some stuff has to go, like we covered a Billy Joe Shaver tune that probably won’t make the record … though we wanted it to. We just played too long of a set that night to fit on one CD.
How many times have you played Billy Bob’s now?
Probably a handful, about four or five times. A couple of openers, and we headlined there maybe once or twice before we did the taping. That was definitely a special night for us, though: I could just feel the energy that was in the room. It was very supportive, and it felt like … we were leaving our mark in the history of country music or something. [Laughs]
What was it like watching the DVD footage? I imagine that was the first time you’ve gotten to actually see professional footage of the band onstage. Did you review it like a coach to study what works and where y’all might need improvement?
Yeah! [Laughs] That’s when you start getting really critical of yourself. Like, “God, I can’t believe I stand so straight up … and what’s wrong with my hair? And geez, the camera really does add 10 pounds!” You get real freaked out, but you can’t worry about that. The DVD itself looks really good, though. They shot a lot of b-roll of us too, just hanging backstage and getting ready and going through makeup and all that. So there’s a bunch of goofy pictures of me on there, but it all looks very professional.
You said you’re in New Braunfels. Is that where you’re living now?
Yeah, for almost two years. Before that I was lived in San Marcos for about seven years, while I was going to school and a few years after that. So I think one more year and I officially get my South of Austin residency card.
What made you leave San Marcos?
I think I just grew out the town. I’d lived there for so long, and loved it, but all of my friends graduated and moved away and I got to feeling like I was the old guy knocking around San Marcos. Plus … well, it’s just evolving so much since they changed the name of the school from Southwest Texas State University to Texas State. Like the whole college and town changed, and the whole town just got too big. So I got the hell out of there.
Have you bought yourself a house in New Braunfels yet?
No. Those royalty checks aren’t that good yet! I rent a little efficiency kind of apartment. But my dream is to someday finally set up camp and start a family here. There’s live music venues all over here, like Saengerhalle and Tavern on the Gruene, but I think by far the biggest attraction for me is just the beauty of the place, with the Guadalupe River and the Comal River. I think that’s really why so many musicians live out here.
You’re not at home that much these days though, are you? How many shows a year do you average these days?
I did about 250 shows last year, or more. The year before was about the same, and we’re on track this year to do probably 200-plus dates. Since we’ve signed with William Morris, we’ve been traveling more and more out of state, too: I’d say now the split is 75 percent in Texas and 25 percent out of state.
Was it surreal for you to see “Tonight’s Not the Night” take off nationally like it did? Or were you shooting for that?
I would have to say that it came out of nowhere. It was very unexpected. It was a complete surprise even when 99.5 The Wolf in Fort Worth/Dallas added the single. And then after that many other radio stations nationally followed suit. All of a sudden stations in places like Sacramento and Denver and Oshkosh were spinning our single, which is virtually unheard of when you’re a band operating on such an independent level without any big push nationally. I mean, it’s tough enough to get your single spun when you’re a major-label recording artist, much less on an independent label.
What do you think it was about that particular song that made it click and do so well?
I think when we cut it we knew that it had single potential, but it was also a song that almost got axed off the record. Radney [Foster] and I wrote it, and I hated it. I played it for everybody, and everybody just hated it. We had written this stupid, corny second verse, and in the studio, I said, “Look man, I hate this song, I can’t do it.” So we went into the office there at Cedar Creek Studio in Austin and rewrote the entire song. Well, we rewrote the second verse and added a bridge, and once we did that it was like, “Wow, now this is a good song.”
So I take it you don’t still hate it.
No, I don’t hate it. And I think that’s the key to making good music — or making music in general, as I don’t know if our music’s “good” or not, because that’s for everyone else to judge. But the key is to make music that you can live with and that you’re proud of, because you can’t fool anybody onstage. If you’re not singing something and feeling it, if you can’t convey true emotion live onstage and believe in a song, people are going to see it right off the bat.
When did you start sniffing around Nashville for a means to take everything to an even bigger level?
That’s the funny thing about this record, is that we didn’t make it to shop it. We just made the record — for Smith Music Group — and there were no intentions of shopping it for a bigger deal. I feel like my career has always been about taking baby steps, taking things as they come, and working hard to get to where you’re going. But Radney lives in Nashville, and Radney was proud of the record, and burned copies for his buddies. And there was one girl in particular named Alicia Jordan who has since become my publisher; I was introduced to her because she’s a song plugger, and she had helped get “Raining on Sunday” cut for Radney. So she got a hold of my record and loved it and became my champion in Nashville, and kind of created this buzz for me. And so now there’s all this sparked interest about this new band from Texas that Radney Foster was producing without me ever actually going to Nashville or even trying to persuade a record label to come check us out. Which was just a really cool, because I think what this scene is all about is kind of a grassroots, hard work, word of mouth kind of thing, and that’s actually what happened to us in Nashville. We became the hot thing. I think partly it’s because we made a good record, and a lot of it had to do with having Radney Foster involved and the recognition that brings.
So how close are you now to signing a deal?
We can say we’re close, but we just can’t say with who yet. We’ve been dealing with this since August. Several artists I’ve spoken to said it took a year-and-a-half to sign their deal. So I would say that in the near future there will be an announcement, but I keep hearing things like, “OK, it’s happening tomorrow,” and then I’ll hear, “It’s happening in the next two months — relax, kid.”
Is the plan for this label to re-release Rollercoaster, or will you start right away with a new record?
They would pick up Rollercoaster and then move forward. But then we’ve got another full record that they’ve got to put out in between eight and 18 months. So I’m not scared. They’re going to give us a lot of creative control, and I know that they’re going to let me put out another record. In fact I’ve already written several songs, and I’m going to make a trip to go write with Radney again coming up pretty soon, and there’s several other people that I’m interested in writing with.
How’d you end up working with Radney on Rollercoaster?
Two summers ago, we did some opening shows for him. One that sticks in mind was a show in Houston, where I got to spend some time with him. He came a little early and watched our set. I had been, well, not stalking him, but I was persistent in letting him know that I was interested in him producing our record. And if he at some point decided not to produce the record, I still wanted to maintain some kind of a friendship on a business level and learn songwriting skills from him.
Were you a pretty big fan of his?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, who wasn’t? I don’t know anybody who wasn’t.
So what was that like for you, to go from being a fan to working with him in the studio? Did it take you a while to adjust to that?
Of course it took a while. It was nerve-wracking. I was very nervous going into the studio that week. Because as much as you trust somebody and trust somebody’s opinion, you never know what it’s going to be like until you actually get in there and get your hands dirty. And there were times where I really head-butted with him, and I got mad at him. Like I didn’t agree with some of the stuff he did on the record. Like track No. 2, “Won’t Somebody Take Me Home” — we had worked it up as a band in the way we thought it should be, and he came in and totally revamped it. And I was really upset with him. But as it turned out, that’s now my favorite track on the record. It was like, “Oh, that’s why we hired you!” It’s a very humbling thing; you think all your ideas are the greatest ideas, and you trust someone else with their vision on a project and you realize just how great that person is at their job. It was definitely not only like a music lesson but a life lesson for me, as far as trusting in somebody else’s abilities when they’re involved with and care about your project.
In terms of negotiating this label deal, was the Randy Rogers Band vs. just Randy Rogers, solo artist, ever an issue?
Never, not once. Because when we were approached by major labels, that was the first thing we said — this isn’t Randy Rogers, this is our band. This is what we all live for and die for. The sound we’ve created isn’t because I’m some genius lead front guy; it’s because we all came together and all through our different influences added something to this sound. I feel like it’s a unique sound, and if people feel like it’s warranted to be on a major label and pushed nationally, why f— with it? That was the first, foremost thing that we pushed for.
You know, songwriting is the whole reason I got into this situation, and the band kind of just happened. I always wanted to get songs cut, I always wanted to be a songwriter. And then I found these guys who are all so much more talented than I am at what I do, and things just sort of took off for all of us at the same time with no real leader. It was sort of a democracy that just pushed forward.
But hasn’t the lineup completely changed since the first record?
The original band [from Live at Cheatham St.] was all on Like It Used to Be, except for the guitarist [Brett Noake]. Geoffrey Hill was the lead guitarist on Like It Used to Be, and he’s still in the band today. The rest of the band has changed since then. The current lineup [Hill, bassist Jon Richardson, drummer Les Lawless and fiddle player Brady Black] has been together now for almost two years. From the first few rehearsals, it was like we all had that everything’s-going-to-be-OK feeling, almost like when you find the person you know you’re going to marry. We just all feel like we’re going to make good records together and we’re going to take this as far as we can take it. It’s not by choice — it just happened.
You just had the “2nd Annual Randy Rogers Band Float and Fanfest” [in late June]. What’s that all about?
That’s our little float trip that we do each year. So many folks in the online community — like on GalleyWinter and the street team that we’ve created off our own Web page — have done so much for us on a grassroots level to help make this situation what it is for us, we wanted to do something nice for them. We certainly couldn’t have paid them salaries for all the work they’ve done for us — we’d be broke — but once a year we try to have a low-key little gathering where these people can come out and float down the river with us and then hang out for an acoustic show afterward. I think some people have named it “The Revival.” This year it was at the Lone Star Float House. I think we put 70 people on the river this year, and more people showed up that night. It was a lot of fun.
Speaking of support, how have your parents been taking your success of late? Your dad’s a preacher, so there had to have been some concern early on with you deciding to pursue a career playing music in bars and such. Have your folks been supportive?
Absolutely. They’ve been on board my entire life, even when I’ve made the biggest mistakes of my life. They love hearing us on the radio, especially since they live up near Dallas/Fort Worth, where we get a lot of airplay. And people come and tell them how much they love the band, and I’m sure that makes them real proud.
You’ll be Fort Worth-bound on July 4th to play Willie’s Picnic, won’t you?
Yeah! It’s the first time we’ve been invited. We’re playing at 1:30 in the afternoon, so I’m sure the sun will be burning down on me pretty hard. But hey, I would have played at 4:30 in the morning in the parking lot, just to be a part of that bill. It’s a big honor.
The more successful you get, do you find yourself being pretty self-critical, as far as things you’d still like to improve upon?
I think I beat myself up more than I should. I’m a perfectionist and highly critical, and I think that absolutely the band has room to grow. Because we’re all still pretty young, in our 20s. I’m 26. But I don’t think that getting better is anything you can speed up; it’s just a matter of becoming more seasoned, and playing more shows and being the guy that’s done like 3,000 live shows. I don’t think it’s something you can just learn other than by doing it.
The one thing that I’ve always struggled with myself is being the constant entertainer. I feel like the songwriting and the music comes relatively easy compared to the getting up there every night and MCing the crowd and leading the party. Because a lot of my songwriting doesn’t lend itself to, “Hey, get off your ass and let’s go party!” Some of the stuff I write is real personal to me. So it’s sometimes hard to always make the music a party. But then again, it doesn’t always have to be about having a party.
Do you have many “bits” you fall back on, to set songs up?
I get into grooves I guess; sometimes the band gets real tired of them, and they tell me and I quit. But I try to change things up. I just try to be honest and sincere about things.
On the topic of growth and experiences, what can tell us about the latest batch of songs you’ve been writing? Are there any surprises in the pipeline?
Yeah. I just wrote this Aerosmith song. [Laughs] You know how they have those big ballads?
Yeah, like “Crazy.” I just wrote this really cool alt-country rock song that I’m real excited about recording one day.
Is this your first big power ballad?
Yeah, but not cheesy. “Power ballad” sounds a little scary — makes you think of butt-rock.
Have you at least grown more comfortable accepting the reality of the Randy Rogers Band being a roots-rock outfit instead of a straight-up country band? A couple of years back you were still pretty adamant about being a country songwriter.
Yeah. I think that going forward with everything, I’m going to probably lean and teeter-totter more towards the alt-country world. I’ll lean as far toward the alt-country world as they’ll let me and still have a shot at getting some radio. I mean, as much as I would love to be Alan Jackson, I don’t think I’m going to be able to pull that one off!