Roy Rogers: Sliding into new musical territories
by Paul Freeman [ Jan. 2011 Interview]
One of the worldís foremost slide guitarists, Roy Rogers, grew up in Bay Area. As a musician, at 60, heís still growing. After all, in blues circles, 60 means youíre still just a kid.
ďThereís always lots to discover, in anything, especially the blues,Ē Rogers said. ďRoots music is as deep as you want to delve. Itís a never-ending story. Itís never a finite thing that youíve accomplished. If you think you have, youíre sadly mistaken... or fooling yourself, one of the two. Thereís always something that you can learn. If you think youíve done it all and youíre there, then you might as well give it up.Ē
Far from giving it up, Rogers looks forward to playing in a variety of venues across the globe.
ďItís a struggle for a lot of live venues these days. And Iím known for my live shows, so I always look forward to returning and playing a place that Iíve had some great times before and see that itís coming back.
ďWith the radical change, if not the demise, of the record business as we know it, vis-ŗ-vis no record stores and people not buying as much music as before, live music is the life bread of all of us these days. Thatís across the board, all demographics, whether itís for young or old or in between. So keeping these venues alive is crucial.
ďIím happy to say that I have a nice fan base to pull from and I play a lot of places in the world. And it seems to be the case everywhere - live music is where itís driven now. Thatís fine for me. Itís all about live performance and always has been. We sell recordings at gigs, because thereís really no distribution, to speak of, for your recordings these days. You donít have record stores. Radio airplay is not as important a factor, unless youíre a major pop group or what have you. So that makes it all the important to have a good live performance, so people will want to come back and see you.Ē
Rogers relishes playing overseas, where Americana music is much admired. ďThatís our greatest export, our culture from the States. Everybody is aware of jazz and blues and rock Ďní roll. Itís everywhere. People appreciate that in their own fashion, wherever they are, whether itís Scandinavia, Italy, even China. In China, they didnít know much about it, but itís the energy that you bring, however you do something. People pick up on that energy. Itís a human trait. Thatís something thatís easily discerned by people. Itís wonderful to be able to communicate. Even if thereís a complete language barrier, people are able to communicate musically. And that shall continue to be so. And thatís a good thing.Ē
Rogers (Yes, he was named after the King of the Cowboys) was raised in Vallejo, Ca. He began playing guitar at 12 and a year later, joined a rock Ďní roll band. When his older brother brought home a Robert Johnson album, Rogers found himself hooked on the blues.
ďMusic can delightfully open people up to something other than theyíre used to. Thatís why I was excited about blues to begin with, when I was a kid. I said, ĎWhy do I feel so cool listening to this guy Howliní Wolf? I have no idea, but I dig it. And I want to play like that.íĒ
Slide guitar in particular captivated Rogers. ďThe slide is one of the most expressive ways that you can play the guitar, because youíre mimicking, basically, the human voice. So you can display a lot of emotion through that type of playing, the bending and the subtlety of it, the in-between notes and so forth.
ďThat really speaks to a lot of people. And there are a lot of instruments around the world that are slide-like, that have that type of approach to hitting the notes, slurring the notes and that type of thing. Itís a very familiar sound, more familiar than you might imagine.Ē
Rogers rose to prominence in the San Francisco blues scene and, in 1982, was asked to join John Lee Hookerís band.
ďI was already pretty steeped in John Leeís music when I played with John Lee years ago. What you learn from hanging out with guys like John Lee Hooker, you learn about life. Life is music and music is life. So you learn a whole lot of stuff, besides music. And thatís important.
ďIíve been playing music since I was a teenager. I wanted to implement music as a career, but didnít know how. It always has been so difficult to make a living in an artistic way. So I had a vision. But I was 32 years old when I went on the road with John Lee Hooker. Iíd always been playing music, but it was at that point that I gave up the day gig. Thatís 28 years ago.
ďI was working in shipyards and I was working at an office for some kind of supply firm. And then I got the call to go on the road with John Lee Hooker and I said, ĎYou know, if I donít do this, Iím going to kick myself in the ass for the rest of my life,Ē he said, laughing. ďSo I quit and the rest is in the history books, my history.Ē
Rogers went on to produce Grammy-winning albums for Hooker and also recorded acclaimed albums with his own band, The Delta Rhythm Kings. The latest, ďSplit Decision,Ē broadens the guitaristís horizons, hinting at country, pop, rock and jazz influences, as well as blues.
ďI started out as maybe a little more of a traditional player. But always, from the beginning, I wanted to push the envelope, see where you could take the music, how far you could take it. Itís partly using different instruments, different kinds of songwriting, collaborating with different people. It always serves your music well to expand your ears.
ďIíll always be known as a blues guy of sorts, because of my association with John Lee Hooker and so forth. But Iíve always looked to expand my musical envelope, because you have to stay true to yourself and what you want to accomplish. Sometimes, if you donít open your ears, you donít know where that can go, do you?
ďItís always going to be blues-based, of course, because thatís where my influences come from, for the most part. But itís what you do with it. I borrowed a line from somebody. I donít know who said it or I might have said it. But I used to say, ĎItís all borrowed stuff. It depends how you put it together.í It may sound trite, but, ultimately, you make your mark by what you contribute.Ē
He plans to continue to push the parameters, blurring genre lines. Rogers has completed an album with Doors keyboardist. Titled ďTranslucent Blues,Ē it will be released this spring.
ďWeíve performed as duets over the years. Again, itís expanding the envelope. We just let it flow, the songwriting and playing together. He was a Chicago guy. He grew up in Chicago. So, regardless of The Doorsí sound, he knew much about the blues and the roots stuff. And it was really a symbiosis of playing, as it always is, with approach to music. Itís not consciously thought out. You just play it, see if itís copacetic. Iím not a real thought-out kind of guy. I like to play and, if it comes out in the playing, then itís there. If it doesnít then it doesnít.
ďIf youíre set in your ways and say, ĎItís got to be this way,í okay, if thatís what you want. But, for me, itís exciting, trying new things. If it doesnít work, then okay. Itís like when you fall down, you get back up and start walking again. Simple as that. You canít be afraid to fail, to go off a cliff sometimes. Thatís part of the process. For me, certainly, artistically, itís about that.Ē
Rogers would like to make a big band jazz record. ďI would love to do slide guitar in a big band. Slide guitar can function just like a horn, the lead instrument kind of thing
ďI donít make a record to tour. I make a record when I feel that I have material strong enough to do it, ideas that have gelled enough. I donít feel that you need a new recording to be touring. Sure it helps to have a new record out, but itís not a necessity.
ďI always have a new take on old material. Itís part of improvisation. Thatís the joy of improvising, especially in the trio format, with drums and bass. We go in a lot of different directions. And Iím known for that. My live shows, weíll take some twists and turns.Ē
He and wife Gaynell, who raised their children in Marin County, now live in Nevada City in the Sierra Foothills. He is currently filming an HD PBS special for to be aired during national pledge drives.
Rogers survived a battle with prostate cancer two years ago. ďI took it in my stride. Iím fortunate that everything turned out okay. Iím fine. Iím in good health. Iím lucky to be here and still doing what I love to do. A lot of people are not.Ē
One ongoing goal is to let the guitar do the talking.ď Thatís what you strive for, my friend. Donít think about it, just play it. Getting there is another case in point.
ďThe older I get, you want to have it together musically, but really itís about experiencing the moment and letting it go and having confidence enough in what you can play and contribute to whomever youíre playing with, that itís going to make a contribution to whatever music is happening. You just give it your best shot. You let it go and itís either there or it isnít. The grooves especially, can be elusive animals. Sometimes the grooves are there for bands and sometimes they arenít. If you donít have a groove going with whatever youíre playing, you donít have much, in my book.
For Rogers, music still holds a sense of adventure. ďYou meet great people. You get to make music with some great folks. Iíve had some great times, made a lot of recordings. Iíve traveled the world over. Iím very fortunate to be able to do what Iím doing.
ďItís fun. Itís work and fun. But weíre pretty lucky to be able to create stuff and actually make a living at it.
ďThe excitement is still there for me. I donít think Iíll ever lose that. When youíre sailing with a band, riffing, and everybodyís in the same groove, the audience is with you, it just seems like everything is all together. Thereís nothing better than that. If my excitement for that ever goes, Iíd better give it up. But I donít think that will ever change. It can only, hopefully, just be enhanced by new things that come about.
ďWeíre always trying to get back to that feeling, because, if you did it all the time, you wouldnít appreciate it so much, would you? Youíre always trying to get back to that moment. What did the poet Browning say? ĎA manís reach must always exceed his grasp.íĒ
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