by Alison Bonaguro
It’s been 20 years since Randy Rogers recruited some of his friends and became what is now a household name in and out of Texas: Randy Rogers Band.
“October 3, 2000 was our first ever gig as the Randy Rogers Band. I named it the Randy Rogers Band back then,” Rogers told me when he called to reflect on the two decades since. “So this is the 20 year anniversary of me jumping off that cliff, you know?”
1. Before we go back to that day in 2000 when you started the band, let’s go way, way back. To the time when you first put pen to paper to write a country song. Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
I mean, I was writing songs when I was 12 or 13. They were Christian songs. My dad was a preacher and so they were just like songs on the piano. Then I really got into country music as a young teenager, and would want my songs to sound like George (Strait) and Willie (Nelson). So I started writing these love songs, like “Leave Me Behind.” Just really sappy and cheesy. If you can imagine really bad 90’s country songs, that was me.
2. Now take me back to that first gig as the Randy Rogers Band. What made you want to put a band together in the first place?
We all met when I was playing in San Marcos, Texas at the Cheatham Street Warehouse. I was doing open mic nights on Wednesdays. The owner would mentor lots of other musicians, and he told me after about 20 songwriter nights that he would give me Tuesday nights if I could start a band. And so I started looking.
3. When you were doing the open mics there before the owner asked you to start a band, were you singing cover songs or originals?
That Songwriters Circle still goes on at the Cheatham Street Warehouse, and it is always originals only. You had to sit and listen. If you talked during someone else’s song, you’d be asked to leave. It’s a pretty serious night.
4. Those songwriter nights must’ve been such an essential part of honing your craft, because your songs are consistently so well crafted. And you always manage to find new stories to tell in your music. How do you make sure that that well never runs dry?
Well, that is the big question. I think you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Luckily in our genre, there are some traditions and pastimes that, whether you like the songs or not, those traditions are still there. And so my take on it is, if it worked for George Jones and Merle Haggard, it is probably gonna work for us. I’m not trying to change country music or change anything about the tradition of our genre. I just want to be a flag bearer and a torch carrier and pass it on. I do think I go through phases where I haven’t written anything in quite some time. I don’t think I could ever be the guy that sits in a room two times a day and writes. I kind of write out of necessity or write out of emotion. I write out of life experiences. I think that if you’re honest with yourself and you put that down on paper — and then you turn that into some beautiful song — if it’s real, then 100 percent of the time you’re going to relate to your audience.
5. I agree, and I relate. Obviously so do your fans. For me, there’s always one line in a song that makes me absolutely certain that songwriters are just geniuses in disguise. Like in your song “This Ain’t My Town” from your recent Wade Bowen collaboration album, there’s a lyric about “I think we’ve seen the last of guys like Guy.” Where do lines like that come from?
Wade and I both got the chance to get to know Guy (Clark) before he passed, and we both got to write songs with him. So that’s just an example of us giving a nod to the guys who shaped us and our music. I remember when I discovered Guy Clark, I listen to every album and every song on repeat for six months. It’s just people like that who force you to become better. I think that they deserve to be remembered in a song. Wade and I wrote this one with Jon Randall and Jim Beavers.
6. Your songwriting is so outstanding, and is just one of the many ways you shine. Has that part of your artistry evolved over the 20 years, from when you made your first couple albums to the years you spent on a major Nashville label?
I will speak to the song writing on that. Because the thing about our band was when we were on Universal for so many years, we had great A&R staff. I had a publisher and she knew who I was and she knew my abilities. She paired me with this guy named Sean McConnell. And then suddenly, all these songs became big hits for the band. So I guess what I want to say is that I had a lot of help. If you go back and listen to Just a Matter of Time or Trouble or Randy Rogers Band, all those albums had B-sides that were just as good as the hits.
7. Are you saying, then, that even the deep cuts off your albums are as well crafted as the big hits?
Some of the songs that are on our records were quote unquote filler songs. But those songs? I toiled over those songs. I fretted over those songs. I wrote those songs from the same spot that I wrote the ones that became the dance hall hits. I force myself sometimes to go back and listen, because it really puts me in that spot: scared, vulnerable, on a major label, trying to make it big, say what I want to say, and put out the correct image of who I am.
8. I’m sure that your fans — and really, merely calling them fans isn’t doing their devotion justice — appreciate that you toiled over the filler songs, and that you didn’t just phone it in because they weren’t ever going to be singles. Do you agree?
I think I see that. I hope they do. I get requests all the time for songs I’ve forgotten about. And I am always very thankful for that.
9. So again, back to October 3, 2000, and you’re playing the first gig as the Randy Rogers Band. When you got up on stage, played your Tuesday night show and saw the reaction from the crowd, is that when you knew, “This is what we’re going to do for the rest of our lives”? Or were you like, “This is a cool thing until I get a job”?
I knew I was going to do it for a living. I always knew it. I mean, I knew it was since I was 12 or 13 years old. I love baseball, so I describe it to my friends who play baseball professionally like this: it was like being able to hit a curve ball or being able to throw a ball 90 mph when you’re like 15 or 16. It was just like a heavenly gift. It was something I knew that I could do better than other people. I’ve used that to my advantage and carved out a career with what I was given.
10. So there really never was any kind of Plan B for you?
I’ve always felt as though this career chose me. And I didn’t choose it. That comes with the burden, of course, of the pain and suffering that starving artists go through. We rode around in an ’88 Suburban and slept on people’s couches for first two years. And then we rode around in two 15-passenger vans for three or four more years after that. All before we were ever in a situation to get into a bus and then get a record deal and everything.
11. Sounds like you definitely paid the quintessential country music dues. And is that why you think you landed here, and why you’re still standing here 20 years later?
We did pay our dues, because no one else would’ve or even could’ve done that for us. None of my parents had money. None of us got a boost. We were dirt poor. And so this road became more about survival than anything else.
12. So then fast forward to the years after the ’88 Suburban, and you’re touring with Miranda Lambert. She’s always been good to the Texas artists that she loves, and she never strays too far from her country roots. So opening for her seemed like that was such a good fit. What other tours have felt that same way for you?
We’ve had the opportunity to play with almost everyone over the years. Obviously Miranda and Dierks (Bentley). We were on those tours for three or four years straight. They are just the salt of the earth to our band, because they just know how to treat people. Luke Bryan was good to us as well on several occasions. And Eric Church, too. I mean, the genuineness and the kindness you see in country music actually exists. I just love being on the road. I love being in the big festivals. I love being at shows. And so now, I miss that excitement of pulling up to a big event and feeling the electricity that’s in the air. If I could play every show with George Strait and Willie Nelson, that would be great. I’ve had a hell of a ride. It’s been twenty years of true joy.
13. Sometimes when a major artist announces who will be opening their shows, I sense a bit of a disconnect. But you’ve been fortunate with the tours you’ve been on. Meaning, someone like Miranda Lambert is good to you, but you’re good to her fans, as well. Because you both make the same kind of country music. How important has that been for you and the band?
You have to have confidence about who you are. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I’ve turned down opportunities, but I’ve definitely been choosy and picky about what we did and didn’t pursue. It has to be a good fit for our brand, you know? I’ve always approached these decisions like a business person
14. How does that even work, knowing that you are first and foremost an artist?
It’s all about your brand. It’s all about who you are and your reputation and then being consistent. What I always tell the young artists that I work with, especially Parker McCullom, is this: be excellent and be gone, and then rinse and repeat. That’s very simple and I think fans appreciate that. As long as you don’t change your ways too much, or you get too big of a head, you will enjoy your success. If you’re always consistent — and be excellent and be gone — I think that’s the key for any artist to have the same type of 20-year career that I’ve been fortunate to have.
15. I get a sense of that consistency in your music as well as your live shows. You’ve never really drifted away from your sound or the kind of lyrics you write or the kind of instruments that make country so country. That sound went away for a while, but not for you. And when the bro-country trend was all radio was playing, you didn’t really go down that path either. Was that hard for you, to stay true to who you were even if that meant not getting a song played on country radio?
I don’t think radio was ever the goal. The goal was to have fans and play music and tour. We make records to tour on. We don’t make records to get on country radio. That could have been a huge mistake. And we could’ve copped to some sort of a meet-in-the-middle song and gone after some kind of radio hit. Only time will tell.
16. If you had cut a radio-friendly song that was kind of out of character for you, though, wouldn’t your fans wonder where it come from?
They would turn on me instantly. And I wouldn’t have a show tonight. I’m steadfast in the belief that given the opportunity to compromise — and I didn’t — that’s definitely the reason I’m still on a tour bus on the road. I’m 100 percent happy that we’ve never had a No. 1 single on country radio, or even a top 10 song. I’m okay with that. I’ve got a great band, I’ve got a great job, I’ve got a great life. And the fruits of 20 years of playing music and doing what I love.
17. What has been the best or easiest part of being the band’s front man?
There are no easy parts. But I do I get to benefit from the name recognition, and when I go to the grocery store people smile at me. I’m a social butterfly, so I enjoy the people in my town recognizing that the band has been around and has made music and that our songs are parts of their lives. I mean, I get letters and emails all about how our songs have impacted people’s lives. And so I guess that’s been the easiest part, just being part of people’s stories.
18. And then, is there any part of being the band’s front man that feels like not a burden so much, but something that you’re like, “Oh, I could do without this”?
Every time there’s a personnel change in the front office or the crew, it’s such a hard decision. Those are the ones that hurt the most. And they’re most difficult for me. I don’t really like being the boss at all when it comes to those situations, but I feel like I am a great leader and I have made those decisions when I’ve had to and in a respectful manner. And I don’t burn bridges. I can’t say I haven’t burned any, but I haven’t burned many.
19. When was the last time you played for a huge room packed with fans pressed against each other and the stage?
Our last full band show was in early March. And then I think we went back out sometime in late August in Amarillo. It was our show but in an outside environment, a stage in a parking lot kind of thing. And then a lot of friends really stepped up and had house parties with their families and hired musicians to play, and that really kept us floating.
20. How did it feel to finally take that Amarillo stage after the unintentional six months off? After playing together for 20 years, that abrupt halt must’ve been unsettling, because you seem most at home on a stage in front of a crowd. Was it like riding a bike?
It was like riding a bike. It was. But it was also a little scary. So let’s call it a very scary bike ride.
Today marks 20 years as a band. We’re celebrating all week long with memories, stories, and giveaways – so stay tuned! We couldn’t have made it all these years without y’all. What’s your favorite RRB memory from the past 20 years? #20YearsofRRB pic.twitter.com/CEy9PWgNw6
— Randy Rogers Band (@randyrogersband) October 3, 2020
Alison makes her living loving country music. She’s based in Chicago, but she’s always leaving her heart in Nashville.