Randy Rogers Band & Josh Abbott Band
Fri, March 3, 2017
Doors: 8:00 pm / Show: 8:00 pm
Randy Rogers Band
Authenticity isn’t something that can be manufactured in a studio. It’s not a craft that can be learned or artfully practiced. It comes from living life. It’s the byproduct of blood, sweat and tears and as the foundation for music, it elevates mere entertainment to compelling art. Every note, every word on the Randy Rogers Band’s new album Nothing Shines Like Neon rings with authenticity that makes each song linger with the listener long after the music fades.
“You’ve just got to be true to yourself and you can’t fool anybody,” Rogers states matter of factly of the band’s philosophy. “As a whole, our body of work is pretty consistent to our live show and the band that plays on the record is the band that you go see.”
The same line up has been performing together since 2002 and the music has evolved as they’ve soaked up life experience. “As men we’ve all matured and lived a lot of life together,” Rogers says. “We’ve had a few breakups happen to us. We’ve had babies. We’ve had life changes. We’ve been on the road 200 shows a year. I’ve been in this band 15 years so a lot has changed. I still listen to Merle Haggard every night. I mean that hasn’t changed, but a lot has changed for us musically and privately. We all are in a good spot and we all are just as good friends as when we started.”
Camaraderie and creativity have made Rogers and bandmates Geoffrey Hill (guitar), Johnny “Chops” Richardson (bass guitar), Brady Black (fiddle), Les Lawless (drums) and Todd Stewart (utility player) one of the top bands on the competitive Texas music scene. Nothing Shines Like Neon continues the momentum established by the band’s four previous albums—Randy Rogers Band, Burning the Day, Trouble and Homemade Tamales, each of which went to No. 1 on iTunes. Earlier in 2015, Rogers joined friend Wade Bowen to record the critically acclaimed album Hold My Beer Vol. 1.
Produced by Nashville legend Buddy Cannon (Willie/Merle) at Cedar Creek in Austin, RRB’s news album Nothing Shines Like Neon showcases the band’s taut musicianship as well as Rogers’ earnest vocals and insightful songwriting on such instant classics as the groove laden “Rain and the Radio,” the heartbreak anthem “Neon Blues” and the playful “Actin’ Crazy,” a duet with Jamey Johnson. “Jamey and I wrote that song together,” Rogers notes. “I met a movie star a few days before Jamey and I were going to write. I was in LA playing at the House of Blues and he came out to the show. I was thinking about him …and thinking about being a struggling actor living in LA and having to put up with all the bullshit that LA is. I just wrote that song about him.”
The album opens with the fiddle driven shuffle “San Antone”. “That is a Keith Gattis song. He wrote by himself. Being from Texas and living so close to San Antonio, I don’t think that song is going to hurt me at all,” Rogers laughs. “It’s one of those songs when I heard it I was like, ‘Oh hell! Why didn’t I write this song?’”
“Takin’ It As It Comes” features Lone Star legend Jerry Jeff Walker. “I’ve been a big fan of Jerry Jeff’s all my life,” Rogers says. “He came in the studio with us, got in there with the band, jumped around and played guitar and sang. We had a great time.”
“Rain and the Radio” is Rogers’ homage to Ronnie Milsap. “I wrote that with Sean McConnell. He and I have written a lot of songs through the years. I’ve always been a huge Ronnie Milsap fan and to me that song has a little Milsap feel to it, kind of a bluesy country thing, which we haven’t done before. Any artist that I look up to always tries to create something different and pushes the envelope a little bit. I think we do with that song in particular. It’s very country. It’s just very different. As a band, we’re trying to broaden our horizons and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. If we were all just stuck doing the same old thing, we would all be bored. We probably wouldn’t still be here. It’s just a matter of spreading your wings a little bit.”
“Look Out Yonder” is a poignant tune Rogers recorded in honor of his mentor, the late Kent Finlay. “Kent gave me my start in the music business. Up until the day that he died, we talked about songs and about music,” Rogers says. “We actually named the record, Nothing Shines Like Neon after a lyric in one of his songs as a tribute to him. Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski are singing on ‘Look Out Yonder’, which was written by Earl Bud Lee, who is most famous for writing ‘Friends In Low Places’. He and I have been friends for 10 years and he has always wanted me to cut that song. I’ve never had a record where it fit and just thinking about losing Kent and Kent going to heaven and joining his mom, ‘Look out yonder coming down the road’ it just fit. I haven’t performed that song yet live, but I know I’m going to have a hard time getting through it. The day we started our record, I got a call that Kent passed away so this record is definitely dedicated to Kent. That song makes me think about all of us musicians and how we are crazy as hell and lead the most unorthodox lives. Most of us return back to our roots, so hopefully this is an album that glorifies Kent’s life and is also a nod to the traditional sounds that we all grew up loving.”
A native of Cleburne, Texas, Rogers grew up addicted to traditional country music. “I wanted to be George Strait when I was in the sixth grade,” he says with a smile. “And I grew up listening to Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, I’ve listened to them more than anybody else, my whole life. I always liked songs. I always wanted to find out who wrote the songs and what the songs were about. I always liked the art and the craft of being a songwriter. My dad’s Beatles records got played a lot and Michael Martin Murphy is another one I listened to a lot as a kid. My dad was a huge fan.”
Like many artists, Rogers got his start performing in church and then expanded to local venues. “I could write a song when I was pretty little, 11, 12 or 13,” he says. “It’s like a kid who could do calculus or something. It was just something that clicked in my brain for me. I went and finished college and got a degree in public relations and then started a band.”
Since then the Randy Rogers Band has steadily built a following that has spilled beyond their native Texas. For the past 10 years they’ve recorded for Universal Music Group, but on Nothing Shines Like Neon, Rogers again takes the reins, releasing the album on his own Tommy Jackson Records, named after a song he wrote for their very first album. “It’s a very obscure Randy Rogers Band song and to this day there is always this one drunk kid at a show that says, ‘Play “Tommy Jackson!” Play “Tommy Jackson!”’ It’s kind of a running joke within our band. It’s like, ‘How in the hell did this kid in Iowa City, Iowa remember that stupid song “Tommy Jackson?”’ It’s about a guy who is on the run from the cops, wanted for murder. It’s a story song and we just felt like it was a unique way to name a record label.”
Nothing Shines Like Neon is a stellar collection in an already impressive body of recorded material that owes a lot to the band’s potent live show. “You come to a show, you know what you’re going to get,” Rogers says. “We’ve worked hard at making ourselves better on stage and we care about our live show. It’s a way to come out and unwind, and we’ve stuck to writing songs that are about real life, about breakups or divorces, falling in love or babies being born, and in the case of this record even death, the ups and downs of life. People can relate. That’s what country music is supposed to be. Our band has been around for a long time because there’s no bullshit to us. We’re not in it to be rich and famous. We’re in it to make a living, provide for our families and do something that we all love. You can’t fool people and we haven’t ever tried. I think that’s the key.”
Josh Abbott Band
When Josh Abbott Band recorded “Ghosts” for its fourth album, Front Row Seat, Abbott expected to redo the vocals. The final chorus had some technical imperfections, and he figured he could improve on the performance once his heart settled down. Producer Dwight Baker, one-half of the Austin- based duo The Wind and The Wave, wouldn’t let Abbott retouch it.
“I was actually crying my eyes out during that last chorus, and that’s why there’s a couple of notes in the beginning of that section that don’t really explode like normal,” Abbott says. “Dwight was like, ‘We’re keeping that. That’s real.’”
Real is the operative word for Front Row Seat, a 16-track song cycle that represents the most ambitious and emotionally challenging project yet for JAB, a highly melodic six-piece ensemble that’s managed to keep a foot in both the Texas music scene and the national country world. The band won four times during the inaugural Texas Regional Radio Awards behind an upbeat brand of country that still leans on classic instrumentation – particularly banjo and fiddle – to effect a raucous, roof-raising attitude.
The band has lobbed three singles onto the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart – including “Oh, Tonight,” the first charted track to feature Grammy-winning Kacey Musgraves – and nabbed a Top 10 album with the 2012 release Small Town Family Dreams and reached No. 12 with the 2014 EP Tuesday Night.
But Front Row Seat steps beyond the band’s honky-tonk inclinations for a more personal journey as the album traverses the emotional course of Abbott’s first marriage and subsequent divorce. It was not his original intention to depict his private life in a public way, but as he wrote the songs for Front Row Seat, beginning before the split actually occurred, he naturally mined his emotional life for a set of songs that were profoundly honest and revealing. It was only as they began recording the material at Baker’s Matchbox Studios outside of Austin, that they realized they had the germ of a tangible plot.
“We started looking at the music we’d done and had a whole bunch of other songs that we really loved and we were like, ‘Man, we could put this together and make a really neat story out of it,” fiddler Preston Wait recalls. “Especially with the song ‘Front Row Seat,’ we basically just made it kind of like you’re watching a movie and it’s your front row seat to this life.”
Owing to that silver-screen character, JAB employed screenwriting technique by assembling the project with the five elements of plot structure: the exposition, or beginning; an inciting incident; the climax; a falling action (in this case, a breakup); and the resolution.
The story begins with “While I’m Young,” in which a college-aged Abbott lives a typically carefree existence, spending much of his discretionary income in bars and living for the moment, an ideal that’s captured authoritatively in the anthemic “Live It While You Got It.” As the album progresses, he meets a woman who commands his attention for more than one evening, finding himself by track 7, “Crazy Things,” mulling what it is that would make a woman who’s dang-near perfect fall for someone so flawed.
By the time the album concludes, his once-ideal relationship has turned sour, and the two are no longer one. The fracture becomes apparent through the resignation of “Born To Break Your Heart,” and he discovers in “Ghosts” that all the memories that once lived with such passion and revelry continue to haunt his memory, taunting him with whispers of a past he can never reclaim. As Front Row Seat closes with “Anonymity,” Abbott sings a spare dirge with acoustic guitar and fiddle, fantasizing that he could return to the start of the relationship and live it out right.
“When you’re moving on from somebody, even once you’ve accepted it, you just feel alone,” Abbott observes. “That’s the reason the acoustic track ends the album.”
Even though Front Row Seat represents an ode to a failed relationship, it also marks what Abbott expects to be the beginning of a new phase for JAB. One of Texas’ best party bands, the group evolved heavily in the process of making the album. The players fully committed to a darker sound and gave even more prominence to Wait’s fiddle and Austin Davis’ banjo, highlighting the trad-country elements in the lineup while still infusing the influence of multiple genres in its sonic drama.
“When you get to the end of this album, you see a band that grew up before your eyes – like literally front to back, a band that sonically changed,” Abbott says. “You never want to make the same album multiple times, and you never want to sound the same your entire career. You know, you look at The Beatles and you look at all these other great bands, they tweaked their sound over time, and I think you’re gonna start to see us do that a little bit more.”
While JAB is truly a group, the name is centered on Abbott – the lead singer, primary songwriter and band namesake – with good reason. He is a determined force of nature, and his ability to lead – to, in essence, turn something small into something much bigger – has been a hallmark of the band since its inception.
That start came in the mid-2000s when Abbott and frat brother Davis showed up for a few informal gigs at the Blue Light Live in Lubbock, Texas.
“We played two open-mic nights, and we had two songs, no band. Just him and me,” Davis recalls. “I walk in the back, and Josh is talking to the owner and the manager about doing a live record there. And I’m thinking, ‘We don’t even have a band.’ His thing was, ‘We’ll get to that later.’ He’s always thought that way. I’ve played in other bands but never saw anybody else with that kind of confidence.”
Wait and drummer Edward Villanueva showed up a year and a half later, and in short time, JAB’s first single – “Taste,” self-released on Pretty Damn Tough Records – found a home on Texas radio stations. Bass player James Hertless and lead guitarist Caleb Keeter came on board circa 2010, and the lineup has stabilized for the past five years.
“Any movie you see about a band, it’s like five or six kids that are best friends,” Wait says. “Growing up, that’s kind of what you think it’s gonna be like. I found that in this group.”
The friendship is built on constant touring. Texas alone keeps the band steadily employed, but Abbott and crew have built a wider concert base that includes such iconic venues as Nashville’s Exit/In, Chicago’s Joe’s Bar, Washington D.C.’s 9:30 Club, Denver’s Grizzly Rose and Los Angeles’ Troubadour. The audience has grown in part because of the singability and relatability of the Abbott Band’s material, which has always held something of an everyman appeal.
As personal as Front Row Seat is, the album has a ring of familiarity. Nearly everyone has messed up a relationship or had their heart broken. It’s practically a rite of passage, and Abbott’s willingness to tear down the walls and bare his heart lifts the project to a new level of connection with the band’s growing audience.
“I know there’s going to be a natural reflection on me and how the album mirrors my life,” Abbott concedes. “But I’d like to think that this is really a story that is so common that everyone relates to it and that it’s not just about me. Hopefully people can listen to it and feel like it’s about them.”
It’s about the band, too. Villanueva used a bigger drum kit in recording Front Row Seat, laying a little more power underneath. And Wait and Davis take a more prominent role in the sound, heightening the country and bluegrass sides of the group without harming its modern texture.
“When we come up with parts, it’s difficult because it’s not standard bluegrass, like Flatt & Scruggs,” says Davis. “You’ve got to do something different. It pushes you to try and make something new.”
There’s certainly plenty new in Front Row Seat for Josh Abbott Band. The ethereal lyrics in “Autumn” and “Anonymity” are a starting place as Abbott’s songwriting challenges country’s tendency toward literal interpretations and storylines. The band also works for the first time with Carly Pearce, who provides a powerhouse female presence on “Wasn’t That Drunk.” Assembling the project as a concept album with a distinct storyline is another new approach for JAB. The tormented lead single, “Amnesia” – with its snarling guitar solo and artsy, unsettling intro – is yet another new technique.
Those wrinkles in JAB’s development demonstrate the band’s willingness to explore new turf, tapping musical character that might have gone unexpressed in its earlier projects. But people don’t build character during the easy times. It comes when they’re tested by the hurts and pitfalls that accompany any successfully lived life. Abbott, as the leader of the band, is emerging from one of his toughest tests to date. He and the band used an ultra-honest approach to the hard times to take the next step as it moves into its future.
“The whole band embraced this project and really committed to not only make it sound incredible but sound different and better,” Abbott says. “It’s more mature than anything we’ve done in the past.”
More mature because it’s so honest. And so real.
“I like to connect with people at any age, whatever it might be sonically or to the depth of what they are willing to think. I like to think, and I like people to think and that often generates a connection that can be nurtured,” says Stoney LaRue. As he prepares the release of Us Time, LaRue reflects on this important connection he has fostered with his fans over his 15-plus years of touring. Together, LaRue and his fans have culled together a “favorite live song set” that is dedicated to his loyal and growing fan base. LaRue is known for his real life, thinking man’s music.
US TIME is a collection of songs from the native Texan who now resides in Oklahoma reflecting on his own dreams that openly shares with his longtime fans. “This project is a tribute to my fans. We have developed a strong relationship and I appreciate all of them,” says LaRue. “ Together, we have built a compilation of fan favorites from the live shows that reflect the complexion of our time together in music, it is simply our US Time, “ he continues. This sentiment rings even louderafter LaRue took a hiatus from touring this summer to re-center his life that seemed to be lost.
LaRue says, “Being able to record such timeless songs as “Empty Glass,” “Into the Mystic” and “Wichita Lineman” aside some of original tunes, all selected by my fans make me feel validated as an artist and hopefully it gives the fans exactly what they are looking for.”
Being able to connect with fans the way we can today is mind blowing to LaRue. When this journey started over 15 years ago, communication was restricted mainly to the stage, written letters and before show meet and greets. Today’s instant social media connection is what helped generate this collection of songs. “I just kept a list of songs that fans would either request via Twitter and Facebook or yell to me on stage,” says LaRue. “Us Time is a very collaborative effort with them. Also, having RS Fields as the producer on this project was a good call. This is our first time working together and he totally nailed the production and we totally were in sync on how it should sound. I am very happy with the end result, it feels live and it feels real, and that is what music is all about,” he continued.
Independently charged, LaRue has sold over one million records over his career and plays 200-plus shows a year. His songs have seen the top of the charts, most recently his hit “Golden Shackles” from his eOne Music debut, Aviator, in 2014.
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