Cover photo © 2021 Marilyn Stringer
Slide guitarist Roy Rogers is working on new music, but has questions about where to take it.
His questions aren’t about the music itself, although one would certainly understand Rogers pondering his musical direction, as he’s brought his blues-driven slide so many places, from Latin music, with his side project, StringShot, to rocker Sammy Hagar, to former Doors’ keyboardist Ray Manzarek, to his time working with the legendary John Lee Hooker.
No, instead Rogers is wondering about where and how he should release his music.
“People don’t buy CDs anymore, hardly,” Roger says. “That’s just the way it is. You can’t say, ‘Well, I don’t agree with this or I do agree with it’; it’s just the way it is. People can pay a monthly fee and get anything they want, so they don’t have to own it, like we did before, right? I’m debating about whether I want to record a “full CD,” or just do a couple of tracks.”
For Rogers, the decision is tough, because like so many of us of a certain age, he grew up with the idea that albums are the end-product of musical labor. But with the popularity of streaming services, many artists release a few tracks at a time, taking their songs out of context.
“I like a statement and when I look at my favorite records, you know, Kind of Blue, Miles Davis, now what two tracks are you going to pick out of that?” Rogers asks.
So as Rogers works on new songs, he’s potentially looking for two tracks, something up-tempo and something slower, to give listeners sonic variety.
“For me, it’s all about the groove,” Rogers says. “I’ve often been asked what comes first, the lyrics [or the music]. It depends on the idea, but the groove has to happen. And if it’s not grooving, then it’s not happening.”
Rogers says this as an musician, but also as a producer. He’s produced artists like Hooker, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, as well as his own music.
“The setup for production is you get to help people try to find their groove and capture it,” Rogers says. Rogers has a number of tools to help artists with this, such as playing with tunings, tempo, and instruments. “On the Hooker records, we tried a lot of things, and John was up for trying them,” he says. “It was great, just different instrumentation. Just ideas that could come into your head and see if somebody is comfortable with it.”
Hooker was more than just a production client, though. In addition to producing four of his 1980s albums, Rogers toured with him for four years, backing the blues legend but also serving as a featured part of Hooker’s set. Working together all of those years, the two grew close.
“John Lee was like a pop,” Rogers says. “I always felt extremely lucky to become close to John Lee Hooker.” Rogers says his time with Hooker wasn’t just about the blues. “I’ve said it before, and it may sound trite, but it’s true. People say, ‘Well, you must have learned a lot about music playing with John Lee Hooker.’ No, I learned a lot about life.”
Hooker was born toward the beginning of the 20th century and died at the start of the 21st century, with a long and influential career that impacted blues, but also rock and roll. One can imagine Hooker had lots of life lessons, but for Rogers, one of the most important was Hooker’s ability to anchor himself to the moment.
“That’s the great thing about those guys,” says of older blues artists. “They live in the present. They are in the here and now. And that’s hard to do, man. We worry about things and you have to be reminded of them. But [Hooker] was so present and on stage, boy, he was just so powerful. Not all the time, not every night, but when John Lee wanted to reach down, [there was] nothing more powerful on the planet than that. To be in the presence of someone that can move a crowd to like tears, to emotion. It was stunning and precious to be backing him up.”
Rogers also became close with collaborator Manzarek.
“I miss him,” Rogers says. “He was a very, very interesting guy. And, you know, for being the rock and roll legend that he was, and he was still working with [Doors guitarist] Robby Krieger—they were still doing duets—but Ray and I, we cut a record as a duet and then we cut a record called Translucent Blues. And it actually charted on the blues charts and we played all over, and even went to Poland. And then we recorded a record [2013’s Twisted Tales] and Ray got ill, he got seriously ill, unfortunately, and I released it posthumously, which he approved. And that’s just a very special record, to be released like that.”
Lots of musical artists tend to stay within their genre, afraid to push boundaries. Rogers remains true to his blues sound, but is constantly looking for different musical tableaus. One of those experiments was StringShot, which featured Badi Assad on guitar and vocal, and Carlos Reyes on violin and stringed harp. They released one album, StringShot: Blues & Latin in 2018 and were just starting to tour when Covid shut things down.
Rogers had featured Reyes as a special guest with his Delta Rhythm Kings many times over the years.
“I’m not a straight ahead blues guy, although it’s always based on the blues and always will be, but I’m not straight ahead about it,” Rogers says. “I like combining different things and playing with different people and and saying, ‘Hmmm. What can we do with this?’ Whether it’s more of a rocker or a straight ahead blues, I just like spreading it out, musically. And with that aesthetic, I’ve featured Carlos. To have a stringed harp with a blues group is kind of interesting. I said, ‘Wow. Let’s try that.’ And it worked fabulously. So I featured him in the band.”
Rogers’ son introduced him to Assad, a gifted vocalist and guitarist, and the sister of the acclaimed classical guitarists the Assad Brothers. Rogers and Assad wrote a lot of the album together, with Rogers funding the project and the band releasing it themselves. The three artists all have busy careers, so he’s not sure if they’ll ever be able to reunite.
StringShot and Rogers’ work with Manzarek featured vocals, but Rogers is also known for his instrumentals.
“[They’ve] always been a big part of [my] writing,” Rogers says. “I wrote some instrumentals when Ray Manzarek and I were together, but before that with [harmonica player Norton] Buffalo, I did a record called Slideways, which is no vocals at all. And the whole album was simply the slide guitar as the voice. So when you listen to that record, it takes you on a journey. That’s a slide guitar and all kinds of slide, from National Steel—you know, I’ve got a ’31 National Steel to die for—to the Martin, to a Les Paul Jr. crunch sound. I just wanted to explore all the different sounds and I’m really proud of that record.”
Slideways also featured Zigaboo Modeliste, of the Meters, on drums. While the Meters are famous for their New Orleans roots, Modeliste used to live in the Bay Area, Rogers’ part of the world. Hearing Rogers talk about much he liked Slideways, one has to wonder if it’s his favorite album. Rogers came back at the question—immediately—with a question of his own:
Rogers: Do you have a favorite child?
Blues Blast: I’ve only got one, so I do.
Rogers: Well see, that’s no fair!
The analogy makes sense because Rogers, who has two real-life children along with his double-digit recorded progeny, sees his albums as more than sounds captured on tape.
“[The albums are] all different, and we love them because they’re different,” Rogers says. “Some, probably recording-wise, when I look back I say, ‘Geez, I put a lot of reverb on that. Why the hell did I?’ You know, that kind of stuff. But they represent a certain time. It’s like any artists, ‘Wow, let’s see how old was I when I did that? I was 35 when I did that. Okay, now, so what was I feeling like when I wrote that?'”
Comparing albums to offspring also makes sense because of Rogers’ deep love for slide guitar, which began when he was a child.
“When I heard Muddy, and some Elmore James record, and then I got it,” he recalls. “I heard Robert Johnson and Tampa Red, all those classic guys [and] it just moved me. It’s a very moving, evocative, choose your adjectives. You can get all the in-between notes that you have to bend with frets, but you do it with a slide and it’s just so expressive. It’s a wonderful way to get the feeling out. It’s as simple as that. It’s a wonderfully expressive way and I’m very fortunate that I have that as a, shall we say, artistic expression [laughs].”
But the secret to his musical longevity is that Rogers, born in 1950, still feels passionately about slide guitar. “If that [feeling] ever goes away, I’ll probably give it up, man,” he says. “That stays with you for a lifetime, hopefully. No. I’ll still get excited. I’ll put on an old record of Muddy or someone I haven’t played in a long time, [and] I still get tingles like when I first heard it. Or Wolf, forget it. “How Many More Years”? Forget it. You’ve got to listen to that on a 78. It goes right through you. It’ll always be that way.”
Rogers considers himself based in Delta blues, building upon the work of seminal slide artists like Johnson, Son House, and Furry Lewis. He’s developed his own voice, but he’s always trying to move that sound in different directions, as shown by StringShot. However, when writing music, he doesn’t start out trying to think outside of the blues box.
“I’m thinking about a specific project, and a sound,” he says. “I can only use the analogy, when you write a song, you write it from your standpoint. You don’t say, ‘Well, I’m gonna write this song and it’s going to reach everybody because it’s going to be an anthem.’ You don’t have that with a sound; you just play. So when I say, stretching it, I’m always trying to stretch what the slide guitar can do.”
While gear is only a small piece of the sound puzzle, and one not nearly as essential as guitar, amp, and pedal manufacturers might have you believe, it is an important ingredient for Rogers, who plays an amplified acoustic guitar, giving him the best of the acoustic and electric worlds. But he’s not a gear head, stopping once he found a guitar rig that worked for him. “I suppose if I had to just play one guitar, it would certainly be the Martin with a DeArmond pickup because that’s the sound that I’m most known for,” he says. “I’ve had more guitar players come up to me over the years—because I play a 0-16 New Yorker Martin, and I have for years, and it’s an old DeArmond pick-up, that’s a humbucking pickup—and say ‘You know that guitar can’t sound like that. How can that guitar sound like that’? I said, ‘I don’t want to know. I just want to play it.'”
Like just about everyone, Rogers is concerned about the future of live music, post-Covid. He’s starting to book outdoor dates but sees a long road back for venues. And if venues struggle, artists struggle, as their fates are intertwined. Between the challenges of pandemic recovery and the ever-changing music distribution models, it would be easy for Rogers to sound sad or angry. But instead he’s excited about the future of the blues.
“There’s so many great young blues players that have come up,” he says. “I’m happy to see these young guys doing it. They should interpret it and play it like they see it and hear it. And don’t worry about sounding like 1954. It’s 2021. Make use of that and use whatever you can.”
Rogers’ long, impressive career is due to his ability to evolve, musically, but also in terms of the music business. Even as he writes, he’s thinking of a streaming strategy that serves his music and his fans. He understands that artists need to grow.
“I love the old stuff as [much] as anybody, but there would have never been a progression of music without even the classics of the classic,” he says. “If Elmore James just wanted to play like Robert Johnson, he wouldn’t have become Elmore James, now would he?”