April 8, 2004
by BOB DORAN
THERE'S A QUALITY TO THE SOUND OF a slide guitar that makes it sound even more like a human voice than most instruments. Slide players like Roy Rogers [photo at right] can make their instruments talk. "It's true, you can get serious nuances with the slide," said Rogers, calling from his home in Novato. "I've always said that the slide guitar is one of the most expressive ways you can play guitar ever. You're bending notes with this device on your finger and you can get all the nuances of the human voice. That was part of the appeal for me; not just the sound of it, but the emotion you can relay."
Rogers expresses intense emotions through variations on the blues and beyond. "I'm not your most traditional guitar player even though I'm associated with the blues," he contended. "For me it's never been about playing it in the box; to the contrary, it's about taking it outside, as in, where can we take this?"
And the California native has taken his music a long way. Born in Redding, he graduated from high school in Vallejo in 1968. And as with many of his generation, he came to the blues through rock.
"I was a little rock `n' roller to begin with. I started playing in bands when I was in junior high. We were playing Little Richard and Chuck Berry, some of Jimmy Reed's stuff, then the British bands came along." He points to the Rolling Stones and the Animals as influences pointing him toward the blues. "They did these covers of tunes by Chester Burnett and McKinley Morganfield, and I didn't know they were Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. That was pivotal in pointing me in the direction of the blues. Then my older brother brought home the Robert Johnson record, King of the Delta Blues."
Rogers was hooked by Johnson's use of the slide. "There was a convergence with all those influences and I became fascinated by the slide guitar," he said.
After high school he went off to college to study history. On the side he played with a harmonica player, David Burgin. "We did kind of a Sonny Terry Brownie McGee thing. That's who I cut my first record with in '76."
The guitar/harp combo still appeals to him; he tours and records regularly with Norton Buffalo. Eventually he put a blues band together, the Delta Rhythm Kings, but when he comes to town Saturday, he's leaving them behind.
"This is a special solo gig. It's pretty rare for me. I enjoy doing it, but I'm usually with the band. The solo gigs have a different intensity with more emphasis on the songs. I do songs I don't play with the band, and tell more stories about the past, like my time with John Lee Hooker. That connection is a strong one."
Rogers auditioned for Hooker's band in 1982. "There was a position open and Steve Ehrman, who is still my bass player, suggested I try out for it. I got the job. I didn't even meet John until the first gig. We became great friends, which meant a lot to me, and eventually it led to me producing four records for him."
In addition to producing the late great bluesman's Grammy-winning album, The Healer, Rogers has recorded two albums for folk icon Ramblin' Jack Elliot, and they are working on another. "I tell people quite honestly that I've been privileged to work with two quintessential artists. And I'm lucky to call those two great musicians friends."
In fact Rogers counts a number of fine musicians among his friends. Just last week he was invited by his friend Mickey Hart to be part of the All for One Band, an ad hoc combo pulled together for a John Kerry for President fund-raiser in San Francisco. Hart, Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzman from the Grateful Dead, Ray Manzarek from the Doors, Boz Scaggs, Norton Buffalo and Rogers all rocked together.
"We were stumping for Kerry and raised $3 million, making it one of the largest fund-raisers in Northern California ever. It was great; we all had a good time. For example, we played `Johnny Be Good' and in the chorus we had the crowd singing `Go, Kerry, go.' I don't normally get political at all, but in this case I felt it was important to make a statement."
Fact is, making a statement is always important to Rogers, even if he's just playing a tune on his guitar. "What interests me about music, all music, blues or any kind of combination -- it's making music that communicates to people. That may sound like a trite thing to say, but when you're having a good time, and the musicians are communicating with each other, the people listening are going to get it."
Slide guitar master Roy Rogers plays two solo shows Saturday, April 10, at the Red Radish in Blue Lake. Local Delta bluesman Don Haupt opens both shows. The early show at 7 p.m. benefits Friends For Life Animal Rescue; tickets are $21. Tickets for the 9:45 p.m. performance are $16/$18 in advance. For further information on the concert, call Dancing Dog Productions at 459-0607. For more on Rogers, see www.roy-rogers.com.
© Copyright 2003, North Coast Journal, Inc.