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Highs and Lows: Randy Rogers Band's Rollercoaster at 20

How am I gonna leave my mark…when all I've got left is doubt?

One of the opening salvos from the tentpole album of Texas Music.  Pat Green’s wave cracked the door open, but the Randy Rogers Band rode a rollercoaster right through the front door and into history.  Fueled by youthful vigor, aspirational dreams, solid songs, unique sonics and a brotherhood of music conducted by Radney Foster at the controls, the Rollercoaster album was born. Let’s look at how all that happened.

Randy Rogers started writing songs in his teens. Rogers spent more time behind his busted six string than he did the steering wheel in high school.  His limelight came from woodshedding in his bedroom to the strains of George Strait, The Toadies and Pearl Jam.   He played sideman in a slick 90’s country outfit but yearned for more.  The fruitful songwriting of the Texas hill country called to him.  As a student at then Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, Rogers became enamored with 92.1 KNBT-FM out of New Braunfels and began being acquainted with Mattson Rainer’s choice playlist.  Soon names like Bruce Robison, Chris Knight and Slaid Cleaves were just as important, if not more so, than names like Garth Brooks. Mark Chestnutt and Tracy Lawrence.  By the time he found Kent Finlay’s venerable songwriters night at Cheatham Street Warehouse, his destiny was set in stone. 

Soon, Rogers took over the vaunted weekly Tuesday night Cheatham gig and began building something.  His singing voice was still finding its grit.  He was never going to be a crooner, but his vocals had an individual charm and quality that made you feel what he was selling.  Not all the songs were great at first, but he had something…and he knew it.  Finlay knew it too and began helping him piece together a band.  A few months later, a rudimentary live recording was made and the band had become a Hays County sensation.  The early version of the Randy Rogers Band featured steel guitar and bar band arrangements of originals mixed with Dwight Yoakum and Steve Earle deep cuts.   The band wasn’t unique, but they had promise.  Rogers songwriting shone through.  Some of those very early songs remain in the setlist today.

(Rogers onstage circa 2002)

This steel guitar infused line-up bounced around for some time.  The members changed and the sound began to slowly evolve.  Geoffrey Hill was the first domino to fall into place on lead guitar.  Hill brought a rock sensibility and wide canvas of musical talent and influence.  Not to mention top shelf chops, musicianship and vocal abilities.  Rogers now had a harmony singer in the RRB.  The Cheatham live album had started a buzz that a studio album now needed to deliver on.  Rogers, Hill and the gang took their songs into the studio in 2002 with Scott Melott of The Groobees in the producer’s chair, joined by Adam Odor on the engineering side of things.  The songs were getting better, but the sonics still needed to sort themselves out.  The steel guitar sounded great and dominated the mix on most of the songs, sometimes overpowering the lyrics.

This 2002 version of the RRB hit the road expanding upon their central Texas and Texas State following.  Soon enough there were pockets of RRB fandom across the state with heavy turnouts in Houston, Stephenville and DFW. During this same time, Texas troubadour Dub Miller was riding high with his Hwy 6 band.  These cats were the most hotshit thing going in Texas.  A thundering live show was their calling card.  Les Lawless on drums laying down the groove, Odor on bass, Josh Hamilton (no, not that Josh Hamilton) on guitar, a baby faced fiddle playing phenom named Brady Black sawing through everything and Miller holding court center stage like a preacher at a tent revival.  Miller was becoming disillusioned with the music business and seeking alternative inspiration.  He soon announced he was quitting and going to law school.  The Hwy 6 band were free agents.

Rogers recruited Lawless and Black in a manner quicker than an SEC football coach in a 5 star’s living room on signing day eve.  They would join forces with Hill and push the RRB in a new direction.  Gone was the steel guitar.  The fiddle was now out front. Hill was free to play with dynamics and atmospherics.  Lawless set the groove.  The RRB was charting new territory.

(Rogers with Bowen and the Clubhouse Concerts ladies circa 2004)

The last member to join the group was Jon “Chops” Richardson.  Chops was a veteran of several Austin based bands and had a rockabilly look, stone cold country know-how and the ace musicianship to level up to the new RRB.  His secret weapon was that he was one hell of a songwriter.  Along with Hill, he began pushing Rogers in new songwriting directions.  The group was catching fire on and offstage.  Co-writes with legends of the day such as Cody Canada ensued.  Rogers found himself teaming up with another young songwriter of same vintage, influence and minor success at that time, Wade Bowen.  The pieces were coming together.  The RRB was packing venues.  But the albums they sold at the merch table did not match the show people paid to see.

William B. Travis, Alamo commander,  is a renowned historical figure in Texas history and lore.  The story famously goes that Travis drew a line in the sand at the Alamo. Surrounded, fatigued and facing certain death, Travis provided his soldiers with a choice.  Stay on that side of the line, head out the gates and surrender.  Or cross the line to his side and decide to fight until their last breath. According to the tale, all but one man crossed the line to fight. 

Randy Rogers held his own meeting with the troops in 2004.  His band was finally where he wanted it to be.  They had the songs.  They had the drive.  They were seeing some success, but knew there was more ahead and down the rocky road of the music biz.  Rogers charged his bandmates to go all in.  Quit their day jobs, quit any side projects. Put all the chips in the middle of the table and let it go. An all for one and one for all blood oath was taken that day.  The band would split profits evenly.  The band would write together.  The band would all play on their own records. Rogers name may be at the forefront but he was no more important than anyone else in the group.  With a commitment to one another, the band and the songs, they set out to lock down Radney Foster.

Songwriting began in earnest.  Dozens of songs were written, road tested and trashed.  Or preserved and refined.  Rogers had a vision that Radney Foster could be the one to finally help him put all the pieces together as they should be.  Rogers began, in his words, harassing and stalking Radney Foster.  He’d show up at Foster’s gigs, radio appearances and other places to plead his case that Foster should produce the next Randy Rogers Band album.  Eventually, Foster was tracked down and convinced to cross the RRB line in the sand.

Upon engaging with Rogers, Foster immediately noticed the spark of the songwriting that had first garnered Rogers’ early success.  Foster agreed to collaborate with Rogers and soon enough that collab produced “Tonight’s Not the Night”. A surefire smash hit.  But, they had to get in the studio to get it done.  Luckily, the band was ready for the moment. Rogers, Hill and Richardson had a sack full of solid songs that they had been playing on the road for months. Convening at the relatively new Cedar Creek Studios in Austin, the band and Foster got to work.

(Brady Black and Jon Richardson onstage at LJT 2004)

(Rogers, Hill, Lawless onstage at LJT 2004)

(Scenes from the RRB Choir Float Trip and Rollercoaster release party)

The band grinded and cut the tracks in a few days.  They continued to workshop them on the road. The crowd response was undeniable.  Songs such as” Somebody Take Me Home”, “Down and Out”, “Can’t Slow Down” and “This Time Around” were being shouted along with from the folks down front and they weren’t even recorded yet.  Rogers knew he had hit on the magic formula.  By the time the project was mixed and mastered, everyone involved knew they had a monster on their hands.  Release plans were put into place.  A July 2004 record release party featuring the unofficial RRB fan club the “RRB Choir” at Galleywinter was organized in New Braunfels.  An official release date of August 24, 2004 was chosen and all systems were go.  Quietly, the lead single, “Tonight’s Not the Night” was slipped to radio via the old Front Porch Show on 99.5 The Wolf in Dallas.  At the time, that show could make or break an artist alone.  Combined with the buzz on the Galleywinter forums, the Randy Rogers Band was buckling into a rocket ship. 

Rollercoaster placed the Randy Rogers Band up among the satellites and stars of Texas Music.  They vaulted from a beat up old suburban to a sprinter van to a Prevost in record time. They went from not being able to get into the best venues to selling them out.  All of this transpired in a matter of months.  Pat Green was in Nashville.  Ragweed was the top of the game at that time, and the RRB joined them.  It represented a changing of the guard.  Pat and Cory were giving way to Ragweed and Boland…and Randy and Wade.  Music City took notice.

Randy Rogers Band signed a record deal at Cheatham Street Warehouse. Each member signing the same deal in accordance with their pact.  Kent Finlay proudly looking on.  And they’ve never really looked back.  They’ve been on the charts, they’ve produced standards and set the standard.  The same five guys are still together twenty years later.  They added Todd Stewart on keys some years back and kept plugging along.  They’ve never put out a bad record.  Their mark of consistency is unreal.  However, fairly or unfairly, each successive record they have released has been compared to the high water mark of Rollercoaster.  Despite the quality of all of their albums, Rollercoaster is the one everyone points to.  Rightfully so, it was the game changer.  Not just for the RRB, but Texas Music at large.  Bands are still trying to copy the RRB’s mix of country with rock, heart with swag, honky-tonk with emo and the live show to back all of it up. 

So, what makes Rollercoaster so great.  Well, it starts with that opening salvo from “Down and Out”.   The guitar and fiddle intermingling to provide a musical call to arms that crescendos with the lineThere's a man on the radio says he's got it all worked out, he’s got a show on the road but he don't know…what it's all about

The implication being, those acts you hear on your mainstream country radio station aren’t in the trenches like us.  We are out here grinding and our show is real, come see us.  And folks did.  The song set the tone.  It was aggressive, yet full of what would soon become RRB hallmarks.  Rock guitar riffs, fiddle out front, driving beat, harmonies and a message in the lyrics that hit home.

“Somebody Take Me Home” starts quietly and then builds slowly until you, the listener, find yourself sitting under that broken streetlight.  Full of despair and wanting to be alone, but incapable.  “This Time Around” was co-written with Cody Canada, as was “Again” and both of them have a rock edge that contrast Rogers country delivery and witty lyrical wordplay.  Neither song sound like anyone else. “Can’t Slow Down” is when it gets the realest on this record. This is a weary songwriter singing to his lady at home.  He’s more loyal to the road than her.  The whiskey and the songs have a hold on him and maybe it’s better if she doesn’t even know because he’s in the fastlane and she’s stuck back at home.  The album title comes from this often overlooked gem.  Richardson clocks in with the thumping and anthemic “10 Miles Deep”.  A throwback of a song with a modern twist.  The rollicking musical treatment belies the darkness of the lyrics.  Johnny Cash would have loved to cut this song. Sprinkle in some love songs and you have the RRB at their best.  Piss and vinegar mixed with love and emotion.  The influences of the individual band members all on display.  Greater as a whole than as individuals.  The collection of songs undeniable and impeccable. 

Twenty years down the road, Rollercoaster remains a beacon.  A musical guidepost for the Randy Rogers Band, their fans and an entire music scene.  To celebrate the band is playing the album top to bottom at many 2024 shows. They’ve seen a lot and done a lot in the past two decades, but much like the songs, they’re still standing tall. They’ve been down and out, up and in, top, bottom and in between.  They’ve survived and so have the songs.  Highs, lows, life.  Much like Don Henley and Glen Frey once remarked that people told them that they lived life to their songs.  Love, loss, joy, elation, pain, party time and all of it.  The songs were there.  That’s the RRB and Rollercoaster to Texas.  A line was drawn in the sand and we’ve all crossed to this side of it where two decades in we don’t want to get off the ride that is Randy Rogers Band. They're still on top of the game. The highs have always outrun the lows.


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