It's been a hell of a year for the Randy Rogers Band. "An emotional one," says Rogers, who altogether experienced some of the highest highs of his career and the lowest lows of his personal life.
Most will recognize 2015 as the year Rogers doubled down with his longtime buddy Wade Bowen. In April, Rogers released Hold My Beer Volume 1 with Bowen. The record was lauded by critics, showing up on multiple "Best of 2015" lists and reaching No. 4 on the US Country sales chart as an independent release. It was championed as a true "traditional country" record, alternating between irreverent and heartfelt.
Between supporting Hold My Beer and the band, Rogers gigged a lot more than most years -- "I'm surprised I still have a voice left," chuckles Rogers. "But I feel like we really spread our wings this year."
Spreading wings is a much better option than taking a hard fall, which could've easily happened.
Unbeknownst to many, the year started with the band finding itself in relatively unfamiliar territory -- planning a new record as an independent band. "As a kid, I dreamed of being on stage and being on a major label; that was always a goal for me," says Rogers. He fulfilled that dream when he signed with Mercury Nashville (Universal Music Group) over 10 years ago. After four records with Mercury, the band and the label mutually agreed to part ways after never really securing major national radio play.
"It's kind of a crossroads," says Rogers. "It also filled me with a lot of angst -- not because I have I have a chip on my shoulder, which I don't. Our time with Universal was great. We still get to play a lot of cities because they promoted us there, and they never asked us to change anything about ourselves. But leaving a major and not getting signed by anybody else, you're kind of a free agent. You know you have the talent, the drive, but nobody is willing to take a chance on you."
But the departure was also a blessing that led to Rogers working with Buddy Cannon, whose work with artists like George Strait, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson has enshrined him as a country music legend.
Rogers met Cannon a few years back thanks to Nelson's road manager, and the two struck up a friendship that included several co-writes. When Rogers was considering producers for the band's new album, Nothing Shines Like Neon, Cannon seemed like a perfect fit.
"I'm a firm believer in timing, and he just fell perfectly into place," says Rogers. "Jay Joyce, who we made Trouble with, had gotten so busy with Eric Church and Little Big Town and all these other folks, but Buddy -- even with everything he was doing at the time -- said, 'Yeah absolutely, let's make a record.' I'm eternally grateful for his commitment to this record, because at the time I really needed that confidence boost."
What the band put together in Nothing Shines Like Neon is without a doubt their most "traditional" batch of country songs ever. With a strong collection of co-written and outside songs, Neon has all the characteristics of a critical darling and an old-school fan favorite.
That includes the first ever "Texas-y" song (ironic, considering the band's roots), the album opener "San Antone". "Up until this record, we never had a song about Texas, which is kind of hard to believe, but we never wanted to follow the lead of other artists, I guess," says Rogers. The song was actually written by Keith Gattis and not Rogers himself. "As soon as I heard it, I was mad I didn't write it," says Rogers. "That song is going to be in my set list for life; I didn't write it, I just live it."
There are other really strong moments on the record, too, like Rogers' personal favorite, "Meet Me Tonight". It's a lonesome, eerie song for which the production perfectly matches the lyrics. "I don't think it's going to be a hit or played on the radio or even requested that much," says Rogers. "But that song was just a great example of Buddy taking what I heard in my head and actually making it come out. That's what it's all about. That one's for me."
Then there are the collaborations.
Jamey Johnson -- who Rogers met while at Mercury -- makes an appearance on "Actin' Crazy", a song inspired by a conversation Rogers had with an actor in LA. "I always gravitated towards Jamey at those label parties where we're supposed to mingle with the well-to-do's of the industry and I was a little uncomfortable," says Rogers. "We've written together, golfed together, done things with George Strait together. When it came time to record that song, I just didn't feel like I nailed it. So Buddy brought Jamey in and I think it really makes the song."
There's also a cover of Jerry Jeff Walker's original, "Taking It As It Comes", featuring none other than Walker himself. Rogers perks up when speaking about the day Walker came into the studio. "At first, I thought it would be highly unlikely that he'd do it. I called his son and my friend Django to ask what he thought. Then I got ahold of Jerry and at first he said yes and we all got so excited. But the next day he called back saying he couldn't do it because he wasn't feeling well. Then I get this call from Django, and he says, 'I'm flying in, I'm picking up dad, and we're coming to the studio,'" laughs Rogers.
As soon as the pair arrived, "It was like a freaking tornado," says Rogers. "Buddy's eyes got all big as Jerry started flying around the room, and we just followed his lead." The energy is apparent on the track, which is certainly one of the most up-tempo on the album, and perhaps rings truer to the band's career today more than ever.
Finally, there's "Look Out Yonder", a song written by Earl Bud Lee (who wrote Garth's "Friends In Low Places"), featuring Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski.
"People ask me about the highlights of my career, and I will say this: above all else, hearing Alison Krauss sing harmony with me -- I've got goosebumps right now just thinking about it."
Rogers added, "She might be the most beautifully recorded female country voice in the last two decades. Gorgeous voice, gorgeous person."
The song would also end up meaning more than Rogers could ever know when they first chose to cut it. "To me, that song is about somebody returning home, going to heaven," says Rogers. "That song is for Kent."
Kent Finlay was the longtime owner of San Marcos' Cheatham Street Warehouse and Rogers' mentor. He was instrumental in the success of countless other musicians, including George Strait, whose band played their first 40 or so shows at the Warehouse. He passed away on March 2nd, the day before the Randy Rogers Band was set to record in Austin.
"I saw him a few weeks before he passed and we had an amazing hang, so I was really lucky in that regard," says Rogers. "But it hit me like a ton of bricks when I found out."
That first day in the studio was miserable for Rogers. Though the band was trying to immerse itself in the studio in Austin (even sleeping on the bus outside), he had to spend time away. "The next day I drove down to Cheatham Street in San Marcos and I bawled my eyes out," says Rogers. "I just cried and cried. I had my moment. And then we went back to work."
The most important thing for Rogers at that point wasn't feeling sorry for himself, but making a record Finlay would've loved. "It's so cliché, him being my mentor and passing away before the record was made," says Rogers, "but he would've loved it. He would've loved the Jerry Jeff story, too. Hell, he probably would've been there."
In tribute, Nothing Shines Like Neon was named after a lyric in one of Kent Finlay's songs. And though the recording of the record was a great success, life has an unfortunate way of piling on.
In June, Rogers and his wife were struck with the tragedy of losing their newborn daughter Rumer only six days after she was born. "It's been well-documented what my family went through, and I haven't really talked about it in the press," says Rogers. But he did share that Rumer was born with a rare genetic disorder called nonketotic hyperglycinemia, which affects about 1 in 66,000 newborns.
The loss blindsided the family.
But through it all, Rogers has continued to lean on songwriting and family as the support system that steadies him. "Songwriting has always been a healing thing for me," says Rogers. "I've written a lot of songs that nobody will probably ever hear." It's a slightly odd sentiment coming from one of the most successful Texas country acts.
"I don't know if people want to hear songs about my life right now," Rogers wonders. "It's been a weird year filled with lots of loss and I don't know if people want to hear that. But I'm going to keep writing those songs to get through it. I'm finally getting to a better spot."
As for whether or not Nothing Shines Like Neon is a permanent shift in sound, Rogers can't say either. "I really don't know where the band is headed, which is probably not what people want to hear, but first I'm interested to see the reaction to a record that is different from the last 3 or 4 we've released," he says.
Rogers has never really tried to fool anyone. He never got caught up in the "Texas vs. Nashville" bologna (credit another mentor and legend Radney Foster for that), and he never felt compelled to change his sound or chase songwriting trends. That is, after all, why the band has managed to have so much success outside of Texas. Well, that and the fact that, "A lot of Texans get jobs out of state after graduating and they recruit other fans because the personality of a Texan is to brag and force your music on other people," Rogers swipes, all while laughing.
But if he needs to write several records about his life, fans will be there to listen. And one of his favorite things is seeing his fans enjoy the music. "I know this: I know I love making people dance," says Rogers. "So I know I'll keep writing songs people can dance to."
As 2016 approaches, it's a welcome reprieve from a very taxing year. For the Randy Rogers Band, Nothing Shines Like Neon, which will be released on January 15th, is the perfect first step away from the past and towards the bright future ahead.