Gardening with Roy Rogers
Slide-guitar virtuoso digs deep into the roots of blues
He’s baaack. Roy Rogers is coming to the Sierra Nevada Brewery again. Though he’s performed in Chico for many years now, any new appearance is eagerly anticipated because, when it comes to slide guitar, Rogers is the king of the cowboys. Those who’ve heard him once always want to ride those happy trails again, and those who haven’t will surely want to saddle up and join the posse because virtuosity like his is a rare privilege to hear and see. That’s why his Sierra Nevada shows always sell out, this Tuesday’s date being no exception.
When Rogers returns my call, he gets me from the garden and I pick up the phone with dirty hands, apologizing for being distracted.
“Hey,” he says. “I hate to pull you out of the garden. I’m a gardener myself, and there’s therapy in it. Y’know, when you’re on the road as much as we are, it’s nice to come home and putz around in our own digs, and gardening makes those digs literal. I calm down in the garden, and besides, there’s nothing like your own homegrown tomatoes.”
The home where Rogers is growing tomatoes these days makes him almost a neighbor, having just moved from Novato, Calif., to Nevada City.
“I love it up here,” he says. “You got my partner, Norton Buffalo, living up there in Paradise now, so us Bay Area boys have moved up country.”
He looks forward to a great show because he loves the Sierra Nevada Big Room, and because he simply loves playing.
“If the musicians are having a good time you don’t have to worry about satisfying the audience because that’s just going to happen as a matter of course,” Rogers says. “If you’re having a good time performing, everyone has a good time.”
There’s hardly an accolade Rogers hasn’t received, in print or from his peers, but he remains modest. Are there things he can’t do on his instrument after all these years?
“Hell yes,” he says. “Of course. There’s an Indian slide guitarist, name of Bhatt, for instance, a guy who plays slide lap style, and he does amazing stuff. There’s always another universe around the corner. Why would you even want to think you’d mastered it all?”
His reverence for the players who inspired him to take up the life is plain.
“I got to see Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, those guys, played at the Fillmore when I was a teenager,” he recalls. “Seeing those guys live, man, forget about it. It was just so moving for me personally. I said to myself, ‘I gotta do that.’ “
He continues: “It all goes back to the way back, but what got me interested was seeing Muddy and seeing Wolf and Big Mama Thornton, and then after a while performing with John Lee Hooker. Now I’m a middle-aged guy and Buddy Guy is an elder statesman, and B.B.'s still going strong, but we’re all drawing on the energy of the music, and keeping it new. I’ve never considered myself a blues man in the tradition of those giants, but in my mind, it’s just about the power of the music, and all of us connect with the guys who came before, back to Charlie Patton and the rest of them. It just carries on.”
In the tradition of carrying it on, he used to do a radio show called “Under the Influence,” and he loved tracing the roots of a song.
“I would follow a song back that had been done by many, many folks, a song like ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin',’ maybe. That song goes back to 1928, and everyone’s done it, and it’s not just one song, but many songs as it gets reinterpreted generation after generation. Maybe in another life I could have been a researcher, but instead I’m a player, and I’m glad. But I love digging into those roots.”
When we’re done talking, I hang up and go back to tending my garden, and Roy Rogers goes back to tending his. The aural fruits of his musicological digging will be available at the Big Room next Tuesday, but we’ll all have to wait a few more months for the tomatoes.