Randy Rogers is just not feeling this queso.
Sitting in the subterranean "cellar room" of a Nashville nuevo-southern restaurant, he and Geoffrey Hill, guitarist in the Randy Rogers Band, have barely touched their swirly, puffed-up chips and pot of peach-colored cheese dip, served in a little cast-iron skillet. There are other appetizers too; some sitting on suitably hip planks of wood, but nothing looks particularly ravaged. What they are both clutching tight, however, are familiar bottles of Coors Light, like the way shipwrecked sailors might cling to a buoy.
"I've been away from Texas ten, eleven days now," Rogers tells Rolling Stone Country, seated in all black across from his bandmate, glancing at the comestibles before him with a few copies of their seventh LP, Nothing Shines Like Neon, on the table. "And I miss the food. We all miss Mexican food so bad. Guarantee, tomorrow I'm at my favorite Mexican place eating lunch."
"Mm-hm," says Hill, looking over at the cheese dip with a hint of pity in his eyes. "I mean, that queso's not bad. But…"
Culinary preferences aside, there is no mistaking Randy Rogers Band for anything but a group of Texas road warriors. If the accents don't give it away, the boots might — or the small flag pin in the shape of his home state that Rogers sometimes wears. Making records for well over a decade, they've carved out a unique niche as both a successful touring band and one of the few Red Dirt acts able to straddle the line of Lone Star fidelity with mainstream appeal. They played the Nashville game too, signing with Universal Music Group's Mercury Records and working with ace producers like Paul Worley and Jay Joyce, the latter of whom produced their sixth LP Trouble in 2013.
The title of Trouble, however, was more than just a little prophetic. After years in the comfortable hold of a major label but no sweeping radio hits, they parted ways, leaving the veteran group (also including Johnny "Chops" Richardson on bass, Brady Black on fiddle, Les Lawless on drums and utility player Todd Stewart) to return to the indie grind for the first time since the beginning of their tenure.
"Getting dropped or whatever you want to call it," Rogers says as he adjusts his black Turnpike Troubadours hat, "it was a moment in our career. And at the same time, Jay Joyce — we thought we were going to make another record with him, and he got so busy he couldn't do it. We were lost for a moment. We didn't know what to think or what to do next. There was so much anxiety trying to find our way."
"I used to think we could change country music, change the genre. I was young and cocky"
That anxiety didn't last too long: legendary songwriter and producer Buddy Cannon, who had become a friend of the band, agreed to produce their next LP. "That was a breath of fresh air and a whole lot of 'we're gonna be alright,'" says Rogers. Thirty Tigers, home to Jason Isbell and fellow Texan Aaron Watson, agreed to distribute. This meant the ability to release music with all the freedom they'd always wanted, without having to pass songs or single contenders by a committee of label heads. It also meant scores of new business responsibilities they'd never tackled before, like bank loans and paying publishing royalties, but all small prices to pay for the ability to put the real cornerstone of the Red Dirt spirit — unapologetic authenticity with a special reverence for the past — front and center.
"I love being rebellious," Rogers says. "But I don't know if I've even been really good at it. I used to think we could change country music, change the genre. I was young and cocky and I thought that we got signed and we'd be the biggest shit to ever hit. And when that doesn't happen you live and learn. And you realize there is nothing you can do except be yourself and be an artist, and be true to yourself."
Maybe it was that freshman thrill of being temporarily label-free, or the prospect of working with Cannon, but as the Randy Rogers Band began to write and source songs, they made a decision: this record would tip its toes deeper into their country roots than ever before. Trouble was — including the crunch-rock single "Fuzzy — at times a little over-polished, but Nothing Shines Like Neon (out now) finds the band in a more subdued place, favoring traditional instrumentals over glossy production. Guest artists like Jamey Johnson, Alison Krauss and Jerry Jeff Walker only sweetened the deal.
"It sounds like country, but not our granddad's country," says Rogers. "Even though we were influenced by it, I don't think we could sound that way if we tried. We are not the greatest country pickers in the world."
Their sonic direction made even more sense when a tragedy struck the band: songwriter Kent Finlay, a mentor and longtime friend, passed away the day before they entered the studio. "We recorded [the LP] with him in mind," says Rogers, swallowing hard with a tearful gloss in his eyes. The album's title, Nothing Shines Like Neon, is a tribute too, taken from one of his songs, "Tennessee Whiskey and Texas Swing." This time around, they focused more on paying reverence to the sounds of their youth than anything that might appease the airwaves — an approach he would also take with Wade Bowen on their 2015 duets record, Hold My Beer, Vol. 1.
"We know that this is not going to get a whole bunch of mainstream radio airplay," says Rogers. "We can just say that outright, instead of dreaming that maybe it's going to be different. So what do we do for a living? We make people dance at our shows. People dance to almost every song. They drink beer and fall in love or they dance. Or they fight. A lot of these tunes, we can play them live, which is what we do for a living."
As much as the band is known for those rowdy moments — and with tracks like the Walker duet "Taking It as It Comes" and the excellently introspective "Things I Need to Quit," there are plenty of them — some of the best moments on Nothing Shines Like Neon come on its ballads. "Old Moon New" is a romantic, crooning Nineties-style slow dance sheened with fiddle; "Look Out Yonder," with Krauss and Dan Tyminski, a wistful ode to the wandering spirit; or the Alabama-esque harmonies of "Meet Me Tonight," with its smart, tight lyrics like "kill me slowly like a cigarette."
Thankfully the duet with Johnson (whom Rogers describes as "the guy I gravitated towards at parties") is suitably upbeat and, strangely enough, inspired by an actor from HBO's Entourage.
"We were on the road with Leopold and His Fiction, and were on the west coast," says Rogers. "And they [have] the same management as Adrian Grenier. . . He came out to the show and he had a little entourage with him, literally. I just got to thinking, 'Man, it's probably so tough to be in L.A. and to be struggling actor.' And then I thought how hard it would be to be [Grenier], with people always trailing you. There are lots of things about L.A. I just can't stand. I don't enjoy L.A. in general. Having to live there in order to chase your dream would be very tough."
Let's face it, though: for Rogers, living anywhere other than Texas would probably be tough. But it's a complicated relationship. He's had to shake off a lot of the assumptions and generalization that come with being lumped in with the Red Dirt tradition, often having to work harder to make his own individual mark.
"We get pigeonholed as Texas music," Rogers says, "But if you listen to twenty artists in our genre, we all sound completely different." When Rogers first started to meet with industry executives at the beginning of his career, he'd often be asked why he even wanted to bother to leave Texas — you can make a decent living, after all, just playing to the hometown crowd. "I said, 'You don't get it. You don't get it at all.' It's about getting your music to as many people as you can. It's not about just existing."
Perhaps it's that duality of being a "Texas band" with much broader dreams that led them to avoid ever cutting a song about the Lone Star State, or maybe it just felt like too much pressure. But for the first time, Nothing Shines Like Neon finds the band singing about where they're from: the shuffling mid-tempo "San Antone" opens the record with a line that looks both forward and back. "This highway's sure been good to me," Rogers sings to a locomotive beat. They may still live 30 minutes from San Antonio, but they're happiest hitting the open road. Especially if there's good Mexican food waiting when they return.
"I came from a little small town, and I don't live there anymore," says Rogers. "But I love me some Texas, though."