Randy Rogers wasn’t built to take vacations. When he’s not on the road, the Texas Country vet is checking in with one of his many business partners for updates on the venues he owns or the management company he runs. Even now, on what should be a relaxing getaway with his family in Florida, Rogers is all too happy to squeeze in a phone call.
“I have a hard time turning things off. I kind of hate that about myself,” says Rogers, philosophically but with a touch of resignation. He’s getting a moment in all by himself, having left his wife and daughters to go shopping together. “My wife says I’m very tenacious. What I don’t have in talent, I make up with in tenacity. Maybe there’s something to be said for that.”
Randy Rogers Band’s new LP Hellbent (streaming below on Rolling Stone) is a celebration of that very same spirit, an ode to the longevity of a group whose original lineup celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Labels have come and gone in the two decades since — including stints in the majors with Mercury and MCA — but his band members haven’t. The album’s cover art even depicts their first touring vessel, a 1988 Chevy Suburban nicknamed “Peaches.”
“I don’t regret making those [major label] records. I don’t regret anything I say on those records, the way they sounded, the way they came out. I don’t have a bad taste in my mouth about the music industry whatsoever,” Rogers says. “[But] this record is more a statement for us, a statement for me that I don’t really have a backup plan. I’m not going to go anywhere. I’m going to continue making these records.”
Rogers’ last record, Nothing Shines Like Neon, came out three years ago, and it suggested that there was plenty of life to be lived after leaving the majors. It climbed to Number Five on the country charts and Number Two on the indie, even cracking the Top 50 of the Billboard 200.
“It’s interesting to me how rapidly the music industry itself has changed even since our last release with MCA [2013’s Trouble]. The game is almost completely different than it was five years ago,” Rogers says. “Now things have shifted towards what we’ve always done, which is tour, sell T-shirts, sell merchandise, then go back three months later, six months later and hope to build that crowd organically.”
If capturing the band’s live energy was an inevitable goal in the recording of Hellbent, then the finished product came out somewhat differently than planned. That was thanks largely to producer Dave Cobb, who pushed them to trim down the instrumental breaks and cut out some of the songs’ bridges. “Everything here is nipped in the bud. There’s a great melody, a great hook, and not a whole lot of screwing around after that. Get to the point and get out,” Rogers says.
Cobb says he was drawn to working with Rogers and the group — bassist Johnny “Chops” Richardson, drummer Les Lawless, guitarist Geoffrey Hill, fiddle player Brady Black and utility man Todd Stewart — in part because of their longevity. “It’s a band of brothers. They’ve stuck together, and I always have a lot of appreciation for that. Before I was making records, I stuck with my band for seven and a half years on the road every day, just killing yourself for it,” he says. “There are people who sometimes get together really quick to get a record deal and have success, and then there are people who are in it for the long haul.”
That sense of commitment also extended itself into the studio, especially when Rogers was recording the Tejano-inflected song “We Never Made It to Mexico.” The bandleader sings some of the lyrics in Spanish, and paid meticulous attention to getting his pronunciation just right as a way to acknowledge an important segment of the group’s fans.
“A lot of our fan base is Hispanic, and I wanted to give them something because they’ve been so loyal to us. I wanted to show them that I know it and that I appreciate it,” Rogers says. “Our brand of country music goes over really well in their community and this song embodies my attempt to have a bilingual song and nod to those fans, because they’re very important to our livelihood.”
Cut at RCA Studio A in Nashville, the band convened to record Hellbent during the same week of Tom Petty’s death and the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, back in October 2017. Those events had a heavy effect on the sessions. “We played that festival a few years prior to that, so we could place ourselves in the fear and despair of those victims and their families,” Rogers says. As for Petty, the classic-rock touchstone’s influence is heard in Hellbent’s jangly guitars and melodies. “I was always drawn to Petty melodically and for those anthemic choruses,” he says.
The first song to be debuted from the album, “Crazy People,” hints at some of those Petty vibes. A bit of a biography from the two poles of Rogers’ life, it’s a fantasy about hell-raising youngsters as imagined from a kid whose parents are buttoned-down churchgoers. Rogers, in fact, was that kid: His dad was a preacher, his mother a teacher’s aid.
“I’m one of the lucky ones in that I still have both my parents here. I thought it was a way to give a nod to my childhood, a nod to somebody else who feels sheltered, like they can’t ever escape their hometown,” Rogers says. It’s something he admits to thinking of often these days: “I have my own kids now, so I’m struggling with how to raise the little ones when they ask the difficult questions.”
Yet the title for Hellbent was derived, in part, from the title of its one and only cover song, “Hellbent on a Heartache,” itself an upbeat counterpoint to the late Guy Clark’s original. “Guy Clark influenced all of us songwriters in Texas, and I had a few of his friends call me to say they approve after hearing [our version of] the song,” Rogers says proudly. “It means a lot to me to have [them] paying to attention to what we’re doing down here and approve of it, which is carrying on the torch and waving the flag.”
Some of those forbears have even been calling on Rogers to collaborate in recent years — so much so that it’s impressive that he had the time to write and record Hellbent in the first place. In the past year alone, he released a “secret” album with Robert Earl Keen under the auspices of the Stryker Brothers, appeared on a Michael Martin Murphey compilation, and recently wrapped up another album with Wade Bowen. Plus he’ll be making a further appearance later in the year on Rodney Crowell’s Texas album.
Even Rogers admits he deserves the chance to put his feet up. “Now that I’m on vacation I can breathe a sigh of relief because I really did put in the hours,” he says — well aware that the moment won’t last too long.
(Additional reporting by Joseph Hudak)