In a little more than two hours, Jay Buchanan has to catch a plane from Nashville to L.A., where his band, Rival Sons, is nominated in two rock categories at Sunday’s Grammy Awards. But that doesn’t stop the vocalist, who wails like Robert Plant one minute and Ozzy Osbourne the next, from wading into one of music’s great quagmires — the state of rock & roll.
His hot take: The genre is far from dead.
“Rock & roll has only taken a back seat because there are so many other things to gravitate toward,” he says, leaning back in a leather captain’s chair at RCA Studio A in Nashville, where he and Rival Sons recorded 2019’s Feral Roots with producer Dave Cobb, who’s seated across from him finishing a bag of peanut M&Ms.
“When I look at the state of rock & roll, we live in a technological renaissance, and in tandem with that we have a musical renaissance going on,” Buchanan continues. “We’re in Studio A, and you have all these people who could never afford to dream of being in here, but they have computer programs and plug-ins to produce their own music. There are more songs available now than ever before. There are more songwriters revealing their hearts’ content, revealing themselves, than ever before in the history of the world. When people hear themselves in someone else’s song, it makes them feel less alone and it makes the world a better fucking place.”
But both Buchanan and Cobb are aware that getting fans to discover new rock music, especially by up-and-coming bands, can be challenging. “When the Rolling Stones tour, people go out to see them. When AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses tour, people go out to see them. There’s an audience for it; there’s just not a lot of navigation to find a new band,” says Cobb. “That’s the problem with rock & roll — the way to navigate and find it.”
To that end, Buchanan has a wild idea. He is toying with creating and curating a new rock & roll festival that will foster a sense of community among rock’s subsets.
“Having traveled so much and played with so many different bands, I’ve been able to see that there’s a bridge between these subgenres,” he says. “Watching all these bands at festivals, you see that the heart is similar,” he says, rattling off groups he’s been following, such as Halestorm, Greta Van Fleet, the Struts, and Canadian power-duo Crown Lands.
“Jay is always looking to build bridges in rock & roll,” says Cobb, who credits Buchanan with first introducing him to the music of Chris Stapleton when he was in the SteelDrivers, long before Cobb began producing the country singer. “I feel like it’s a good environment now for rock to band together the way Americana or even the hip-hop world has.”
Over six albums, all of them produced by Cobb, Rival Sons have done their part to introduce new fans to rock. They’ve done likewise with their dynamic live show, which finds Buchanan howling to the heavens while theatrically stalking the stage. Over the past few years, they’ve played shows with Black Sabbath and Guns N’ Roses, and will open for Aerosmith this summer. Last year, they made their Bonnaroo main-stage debut.
“We first met Rival Sons in 2008 at the Viper Room in L.A.,” says Halestorm guitarist Joe Hottinger. “Then we saw them again in Newcastle in the U.K. in 2012. The last show I saw them play was this past November — headlining a sold-out L’Olympia in Paris. Their success is the story of rock & roll in the last decade. They did it themselves and won over new fans night after night. If I was starting a rock band these days, I would study the Rival Sons playbook.”
Rival Sons’ unfailing devotion to making unfiltered rock & roll — Buchanan and Cobb joke about using Auto-Tune and an army of editors in white lab coats in the studio — culminated with the band’s first two Grammy nominations. On Sunday, they’ll compete for Best Rock Album for Feral Roots, opposite LPs by the Cranberries and Cage the Elephant, and for Best Rock Performance for the bluesy, biting track “Too Bad.”
Buchanan began writing the song with a bass groove — “a D’Angelo type of thing,” he says — and quickly finished it when Rival Sons guitarist Scott Holiday came up with its signature fuzzy riff. The end result reinforces the “roll” part of rock & roll that Buchanan says is so essential.
“So many things go into rock that are so important: swagger, energy, style. But the roll is the part that really can’t be faked. There is something about the roll, in all of my favorite rock & roll bands, that is unique to each,” he says.
With Feral Roots out almost a year to the day, Buchanan has already been writing for the follow-up. He’s dedicated to the idea of “bridging the gap” in rock and connecting all of its diverse subgenres.
“I appreciate all of those things and am thankful for all of them, because they enrich much more than divide us,” he says, laying out what he calls a “path to the unification.” “I see Rival Sons as the band that can do it.”