Most slide guitar instruction manuals start with, "Meet the devil at the crossroads at midnight." Roy Rogers don't play that.
Blues guitarist Rogers is a California boy who got his learning at the Fillmore in San Francisco, scoping out the non-psychedelic acts. He was drawn to the raw Mississippi Delta sounds of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker. Rogers would later spend four years touring with Hooker before producing Hooker's two Grammy-winning albums, 1989's The Healer and Chill Out, in '95. Back in his teenage years, Rogers also discovered Robert Johnson, whom he calls "the Charlie Parker of his time."
"His rhythmic sense was absolutely stunning," says Rogers. "The rhythm is key. You can play lots of hot licks. You can be as fast as daylight. But if you don't have any rhythm, you haven't got much."
Before forming his band the Delta Rhythm Kings in 1980, Rogers set out to take his rhythm cross-country, teaming up with harp player David Burgin as an acoustic duo. Rogers and Burgin gained national attention when they appeared on the Jack Nitzsche-scored soundtrack to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in '76, splitting up shortly afterwards to go solo.
Rogers' solo career was interrupted in '82 when he was chosen to join Hooker's Coast to Coast Blues Band. Already steeped in Hooker's sound, Rogers learned more from the veteran bluesman about life than music.
"When you're around somebody like that, you inevitably analyze where you are with your position, with your music, and what it means to you and how to further define things in your life," Rogers says. "I don't think it has to be stated. In fact, it's better if it's not stated, if you just observe it [and] use what you can."
In addition to the two albums he produced for the bluesman, Rogers was tapped by Hooker to accompany him, Miles Davis and Taj Mahal for the Grammy-nominated, Nitzsche-scored soundtrack to Dennis Hopper's 1990 sleazy thriller The Hot Spot.
When not working for others, Rogers was honing his own sound, a blistering, fluid slide guitar style presented in a manner that reflects and respects Johnson without copying him. Some have compared him to Ry Cooder, a comparison Rogers is not comfortable with. "We actually play very different styles of slide guitar," Rogers says. "I think it's just that we both play slide guitar and both in the same musical realm, but that's about the only thing that's alike in our styles. We certainly listen to the same guys, I'm sure."
Rogers says his style is all about the rhythm. "I like to play rhythm. I call it between the lines. That means that you're playing stuff that you can't write down, you've gotta feel it." The guitarist professes a fondness for music that plays with the beat, going back to drum-influenced West African and Caribbean rhythms.
Rogers' style is based on Robert Johnson's concept of being the whole orchestra. "His voice is his slide, his guitar. The slide is mimicking the voice, so his voice and his guitar are one and the same. It's another voice, expressing how you feel at that particular time."
Rogers feels slide is the most expressive way to play guitar. He cites B.B. King as the ultimate example of someone with slide guitar envy, trying to emulate uncle Bukka White's slide prowess but never being able to get the hang of it. So King developing his trademark style through trying to mimic the slide by bending the strings.
On Rogers' latest and first live release, Roy Rogers and the Delta Rhythm Kings Live at the Sierra Nevada Brewery Big Room, he rocks and slithers his way through covers of Sonny Terry, Elmore James, Willie Dixon and, of course, Robert Johnson's "Terraplane."
They're not your usual blues covers: Rogers does some creative arranging, taking Dixon's "Built For Comfort," a song Howlin' Wolf immortalized on London Sessions, and making a barrelhouse boogie out of it. He turns in a version of Johnson's "Terraplane" that would have Johnson panting to catch up. Rogers, a self-confessed old car enthusiast, says he has a special insight on this one: "I have my own Terraplane. It's a 1937 Hudson, the car Robert Johnson wrote about."
Rogers also has another career as a song writer, co-writing "The Healer" with Hooker and Carlos Santana, as well as co-writing Bonnie Raitt's "Gnawin' On It," from 2002's Silver Lining. He's currently at work on a spoken-word record of Ramblin' Jack Elliot's life.
"I'm very fortunate," says Rogers of his career. "It's a small but certainly close musical world that I'm living in, but I'm as busy as I want to be. So I'm not complaining."
Roy Rogers plays at the Visulite Theater on Friday, October 14, at 8pm. Tickets are $15. For more, call 704-358-9200 or go to www.visulite.com.