Remember Roy Rogers, the singing cowboy with the trusty horse, Trigger, and the cute wife, Dale Evans, who conveniently sang harmony? Well, this is not that guy.
This Roy Rogers is a master slide guitarist who plays an infectious blend of delta blues and rock and roll that has been filling road house dance floors for 35 years.
He’s headlining the American River Music Festival with his band, the Delta Rhythm Kings on Sunday, Sept. 16 at 4:30 p.m.
Rogers is no delta blues preservationist. That would be too confining.
For this Roy Rodgers, it’s all about self expression. “It’s about connecting with an audience, digging deep and finding what you got, then putting it out. You got something to say, you say it.”
In a wide ranging 2010 interview and a recent followup, he talked about growing up in Vallejo, under the influence of the cross-cultural musical melting pot of 1960s San Francisco. His main influence, however, would come straight out of Mississippi.
By the age of 13, he was playing Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley songs with boys old enough to drive cars and chase girls.
Then came the British invasion. Bands like the Yardbirds, the Who, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles vaulted to the top of the charts with hits that few Americans recognized as rocked-up versions of Delta Blues standards.
Rogers’ older brother brought home an album by the “King of the Delta Blues,” Robert Johnson. “I put that thing on and it flipped my head around,” said Rogers.
He began to experiment with slide guitar and open tunings, trying to capture the raw, expressive power he heard in the scratchy old recordings. It’s a sound he still loves, and still strives to create.
“The inflections you get mimic the nuances of tone in the human voice,” he explained. “That’s why the old delta blues guys did so much call and response. They’d sing a verse, then answer it with a guitar.”
Meanwhile, the blues masters were aging, and migrating from smoky Chicago nightclubs where they played until 5 a.m. to the coastal cities, attracted by earlier closing times, kinder climates and larger audiences of lily-white flower children who adored them.
At the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore West, Rogers marveled at Muddy Waters, Albert and B.B. King, Jimmy Reed and a guy named John Lee Hooker.
In the 1970s Rogers did a stint with Chicago blues man Luther Tucker, who introduced him to Hooker.
By the late 1970s Rogers was scorching the stages of roadhouses with largely original material, building a loyal audience who loved his hybrid delta blues rock.
In 1982 Hooker hired him. They toured together for four years and became fast friends. Later in the decade, Rogers produced four records that captured the blues legend’s idiosyncratic “talking blues” powerfully.
His association with Hooker “is probably what I’m most proud of,” he said. “We were close, and I’m proud to have helped extend his musical legacy.”
Rogers left Hooker’s band in 1986 to form the Delta Rhythm Kings. He’s been touring with them ever since, enjoying side projects along the way with some of the legends of rock, and even jazz, including harmonica master Norton Buffalo, vocalist Shana Morrison, jazz saxophonist George Brooks and new-age flamenco guitar master Ottmar Liebert.
Rogers has a couple of juke boxes full of 78s, mostly gospel and old blues in his home outside Nevada City. One of them is an art deco Seeburg 147 “trash can” juke. “It’s all metal; It just whacks,” he said. “I’ve got Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, Hooker, Art Tatum, the Swan Silvertones.”
Rogers and his wife Gaynell left Marin County for the foothills five years ago, which begs the question … might he be winding down a career filled with late nights and countless beer-soaked roadhouses?
“Retirement is not in my vocabulary,” he said. “I still have something to say. You got a limited amount of time on the planet. I’m one of those cats that will probably bop till I drop.”
His most recent creative outlet is a partnership with Ray Manzarek, who played keyboards and was the creative force behind the Doors. The duo released one record, are planning a second, and have also toured extensively.
Rogers describes his music as an ongoing experiment in communication.
“Sometimes you need to get uncomfortable to see how far you can stretch it,” he said. “It’s how you keep fresh and expand your chops.”
Those chops will be on display with the Delta Rhythm Kings Sunday afternoon in the Coloma Valley at Henningsen-Lotus Park, 950 Lotus Road in Lotus.
For tickets and information visit the American river Music Festival Website Americanrivermusic.org.