It's a great time to be a fan of country music. Mainstream artists like Kacey Musgraves are challenging old stereotypes. And in the vast field outside the pop country stratosphere, there are songwriters whose wit and clarity transcend genre. Key among those is Randy Rogers Band, which will headline Red Rocks on Sunday for the second year in a row.
Last year, RRB played here about a month after the release of Trouble, an album featuring several tracks Rogers himself wrote while going through a divorce. It's powerful music played expertly by a band with some fourteen years spent figuring out how to fit songs together.
Still, in spite of the accomplishments of the current generation, the eyes of the country world are fixed on a man who turned 62 years old this week. George Strait's farewell tour (actually "The Cowboy Rides Away" tour) made its way through Denver in early April and finishes in Texas in a couple weeks with a blowout at Cowboy's Stadium featuring tribute sets from the likes of Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney, Eric Church and Faith Hill. "He had fifty number-one hits. I mean, fifty number one hits, come one," says Rogers (It's actually 44, but the point very much stands). "It's kind of a phenomenon. And he's always done it with dignity and class, and he's always treated everybody by the book. He's someone who your kiddos can look up to and, if you're in the music business, someone to strive to be."
Randy Rogers will be there at the Cowboy's final farewell, too, playing in the VIP. "When I was a young songwriter, twelve or thirteen, I was just trying to write songs George Strait would cut," says Rogers. "I just thought he was the king, and he is. He's just one of the coolest guys on the planet."
Rogers and his band have been in the company of the king for some time -- they even played with him at the opening of a golf course. "For sure, being associated with George has helped us in our career," he says.
When you are categorized the way Randy Rogers Band is -- as a Texas Country or Red Dirt artist -- those boosts mean a lot. Despite the band's years in the business and six full-length albums of increasing commercial success, they've never become a darling of mainstream country radio. That says more about the genre than it does the band. "Mainstream country radio is isn't top forty any more, it's really top twenty. It's pretty tightly controlled format," says Rogers. "Unfortunately, we live in a society that labels everything. The music that has come out of our region for the last thirty years or more, dating back to Willie, I guess, just kind of got labeled as a sub-genre of country music. And in all honesty, it has been really difficult to get any mainstream airplay out of that genre."
Still, he isn't resentful of the format. "There are great songs all over top 40 radio, and there are crappy songs. It's the same with any genre."
So RRB did it the hard way, touring relentlessly, finding new fans in each city and hoping they'd tell their friends. In many places around the country -- including Denver -- they did. "Most of the time, we started out in the smallest club in town and we moved up every time we came back," says Rogers. Here, the band played its first show at Bender's Tavern, which Rogers remembers as "the place downtown that had the Johnny Cash mural on the side of it." He laughs when he learns of Cash's fate (it's now a painting of Jerry Garcia). That show was a long time ago. "Denver was one of the cities we actually did get airplay in," he says. "So we went from Bender's to the [Grizzly] Rose pretty quickly. And then we just kept coming back, year after year."
Now, he and his band have made it to the big hillside in Morrison. They'll play this weekend with Casey Donahew Band and Turnpike Trobadours. I just can't wait to hop up on that stage," says Rogers. "It's the most beautiful place on Earth."
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