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Happy Trails

A cowboy's name hasn't kept bluesman Roy Rogers off his chosen range

"Hobart -- great name. There's not many of those in the world, I bet."
Roy Rogers seems genuinely tickled to be speaking with someone who's probably taken as much flack as he has for a name he had nothing to do with choosing -- even if that someone is a journalist.

"We could talk stories all day long," says Rogers. "It makes you tough. You're kind of open to anything people throw at you."

To anyone acquainted with this California-based musician, songwriter and producer, the origin of his given name is hardly a secret: Rogers -- a revered slide guitarist with a stunning resume and a new solo release, Rhythm & Groove, that somehow manages to sound both traditional and of-the-moment -- was christened by his star-struck parents after the famous movie and TV cowboy. Adding insult to injury, he was born in the early '50s, when the Roy Rogers program was at the height of its popularity, which meant his name invited near-constant abuse from childhood peers.

Over the years, though, Rogers has grown to value what he once considered a curse, even if it often confuses the hell out of club owners, promoters and potential fans. The name game gets people talking, Rogers admits, and a little talk can't hurt if it steers people toward what he does. Rogers even titled his first solo release, 1986's Chops Not Chaps, in sly reference to his ongoing identity problems, and his music publishing company goes by the same name.

"It's always worked to my advantage," he says. "The whole kind of juxtaposition of me playing the kind of music I do and being named Roy Rogers -- it's always something that I've had fun with. There are so many people in this business who tend to take themselves way too seriously. You've got to lighten up."

The way Rogers thinks, the machinery of music-making and star-making have never been one and the same. His healthy sense of levity about himself -- and about the recording industry -- could easily be mistaken for blase nonchalance if he didn't take his work so seriously.

"I certainly don't mind promoting my records and meeting people. But music's the key for me," says Rogers. "Everything else is secondary. And that goes for fame and fortune and all of that other stuff."

If at times Rogers seems just a little too comfortable hiding behind the big names he's backed, you can't accuse him of being lazy. A fixture on the West Coast blues scene since he was teenager, Rogers' work history boasts a daunting list of famous former employers and collaborators. Van Morrison, Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Albert Collins and Carlos Santana are among those who have solicited his services live and in the studio.

"I was 12 when I started playing guitar, and I was 13 when a got into my first band," says Rogers, who grew up near San Francisco in Vallejo, California. "My life started with Little Richard and Chuck Berry; I was a little rock and roller. Then my older brother brought home King of the Delta Blues Singers. Robert Johnson was the first [musician] who really blew my mind."

Second in line for that honor was John Lee Hooker. During the '60s and '70s, Rogers knocked around California with various groups; by the '80s, he'd found a temporary home with Hooker's Coast to Coast Band. His 1982 tryout came when a friend, who was a former member of Coast to Coast, introduced him to the legendary blues veteran.

"I learned just by observing. The way he approaches a song -- he digs so deep," says Rogers, recalling his days in Hooker's group and what he took away from the experience. "You can only hope to tap into that yourself."

Rogers left the Coast to Coast band in 1986, but he's remained close to Hooker personally and professionally, producing the bluesman's last four releases, all Grammy-nominated. The most recent of those, 1995's Chill Out, finally earned Rogers a Grammy. He also was nominated in 1990 for his collaboration with Hooker, Taj Mahal and Miles Davis on the soundtrack to the Dennis Hopper film Hot Spot.

In between his '80s work as a hired hand, Rogers began recording his own material, starting out with a handful of efforts for the San Francisco independent label Blind Pig. From there, he moved to Liberty Records for a pair of CDs, 1993's Slide of Hand and 1994's Slide Zone. Most recently, he's found a home alongside his old friend Hooker on Pointblank/Virgin.

Rhythm & Groove is Rogers' initial release for his new label, and with the able-bodied assistance of drummer Tony Sanchez, keyboardist Philip Aaberg and bassist Steve Evans, he makes an indelible first impression. Lean on flash and meaty on strong tunes, the collection features 12 Rogers compositions and covers of two classics (Willie Dixon's "Built for Comfort" and Mose Allison's "You're Mind Is on Vacation") reinterpreted just liberally enough to accommodate Rogers' modern-day, feel-good touch, which rocks as often as it simmers.

Noteworthy guest appearances are made by David Grisman on mandolin and Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica, but there's really never any doubt that Rhythm & Groove is Rogers' baby. With the voice of a swamp-dipped Randy Newman, he lays into originals such as the raucous, upbeat opener "Vida's Place," the ominous "Shakin' Hands with the Devil" and the unapologetically catchy barn-burner "Feel My Care" with admirable restraint, letting the music's firm backbone support his potent playing. There's little call for showing off, considering these are the best songs Rogers has written in some time -- if not ever. Thanks in large part to Rogers' decision to record Rhythm & Groove's basic tracks live in Sausalito, California's spacious Studio D, the CD's sound is big and alive, bristling with the immediacy and presence of a nightclub performance while retaining the fine-tuned feel of studio product.

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