The other brother... Performing is in the blood. That would explain why Baytown's Philip Rodriguez started playing piano and violin at a young age, and why his aunt has such a long, deep history in the music industry in Mexico. There's also Philip's older brother, David, the most well-known Rodriguez, a friend of Eric Taylor and the late Townes Van Zandt who's been modestly and poignantly plying his trade as a Texas singer/songwriter since the 1970s.
Philip, on the other hand, was what you'd call a reluctant latecomer to the family muse. Reared on a diet of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, the younger Rodriguez fiddled about with words and guitar in his sibling's shadow for many years, emerging every now and again to test the artistic waters before retreating back into the inconspicuous life of a refinery worker. A native of southeast Houston, Rodriguez recalls one such coming-out in painful detail.
"David had me come in and do a set at Corky's [a now-defunct Houston club]," he remembers. "Back then, I smoked a lot of pot, and I completely screwed up, because pot makes you forget your words. I had this horrible set and got bummed out about it."
Apparently, it's taken him a while to recover. But now, a few decades later, Rodriguez is finally ready to take another stab at playing music seriously -- and it's about time, seeing as he's 42. The release last week of Rodriguez's debut CD, River Through the Sun, has added weight to those convictions. A spare, intimate portrait of a middle-aged man coming to terms with all that's good, bad and indifferent about being human -- the crucial mistakes, the emotional wounds, the children and the grandchildren, the sheer boredom of being alone -- River's ten, mostly acoustic tracks are a sometimes extraordinary testament to a pretty ordinary life.
"Refinery lights they line the skies / On steel and concrete towers," Rodriguez sings in his hushed tenor on "Refinery Lights," while snare-frame taps and the ubiquitous Max Dyer's fractured cello act as a beacon in the petrol-sodden haze. "Somewhere between these process lines / I feel life growing sour."
Although some of the tunes on River reflect an often discomfiting ennui bordering on desperation, the overall message is one of hope. Thanks to songs such as "Loriana Coale" (about his adopted daughter) and the title track, it quickly becomes apparent that Rodriguez is most inspired by the second chances that inevitably come with life's regenerative cycle. "In conversation you and me / Talked about the things to be / While I held your swing," Rodriguez reflects in "Loriana Coale," his tender acoustic guitar dangling the notes of a cleansing paean to his now 23-year-old daughter.
All in all, River Through the Sun is an incredibly personal statement, even if its creator may not have realized it at first.
"That's not necessarily what I intended, but that's how it ended up," says Rodriguez, who produced the CD himself over a period of a year and a half at Heights Sound Studio in Houston. "Most of the songs were written between '94 and '95. That was a year and a half after I'd gotten divorced, so a lot of [the songs] had to do with processing that stuff."
This was also about the time that Rodriguez was laid off from his job as an instrument/electrical designer at a Houston plant, after which he opted to take a year off, readjust his perspective and focus on his art. "In '94, I was sitting in Mexico one day, and my New Year's resolution was that I was going to take the year and try to really do something with it -- as far as writing music and working in that direction." Rodriguez says. "Just see what happens."
Eventually, though, the money from his 401K ran out, and Rodriguez's family obligations (he has a teenage daughter living at home) brought him to Baytown, where he has since found another steady job outside of music.
"Baytown is a necessity for me right now," says Rodriguez, still a single father, whose third child, Noah, lives with his mother.
Residing in Baytown, of course, makes it difficult for Rodriguez to actively pursue performing as a full-time gig. Still, if all else fails, River Through the Sun remains a permanent and compelling reminder of the options that, four years ago, he never thought he had.
Eyeing the future... The Artist Management Group may have lost one of its marquee acts when the Jinkies disbanded last month, but that doesn't seem to have affected its forward progress. Its client roster now a bit lighter, Houston's premier handler of local original acts is, nevertheless, plunging ass-first into the record-label business.
"We're starting to look for bands that might be able to get out there and hit the college market," says AMG CEO Richard Cagle. "We're going to try and do between eight and 12 records a year."
In late December, AMG moved from its cramped suite in Montrose to a roomier studio/office facility off Highway 290, northwest of town. There's no name as yet for the label, but Cagle is already hard at work in his new 16-track Studio 11 cutting tracks for groups both inside and outside the AMG orbit. The first Studio 11 project, a few-song outing from grade-school punks Pure Rubbish, is unaffiliated with AMG or its new label. Cagle says the group plans to release the effort on its own: "They're going to go the real indie route. They're going to put it on a seven-inch and sell it to all their friends. And I'll tell you what, that little guitar player is going to be a monster."
Cagle says he expects the new studio's first in-house venture, a full-length debut CD from AMG act Rosebud, to be out in mid-March. "Then we'll take it up to [the] South by Southwest [Music Conference], and see if we get any interest in it," he adds.
Meanwhile, Cagle is still very much involved in the careers of AMG cornerstone act Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys, as well as Under the Sun.
-- Hobart Rowland
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