Sign up for newsletter
 

Roger Wallace: hard core honky tonker got the blues

By Joel Bernstein, May 2001

Although he lives in Austin now, Roger Wallace is not a native Texan. So, it's no surprise that his music would be imbued with outside influences. And while his albums "Hillbilly Heights" and the new "That Kind Of Lonely" are hard-core honky-tonk, country isn't even his first musical love.

In his native Knoxville, Tenn., Wallace was a blues musician and DJ. Not surprisingly, the man who finally turned Wallace on to the wonders of hillbilly music had also learned some of his sound from blues performers.

"Hank Williams had so much soul and blues in his voice," Wallace says. "He was the first country singer who ever hit me that way. Then, I started listening to his songs and what he did with his music."

Wallace's original love for the blues was almost an act of rebellion. "Country music was in my background from the womb. I grew up on '70's country. There were always songs I liked, but I hated the fact it was my parents' music."

The Knoxville area has a rich musical heritage. "Roy Acuff went to my high school. My parents are from Maynardsville, where (he) and Carl Smith are actually from."

Don Gibson is another area legend, and The Everly Brothers got their first attention there. The Amazing Rhythm Aces, with their mix of country and blues, began in Knoxville as well.

"The blues scene is great in Knoxville. They've got a lot of support. Brownie McGhee was from there. There's lots of good jazz schools. All kinds of good music has a background in Knoxville."

But the music of another city soon beckoned Wallace. "All the blues I was really liking was coming out of Austin and other music like Junior Brown. I was starting to listen to Hank and Willie. I was starting to write my own music, but had no outlet."

The blues eventually allowed Wallace to move to Austin. "I got a job at Antone's record label. That was my official reason for moving. I lasted three months there. I didn't do any gigs for a couple of years. I was still trying to figure out where I wanted to go between blues and country. Some of the demos I was making at that time were really bizarre. Country with a blues sensibility was what I was trying to reach."

Wallace appeared at a country music open mic run by Jim Stringer, a musician who also runs a small label in Austin. "I got up and did a Hank Williams song. I met Teri Joyce, and I started playing in her band, The Tagalongs. I still play with her a lot. I do my band, Terry's band, and The Lovells, a vocal trio band."

Then he met Don Ayers, who financed a six-song demo. Texas Roundup Music gave the go-ahead to finish the album, which became "Hillbilly Heights. 'Don't Nobody Love Me' one of that album's songs, "was actually the second song I ever wrote. This (new) album also has a couple of songs that have been around a while."

Asked how the release of an album changed his life, Wallace says "I didn't have to have a day job anymore. I didn't make a lot of money off the record, but it got me making money at gigs instead of working at UPS. Last week, I played six nights, this week five. We play pretty much around Austin. I play Houston and Dallas and San Antonio."

Wallace will be getting on the road a bit more, including a short Midwest tour this spring.

Wallace knows he's not in the forefront of musical trends. "I never heard of Robert Earl Keen before I moved here, but every Joe Six Pack in Texas knows him. There's a crossover of audiences. There are so many little armies vying for the new spot in country music. Everybody knows the hat acts are going down the tubes. Everybody is trying to fill the void. Nashville is trying to make its own. Pat Green, etc. (hugely popular in Texas) - I don't really get it. It's fine singer-songwriter music, but a far cry from country in my opinion. They've got a huge college audience that jumps up and down like little school girls. It's like they're seeing The Beatles."

But Wallace maintains his own vision. "I wanted to look at this album as a coupling with the first record. I didn't want to do anything extremely different. They're like two sets of our live show on a three-set night. I usually look at albums as a live set. Certain songs have to jump out at the beginning, certain songs have to maintain the tempo, and songs at the end have to leave them coming back for more. 'First Train Heading South' (the last song on the new album) is a song we end sets with."

"We tried to make it sound a little bigger, a little better, but still kept the effects and reverb to a minimum. This album is a little more epic. 'I Never Picked Cotton' (an old Roy Clark hit) I call a Southern epic."

While this album ends Wallace's two-record deal with Texas Roundup, owned in part by Asleep at the Wheel drummer Dave Sanger, don't look for him in Nashville any time soon.

"You can spend a little time doing something you don't totally want to do, so that later you can do what you want. But (in Nashville) you got to do what they tell you, sing what they tell you, wear what they tell you - and there's zero chance I would do that. It would be nice to have more financial backing and my records in Wal-Mart, but not at the price of sucking."