Johnny Rodriguez – Ridin’ back on more than just his thumb
The early 1970s was one of the most exciting eras in country music. The Nashville Sound was on the wane, thanks in part to singers such as Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Bobby Bare and Tom T. Hall. But as individualistic as these singers were, they also recognized the importance of community. So when they pushed through the doors of Music Row, they didn’t let them slam but instead held them open. Thus, the world became aware of such talents as Mickey Newbury, Billy Joe Shaver, and a Texas kid barely in his 20s named Johnny Rodriguez.
Rodriguez’s rise from obscurity to top-of-the-charts fame was about as quick as it comes. He hitched into Nashville with, as he puts it, “a guitar and 14 dollars, two pairs of pants and three shirts.” The first thing he did was call Tom T. Hall, whom he’d met a year earlier, and ask him for a job. The next day he was playing guitar in Hall’s band; less than a year later he was on the national charts with a hit of his own. It was a fantasy-come-true picture of every lonesome picker’s American Dream.
“It was wild, man,” said Rodriguez during a recent phone interview, laughing at the memory. “I guess it was one of those things that was meant to happen.”
Rodriguez had a dazzling burst of hits during the first half of the ’70s, including “Pass Me By”, “Ridin’ My Thumb to Mexico” and “Just Get Up and Close the Door”. His debut album, Introducing Johnny Rodriguez, was also immensely popular. Ripe with the dusty good looks of a gold-hearted rebel, Rodriguez also became a country music sex symbol, fueling the fantasies of eager fans who, burning with Kristofferson fever, were desperate for another fantasy figure. Times had changed, and Roy Acuff’s withered mug was long out of style.
A decade later, though, despite a steady stream of hit recordings, the sexy young boy had more or less dropped out of sight. The seemingly endless tour schedule — and all the accoutrements that come with the territory — had gotten the better of him, Rodriguez says.
But his longtime fans got a big surprise this past summer when he resurfaced on indie label HighTone Records with You Can Say That Again, his first album in close to 10 years and his most down-to-earth, traditionally minded collection since his mid-’70s heyday. The record features a dozen covers by songwriters ranging from classic (Merle Haggard, Frank Dycus) to contemporary (Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen).
Rodriguez has had a penchant for cover material since his earliest days in the business. The first two songs he played for Mercury Records executive Roy Dea, in fact, were by Haggard (“If I’d Left It Up to You”, which is on the new album) and Don Gibson.
“It was just me and a guitar,” recalls Rodriguez of the office demo session. “I sang ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ half in English and half in Spanish, and [Dea] stopped me and said, ‘I want to sign you right now.’ I thought, ‘What?’ I couldn’t believe it, man. Here I’d gone from poverty to having a recording contract in one day.”
Rodriguez co-wrote all but one song on his debut album with his mentor, Tom T. Hall. “When I was traveling with Tom T., I was sort of like his seceratary when he was writing songs. He’d be saying them and I’d be writing them down. And then we started writing together.”
The only song the pair didn’t write for that album was by Billy Joe Shaver. Another up-and-coming songwriter, Shaver was one of the first guys Rodriguez met when he got to Nashville. “Bobby Bare introduced us. As a matter of fact, I was the very first person to record one of his songs, ‘Ride Me Down Easy’ — except on my first album I called it ‘Easy Come Easy Go’. After that, Bobby Bare jumped on it, put it out as a single, and got himself some airplay. Then Tom T. recorded ‘Old Five and Dimers’, and Billy Joe was off and writing.”
Rodriguez concurs that the time he got started in the business was exciting and full of superb writers and singers. He brings up the name Bob McDill and then gets excited at the mention of another, Mickey Newbury. Rodriguez’s knock-down mid-’70s version of Newbury’s sad, beautiful “Poison Red Berries” is just one example of his excellent sense for timeless material.
The idea for the new album, says Rodriguez, was initiated by HighTone’s Larry Sloven. “Larry got ahold of Roy Dea saying he wanted to do a project with me. I suggested we talk to Jerry Kennedy [who produced Rodriguez’s earliest records], and one thing led to another.” Dea and Kennedy share production credits on You Can Say That Again.
The arrangements are far more traditional in melody and spirit than most of what comes out of Nashville these days — which is just the way Rodriguez likes it. “We didn’t even have to work on it,” he says proudly. “A lot of these musicians worked with me before. And Roy Dea and Jerry Kennedy were a perfect pairing, because Roy likes his music pretty raw, and so do I. With Kennedy, it’s raw, but it’s a little bit cleaner.”
The mix of songs — from gems by Haggard and Whitey Shafer (“When It’s Your Turn to Fall”) to newer material such as Williams “Big Red Sun Blues”, Keen’s “Corpus Christi Bay” and Dave Alvin’s “Every Night About this Time” — gives You Can Say That Again an extra shot of courage. Don’t be put off, though, if the album doesn’t blow your mind the first time around: It’s a slow-grow kind of affair. After several listens, songs such as “Your Turn to Fall”, Michael Hearne’s “Mexico Rain” and the title track suddenly are running like rabbits through your head, drawing you back for another spin. This album may just be the honky-tonk sleeper of the year.