Johnny Rodriguez – Ridin’ back on more than just his thumb
Sloven, Kennedy and Dea each brought in songs for Rodriguez to choose from for the album, but one the Texas singer dug up himself was “Mexico Rain”, a conjunto-flavored number with a gentle acoustic guitar melody. “He’s a good singer himself,” Rodriguez says of Hearne. “He used to have a little group called South By Southwest. But that song is about the only one he’s had recorded.”
Hearne first sang Rodriguez the song during a fishing trip to New Mexico, and he liked it immediately. “I recorded it when Billy Sherrill was producing me back on Epic [Rodriguez switched from Mercury to Epic in 1979 and stayed with the label through 1985], but it was never a single. But I’d go to these Texas dancehalls, and they played that song a lot. A couple of DJs down in San Antonio asked me to record it again, so I did.”
“The Best Thing Going”, written by Mike Geiger, Woody Mullins and Michael Huffman, is another standout. Rodriguez’s voice is long, tall and heartfelt, and it’s perfectly mixed against a spare background that includes piano, guitar and pedal steel. “That’s a new song,” Rodriguez says. “It’s one of those songs I’m more comfortable with — for some reason I can sing that shit-kicking stuff real easy.”
In a way, says Rodriguez, the songs on You Can Say That Again are all different from each other. “That’s what I like about ’em — and the fact that they all in a way say something about me.”
Which gets us around to the grand prize winner of the bunch, Keen’s “Corpus Christi Bay,” which Rodriguez says reminds him of “something me and my brother would have done.”
Rodriguez had heard of Keen (whose “The Road Goes on Forever” has been covered by Joe Ely and the Highwaymen) but had never heard anything the fellow Texan had recorded himself until Sloven brought him a tape of “Corpus Christi Bay”. Rodriguez’s recording brings the song’s bright, youthful spirit to life and makes it shine.
Rodriguez was born in Sabinal, Texas — about 50 miles west of San Antonio — and grew up listening to all kinds of music. There were originally 10 kids in his family — all with different musical tastes. “Everybody was always fighting over the radio,” he says.
His first experience playing music was in a high school rock band called the Spocks — though perhaps the most memorable aspect of that group was the set of clay Vulcan ears he wore when he performed. “I wanted to be something different,” he says, cracking up as he tells the story.
The band’s glory days were short-lived. “I was singing that song, ‘Oh where oh where can my baby be?’ and there were some chicks sitting around, and all of the sudden my damn ears fell off.” Suddenly, show biz didn’t seem so glamorous. “I said, ‘Okay, boys, that’s it with the ears.'”
Growing up in small-town Texas, hearing country music was unavoidable. Rodriguez’s inspiration to start singing it himself came partly from Merle Haggard, who during the 1960s had a string of hits about fugitives on the run and the loneliness of prison life.
You see, Rodriguez himself is an ex-con of sorts. He spent a few months in jail for stealing a couple of goats one night when he and his friends were eager for a summer barbecue. It’s a story that later — after he was a bona fide Nashville sensation — was picked up by The Associated Press wire service and was run by newspapers all over the country. David Allan Coe even mentions the incident in his song “Longhaired Redneck”.
That goat rustling business, though, has dogged Rodriguez throughout much of his career. “I was embarrassed to damn death,” he says. “Everyone thought it was funny, but I almost went to prison for a long time.”
Rodriguez, who’d just turned 18, was sentenced to three to seven years, though he wound up only doing about three to four months thanks to a Texas Ranger named Joaquin Jackson. “He got me a job working at Alamo Village, where they made the movie The Alamo. When he took me there, he said, ‘Don’t run off or I’ll find you,’ ” Rodriguez recounts with a laugh. “I cleaned my act up real fast.”
Rodriguez did all sorts of odd jobs at that tourist park, from driving the stagecoach to staging gunfights to singing in the cantina. “That’s where Tom T. Hall heard me,” he continues. “He and Bobby Bare were on vacation visiting with Happy Shahan.” Shahan — who eventually became Rodriguez’s first manager, and who just recently passed away — owned the park. “Tom T. told me that he’d like to have me in his band someday. I just thought he was being nice.”
“The next year, though, my dad died of cancer, and then a few months later my brother was killed in a car accident. I wasn’t ready to go to college, so I just took off and came up here [to Nashville].”
Rodriguez played in Hall’s band for six or eight months. “He ran me off. I had had a couple of hits, and it got to where he said, ‘You son of a bitch, I can’t follow you anymore. Get your ass out there on the road by yourself.’
“So I took his bus and his band, and played my first gig in San Antonio at a place called the Farmer’s Daughter. The next morning, after I paid for the bus and the band, I think I was in the hole about $400. I told that damn Tom T., and he said, ‘Welcome to show business.’ Ha-ha! Thanks a lot.”