Roger Wallace – Wandering the range of country’s influences
Roger Wallace has the kind of smoke-filled voice that comes rumbling out of the crawl space between love and loss. You hear it from the opening breath of The Lowdown, the title track to his third album. “First of all,” Wallace intones, a beat before the rhythm section answers, “you can’t tell me nothing that loving and leaving ain’t told me before.”
Wallace, who would be wealthy if he received royalties each time a writer has called him “lanky and handsome,” has lived enough in his 30 years to craft plenty of resonant story-songs about dead sweethearts, flashy harlots and moonlit beauties. He sings them with the conviction of a man who knows where he stands in relation to honky-tonkers such as George Jones and Dwight Yoakam.
Growing up in Knoxville in the 1970s, Wallace didn’t think much of country music. Though his parents predicted their youngest boy would become a country singer, Wallace shrugged it off. That’s your music, he’d say. You can have it.
Instead he listened to the rockabilly hits of Elvis Presley and the blues licks of B.B. King. By 17 he was banging out “Heartbreak Hotel” on his grandmother’s guitar and sitting in with local blues bands downtown. His music education continued at J.B.’s house, an after-hours speakeasy in the black section of town. “The band’s here,” J.B. would announce when Wallace and his friends arrived at three in the morning.
Then a strange thing happened, an epiphany of sorts. Wallace was heading to Austin to check out the blues scene there, and a friend had loaned him a compilation of Hank Williams songs. When the stretched pain of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” came over the speakers, it wasn’t the rendition Wallace grew up with in Knoxville.
“I knew the Ray Charles version better,” he recalls. “But then I heard Hank’s version. In the car, just driving. And I got tears and chills. He sings it with such heartache. Hank Williams was a blues singer if there ever was one.”
The realization sent him back to his parents’ music at a time when Wallace was trying to write his own material. “Country is just a lot more conducive to songwriting,” he suggests. “You’ve got Latin beats, swing, all of the blues, and the whole gamut of country music to play with.”
After moving to Austin for good in 1994, Wallace spent the next few years odd-jobbing and soaking up the city’s live music scene until he met the musicians who would form the crux of his band: guitarist Jim Stringer, fiddler Eamon McLoughlin, bassist Brad Fordham, drummer Lisa Pankratz and steel guitarist Marty Muse.
Wallace’s 1999 debut, Hillbilly Heights, and last year’s follow-up, That Kind Of Lonely, captured the pluck and velocity of his popular Monday night shows at the Continental Club. Crisp, reverb-free productions that seamlessly blended clever originals with classics such as Roy Clark’s “I Never Picked Cotton”, the discs helped establish him as one of Austin’s most promising up-and-coming country performers.
For The Lowdown, which came out in June on Lone Star Records, Wallace wanted to keep building on his sound. “I love lots of different styles of country,” he says, “and when you have the personnel to pull it off, there’s no reason not to do it.”
He turned to blues veteran Derek O’Brien, whose music “is half the reason I came to Austin,” Wallace notes. “We talked a lot about ’60s Ray Price records and old shuffle records, and about using space and silence as tools on a country record. The right tone is really important to both of us. We wanted you to feel like you’re sitting and listening to the band, not a record.”
The result is Wallace’s smoothest, most varied album to date. It ranges from the gently swinging ballad “You’re A Heavenly Thing” to the raucously fun “Me And Abalina Jane”, which warns against a comely waitress at the Come On Inn. He duets with country-blues diva Toni Price on “Blow Wind Blow”, a shuffle penned by Teri Joyce, and pays homage to the late Harlan Howard with “I’ll Catch You When You Fall”.
But his own “The Wandering Fool” has the album’s most wistful chorus. It compares Wallace’s new home to his old one: Knoxville is a “scruffy little girl,” while Austin is that “sharp and sparkly lady” who might “use me, confuse me, leave me lonely again.”
Now focused on “going to honky-tonk school,” as he puts it, Wallace will hit the road this fall, beginning in September with an appearance at the Americana Music Association’s convention in Nashville. He’s anxious to show audiences what sets him apart.
“People have to see you, meet you and hear you play to understand what you’ re all about,” he says. “I like to put blues and jazz into my country. Not every song has to be about beer, Texas and momma.”