What Gives?

Johnny Rodriguez on HighTone

It just doesn't seem to add up. It starts off making sense: The label is HighTone. Mm-hmm, good roots label. First song on the album: "Big Red Sun Blues." Yep, a Lucinda Williams tune, just the sort of thing with which you'd expect a HighTone artist to lead off. Next track: "If I'd Left It Up to You." Yes, good again, a Merle Haggard song -- HighTone acts always want to show respect for their roots-music heroes. Dig a little deeper and you get Dave Alvin's "Every Night About This Time" and Robert Earl Keen's "Corpus Christi Bay." Yes, perfect, this is definitely one of those sharp, young, alternative-country types who knows his stuff, impeccable taste. So just who is this upstart?

Would you believe Johnny Rodriguez?

Yes, that Johnny Rodriguez. The one who hit it big with "Pass Me By (If You're Only Passing Through)." The one who landed 15 Number One hits in the Seventies, and then spent the next decade in the "where-are-they-now" file.

Yes, the one who got his big break serving time in jail for goat rustling.

Johnny Rodriguez is definitely not the type of artist you expect to find on HighTone Records. As far as its country acts go, HighTone is decidedly anti-Nashville, one of the premiere labels on which to find "alternative" country. We're not talking acts that didn't make the Nashville cut and went looking for a label -- more like acts that never even bothered with "Music City" in the first place, or if they did, were so hard-core that they scared the hell out of the major-label executives.

But Rodriguez is not that type of performer. Indeed, he's been right at the heart of that machine, a classic Nashville story. He hopped off a plane there in 1971 at the request of Tom T. Hall with only $14 in his pocket and a guitar, and became the proverbial overnight success. One day he was a goat thief, the next day a superstar. He got huge, really huge, did all the hard-partying stuff that people of sudden hugeness are supposed to do, and then crashed to the bottom. Toiling for years to get that big break? Not this guy. And that makes him odd man out at a label that boasts the likes of Dale Watson, Big Sandy & the Fly Right Boys, Ted Roddy, and Rosie Flores.

So what gives? How did he end up going from the C&W business capital to... uh, Oakland?

"Roy Dea had worked with [HighTone] before," says Rodriguez, sipping a beer at the Broken Spoke. That would be the Roy Dea who, with Jerry Kennedy, produced Rodriguez's hits two decades ago. "He called and wanted to know if I was interested in doing this project, and I said yeah, and then I asked him to get a hold of Jerry Kennedy."

And so began the saga of You Can Say That Again, a swinging, C&W return to the recording studio -- Rodriguez's first since 1989. Summing up his reasons for signing with the label, Rodriguez begins to sound more typically HighTone-ish: "I felt like there was a freedom, and there's an open-mindedness about them, and I liked that. Larry Sloven [HighTone's president] has never tried to interfere with my creativity."

What Sloven did do was offer up some creative help, in the form of tasteful song offerings.

"He sent me some songs, like 10 or 15, and I picked up `Corpus Christi Bay' and another song called `Every Night About This Time,' more kind of alternative-type songs, and the other ones, Roy Dea and Jerry Kennedy listened to a bunch of them and then I picked these out of about 20 that they had already sifted through."

Listening to Rodriguez talk about choosing these tunes is rather refreshing. As said, he's very much an outsider to the alt-country intelligentsia. He didn't choose "Big Red Sun Blues" because of Lucinda Williams' reputation as a cutting-edge songwriter. He didn't pick "Every Night About This Time" to associate himself with the ultra-hip L.A. cowpunk scene, or because cult legend Joe Ely covered it. He didn't even know Alvin was the author of the Dwight Yoakam hit "Long White Cadillac" until this writer told him, and the Blasters didn't ring a bell.

He simply heard the songs and liked them -- which has to be extremely validating to anyone wanting to see these artists get notice outside of the small indie-label world. "Roy Dea brought me the one by Lucinda," says Rodriguez. "I just had a feeling that the songs fit me, I guess. And they pretty much do.

"I met Robert Earl a long time ago, but I don't know these other guys. I've heard Lucinda's albums, I haven't heard Dave's. But he's a damn good writer. I didn't even know who the writers were on these songs, they were just on a tape and I happened to pick those."

More familiar territory for Rodriguez was the Haggard cut, "If I'd Left It Up to You."

"The reason I cut that song was that the very first time that I got my first recording contract with Mercury, that was the first song I sang for Roy Dea. So, after all those albums that we never did record it, we said let's cut it this time."

The song was an appropriate starting point for Rodriguez back then. His earliest musical experience was mariachi music, but country makes its way into any rural Texan's life eventually, and Rodriguez's boyhood in Sabinal was no different.

"I liked it. I started listening to Hank Williams, Merle Haggard... when Merle came on the scene, that's when I got more interested in country music. I could relate to what he was singing about -- jail, and stuff like that," he laughs. "During [his jail stint] was when I started listening to it."

Actually, Rodriguez does sound more like a HighTone man when he talks about the current state of the business that took him to the top. He isn't totally in the dark about his labelmates, professing a love for Dale Watson's music, and sharing Watson's attitude towards "Hot Young Country": "I don't like it, either. It seems like, I don't know, there's not too much meat there. There's a rawness that's not there."

But then he separates himself from the HighToners again, with the fact that he actually has a wad of dough left over from his heyday. After Rodriguez fell from the top and virtually disappeared for a decade, he could still live comfortably. And he's decided to do just that, taking a luxury that Watson certainly can't afford:

"I don't tour much anymore. I got really burned out on touring, and I figured out finally that I was having more fun just kind of not working so damn hard, and so I said as long as I can pay my bills I'll stay home and try to live a little bit. I think I'm at a point where I can enjoy it again."

But Rodriguez does still get out occasionally for a gig, playing dancehalls like the Spoke, rodeos, and fairs.And now that the children of the Seventies are coming of age, it might be an opportune time for the 44-year-old Rodriguez to make a comeback:

"The older fans, we almost feel like we know each other, a lot of them have been coming to see me for a long time. And the younger fans, a lot of them weren't familiar with my music until they come to see me, and then they go, `Oh, is that the guy that did that song?'" n Johnny Rodriguez plays an acoustic set tonight, Thursday, August 29 at Dallas nightclub on Burnet Road.

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