By Eleni P. Austin
Somewhere between Jackson Browne, Steve Earle and Ryan Bingham stands Rodney Rice. The West Virginia native has just released his third album.
Rodney grew up in the small city of Morgantown. He and his cousin Tyler began playing guitar around age nine. Honing their nascent skills at their grandparents’ house, the pair inundated with requests to perform Country classics from the likes of Hank Sr., Willie and Waylon and the boys.
As a kid, he was raised on Country and Gospel standards. Pretty quickly, he began raiding the cassette collections of Uncles, cousins and siblings, occasionally “forgetting” to return certain tapes. His musical education included deep dives into the back catalogs of Tom Petty, The Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. Seeing John Prine (R.I.P.) early on was an epiphany of sorts. The late troubadour displayed an easygoing intimacy with his audience that Rodney hoped to emulate.
Although he submitted to formal music lessons, Rather quickly, Rodney realized patience and adolescence don’t really mix. In those days his big ambition was to play the Dead’s 1981 live opus, Reckoning, front to back. Once he accomplished that, he began writing his own music. While Morgantown music venues weren’t necessarily looking to showcase original music, Rodney and Tyler began playing around town as Buford & Pooch, an appellation derived from childhood nicknames. They plied their trade in local dive bars, juke joints and Honky-Tonks. Their musical partnership wound down organically, coinciding with their high school graduation.
Once he completed his Geology studies, he relocated to Texas for work. The Austin music scene rekindled his own passion for making music. He also reacquainted himself with Austin’s Outlaw Country outlier, Billy Joe Shaver. Inspired by Billy Joe’s ability to consistently write and record compelling new music, Rodney picked up his guitar and his pen. Not long after, he booked some time at Congress House recording studio and the result was his debut, Empty Pockets And a Troubled Mind.
Released in 2014, the album received rave reviews and garnered modest sales. Although he and his wife relocated to Denver, Colorado, he returned to Congress House just ahead of the pandemic, and his winning sophomore effort, SAME SHIrT, DIFFERENT DAY, arrived in the autumn of 2020. Now he’s back with his self-titled third effort. The record kicks into gear with the one-two punch of “How You Told Me So” and “Got To Where I’m Going.” The former opens with an old-timey saloon piano intro that connects with rumbling baritone guitar, a walking bass line and a ramshackle backbeat. Lyrics unspool a litany of woes that touch on marital ennui, pandemic panic and the struggles we confront everyday; “If I had the words to say, to document the day, would they weigh so heavy on my mind, looking back from here and all we lost this year, with a little luck, I’ll find some peace of mind.” Fluttery piano runs are bookended by barbwire guitar riffs and a Big Easy trumpet fanfare on the break. Rodney’s whiskey-soaked rasp exudes a cheerful charm even when he acknowledges the the losses we’ve all endured these last few years; “Such a heavy toll of all those lost souls, gone too early, they’re frozen in time/There are no words to say, ‘bout why they went away and left us all weeping behind.”
The latter easily straddles the line between Country and Rock (a hybrid separately pioneered by Rick Nelson, Mike Nesmith and Gram Parsons, and popularized by The Eagles) Muscular guitars are matched by rubbery bass lines, churchy keys and a snap-back beat. Like a sailor with a sweetheart in every port, lyrics find our hero searching for a bit of emotional rescue at each stop on the tour. But as the Stones once perspicaciously warned, you can’t always get what you want; “Pack up the bags and hit the road, five-hour drive to the next night’s show, set it up and play it again, be back this way, hell, I don’t know when.” Between breaking hearts and receiving some comeuppance he petulantly wonders “what’s the point in hanging around, the same shit, the same damn town, can’t catch a break no matter what I do, I got to be getting to where I’m going to.”
Taking a cue from his earliest musical touchstones, Dylan and the Dead, Rodney seems most at home coloring outside the lines. Take “Set ‘Em Up,” a breezy melody is propelled by cascading piano chords, spitfire guitar riffs, elastic bass lines and a clickity-clack beat. Lyrics paint a vivid portrait of a hapless striver looking for love in all the wrong places; “She’s walking down Congress Avenue, whiskey drink and piano Blues, rings on her fingers, her dancing shoes, I couldn’t resist I got nothing to lose.” Mariachi horns hug the chorus; “Set ‘em up, I’ll knock ‘em down babe, you stole my heart that day, send us over another round, my love for you will stay.” Even as slippery, Floyd Cramer-esque piano flourishes brush up against a buoyant trumpet solo, it all turns to shit.
“Standing on the boulevard, got no money and times are hard, Darlin,’ she run out on me with a two-timin’ fella she used to see.”
Meanwhile, “Nothing To Lose” offers up a the kind of astute character study Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp excelled at, back in the ‘80s. Opening with a “1-2-3” count off, the melody is anchored by a tick-tock beat, swirly keys, driving bass lines, gritty guitars and soupcon of elusive accordion. The nuanced narrative concerns an elderly couple confronted with that age-old conundrum, the spirit remains willing, but the flesh is weak; “Old man had a place on the outskirts of town, he worked the afternoon shift til the factory closed down, wasn’t much that old man couldn’t do, he beat a heart attack, whipped cancer too/No, he couldn’t slow down time, day by day he lost his mind, said the hard time and the pain you feel, reminds you, Son, just what is real.” A buzzy, Bluesy bottleneck solo anticipates the heartaches to come; “Grandma’s in the kitchen watching neighbors drive by, she just come in from putting the clothes out to dry, says I don’t know what that old man will do, I just pray he goes before I do.”
This record is pure pleasure from start to finish, but there are four tracks that stand out from the pack. Beginning with the Stonesy swagger of “Wondering Where I Came From.” This hard-charging Rocker is fueled by strafing guitar chords, sinewy bass, rollicking piano and a brawny backbeat. Playful lyrics seem to address the one that got away; “Wondering where I came from, wonder when I’ll come back, holding onto these memories, but I gotta cut myself some slack, the truth is I can’t forget you, and I often thought I could….” A scorching guitar solo shapeshifts from chicken-scratch to supersonic on the break. But things turn introspective, and some epiphanies are shot through with humor and grace; “Wondering where I came from, wonder where I went wrong, when the hell did my life turn into a sad old Country song, always thought I was moving, but I was just falling fast, the good times don’t hang around and the bad ones kick my ass.”
“Rabbit Ears Motel” is a twangy Texas two-step that weds honeycombed guitars, burnished piano and loose-limbed bass lines to a rattle-trap beat. Lyrics offer a tart, albeit affectionate encomium to the quirky retreat situated close to the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs, Colorado; “I wade out into the Yampa, a hole not far from shore, we love this town, we married here, high above the valley floor, and on our wedding night, I turned off the light, I remember it oh-so-well, the neon light would come and go at the Rabbit Ears Motel.” A sputtery guitar solo jackrabbits through on the break, supplanted by Honky-Tonk piano and shivery pedal steel. A lilting piano coda ushers the song to a close.
“Little Pieces” begins as a bit of a sad-sack shuffle. Luckily, the cocksure arrangement, augmented by prowling guitars, Soulful organ filigrees, angular bass and a walloping big beat, cushions confrontational lyrics like “How could you vow to love me forever, if you didn’t mean it all the time, how could you take my heart and break it to little bitty pieces I can’t find?” Beale Street-flavored organ notes act as a wordless Greek chorus, punctuated by a raw and roughhewn guitar solo that preens and peacocks, echoing Stevie Ray Vaughan’s incendiary style.
Finally, “Roll River” is the record’s tour de force. The melody is a kissing cousin to the Country classic “Ring Of Fire” Sun-dappled electric guitar partners courtly, finger-picked acoustic licks, prickly mandolin notes, tensile bass and a chugging beat. Rodney effortlessly slips into the skin of a coal miner made old before his time. Regretting a profession that “Broke my back, then broke my mind…and took all my mountains and left me with an empty soul.” Midway through he wryly reflects; “Thing with life, you just get one.” A willowy mandolin solo and mournful fiddle play out a lonesome pas de deux on the break.
The record’s closing number fires off a socially conscious salvo that recalls the best of John Fogerty’s Creedence hits. This Roots-Rock charmer blends jangly guitars, chunky bass and a sturdy rhythm. Rodney doesn’t wear his politics on his sleeve, but lyrics like “The line has to be drawn what side are you on? I’m standing with my brothers, cause the right side is all wrong” offer a trenchant call to arms. Sugar rush guitars on the break are mirror the not-so radical idea that kindness and understanding can heal country divided along ideological lines; “Keep protesting in every town, till one day change, it comes around, when that is, I can’t say, it’s just another passing day.” It’s a gallant and hopeful end to a stellar record.
The impetus for this record came when Rodney headed down to The Bomb Shelter studio in Nashville, to record a single. By the time he arrived, one song turned into three. Heading back through West Virginia, a fourth song materialized. When he returned to Nashville, he had written four more songs. Although inspiration was piecemeal, the songs coalesce beautifully.
Rodney’s quicksilver wit and pragmatic observations, coupled with his melodic prowess (this dude knows his way around a hook), is the perfect antidote for whatever ails ya.