When legendary rocker Tom Petty died on Oct. 2, 2017, the world lost one of the true greats of American music. As millions of fans around the world spent the days immediately following the shocking news by sharing cherished Petty memories on social media and listening to the four decades’ worth of hits he amassed with his iconic band the Heartbreakers, the Randy Rogers Band had to get to work.
That’s the week Rogers and his merry band of country-rockers decamped to Nashville to begin recording Hellbent, the Texas Country group’s eighth studio record, and first since 2016’s excellent Nothing Shines Like Neon. Unlike most of us cubicle dwellers, Rogers plies his craft in a field where he could channel his grief and appreciation for Petty in an artistically meaningful manner.
“Just like everyone else, we’re all influenced by Petty,” Rogers says over the phone while taking a break from power-washing the pollen buildup from his mother-in-law’s driveway in the Texas Hill Country. “He played such a role in our youth and even our guitar playing all these years. We purposely put in Heartbreakers kind of stuff onto this record. As hard as his death had been for his family and for all of us as fans, it did give us a boost of energy and ideas.”
True to his word, there’s a good dose of the sort of red-blooded heartland rock Petty helped make famous to be found throughout Hellbent. It’s not that such a musical direction was a stretch for Rogers and his band, as a combination of honky-tonk heart and swaggering rock has been their palette of choice for over 15 years. With the guidance of another well-known musician, Rogers paid tribute to a legend by making an album combining fresh elements with time-tested teamwork.
Recording with Americana super-producer Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell) inside Music City’s historic RCA Studio A, Rogers quickly began to see why Cobb has become a modern legend behind the control board. Although Rogers considers this record a “minimalist record for us, as far as production goes,” Cobb’s influence was felt in quality, not quantity.
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“We learned the songs before we went into the studio,” Rogers says. “But one of the cool things about Dave is that he’s great with specific parts in a song. Intros, outros, turnarounds or even drum fills that he thought would go well in a certain spot, he’s really great at pinpointing what works and where it works. He’s really sure of himself, but not in an arrogant or cocky way, just in a matter-of-fact sort of way.”
Sometimes, discussion of influences and favored artists serves as little more than colorful quotes for a press release, but that’s not the case here. The proof of both Cobb’s direction and Petty’s sonic influence can be heard in some satisfying ways throughout the new record. On the anthemic, sweeping “Anchors Away,” the lead guitar chimes in a way that’s unmistakably Heartbreaker-esque, but there’s more.
“'Hell Bent on a Heartache' is originally a Guy Clark song,” Rogers says. “But Dave just pulled the idea to make it more up-tempo out of thin air to where it has a different life than Guy’s original, which is a sad song, but now with a Petty-esque thing to it.”
As important as Cobb was to the recording, Petty’s aura wasn’t the only ghost looking in on the proceedings. RCA Studio A is one of the single most historically significant studio spaces in all of country music, thanks to departed icons such as Waylon Jennings, B.B. King and Joe Cocker, not to mention living legends including Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn and George Strait.
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“There’s not much we haven’t seen as a band together,” Rogers says about his group, which remains intact without any departures in its 20-year history. “We’re very comfortable when we go into a studio together, and all of that experience came in handy going into RCA Studio A. I couldn’t believe we were there every day. I mean, just Google it and read about all the records that have been made there. It’s insane.”
The advice of Cobb, the focus on all things Petty and the inspirational location all served to push the band into a bit of new terrain, while keeping its base centered in the brand of country they’ve become beloved for. There are more story songs than in the past, which gave Rogers a chance to flex a different type pf songwriting muscle from before. And Rogers credits Cobb for making one of those story songs, the album’s rousing, first single “Crazy People,” unique, along with a little help from yet some more members of music’s Mount Rushmore.
“That song has the nah-nah-nahs,” Rogers says with a slight chuckle. “That’s a Dave Cobb thing, too. He said, ‘Let’s put some nah-nah-nahs on here,’ and I didn’t know what he was talking about, but it worked and it’s a fresh sound for us, but it doesn’t deter from what we do or who we are. And besides, if it’s good enough for the Beatles, then it works for us.”
Hellbent is out on Friday, April 26. Randy Rogers Band performs at the Larry Joe Taylor Texas Music Festival in Stephenville on Thursday, April 25 at 9 p.m.