Dave Pilot takes a good look at Roger Creager, with an insightful review of his CD Surrender.
Roger Creager’s possibly one of the easiest artists in Texas to misunderstand, and therefore essentially miss altogether. Which is more of a commentary on the state of Texas music in the year 2012 than any kind of slight to Creager. Here’s why. Over the years the sounds, songs, and life-changing melodies that have flowed out of Lone Star soil and overwhelmed lands far beyond the Red River have been as diverse as Leadbelly and Doug Sahm, Jerry Jeff Walker and Pantera. Texas is where Stevie Ray Vaughan did his level best to reinvent and electrify the blues. Where ZZ Top turned swamp rock into a mainstream affair. But in these days of the post-Pat Green Texas Red Dirt movement, there’s almost as much of a formula and format in Texas as the one every independent band loves to decry in Nashville. Too many bands sound the same, too many artists don’t understand either the art or the craft, and far too much that’s average swill at best is lauded as the “next great thing.” That’s a milieu any true musician could get lost in. One that a guy like Creager, who burst on the scene way back in 1998 with the Having Fun All Wrong record, can flat out get ignored in. Too many people look at Roger as the guy who sang “The Everclear Song,” or the title track from that first album. And even though he made something of a splash in 2008 with a fantastic highway track (“Driving Home”), it still seems at least up here in the barrens of north Texas that Roger Creager just can’t get much of a following. Which is a shame.
Roger has done his of share of anthems for the Ballcap Nation, some of them referenced above. And he’s turned in some of the best stone-cold Texas country songs of the past decade. But he’s also done a lot of other stuff that just doesn’t fit the format. Which is maybe why he hasn’t always gotten the airplay or the mass appeal. There’s a huge following out there that loves what the man does and buys everything he puts out, so don’t take all this as a funeral dirge for Creager’s career. It isn’t. If anything, it’s a heads up that there’s a lot more to this guy than a large number of folks have bothered to notice, and that the bandwagon should be a whole lot bigger than it is. He’s a lot more George Strait than Randy Rogers when it comes to vocal style, and he’s damn sure closer to Willie Nelson than to Kevin Fowler when it comes to an appreciation for variations in musical range. Creager’s got more artistic talent in his left nut than Fowler’s ever going to get in ten or fifteen lifetimes, but that’s a different story and one we’re not going to waste any more ink on here. This piece is about Roger, and what he does. Surrender is his fifth studio CD since ’98, and there’s a live one or two thrown in the catalog to boot. This one picks up where the others left off, cutting a broad and bright trail across a musical range that rivals Buffalo Bill’s prairies back in the day.
Want some straight up Texas country, polished as anything of Strait’s but with a little more punch than George is usually willing to offer? “Crazy Again” is the track for you. Maybe something a little more in the Red Dirt vein? “I’ll Take Anything” fits the bill.
But as strong as both those tracks are, they’re sort of just the price of admission on any Texas record these days. Try something else on for size. Maybe “Dead Love”:
I gathered up our photographs
I threw ‘em in a pile out back
Poured a drink and I grabbed the gasoline
Doused it all down good and wet
Then I lit a cigarette
And tossed it on our dreams
I bowed my head and I felt a sweet release
Think I might let this dead love rest in peace
Carve a stone, find a piece of dirt
Call the preacher
Let him come say some words
Dig a hole, dig it six feet down
Gonna leave this dead love in the ground
Frame all that against a driving electric guitar, delivered by a vocal that sounds too soft to belong to a man as distanced and harsh as this protagonist must be. Let the contrast sink in, and remember that the quiet guy in the corner is the one motherfucker in the bar you always have to keep an eye on. This is where Roger Creager is at his best. He can do a country song all day long, fill the floor at a dancehall anywhere in Texas. But he has this whole other gear that just separates him from the pack. The way he uses his unique and unassuming vocals can be deceptive; it’s possible to hear one of his records start to finish and not be blown away. But when you go back and listen, and I do mean listen, the world’s axis shifts. For every “Everclear Song” lighting up the River Road Icehouse on a Saturday night, there’s a “Cowboys and Sailors” showing Jimmy Buffett exactly what it really means to have a Caribbean soul out of control and a little bit of Texas down there in the heart. In Surrender’s case, that juxtaposition’s best seen between the intro cut, “Turn It Up,” and the title track that serves as a closer. Neftali Feliz or Mariano Rivera never once finished out a game this well:
I grew up in a broken home
I thought it didn’t wound me, but I was wrong
I learned how to be a man
Watchin’ the fathers of my friends
It’s hard gettin’ what you need
When your mother is crying every day
I turned all that sorrow inward
I learned how to lock it away
I never let anyone in
I was solid as a stone
If something needed figuring out
I figured it out on my own
I fought with the ones that I love most
Screamin’ in the dead of the night
I saw love as a battlefield
And I put up a hell of a fight
But I surrender…
Damn, boys, that’s more’n a little bit of honest right there. And the best kind of honest, to boot – the kind that comes from realizing why life’s been kicking your ass, and laying down the pride and ego that helped guide the punches home. Pretty as the song may sound at first listen, it’s as gritty as anything Hank Williams ever sang. And therein lies the genius of Roger Creager. He isn’t just another guy in a hat sounding like everybody else at Gruene or Schroeder Hall. He’s in love with the sea, and the mountains, and life. He’s living it all every day, always chasing a new horizon, and the influences show up in his musical style. So maybe it ain’t what you’d think of as Red Dirt. Maybe it ain’t quite as sexy as Stoney LaRue and that jacked up Ray Wylie Hubbard bandanna he sports. But it’s nonetheless some of the best music you are ever going to get a chance to appreciate. Surrender proves that four preceding CDs aren’t a fluke. You can’t predict what you’ll hear on a new Roger Creager record. But if your heart’s got its headphones on, you can guarandamntee you’re going to enjoy the journey and come to treasure what you find. The inclusion here of an insidiously stellar version of Marley’s “Redemption Song” that crawls down in your soul and makes a nest is just one more example.
Roger Creager may not sound like anybody else, and he may be unpredictable. And as history showed us, that’s exactly what made Doug Sahm a legend. It’s also why Surrender is one of the best records this reviewer’s heard in a long damn time. This release builds on the foundation Creager’s career to date has laid. If you’re not familiar with his early work besides the songs that made the radio, then you need to do the same thing with Roger that the world needs to do with David Allan Coe: Go back and listen to the deep cuts. You’ll be amazed at – and very happy with – the treasures you’ll find.
More on Roger at http://www.rogercreager.com
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Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas.
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