Rodney Rice grew up trading Billy Joe Shaver songs with his cousin and raiding his sister’s album collection for John Prine records in Morgantown, West Virginia. With a guitar and degree in geology, he headed west to Texas to work in the oil fields and found himself immersed in the music scene of nearby Austin. His songs are gritty with coal dust and worn like denim. Rice’s rumbling delivery is at once unique and evocative of his heroes, combining a Lonestar attitude with Appalachian storytelling. His new album, Same Shirt, Different Day, ambles from the mines of the Mountain State and out of the shadows of the derrick to observe and reminisce with clarity, hope, and humor.
AI- You’re a geologist, and I can honestly say that you would be the first singing geologist that I have ever spoken to. Did you play music in college? ‘Cause I know that you started as a kid…
RR- Yeah, I started playing’ at maybe 9 or 10 or so. Never really put it down, always played out, and to whoever, wherever I could. I guess it was up until high school, college before I was really playin’ out with any kind of regularity– and playin’ my own songs, not just cover songs. Morgantown’s this little college town, so there’s a couple of coffee houses and a couple of little brewpubs and stuff you can play– not like all the opportunities in some of these other places like down in Austin. Big scenes like that, you find music everywhere. It’s great!
After college, you went to work for the oil rigs as a geologist down in Texas. Did you have any intention of pursuing music professionally at that point? Or you just lucked out and that’s where you were?
Well, I was down there and you work a lot– you’re workin’ on the rigs on the rotation type schedule, you know? And then you got lots of time when you’re off, right? Bein’ down in Texas in just a different landscape. It’s nothin’ like West Virginia and tryin’ to find somethin’ to do, I just ended up gettin’ into a studio that way. I kinda hit it off with those guys down in Austin at the Congress House studio and got a lot of great players in there and everything just came together real nice. And I really got into it! I think if I didn’t get to the oil rigs and get down to the South Texas workin’, I don’t know if I would have ever got into a studio, got into recording music or thinkin’ of it more as somethin’ to do besides just the hobby.
That experience at the Congress House. You recorded your first album there. That was 2014, Empty Pockets and a Troubled Mind. To my ears, that record had an unmistakable Texas tone to it. Whether that was the landscape or just the influences, you’re back at Congress House for the Same Shirt album. You bring up those great players, which you’ve got an abundance of on this one.
Ah, man, yeah!
I’m just gonna throw out some names– Rick Richards, Jeff Plankenhorn, Erik Telford, your producer, Andre Moran… How’d you come to get together with all those guys?
You mentioned the first album sounded like Texas. Most of those songs were written from the time I started writin’ music– some of ’em were even in high school. Some of ’em are pretty old songs. I think that probably is common amongst musicians’ first album. You got all that time before your first album to write that material, you know? So I think a lot of that comes through with my influence of listening to that Texas country music. Growin’ up, listenin’ to it, and then also bein’ there. And then on top of that, like all those players you said, a lot of those guys were on albums that I listened to when I was growin’ up!
I got down to Congress House from talkin’ to a guy who’s drummin’ for Billy Joe Shaver at the time– Jason McKenzie. We were talkin’ after a show and talkin’ about recordin’. I was workin’ in another studio and just wasn’t really gettin’ into it and it was kinda frustrating. And he said, “Hey, you need to go check out these guys over here at the Congress House, and I’ll come in and do some drums.” He’s the drummer on the first album. So that’s how I got over there. And then Andre Moran, the producer and engineer on both of those albums, he lined everyone up. I could give ’em the rough takes of the songs, what I’m thinkin’, and then he just he connected the dots and filled in the blanks with all the right people. I think Johnny Cash said, “Make sure everyone in the studio is better than you and it’ll come out alright!” And I don’t have that problem! It’s really amazing!
Erik Telford, when he came and did the horns there… You watch those people… Anything, not just music, you watch anyone do somethin’ that they love to do, and you gotta just be like a sponge around it and soak it up! ‘Cause it’s great to see that kind of craftsmanship, whether it’s music or woodworking or welding, whatever it is. I just try to go into sponge mode and learn as much as I can from whoever I’m around.
You also had another guest star on the record, specifically Bonnie Whitmore. How did that relationship come about?
Mark Hallman did a lot of background vocals on the first album and some on the second too, but I was thinkin’, “Man, we need to get a female part in here.” Andre knows Bonnie and her sister [Eleanor Whitmore of The Mastersons] and those folks. He got her to come in. She was gracious enough to come in and it was like, “Man, you need to turn her vocals up a little more!” (Laughs) She does great stuff and her new album’s awesome too.
It really is. We were just listenin’ to it at the dinner table last night.
I was really lucky it worked out ’cause workin’ on stuff before COVID, maybe you wanna get someone in to do a part, but maybe they’re on the road. Or maybe you got an idea of what you want, but you might just have to be a little flexible when you were working on stuff pre-COVID days ’cause everyone wasn’t just sittin’ at home!
When were you writin’ and recordin’ this record?
I probably started writin’ it not long after finishing the first one. The lead track, “Ain’t Got a Dollar”, I was originally tryin’ to get it out before 2016. And then I was like, “Oh!” I thought if I didn’t get it out, it wouldn’t make much sense. And then I was wrong on that one. I had another four years! Yeah. Unfortunately, I missed out on that one, so I had to go back and revise some stuff. But I’m always workin’, always writing and tryin’ to come up with stuff. Sometimes it’s a line or two, sometimes the whole song just goes down at once, but you gotta love those ones like that. But yeah, I got scrap paper in my truck right now for the next album that I’m scribblin’ on.
When did you originally intend to release [Same Shirt, Different Day]? Because “Ain’t Got A Dollar” comes out swingin’ to kick the album off– and then there’s other songs that are political in their scope and very immediate and timely.
Like I said, originally, I was wantin’ to get “Ain’t Got A Dollar” out as a single and then thought maybe an EP. And then it was like, “Well, let’s just do an album!” So workin’ on it a couple of years and then when you commit to an album, it was just like, “It’s crunch time! We’re doin’ an album? I need some more tracks!” And then it seems like you end up with 12 when you’re goin’ for 10 (laughs)!
Tell me about your pandemic have you been able to escape being sick?
Yeah. We’ve been fortunate in that sense. No one in our family’s gotten sick. We’ve all been quarantined and stayin’ healthy. Started out, got into gardenin’, and did some raised beds. Figured out, as the quarantine progressed, how bad I was on my thought process on what I planted where in my raised bed (laughs)! But you try to stay positive. The album’s really helped, to be honest with you, on staying positive and keepin’ me busy. ‘Cause you’re cooped up and there’s nothin’ going on, you can’t get out and play– and everything goin’ on, right? I mean, it’s 24/7! You can’t escape it! Havin’ that album, pushin’ it, and gettin’ feedback and havin’ folks like y’all playin’ it and givin’ it attention, it’s a huge, positive thing in an otherwise pretty down n’ out year!
How is the creativity? Are you writing about what’s happenin’ in the current climate? The political division? Black Lives Matter? From everyone that I’ve been talkin’ to it’s either/or– there’s nothing in the middle, it’s like, “Oh, I’m writin’ hardcore!” Or it’s like, “No, I can’t even begin to process what’s happening!”
Yeah, I have got a few new songs I’m writin’ specifically since the pandemic. I’d say it’s probably about 50/50 with some relevant to what’s goin’ on now politically and in the world, all of that. And some of them step away from that just tryin’ to not think about it. The distraction, right? I’m tryin’ to distract myself by writing something. It seems like 50/50, but I am writin’. I find that helpful and it’s the only thing that’s gotten me through everything, really, with life. I’m definitely relyin’ on it now in the year of 2020.
The song “Company Town”. You are able to not only artistically articulate growing up in coal country and the personal effects of that, but you’re also able to come at it from a scientific point of view that many songwriters– no matter the amount of research they do– do not have. What do you think should be the focus of songwriters at this point in time? Should they choose to be political? Because that’s a very personal thing, but you also have the ability to see it from the eye of a scientist.
I guess a thing with songwriting, whatever you’re writing, you gotta give yourself goosebumps! You gotta write whatever gives you goosebumps if you want people to really listen to it. Then the science part? Science?Musician? It’s like left brain, right brain. I think it just cancels out sometimes (laughs)! But I did some work underground, so that really helps too. And then being a geologist, like you said, on “Company Town” and just talkin’ about that, my experience and what I know and seen growin’ up in West Virginia. I’m referrin’ to the disaster down there, Upper Big Branch and all that, so it’s kinda my take on Mr. Peabody. Instead of Peabody, it’s Mr. Massey. I really like how that track came out. And the horns! I love the horns. I’ve always wanted to incorporate horns and it was so awesome to have those guys in to do that. But I think you gotta write with what you know and what eases your mind in a song. At least, that’s what I do. I’m tryin’ to ease my mind. Gettin’ it out there, it’s really humbling when other folks make their connection to it and listen to it. And folks like you down there, get it out there for other people to hear. It’s just really humbling.