HOW ROGER ALAN WADE BEAT THE DEVIL (AN ODE TO JOHNNY KNOXVILLE)
By Terry Paul Roland
“There were other lonely singers
In a world turned deaf and blind
Who were crucified for what they tried to show
And their words can be found scattered
Through the swirling winds of time
Cause the truth remains no one wants to know.”
From Kris Kristofferson’s “To Beat the Devil”
Nashville’s Music City Row is strewn with the memories and broken dreams of songwriters who have come and gone with hardly a hint of whatever greatness they may have possessed in their life times. They’re the ones with their ears to the ground listening to the rumble of an oncoming train delivering songs that reach deep into the American soul and ride on toward something timeless but forgotten.
It’s up to those lonely poets who have the heart that it takes to listen and shine a light out to the world around them, to wake their audience up with music that brings on healing through the pain and shadows of hard living. Roger Alan Wade is such a poet.
If this is true, then every artist that makes it through the pitfalls and traps of the music industry’s super highway has at least one key person who pulls over long enough to listen, encourage and guide them to the light of day and success. The history of modern popular music is full of the example of people like Sam Phillips, John Hammond, Fred Rose and T-Bone Burnette. Although he is most known for his wild antics on MTV’s Jackass, Johnny Knoxville is such a man.
This is the story of a self-styled outlaw singer-songwriter from Tennessee who went from a promising new talent on the country music scene of the 80’s, to an r-rated Roger Miller, and on to the revelation of a true songwriting genius through a series of stripped down albums of haunting and timeless songs worthy of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. Roger Alan Wade’s most recent albums, 2010’s Deguello Motel and Southbound Train are are collections of songs performed to perfection during moments of spontaneity and passion; precise and focused. And for Wade, his first cousin, Johnny Knoxville would hold the key to unlock his talent in some very unlikely ways.
About the time Knoxville was just a kid running around the Tennessee landscape, Roger Alan Wade was wearing his fingers to the bone writing songs for the likes of Johnny Cash, George Jones and most notably Hank Williams Jr. who took Wade’s song, “Country State of Mind,” to #1 on the country charts it in the 1986. According to Wade in a recent phone interview from his home in Tennessee,” There have been some ups and downs along the way. I’ve been fortunate enough to have my heroes record my songs. It was non stop for a while.” He continued. “During the late 80’s and early 90’s. Then Karaoke killed the honky-tonk star and Nashville was changing. I couldn’t quit.
Like the character in Kris Kristofferson’s classic tale, “To Beat the Devil,” Wade found himself at a dead end in Nashville, with ‘”failure locking him out on the wrong side of the door and loneliness more than a state of mind.” If he was the Devil he had to pay, he was going to postpone receipt until the very last minute, in case hope found him somewhere along the way. Wade explained, “This was all I knew how to do and the only thing I was any good at. I love the idea of Nashville and I respect anyone anywhere trying to make a living with a guitar and a song, but, Nashville wasn’t working for me. There had to be another way to do this and it was time to move on.”
So, he picked up his guitar and moved down the road, looking for the right place to call home. But, like the hard living honky-tonk heroes of Wade’s youth, his path to success was not to be an easy one. He kept at it, but he was more poet than cowboy, less a big-buckled rhinestone’d flat belly than a song craftsman inspired by the likes of Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. As the country music business lost its way in the decade that followed to the gloss and glamor of per-packaged demographic focused and manufactured celebrity, Wade’s career floundered and he found himself lost in a world of honky-tonks, one-night-stands, rejection letters and a career devoted to non-stop extremes. He was dangerously close to becoming a twin to the character, Bad Blake, portrayed by Jeff Bridges in the movie, Restless Heart. Even worse, the excesses of the road found him a near casualty all too common in the history of country music.
As the Old Testament book of Isaiah says, ‘a little child shall lead them’; so in the most unsubtle way possible, enter Johnny Knoxville, who, since growing up had found celebrity in 2000 performing with his team of dare-to-be-crazy stuntmen on the MTV experimental reality show, Jackass. As Wade explains, “He’s the finest man i know. Crazy-brilliant and honest to the bone. He’s the cat i trust when it comes to making records. Knoxville has a deep and true love for music and things that are real. There ain’t no bullshittin’ him and that carries over into the studio and shapes the records we make.”
With his skateboarding friends like, Chris Pontius, Steve O and the late Ryan Dunn, Knoxville led the pack with antics crazy enough to earn him worldwide success in television and movies with the Jackass TV and film series and a string of hit movies. As Wade’s career seemed to have gone dormant, his cousin was skyrocketing to the Hollywood heavens. But, there’s a kindness to close families from places like Tennessee. And Johnny Knoxville had not forgotten his cousin.
Knoxville came knocking with an idea to make an album. “It was a big ass happy accident”, Wade said. “We didn’t dream the first record was going to be successful. I hadn’t quit whiskey and those other things yet. We were hanging at Knoxville’s house in the Hollywood Hills. The circus was in town and the tape was rolling.” The result turned into his most successful solo album, All Likkered Up.
The now classic country comedy album retained all of the songwriting talent that gave Wade such a strong reputation in the country music of past years . But, with songs like “Butt Ugly Slut,” he was more likely to show up on Howard Stern than on country music radio. The deception of “All Likkered Up,” is that while he’s singing Roger Miller-inspired lyrics like, “I’d like to shoot you in the ass with a bb gun,” the songs are as well-crafted and engaging as the more serious songs he has written. Then, contrasted with the drunken, goofiness, he pulls out a song like, “Johnny Cash Has Died,” and offers a portrait of loss laced in a poetic moment when the of death an iconic hero is revealed. It’s a remarkable song of contrast and naked honesty in the midst of anything-goes lyrical zaniness. The song comes across in performance with utter realism and a kind of vulnerability that is rarely captured in a recording studio.
According to Wade, “Knoxville called me. They had a couple of minutes at the end of the movie they needed to fill. He asked if I had anything. So, Dennis Knutson and I wrote a song called,”Rhinestones in the Ashes”, about Gram and how he died. It’s at the end of the movie while they’re trying to clear the house.” The song gives the final moments of the film some much needed poignancy illustrating the life of Parsons and the price he paid with empathy, compassion and a genuine kindred love.
As successful as Likkered Up became there was still more of Roger Alan Wade to come. On the follow-up, Stoned Traveler we see the removing of the comic mask in favor of songs, like “10,000 Candles,” that could have easily been recorded by Waylon Jennings, followed by the Carter Family-esque, “Will You Think of Me,” and the country-tinged Springsteen influenced, “The Wreckless Kind.”
If Stoned Traveler found Wade stepping out from behind the mask of the mischievous jester, then, 2010’s Deguello Motel gave him his wings. The flawless album builds on the kind of songs that started Wade in the business of songwriting and takes everything up a notch in its creative fire. Like two desperadoes returning to the scene of a half-remembered crime, Wade and Knoxville have recorded songs that reveal a new-found depth of authenticity and continuity from past efforts. The sound of the album is as dusty and real as the Texas border town motel of the title. It carries a cohesive thread that is themed around the kind of heartbreak and losers expected in real country songs with images that linger like great black and white photographs of the 40’s and 50’s. The album is Americana to the bone with shades of characters right out of a Larry McMurtry novel.
What made this album gel so completely was the songwriter’s decision to get sober five years before. According to Wade, “It was really a blessing. The last time I got bombed & jacked up I just started running out of reasons. I did all you could do between whiskey and cocaine. I saw that after I had run out of booze and blow, even after I’d done it perfect, it was still lousy and once I got some more, I was just going to want more again and again. It wasn’t going to change, it always turned out the same. I’d had enough.” He explained. “I felt like Paul on the Damascus Road. I knew I needed help. So I headed to the nuthouse, or rehab, whatever ya wanna call it,” he laughed.
Like so many artists who have found their way to sobriety with their addictions seemingly entangled in their creative process, Wade worried at first about his future as a songwriter. “I wondered how I was gonna write and perform without drugs and alcohol. It’s sweeter, actually. I feel like everything’s brand new. I have more focus and energy and passion for the music and the best is yet to come.” For him, the contrast was just vivid as what is heard on Deguello Motel. And Wade is quick to show gratitude to his own understanding of God and to his family. “I don’t think much about dying. I got so much left to do. Songs to write, hit the road and sing ’em and make more records.”
With this new life and an open road before him, Wade is ready to up the ante on live performance recruiting his family for some future touring.
He explained, “I’m in rehearsals with my grandson Roland and his friends. They are my favorite band, ever. The band is Sparkle Motion. “Roger Alan Wade and Sparkle Motion” open at the Riverbend Festival in sweet ol’ Chattanooga on June 12th.” He said with a note of pride in his voice. “After all the hell I been through and coming out on the other side and now playing shows with my grandson, it’s a dream,” he mused.
While Wade is firm in his recovery, he is clear in his desire to remain non-judgmental toward others who drink and party in the same way he once did, “I never want to romanticize the drinking and drugging.” He said. “For me it just got boring and became a death trap. But, I don’t want to preach. It was St. Frances who said, ‘Preach often and when necessary use words.’ I just wanna paint an honest picture and people can make up their own minds.” Then, he returned to his family and his hope. “God gave me an angel and a soul mate and we carved us out a home and a life. My family is beautiful. I feel like I’m 13 again. Hope is a sweet and powerful thing.”
The hope he found in sobriety shines through on Deguello Motel and his newest 2012 release, Southbound Train. The Southbound Train album is a natural extension of Deguello Motel. It comes from the same treasure chest of fine songwriting. It is a confirmation that Roger Alan Wade is an Americana songwriter to be reckoned with. Stripped down to his guitar and voice, the raw intimacy keeps each performance real. The album is razor sharp in it’s clear personal nature. Each track rings true to a man’s deepest longings. On “Naturally Stoned,” he celebrates the love of a woman over drug and alcohol abuse in way that is gently humorous. The nostalgic “Chickamauga Creek,” paints a picture of the family he once knew in Tennessee, while “Too Long Is The Time,” sings to his road-weary loneliness for his love. It’s a song that is flawlessly performed by Wade. But, for the fan of outlaw country, it makes the listener long to hear Waylon Jennings. voice behind the beautiful words and images. Wade would most likely consider this the highest of praise. Such is his love for his honky-tonk heroes.
Today, things continue to build and Roger Alan Wade’s schedule remains hectic. For updates check out The Official Roger Alan Wade Page on facebook. One major labor of love is The Big Ass Happy Family Jubilee on Sirius/XM’s Outlaw Country. Johnny Knoxville and Wade host the weekly radio show with no regard for rules or guidelines.
More than anything else, Roger Alan Wade and his music are destined to make a difference. Along with his cousin, Johnny Knoxville, who made a difference in his world, there’s no doubt Roger Alan Wade will continue to beat the devil and sing his songs to the angels and sinners here on earth and heaven above. As he said in the final song on Southbound Train. “I survive and now I go on living. I live forever everyday. I forgive myself and I’m forgiving everyone for everything along the way.”
Roger Alan Wade’s albums can be found at iTunes, Amazon and everywhere that music is sold online.