It's a sticky Thursday afternoon, and Lightning Rod Records president Logan Rogers isn't at his Nashville office. He's across the country, in the middle of a three-hour drive up California's midsection to meet with one of his signees. Billy Joe Shaver is one of the founding fathers of outlaw country, the rough-hewn, song-driven, rock 'n' roll-flavored challenge to the mainstream that became prominent in the mid-1970s, whose influence is one of the strongest common threads among the range of music we call Americana today.
At 75, Shaver's reached a point in his career when he might consider resting on his laurels, but he's attacking writing and performing with the gusto of a 20-something. With encouragement from disciple Todd Snider, Shaver wrote his first new batch of songs in seven years and is now touring behind Long in the Tooth, his new album on Lightning Rod. Shaver calls it "the best album I've ever done," and few would argue. Two master songwriters he's worked with extensively, Ray Kennedy and Gary Nicholson, oversaw the production, in which a sharp rock band backs up songs full of self-deprecating humor about Shaver's age and honesty about his faults, honoring his past without trying to relive it.
But records like this don't happen by magic. That's where Rogers comes in. His niche isn't producing, writing or any of the other sexy aspects of making a record. His line of work is bringing the right people together.
"I try to be a caretaker for songwriters," Rogers explains. "Helping projects stay on course, making sure people get paid and making sure that everybody ends up with an album they're happy with."
Sometimes a project comes to Rogers fully formed, and his main job is to negotiate distribution through Thirty Tigers/RED, his channel into record stores since Lightning Rod opened its doors in 2007. Just as often, he's more involved with a project's creation, working with artists and their management to find the right producer or the right promotion team. "Basically, I helped the record happen," Rogers says of Long in the Tooth. "I helped facilitate everything. I really let the pros do what they do in the studio."
In today's ever-shifting music business, there's a strong trend toward doing as much as possible in house, from recording to shipping product, to save money and keep creative decisions close to the artist. Rogers' artists have access to those services on a larger scale, without getting lost in the shuffle of a larger label structure — Rogers and a revolving cast of interns he says he'd be helpless without are Lightning Rod's only staff. It's a trick the Texas native can pull off thanks to his network of relationships, which extends across just about every field related to making and selling music, and which he began to build at Belmont University in the late '90s.
After a stint at Nashville's short-lived VFR Records working with artists like Trent Summar and the New Row Mob, Rogers joined the A&R department at Houston-based Compadre Records, where his clientele included a young Hayes Carll, Billy Joe Shaver and James McMurtry, son of Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry. No less than the Dean of American Rock Critics himself, Robert Christgau, proclaimed "We Can't Make It Here Anymore," the younger McMurtry's 2005 indictment of the wealthy and indifferent, the best song of the Aughts. Soon after, Mathew Knowles, father of Beyoncé and founder of the sprawling Music World Entertainment enterprise, bought Compadre, which Rogers took as a sign to spread his wings. McMurtry agreed to come with him, and Lightning Rod was born.
"If I was going to start a label, it was going to be with James," says Rogers. "I wanted the first signing to be a recognized artist that I could consider the standard of the label and represent the type of artist that I would work with in the future."
The flag-planting gesture worked. When Jason Isbell, a longtime McMurtry fan, left Drive-By Truckers to form the 400 Unit, he came to Lightning Rod. Others, like Isbell's wife Amanda Shires, followed. On Sept. 16, during the Americana Music Association Festival, Lightning Rod will release Dead Man's Town, a track-by-track cover of Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. featuring local luminaries Holly Williams and Justin Townes Earle and indie heroes Low and Blitzen Trapper. The title track, performed by Isbell and Shires, sets the tone for the whole project, a searing and sobering look at the struggle to achieve the American Dream — no easier now than when the album was first released 30 years ago.
At the same time, Lightning Rod is going through a slew of changes — McMurtry recently left for another label, and Isbell released his acclaimed 2013 album Southeastern through his own label, also called Southeastern. None of this fazes Rogers, who sees the trend in artist-run labels as a positive for the industry in general and Isbell particularly.
Meanwhile, Rogers has a new LP from the astounding Joe Pug to prepare for, as well as a full-length from Ryan Culwell, a relative newcomer who offers an intense, gravelly version of "Bobbie Jean" on Dead Man's Town. Unlike all of Rogers' previous clients, Culwell doesn't have a defined foothold in the marketplace. "That's a course I haven't been down before," says Rogers. "Jason, James, Billy Joe, Amanda — they all have some history out there."
But he's excited for the challenge Culwell presents. "I couldn't not work with him."
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