For their eighth studio album, Texas-bred road warriors Randy Rogers Band didn’t set out to reinvent the country-rock wheel they’ve rolled so successfully for nearly two decades. But with the help of super-producer Dave Cobb and the historic aura of the legendary RCA Studio A where Hellbent was recorded, the Lone Star honky tonk heroes did add a fresh coat of paint to its well-traveled, time-tested sound.
Perhaps the most obvious sign the band is traversing into slightly new terrain is a greater amount of story songs. It’s not that Rogers has had any sort of unrelenting reliance on the straight-forward love song or all-encompassing slice-of-life tune, but here we see him capably assume the role of narrator to great storytelling effect.
“Wine in a Coffee Cup” tells the less-than-glamorous story of a functioning alcoholic businesswoman grinding through the modern world. In it Rogers sings “her Hollywood smile is just a big disguise” in a way that simply relays her all-too-relatable daily travails, rather than judging her for the self-medicating she administers to get from home, to the office, and back, day after day. “We Never Made it to Mexico” is a Tejano-inflected tune where Rogers deploys a bit of Spanish-speaking prowess to color the story of a broken-hearted hombre left with only “tequila at the airport hotel” after his love leaves him. With a backdrop of Flamenco-style guitar picking, this contagious ditty is uniquely singular in the Rogers catalog.
But it’s the up-tempo, rousing, beer-hoisting sing-along “Crazy People” that has a strong case as the single greatest example of the freshness contained within this 11-song collection.
Not only does Rogers sing about the “heart breakin’, money wastin’, hell raisin’ crazy people” many Bible-thumping small-town parents warn their impressionable children about, but the band does something they’ve never done before together on record.
They “nah nah nah.”
As much as the chorus to “Crazy People” penetrates your frontal lobe with the it’s-good-to-be-bad storyline, it’s the band jumping in behind Rogers with the harmonically soaring “nah nah nah nah” that makes this song simply shoot out of the speakers. And, again, it’s a new element you won’t hear in the rest of the RRB canon.
But it’s not all experimental reinvention here. For every tune with a funky twist there are several expertly crafted numbers that slip around the ears almost too comfortably. “Hell Bent on a Heartache” is a sad Guy Clark song the group revs up just enough to make their own, while “Anchors Away” is a sweeping, love-at-all-costs anthem that’ll magnetize couples every time it’s played live.
There may be a time in the future when the Randy Rogers Band shows signs of weakening or slowing down, but for now, this is a group Hellbent on charging ahead with a healthy balance of looking back and appreciating where they’re at in the here and now.