Triggering Memories With Roy Rogers

I spent a recent Friday morning talking with Roy Rogers. We were doing one of those interviews musicians do with scribblers who are going to help tout an upcoming show. In this instance, we were supposed to be schmoozing in order to publicize the Roy Rogers show at the Sierra Nevada Big Room on December 10th, but we got off track immediately, and neither Roy nor I seemed particularly interested in getting back to business. He’d been watching coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination on TV, and it led both of us to start reminiscing about that long ago day when he was in 8th grade, and his teacher broke the news, then broke into tears, and sent them all home. We talked a bit about how that assassination changed things, speculating on the overlay between politics, music, and popular culture.

In music lovers’ minds, the name Roy Rogers is linked forever, not with Dale Evans, but with Norton Buffalo. There are certain to be younger readers for whom the name Roy Rogers means nothing, and maybe even more for whom the name Norton Buffalo rings no bells. Such younger people never heard of the old movie cowboy hero of yesteryear, nor have they had the pleasure of hearing the late Mr. Buffalo and his partner, guitarist Roy Rogers, making their musical magic together when those two great music makers were riding their shared happy trails, touring together to the delight of their fans.

During one of those tours, Norton and Roy Rogers were up in Alaska when they got pulled over by a uniformed member of the local constabulary. Out in the boonies, not everyone gets themselves up quite the way musicians do, and the cop asked for their identification. His suspicions were further amplified when he learned he had stopped guys who claimed to be “Roy Rogers” and “Norton Buffalo.” It didn’t help matters much when Norton responded to questions with his impersonation of Walter Brennan (another name likely to mean nothing to younger readers). But luckily, just when the cop might have been about to run them in, Roy pointed to a nearby poster that read: “Appearing Tonight: Roy Rogers and Norton Buffalo.”

Roy told that story a few years ago in front of a throng of people who’d turned out for a Norton Buffalo memorial service up in Paradise.

In the last few years of his sadly truncated life, Norton Buffalo was a friend of mine, and because Norton was my friend, I consider Roy Rogers to be a friend, too, though we never hung out. We have talked on a few occasions, however, and when we talked again on the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, there was more than a little nostalgia exchanged about his old friend, Norton, and the times they shared onstage at the Big Room, a very familiar neighborhood for Mr. Rogers. If memory serves, he was the first guy to play a guitar lick in that venue that has heard so many great guitar licks since that inaugural concert.

So, though there may be some who never heard of Roy, there are surely a whole bunch of very devoted Butte County fans who’ve seen him play, maybe at the Big Room, or maybe up at the Paradise Performing Arts Center, as he did the last time he came through this neck o’ the woods, playing with Ray Manzarek of the Doors in a memorable concert not many months before Manzarek went to join that great angel band up yonder.

“That tour with Ray was just amazing,” he told me. “After Paradise, we went to Hawaii for the last four gigs. On the very last date, lots of people were standing in front of the stage, blocking the view for people behind ‘em, so Ray invited people onstage until there were so many people up on stage I had to watch where I was swinging my guitar for fear of hitting someone. It was such a great night.”

Roy Rogers likes to collaborate, and to explore unpredictable musical terrain. Though he is, at base, a blues guy, he has made lots of forays beyond readily defined genres. For the upcoming concert, he’ll be joined by special guest, Carlos Reyes.

“Carlos is classically trained,” Roy told me. “I am most distinctly not classically trained. But we make it work.”

With so much music available, I asked him to share a few thoughts about why people bother to go out to hear live music.

“Part of the power of the music is being in the crowd,” he said. “Sure, each of us can create our own iTunes playlist, or our Spotify preferences, and that’s fine. But it tends to split us up. Music is best when it’s shared. Concerts pull us out of our isolation. I don’t know how it’s possible to unify the world these days, but at concerts there’s a definite feeling of ‘wow, we’re all together.’ It’s a spirit we hunger for.”

When I mentioned Norton Buffalo and the Big Room connection, it prompted appreciation for both his old partner and one of their favorite venues.

“I was reminiscing with friends about the Big Room recently,” Roy said. “It’s not only a great place to play, but you folks in Chico are so lucky because Bob Littell and Ken Grossman bring such an array of good music. They’re so supportive of musicians, booking shows that don’t draw from other shows and venues. It’s a special place, and Carlos and I have pretty special memories of nights we played with Norton there.

When Roy says that he and Carlos make it work when they play together—a slide guitar master and a Paraguayan fiddler and harpist—he is being modest. But anyone who has seen them play, separately or together, will tell you that, when it comes to making it work, nobody does it better.

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Comments

  1. A. Pistoffreader says:

    BOOOOOOOOOOOORRRING!

  2. Vickie says:

    The magic of music, memories, and mates. A show I’d love to see.