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High lonesome homecoming

Nashville, Tenn. may be the home of country music, and Kentucky may be the birthplace of bluegrass music, but the Grand Strand has been quietly making its contribution to both forms of these American music cousins for generations.

In the last decade the Strand has been losing its native sons to Nashville at an alarming rate. Socastee native Mike Rogers, a fine singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, has enjoyed a long career in Nashville, which began with a brief stint with one-time rising country music star Kevin Denny, then nearly nine years with gold-selling bonafide country star Craig Morgan (“Redneck Yacht Club,” “Bonfire”) and, since September 2010, with award-winning bluegrass veteran Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver.

Lawson and band, prominently featuring Rogers, will headline Saturday’s lineup at this week’s three-day 42nd Annual South Carolina Bluegrass Festival in Myrtle Beach, reminding fans and industry watchers that you need look no further than the Grand Strand for some fine pickers.

Can a brother get a yee-haw?

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

Literally millions of visitors and locals have seen and heard Rogers sing, play the drums, mandolin, and guitar, in Myrtle Beach at the Carolina Opry, and millions more while on the road with Morgan between June 2003 and August 2010. The 38-year-old Socastee native, who now lives with his wife and two daughters near Nashville, was the man usually behind the drum kit at the Carolina Opry (1995 – 2002), but the lure of Nashville enticed Rogers and he found quick work because of his remarkable musicianship and stellar “high lonesome” tenor voice, a term unique to bluegrass singers.

Rogers and family made their way to Nashville and the Strand lost a home boy to a new career in Music City. Rogers, as Morgan’s bandleader, would soon fill the roster with more Grand Strand pals who are still working with Morgan – more talent drain of the local terrain. Guitarist Travis Newman (Eason), bassist Perry Richardson (Firehouse), keyboardist Kevin White (Carolina Opry), and replacement drummer Russ Whitman (Eason, Frontiers, Craig Woolard Band) are all from the Myrtle Beach area and all now live and work in and around Nashville.

“When I first moved to Nashville I started working with Kevin Denny,” said Rogers, who spoke to us last week while on break from studio time and errands. He and band are recording a new Quicksilver record, his second since joining Lawson’s busy act. Lawson will make his second appearance on the Grand Strand with Rogers on guitar, and lead and tenor vocals, as a part of a of the three day Bluegrass Festival held each year at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center on Oak Street. The Festival begins at 1 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day and concludes at 11 p.m. Saturday. Seventeen acts will share 37 slots during the three days with Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver performing twice on Saturday (2:25 p.m. and 8:25 p.m.). Among the lineup, Dailey & Vincent, Russell Moore and Third Time Out, and The Grascals represent a newer edge in contrast to traditional acts, which are well represented by the Rye Holler Boys, Red White and Bluegrass, and others.

Many people have Thanksgiving homecomings, but this one is special for Rogers and his kin.

“We won’t miss it,” said Lois Rogers, Mike Rogers’ mother who still lives in Socastee with husband Tom Rogers. “I’m taking the day off from work,” she said, her pride evident.

Mike Rogers claims his earliest inspiration from his dad, Tom Rogers, who played fiddle in the Country Store Band, which performed in the region from the 1960s through the 1980s. But Mike Rogers’ mother remembers an earlier inspiration. “He was just walking, a toddler,” said Lois Rogers, “and Mike picked up his brother’s tennis racket and strummed it like a guitar wherever he went. He tried so hard.”

Guitar was Mike Rogers’ first instrument, but the drums came soon after and still seem closest to his heart.

“When I was around 10 or 11 I got to sit in with my dad’s band,” said Rogers. “They played weekends and whenever they could. They used to play the old Aynor Barn every Friday and Saturday night. That’s when I started singing and playing the drums, that was around 1984. I sat behind the drummer every single night and just sat and watched. When I was about 14 I started playing full time with dad. We played the local Moose Lodge, the (Blue) Crab Festival in Little River, all over. I started off playing the guitar, but I loved the drums – it just felt natural to get behind them and start grooving.”

And groove he did.

Rock ’n’ roll would capture Rogers’ attention during his teen years as a Socastee High School student. “When I was 16 or 17 I started working with local rock and pop bands – one band did really well, Perfect Tommy. We got the name from that movie [“The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension”]. Rogers performed with Perfect Tommy for approximately four years before accepting a position in Charlie Floyd’s band. Floyd, another Grand Strander had scored a Nashville record deal with 1993’s Liberty Records release “Charlie’s Nite Life,” and Rogers was there with him. “After I left playing with Charlie, I started at the Carolina Opry.”

Opry Opportunities

A local who was there remembers how Rogers got the gig.

“I was playing fiddle at the Carolina Opry,” said Robert Napier, who performed with the Opry 1991-1996. He left the Opry to join The Alabama Theatre, where he’s performed since 1996. “Our [Opry] drummer, Billy Reynolds, got to work one day and his carpal tunnel [a repetitive motion disorder] was so bad he couldn’t even hold sticks in his hands – too many rehearsals, too many shows. Mike Rogers at the time was playing with Perfect Tommy and we called him up and one thing lead to another, and he took the gig.” The gig would last seven years. While there, Rogers managed to impress Carolina Opry owner and founder Calvin Gilmore, who, when we spoke with him last week actually seemed togush.

“Mike played with usI don’t know how many years,” said Gilmore, who was taking a break from “tweaking” the new Christmas show, which began Nov. 1. “He played drums, guitar and mandolin, and he sang for us - he’s just a magnificent talent - and a good songwriter, too.”

Gilmore’s cast is usually made up from imported talent, which was not the case with Rogers. “He’s a local guy,” said Gilmore, “which is great - not many of our people are from here. He’s just such a great musician and singer. Normally you’ve got musicians or singers, but when you get both in a package it’s especially great - it’s the whole deal. He’s in a perfect place with Doyle – it’s the perfect spot for that high tenor – Brad Long fills that position for us now, and is another local, and another great new talent out there. We think a lot of Mike.”

Gilmore was not alone in his appreciation of Rogers’ talent.

“Mike wowed us,” remembered Napier of Rogers’ first auditions. “Billy was a great drummer, but Mike was this young guy with a rock sound, and could sing. We played together for a year before I went to work for Alabama Theatre.”

Napier, an El Paso Texas native knows a thing or two about bluegrass music, and fiddlers in particular.

“I’d known Mike’s dad, who was the quintessential bluegrass fiddler of this county – back in the day he was the guy everybody called – he was Mike’s inspiration. I’d play over at Mike’s house to jam with Alan Bibey [mandolin], Gary Brown on banjoa bunch of great players.”

And Rogers has significant chops on several instruments, a jack of all trades, if you will.

“Mike is not only a great drummer – he’s a great guitar player, singer – just a great musician,” said Napier. “That’s what has made him such a great drummer. He was playing the music in his mind while playing the drums. Very few guys have that. And he’s blessed with that high harmony voice – he could have stayed at the Carolina Opry for probably as long as he wanted, but decided to branch out. We’re all very proud of what he’s done.”

The Nashville Gig

While still in his 20s Rogers was named bandleader by Craig Morgan, who was riding high on several hit country singles. “My duties were to make sure the band knew the material, was on time, and ready to roll,” said Rogers, “and in 8-and-a-half years with Craig there was never one incident where anyone was late, or drunk, or anything. Craig put me in that position and I picked the guys I knew I could trust, and who were great players.”

Instead of pulling from Nashville’s underemployed roster of musicians, Rogers plied the Grand Strand’s talent pool and came up with a Myrtle Beach band, which is still supporting Morgan. “Travis Newman is a great player, “ said Rogers, “and he took over as bandleader when I left. I called Russ Whitman, [who played with Travis for years around Myrtle Beach], to cover the drums. Russ wasn’t a typical country drummer, but he had it in him, and he’s got the skills and has stepped up – he’s an incredible drummer.” Perry Richardson, well-known rock bassist for ’90s hard rock act Firehouse, is a Conway native, and Kevin White, who played keyboards for the Carolina Opry also called Myrtle Beach home. One might be tempted to re-name the band “Craig Morgan and the Myrtle Beach All-Stars.”

But with such a good thing going with Morgan, why did Rogers leave?

“I decided to move on when I had an opportunity to play with Doyle,” said Rogers. “He [Lawson] called me a year or two before, but the timing just wasn’t right. But he called again, and this time I said – ‘lets try it.’ I gave Craig a month-and-a-half notice, and started with Doyle. Man, it’s been just awesome. I play acoustic guitar, and sing tenor and lead. We have hired a drummer – Doyle has never had a drummer on stage before - but he had used them in the studio. When I started it got wild. We added drums on our last record [“Drive Time”] and our bus driver Carl White, who was a drummer, we asked him to play drums with us full time. The DL&QS is a really cool live show. We play real traditional grass, but we also play new country – it’s really cool. We’re not new grass, we’re traditional with a little flair, and we’re doing about 120 shows a year.”

The 68-year-old Lawson, a mandolin player, has recorded some 40 albums of bluegrass music since 1977 when his debut “Tennessee Dream,” launched him on a career playing Gospel-influenced mountain music. Though a traditionalist, Lawson is one of the old guard who’s been willing to experiment musically to reach new audiences, and those in the industry have taken note.

The IBMA

Since 1990, Dan Hays, the executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), has held his post in the best of times and in troubling times. “We’re the trade organization for the those in related fields,” said Hays. “I know Alan Bibey (of Surfside Beach who has a few IBMA awards under his belt) and Mike Rogers – know ‘em both – great people. Alan likes it there in Myrtle Beach where he can polish his golf game.”

Hays will step down soon, stating that “after 22 years it’s time to open the door and let some fresh air in.” He has seen bluegrass music change through the years, and sees the change - of which Rogers and Quicksilver are a part - as mostly positive. “I think musically the genre is exciting – and maybe more so now than ever,” he said. “No disrespect to artists of the past, but the great thing about bluegrass is today is we still have many of our pioneers – but a great new generation has followed doing exciting things and opening up new doors and finding a new audience. Groups like Balsam Range, The Boxcars, Dailey & Vincent, The Punch Brothers – it’s where bluegrass intersects other genres. We just named Steve Martin (yes, the comedian, who also plays banjo with his own bluegrass band) our Entertainer of the Year. Bill Monroe [the father of bluegrass] would have been 100 this past September. In bluegrass we celebrate the traditions and embrace new generations as well.”

While mountain music and its instrumentation has received a lot of attention with bands such as The Old Crow Medicine Show, The Avett Brothers, and Mumford & Sons, touring and recording with bluegrass acts, even the more contemporary versions, don’t usually take their music to these alternative extremes – but still, there’s wiggle room.

“I’ve met Mike,” said Hays, “and know of him, and know what’s going on with Doyle Lawson. He is known for reinventing his show and taking on new band members. A lot of great artists come through his organization – he’s like a school for bluegrass, in much the same way Bill Monroe was – this latest incarnation [of Quicksilver] is one of the most exciting he’s ever had. They create a sound and a show that is just enormously energetic, exciting and musically very fresh – even adding a snare drum to his band, which has caused people to sit up and take notice. And Mike and the guys – their harmonies are fantastic.”

The upcoming festival in Myrtle Beach is a Thanksgiving tradition, and a true homecoming for Rogers, who remembers seeing his initial musical inspirations decades earlier. “This will be my second time back home playing with Doyle,” he said. “This is such a great event. I can remember going to this show when I was a kid, with my dad, and it was always so great.”

Hays thinks the newest version of Quicksilver with Rogers is just the kind of line-up to breathe new life into an age-old form of American music. “If a promoter were to offer a money back guarantee to anyone who said they didn’t like the Doyle Lawson show, I’d dare say that that have very few, if any, takers.”

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