Garnet Rogers looks back

When it comes to Canadian folk music, the Rogers family name is one known well throughout this country of ours.

Having gotten his start playing music in front of audiences with his brother Stan, Garnet Rogers has carved out a formidable career of his own, entertaining his own audiences throughout North America for the past 20 plus years.

Asked how he was introduced to music and what inspired him to pick up an instrument of any kind, Rogers says that his parents were largely responsible for setting both he and Stan down the musical path they walked in life.

“Neither of my parents played music but it seemed as though they always gravitated towards non-mainstream material like folk and roots music,” the funny and personable Rogers says from his Ontario home.

“We ended up spending big chunks of our childhood travelling between Ontario and Nova Scotia, where a lot of my mother’s family was located. A lot of my uncles played guitar so a lot of these family get-togethers were essentially parties with music being written on the spot. It was inspiring to see songs scribbled out right in front of you and was a huge revelation to both Stan and I, that songs weren’t just something that you heard on the radio.”

It was when Garnet was around eight years of age that he was brought to a Bob Dylan concert which he affirms to have been a life-changing event. It was from that moment forward he had little doubt of what he wanted to do with his life.

In 1972, Garnet took to the road with Stan, playing shows at coffee houses, pubs and wherever else would have them. Though folk music might be known as a relatively subdued musical genre, Rogers good-naturedly insists that the crowds they often performed for were anything but subdued.

“There were many occasions of us being threatened and having to defend ourselves from show patrons,” he says. “We used to regularly play a student pub in Fredericton and though no one ever listened to us, it always seemed like there would be people ragging on us. And after so long, one of us would get off the stage, take the guy and thump him and then sit him down at a table with an ice pack and a beer and then we would play the rest of our show. We actually had a bass player quit on us one night after I had leapt across the stage to choke some guy. I don’t think people have any appreciation to just how weird touring back then was.”

Rogers says that in the last two years of their touring career together in the 1980s, both he and Stan noticed a significant improvement in the quality of venues they were playing although it did not totally absolve them from playing “toilets” every once in awhile. Ironically, given the Rogers siblings’ strong affiliation and songs about the Maritimes, Rogers says the region was actually one of the last territories in the country for them to “break” into.

“The Maritimes were the last place to cave into us,” Rogers says. “People took a long time to warm up to us. Whether it was the fact that we were ‘outsiders’ who dared to sing about the Maritimes and the issues facing Maritimers that turned people against us, I have no idea.

“We had one show per year at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in Halifax but the Maritimes were a serious uphill fight for us. We once did a tour of Newfoundland playing 10 shows at arts and culture centres all over the island and maybe had a combined attendance of 150 people at all ten shows.”

Sadly, Garnet would lose his older brother Stan in a tragic plane accident in 1983. He insists that becoming a solo artist was never a goal of his but one he eventually came to terms with.

“In the context of Stan’s band, I was the music arranger and had a bigger role in constructing the music than perhaps people might realize. A solo career wasn’t what I was looking for, but I got dealt some bad cards and had to make due with what you can,” Rogers says.

Whether he was looking for it or not, Rogers has had a most productive solo career, having released or been a part of no fewer than 14 records since 1986. His most recent effort is 2007’s live album Get A Witness, upon which the artist performs tracks by Bruce Springsteen as well as his late brother’s song Northwest Passage. The album earned accolades from the Boston Globe who deemed the record one of 2007’s best folk CDs.

He says that while he is always trying to “wake up” the songwriting beast in him, he currently in the process of assembling his memoirs from his days of being on the road with his brother.

“At the moment, songwriting is kind of on the backburner. The memoirs that I am working on, which are really intended to be funny, are of really lurid and unprintable stories of being on the road with Stan in the 1970s and 1980s. The book will encompass the accidents with booze and drugs and document the weirdos that came through our lives at the time. Touring back then was such a different thing than it is these days as there was no infrastructure for a folk band.”

If you’re planning on attending Rogers show at Live Bait Theatre tomorrow night, you just might get a sneak peek at what his book has in store.

“I’ve taken to reading passages from the book at my live shows. I find that reading passages out loud is really helping with the editing piece. You quickly find out what works and what doesn’t work so well.”

Article published in June 17, 2011 edition of the Times & Transcript