Black Oak Arkansas
Interview by Luc Brunot.
Original version of the interview published in Bands Of Dixie #38 (May - June 2004)
Even if the last album of Rocky Athas is more blues than Southern rock, the past of the musician with Jim Dandy and Black Oak Arkansas was sufficient so that Bands Of Dixie take a more closely interest to the guitarist, whom we interviewed for you.
Hello Rocky, we don't know you well here in France, thus I would want to ask you some questions to better know you. You are from Texas, a great state for the music and I have read that you were honored, by the age 23, as one of the best guitarist of Texas: When were you born?
I was born October 15th 1954.
Did you begin to play early?
I started very early. I was in the 5th grade when I started.
What kind of music did you play and listen in your youth?
I played and listened to Cream, The Yardbirds, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles. Timeless music I believe.
What was this honor you got by the age 23?
I was voted one of the top ten guitarists in Texas along with Billy Gibbons, Jimmie Vaughn, to name a few. It was Buddy magazine in Texas who picked the top ten.
Is it true that you and SR Vaughan were schoolmates and friends growing up near Dallas?
Yes, very true. We actually grew up in Oak Cliff Texas and went to grade school, middle school, and high school together. All we ever talked about was music. We certainly had that in common.
Could you tell us your musical history until Black Oak Arkansas, the band you played in like Lightning?
Lightning had one of the biggest draws in Texas. We worked very hard in that band. We finally got a record deal with Capricorn Records but, after we finished the record we got really bad news. The label went out of business so our record deal fell through. It was too hard to keep it together after that point. So I got an offer to play with Black Oak Arkansas and I couldn't refuse.
Before Lightning did you play with other bands?
Yes I did play with a few local bands around Texas.
Was the Lightning's disc released some day??
It never was released.
Who have the record that was made for Capricorn and will we have a chance a day to listen to it?
I don't believe so. They owned the master tapes and I am sure those are long gone.
Will it be released a day?
I really don't think so.
What was the musical style of Lightning?
We played blues rock-southern style music.
How did you meet Black Oak Arkansas and Jim Dandy? How did you play on "Ready As Hell"?
I met Jim Dandy opening up for Black Oak Arkansas with my band Lightning. He saw me play and asked if I would like to join. It happened at such a good time because like I said earlier after Lightning lost the deal it was perfect to say yes Jim I will play with you.
Did you know well the music of Black Oak Arkansas before?
Yes, I knew their music real well. I was honored when they asked me to play with them.
Was Black Oak Arkansas well known outside Arkansas?
Yes we were known all over the world and toured all over.
You joined Black Oak Arkansas in 1996 I believe, why?
I actually played with Black Oak Arkansas two different times. The first in 1982 and did the album Ready as hell. I stayed with Black Oak Arkansas for about three years. Then I left to do several other projects. In 1996 Jim Dandy called me again and said we are going to put out a new album and would you like to do it with us. I said that would be great. So, we put out the new album The Wild Bunch. I played with Black Oak for about 4 years. Then I did an album with Glenn Hughes called the Tommy Bolin Tribute and toured with that. After that I did an Album with Buddy Miles and Double Trouble called The Bluesberries featuring Rocky Athas. It was great working with Stevie Ray's rhythm section. That album was on Ruf records. Jim Gaines produced that album. From that meeting he said he would love to produce my album on Armadillo Records.
What did you do between the two periods you played with Black Oak Arkansas?
After the first time I came back and put Lightning back together and then joined them again. The second time I did a project with Glenn Hughes of Deep Purple and Trapeze. We did an album called 1997 tribute to Tommy Bolin. We did three tours with that album and I still occasionally do gigs with Glenn Hughes. After that I did an album with Buddy Miles and Double Trouble called Buddy Miles Bluesberries featuring Rocky Athas. It was great working with Stevie Ray Vaughn's old band and Buddy Miles. That album is currently out on Ruf Records. I am very proud of that album. I co wrote all the material with Buddy Miles for that album.
When you joined Black Oak Arkansas, was the band together and touring before or was it a reformation?
I stepped right in. I don't believe Black Oak has ever quite touring.
Did you and Black Oak Arkansas play many shows? Where you often on the road?
We were constantly on the road. I did many tours with Black Oak.
Did you play big audiences or bars?
Mostly big audiences. We did do occasionally bars between the big audience gigs.
Did you play outside the USA?
I never got the chance to play outside the USA with Black Oak.
Did you have others musical projects at the time you were with Black Oak Arkansas?
Not while I was with Black Oak. We were just too busy.
Jim Dandy seems to me to be a very special man. Could you present him to us and describe how he is?
Jim is a very special person. He has such a kind heart. I loved working with him as a person and as an artist. He was very sharing. I co wrote about 5 songs on the new album with Jim Dandy.
Is he easy to live?
Very easy to live with because not only is he a kind person but he is very funny and always liked to make you laugh.
What are your memories with Black Oak Arkansas?
I loved working with the original members such as Ricky Reynolds, Pat Dougherty, Jim Dandy. Getting to do the last album with them was a gas. Getting to put my input in the project was fantastic.
Did you always Play the lead parts and was Ricky Reynolds always on rhythm guitar or did sometimes Ricky play solos?
I did all the lead parts and Ricky played rhythm. He loved being the rhythm player and he was very good at it. I still think he was one of the best.
Is Southern rock a musical style you enjoy?
I love it because it seems to have all my favorite styles all put into one.
For you, is Black Oak Arkansas a Southern rock band?
Yes very much so.
Are there some interesting Southern rock bands in Texas?
Well there is always ZZ Top and bands like that but, there are a lot of local bands in Texas that play just southern rock. Here in Texas it is very popular. We just love that style.
If I have well understood, you have left Black Oak Arkansas in 2001, why?
I have always wanted to pursue my on direction which is what my new CD Miracle on Armadillo Records is all about. This is the direction I have always wanted to go.
Are you still in touch with Jim Dandy and do you play still sometimes with Black Oak Arkansas?
I have been so busy with my own project that we have not seen much of each other lately.
Is "The Wild Bunch" the only project (released or not) that was recorded by the band during that period?
Yes during that period it is the only thing recorded.
What did you do after, until the recording of "Miracle"?
Before "Miracle" came out I did the album with Glenn Hughes and toured and did the Bluesberries with Buddy Miles and Double Trouble and toured with that for about a year until Buddy had congestive heart failure and the touring stopped after that so he could get better. That band album came out in 2002 on Ruf Records. We also did a cut on a Jimi Hendrix tribute album on Ruf records called Blue Haze in which we did a version of the Wind Cries Mary.
Has the band recorded something else?
Not since the last album.
When was created the Rocky Athas Group?
At the end of the Bluesberries Jim Gaines the producer said we should record one of your projects. I couldn't pass up the chance to work with one of the greats. So my group was formed from some of my favorite players and we did the album.
How did you recruit the musicians?
When Jim Gaines said lets do one of your projects I had in the back of my mind all the players I wanted to use. I went to each of them and asked would you like to do this project with me and they loved the idea. So it was born.
Were these musicians with you only for the recording? Do you tour with them or with other players?
I did use a few other players on the CD but for the most part I also travel with who you see on the back of the CD. The band I use on the road are the players on the last two cuts of my CD. These guys are my dream team.
On the cover of the disc, it is written "The Rocky Athas Group featuring Larry Samford", thus Larry Samford seems to be an important person in the band. Could you tell us a little more about this singer, your relation with him, his musical history?
I have always loved Larry's voice. I worked with him in the past with Lightning. His voice was always so soulful and that is what I am feeling these days. His voice seems to fit the style of music I write.
As others Texan blues guitarists such as Mike Morgan, Anson Funderburgh or Smokin' Joe Kubek you're a guitarist that don't sing. Why this peculiarity of white Texas blues guitarists?
Well, I don't know about the other guys but in my situation I would never be able to sing the songs as good as Larry could. And the songs deserve the best vocalist. Plus I am able to focus on the guitar playing. You put his vocals with my guitar playing and I think they go together much better than if I were trying to sing them.
What are you main influences?
I think Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and anyone who plays with soul and feeling.
Listening to you disc, the blues seems to be the major part of your music but it seems to me to be an elaborated blues like if others musical components would be in. What is your appreciation about this?
Well, I think you are correct. My main influence is rockin' blues but I do like to put that element in song structure and try and make a real song out of it and not just a jam.
What would you to tell us about "Miracle"?
Miracle is about life experience. Falling in love and out of love. The things that all people go through. I wanted this album to say that. If you will notice all the songs are about life experience.
Will the subject of you next project be different?
I am not exactly sure what subject will be on the next CD because we have not started to record that yet. But I can tell you for this CD this is what I was feeling. I wanted to write about life experience. Everyone has had a relationship that was either falling in love or out of love and I felt like we could all relate to this boy or girl. I fell like the words and the mood of the music seem to fit that well.
Have you already planned a new record?
I am always thinking ahead. We already have new material that Larry Samford and I have written. When the time is right I believe then we will be able to pick the next set of songs. I am really feeling good these days so I hope the music can capture that for the next CD.
Will we have a chance to see you in Europe, especially in France?
This summer we will most likely be coming to Europe. We played in England last summer and loved every minute of it. I really hope we get to come to France. It seems like you know good music.
Because Bands of Dixie is mainly a Southern rock magazine, I would like to know what the bests Southern rock albums are, for you.
The best southern rock albums are to me the Allman Brothers Band Live at the Fillmore, Little Feat, ZZ Top. Bands like this are awesome.