published Thursday, February 9th, 2012

Curtain Call: Chattanooga keyboardist play with Don Williams

Tyson Rogers moved to Signal Mountain with his family when he was an eighth-grader.  Today he is playing and touring with country music legend Don Williams, who will perform March 18 at the Tivoli Theatre.
Tyson Rogers moved to Signal Mountain with his family when he was an eighth-grader. Today he is playing and touring with country music legend Don Williams, who will perform March 18 at the Tivoli Theatre.
Photo by Contributed Photo.

The way Tyson Rogers sees it, he is simply a sideman, a keyboard player who plays the notes that fit the song.

That's why it doesn't seem strange to him that he began his musical career studying and playing classical music, then switched to jazz, which led him to indie rock.

His first gig after moving to Nashville five years ago was backing bluesman Tony Joe White, and for the last year or so, Rogers has been recording and touring with country legend Don Williams.

"It's still playing keyboard, you know," Rogers said. "... It seems natural to me. I'm a sideman. I play the music that seems to fit."

Rogers was born in Indiana and spent some of his early childhood in Massachusetts. His family moved to Signal Mountain when he was in the eighth grade.

Now living in Nashville with his wife and daughter, he tours with Williams and does studio session work.

Q: Have you always been into music?

A: Yep. I had siblings who played, and at school I was always a musician and playing every chance.

Q: What kind of music?

A: Well, I studied classical, but jazz caught my ear at an early age. I was always into jazz and rock, of course, like every kid.

Q: What did you study in college?

A: My undergrad and master's are both jazz degrees.

Q: What did you do after school?

A: I moved to Chapel Hill (N.C). At that point in time, the jazz musicians and the indie rockers were blending together. I was always interested in more avant-garde stuff. In Chattanooga, I started out hanging out with the Shaking Ray Levis [Bob Stagner and Dennis Palmer]. That was a pivotal moment in my life. I can't express that enough. They turned me on to a LOT of cool stuff.

I've tried to keep that spirit with me all the way. I'm always looking for that freedom they turned me onto.

Q: When were you in Chapel Hill, and what were you doing there?

A: Around 1999. I got interested in being a studio musician and Americana, and I was working with Chris Stamey. He was working with Tiff Merritt, Roman Candles, Tres Chicas and Whiskeytown. Chris used me on records, and I toured with his band.

He was the only game in town, so if I had more Chris Stameys in town, I would have done great. I really like doing studio work, so as that was ending and the music industry was changing, I started looking around, and Nashville seemed to be the place.

I have to admit, even though I lived so close in Chattanooga, I really didn't know what all was here. I moved here, and I love it. You have got all these people moving here like Jake White. I'm always interested in the next scene, and Nashville is still very much rockin'.

Q: How did you end up in Don Williams' band?

A: I did a record with Tony Joe White. It was a career highlight. Then I toured with him for two years. Really cool. Then I got a call to play with Don Williams. He had retired, so I didn't think it was possible to play with him, but he was being inducted into the [Country Music] Hall of Fame, so he was coming back.

That was two years ago, and he is touring more than ever.

He also is recording a new album, so I got to do a week in the studio. They did a record like they did 20 or 30 years ago. Billy Sanford was on guitar.

Q: For the folks who might not know what you mean, how was it different?

A: I've done a lot of modern recording, but I'd not seen the actual real guys playing actual real instruments. It was a really great moment.

We were all in the same room at the same time, literally. We weren't isolated in separate booths. He had a stack of demos sent from the publishers, and he'd pick through them. We had no heads-up on what we'd be recording. Everybody was playing real guitars that appeared to be from the period and probably telling the same jokes.

They were doing their thing, and I was taken back like I'd walked into Nashville in 1970.

I'm 36, and I was the youngest guy in the room by far. Don is 76. Billy Sanford is 72. He's the opening lick on "[Oh], Pretty Woman."

Q: The Roy Orbison song?

A: He's that lick, the Orbison song, so the history was there.

Q: What have you learned from being around these guys?

A: There is a lot to learn, and there is a certain respect and coolness about the gig. Nobody is cooler than Don Williams.

If there is anything they have taught me, it's how much music is in the spur of the moment every night, even though it's the same song. These guys are the consummate performers. They've taught me how to be in the moment with a simple country song they've played a thousand times. There are things that get passed down to you just by osmosis. You feel it.

The other thing is the power of a song. It happens every night. We can go to the middle of nowhere in the middle of the Midwest and somehow, someway people know to show. They love him.

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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