Still Tryin’ to Believe
Proving that’s it’s never too late to begin, this is the debut album from 57-year-old Peter Rogan, already a songwriting winner in the Great American Song contest. Rogan wrote or co-wrote all dozen songs on the album with 17 musicians and back-up singers, thereby fulfilling a lifelong dream of releasing his own album. Still Tryin’ to Believe has strong songs and top notch players. Rogan is not likely to stun you with his light baritone voice, but he articulates clearly, and his vocals work well here.
Rogan’s collaborators include principally Phil Madeira (producer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, leader and regular member of Emmylou Harris’ Red Dirt Boys along with fellow Red Dirt Boy multi-instrumentalist Will Kimbrough who also helms tons of projects, producing albums as diverse as Steve Poltz’s “Shine On” and Shemekia Copeland’s highly acclaimed America’s Child. (Kimbrough has his own solo album slated for April). Bassist and Red Dirt Boy Chris Donohue and drummer Dennis Holt form the rhythm section while other musicians and singers guest on select tracks.
Rogan’s is surely a story of perseverance. The steelworker has always had his hands in music, playing in folk, rock, and jazz bands in and around New York, New Jersey, and his home state of Pennsylvania. He had to keep as more of hobby, realizing he needed a day job to support his family, and, to his credit, he put all three of his children through college. In recent years he began writing songs again and was fortunate enough to impress Madeira at a songwriting workshop. The album’s title, Rogan says, relates to “Faith, and how hard that can be sometimes. Faith in God, faith in our country and others, but faith in one’s self and one’s dream especially.” This is a chord that probably struck well with Madeira who has written brilliantly about the subject. We’ll discuss more about the process of the record later.
The album often rings with Grateful Dead and The Band influences as it’s mostly in that kind of classic Americana mode with a touch of blues, and, for one track, jazz. The title track certainly has that Dead vibe musically. “The Only One” adds some country soul as Baltimore singer Allison Dietz joins on vocals and Rickie Simpkins on fiddle. This is the only place where the album touches country as Kimbrough’s dobro joins Simpkins’ fiddle to give it an acoustic string sound.
The stand-out rather funky “Kickin’ the Can,” a song about procrastination, follows in the mode of Randall Bramblett or maybe even early Bruce Hornsby with rapped verses and guitar solos from both Kimbrough and Rogan. (Notice I mentioned two keyboard players. Yes, Madeira is key in propelling this groove and as co-writer the song first appeared on Madeira’s own 2016 “Original Sinner,” also with Kimbrough) “River Man” is a bit of bluesy Southern Gothic, depicting a weathered boat captain who meets his fate on the Chesapeake Bay.
The album’s most flat out blues track, “The Rolling Mill Blues” has the band in a Stones-like groove as Rogan gets his Mick Jagger on. This might have been the inspiration for the Madeira/Rogan tongue-in-cheek blues of “Big Green Rambler.” “Mercy” is the darkest track, a rather introspective song co-written with Nashville poet Kenneth Robinson. Rogan has a sizzling guitar solo and three female voices brighten the tune in the chorus.
“The Start of Something Easy”, another co-wrote with Madeira, is a shuffle featuring a gospel-like chorus of five background vocalists and some tasty guitar work from Rogan. “Sweet Baby Blues” has that syncopated funky rhythm one would associate with a Stones or Dead tune, and it’s imbued with plenty of lead and slide guitar runs.
Rogan is trying to do a few different styles here as we hear on the love song “Beautiful Honey” and the jazz ballad, “Song for Keith” which placed in the Top 5 in the 2017 Great American Song Contest. It’s played with a jazz quintet (not Kimbrough, Madeira etc.) and features lovely flugelhorn from Bob Meashey. Interestingly, Rogan studied jazz with the late John Abercrombie in NYC in the mid-‘80s.
We promised to briefly describe the process of making the album. After the songwriting workshop with Madeira, Rogan worked to complete enough songs for the album. In late 2016 he drove to Nashville to work with Madeira, who, in turn, assembled the Red Dirt Boys plus for the core sessions. Rogan took these instrumental tracks back home to Reading, PA, selected and edited the best tracks before then adding extra guitar parts, Hammond organ, various percussion and both lead and background vocals. With Madeira’s encouragement and support, Rogan produced the album himself.
Rogan did a nice job although the album is uneven, probably purposely as he was trying to accomplish so much with his first full effort. There’s no doubting his songwriting talent and musical depth and we look forward to hearing more from Peter Rogan.
- Jim Hynes