Roughly halfway through Hold My Beer: Volume 1 — the new album from longtime friends Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen — a record company executive approaches Rogers with an opportunity for the respected country singer to score a chart success with a song "about a dirt road." Rogers obliges, politely listens to the song, then wryly rebuffs the offer with a twinkle in his eye and a sly, cunning bit of wordplay: "I don't have hits – I've got standards."
That one line —playful, funny and honest — serves as the perfect summary statement for Hold My Beer, a record that's part road movie, part joke book, part Western philosophy but, above all else, is the story of enduring friendship and the value of personal integrity, Saturday night dance parties and a couple of good, stiff drinks. What's more, it's a story told by two artists whose individual careers are years deep. They both boast a string of acclaimed records and command large audiences nationally, but Hold My Beer grew out of the pair's decade-long, house-packing acoustic tour they started doing just for the fun of it.
"It became obvious to us that we should write the story of our friendship," explains Bowen, "How we met, how we became friends." That story began 15 years ago, when Rogers dropped by one of Bowen's gigs. "I invited him back to the house – nicknamed ‘the White House’ — to jam," Rogers explains. "The house sat on a big lot so we never worried about our music waking the neighbors. We usually had a keg tapped and staying up all night playing music was a regular thing. Anyway, the next thing you know, we're here, 15 years later."
That sense of camaraderie and personal history comes through in each of Hold My Beer's ten songs. Musically, the songs are rich and layered – big, oaky acoustic guitars, swooping fiddles and lap steel that chuckles at every punchline; that's no surprise, given that the album was produced by the legendary Lloyd Maines. "Lloyd's not only one of the most talented people on the planet, he might be one of the funniest, too," says Rogers. "He's a genius. He's smart, and he knows how to make each musician play in order to be the best version of themselves."
That "best version" comes through again and again on Hold My Beer. In the rollicking album-opener "In the Next Life," Bowen and Rogers outline the story of their lives together, from that first meeting at Wade’s show in San Marcos to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. They acknowledge every peak and valley along the way before concluding, "I guess that what they say is true, all you need is one good friend/ and in the next life, we wanna be ourselves again." Of that unique chemistry, Bowen explains, "We don't have to flip the 'entertainer' switch. We flip the 'friendship' switch. That’s what 'In the Next Life’ is about – how we became friends, and how that outshines everything else."
"'Til it Does’ opens with a bright, swaying guitar line and Bowen's warm voice sighing, "I never told her that I loved her, but I do." From there, it settles slowly and sadly into its wistful, indelible chorus. "The first time I heard it we were playing one of our acoustic shows together," Rogers recalls. "He played it, and by the time the second chorus came around, I knew the words and I was singing along. I looked at him when it was finished and said, "Did you write that? That's a damn good song. We gotta cut that."
Like so many songs on Hold My Beer, "'Til It Does" is a showcase for the pair's deft and savvy skill as writers. They're able to summon strong, evocative images that convey deep meaning – avoiding cliché without ever sounding forced or labored. The songs go down smooth and smoky, like finely-aged whiskey.
They're also defined by a natural mood of exuberance. In the riled-up, boot-stomping "Lady Bug," they arc their voices up high over galloping banjo, pleading "Lady bug, lady bug, give me some good luck/ four-leaf clover, come on over."
"That was a real hard song to pull off, because I had a different vision for it than Randy did," Bowen says. "We kinda battled over how the song should go. Then we went out, started drinking vodka and beers, took a few shots –everybody just relaxed – and came back in the studio and did it in one take." Even the album's choice of cover songs – Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard's 1983 hit "Reasons to Quit," Haggard's 1978 song "It's Been a Great Afternoon" and Joe Ely's roaring "Hopes Up High" – are effortlessly made over in Rogers and Bowen's images, and feel as much a part of their story as their originals.
"'Reasons to Quit' really sums us up," Rogers says. "We play so many dates, we're gone so much from our families, the excesses of the road, the toll it takes on our bodies… We tried to sit down and write that song, and we realized, 'Fuck it – they already wrote it.'"
The song provides the perfect conclusion to the record. As fiddle saws slowly in the background, Bowen and Rogers itemize all of the hardships of being on the road and working as a touring musician, before defiantly concluding – as Nelson and Haggard did all those years ago – "The reasons to quit don't outnumber all the reasons why." It's a proud declaration from two men who have weathered a lot, but are still looking for the next party, and still ready to provide its soundtrack.
Photographer: Jim McGuire