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Published: 2001/09/19
by Robert Johnson

The Education of Bobby Lee Rodgers

To the untrained eye, Bobby Lee Rodgers looks downright normal. The guitarist/singer/banjo wrangler for the Code Talkers is friendly and polite to a fault, was a varsity football player at Stone Mountain High School, and generally appears to be a wholesome All-American guy. He even wrote a song about the VFW hall in his hometown.

So what’s a nice Southern boy like Bobby Lee doing in a band with Col. Bruce Hampton, the most certifiable wacko in the jam band world? Well, besides producing some of the best live music in the country, he has been learning a lot from the master of strategic weirdness. Bobby Lee is still a musical purist at heart, but playing with the Colonel has forever changed his concept of what music is and how it should be played.

THE PURIST

Bobby Lee Rodgers is what the kids today like to call "old school," and like many musicians with a reverence for history, even his instrument has a history behind it. A friend was working in the Fender factory, the Mount Olympus of guitars, when he discovered a vintage Telecaster body lying unused in some storage room. The friend restored the body, added a custom-made rosewood neck, and Bobby Lee had the classic guitar to fit his purist tastes.

"Some guys play with a lot of pedals, but it’s not really necessary," Rodgers declares. "Look at Derek Trucks. He just plugs right into his amp. Back in the ARU days, Bruce used to tell Jimmy Herring ‘I don’t want to hear them pedals, I want to hear YOU!’"

And back in the ARU days, Bobby Lee Rodgers was a student at the University of Georgia’s music school. One day in 1990, he decided to go check out the Aquarium Rescue Unit at the Georgia Theater in Athens, not sure what to expect. As fate would have it, that show was the one enshrined on the first ARU album, which is still one of the finest live documents of all time. The combination of the band’s sheer musical prowess and Col. Bruce’s weird Zambiland mythos had a profound effect on Rodgers.

"I was blown away," Rodgers recalls, and like many others he gushes about the spontaneity, creativity, and pure musicianship of the band. However, unlike the others Bobby Lee didn’t just go to a show that day: he had a premonition.

"The thing was," he says with a smile, aware of how foolish this might sound, "I just KNEW that I was going to play with Bruce someday."

Rodgers would eventually grow restless with Athens and continue his studies at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, which has a mixed reputation for producing musicians who are technically brilliant, but lacking in soul. Bobby Lee obviously avoided the latter pitfall, and hungrily absorbed the musical knowledge that surrounded him. Musical literacy is actually one of Rogers’ favorite topics.

"Music is a language, and music theory is like the grammar," says Rodgers. "If you don’t understand music on that level, then it’s like you’re having a conversation but you don’t even know what you’re saying."

Even while Bobby Lee was in Boston, his eventual rendezvous with the Colonel was never far from his mind. As he mastered his craft as a songwriter, he would often hear his songs in his head as they would sound if Bruce was singing them in the Georgia Theater. Meanwhile, he formed a band called The Herd. The drummer was an expatriate South African named Nick Buda who had a unique feel to his drumming. Even after The Herd broke up, Rodgers kept Buda in mind for the inevitable Col. Bruce project. A one time gig with bassist Ted Pecchio caused Bobby Lee to file his name away as another piece to the prophecy.

He developed a great love for bands such as New Grass Revival, which exposed him to Bela Fleck, although he claims to have picked up his Deering Crossfire electric banjo before he ever heard Bela’s electric side. Through his bluegrass connections, Rodgers made the acquaintance of another great banjo master, Rev. Jeff Mosier of Blueground Undergrass. It was at a BGUG show at Variety Playhouse that the next chapter in the prophecy would unfold…

ENTER THE COLONEL

Meeting Col. Bruce Hampton for the first time is something that you never forget, and Bobby Lee Rodgers is no exception. The Colonel was hanging out backstage before the Blueground show when he spotted Bobby Lee and, mere moments after meeting him, blurted out "September 11th, you’re a Virgo, aren’t you?" Rodgers was stunned. Hampton had correctly guessed not only his sign, but his birth date (one of Hampton’s signature feats). Before Bobby Lee even had a chance to recover properly, Bruce laughed and said "You should come play with me next Saturday!" Where was the gig? At the Georgia Theater, of course! Rodgers premonition was rapidly coming true, and he soon became a full-fledged member of Hampton’s current band, Planet Zambee.

If music really is a language, as Bobby Lee suggest, then those first few months playing with the Colonel were like one of those "total immersion" language classes where the instructor refuses to speak English. While Rogers was boggled at first by Hampton’s unorthodox musical notions, he soon realized that Bruce was simply speaking a different language. Once Bobby Lee cracked the Colonel’s code, they were able to communicate musically despite their vast differences in style and approach. It is this notion of music as communication that led Rodgers and Hampton to christen their new band the Code Talkers when Planet Zambee ceased to exist.

At that point, Rogers got back in touch with Buda and Pecchio (who was on the verge of giving up music altogether, an interesting story in itself) and the prophecy was fulfilled. All three were quickly catapulted into the strange Zambiland universe that Col. Bruce inhabits, a place full of odd characters, great musicians, and unchained creativity.

One of the many perks of playing with Bruce Hampton is that you get to jam with some of the greatest musicians in the world. According to Bobby Lee Rodgers, that includes people you have never met.

"When you jam with Bruce," he explains, "it’s like you’re jamming with everybody he’s ever jammed with. He has this accumulation of knowledge from all that he’s seen and heard, everyone he’s played with, and it rubs off on you."

Some of the people that Bobby Lee has had the pleasure to jam with in person include Derek Trucks, Bob Weir, and Mike Gordon. Rodgers raves about Derek the most, saying, "Every note he plays has so much to it, it blows me away. He’s like a 400 year old musician in a 22 year old’s body. It’s like having Mozart sit in with your band: You know it’s going to work out well."

I don’t know why I was surprised to hear about Bob Weir sitting in with the band in Mississippi. After all, Bruce and Bobby share a love for some of the same old blues and soul tunes, such as Spoonful and Lovelight, even if they interpret them in very different ways. Rodgers experience with Weir was a dichotomous one.

"It’s weird, because offstage he is like the nicest, most normal accountant you’ve ever met in your life," says Bobby Lee, "but once he hit the stage, there was just this presence around him, this aura. It was like there were angels around him or something, very powerful."

The subject of the Grateful Dead comes up, of course, and Bobby Lee adamantly maintains that the material was what made the band so great, not the jamming. This emphasis on songwriting is typical of Rodgers, who has written over 100 songs and seems to write constantly.

Mike Gordon of that other Huge Jam Band performed with the Code Talkers during a tour of the Northeast this spring, and Mike’s avant garde sensibilities clearly left an impression on the purist Rogers.

"It’s always great to have a new influence on your music, especially when it is someone as talented as Mike," Rogers says appreciatively. "You grow from having new colors around you. Strength is in diversity."

THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE

Listening to Col. Bruce’s accomplices talk about him is like hearing the acolytes of some mystical master try to explain their guru to an outsider. "He’s seen more than any one human should see. There’s just so much to the guy, I’m not sure what to reveal," says Rodgers, and you get the impression that he’s not kidding.

Like other great bandleaders from Miles Davis to Duane Allman, Bruce Hampton can communicate some inner truth through music in a way that eventually transcends music itself, and affects those who play with him on a personal level. "He sees whatever is inside of you that you haven’t tapped into yet, and he pulls it out of you," is Rodgers explanation of this process.

When asked how playing with Bruce has changed him as a person, Rodgers thinks for a while before saying "It’s helped me to forget what I needed to forget, which in turn helped me to find myself. There’s a big difference between being a pompous musician and playing music to find yourself," he adds thoughtfully.

This idea of music as a spiritual exercise, a higher calling, pervades the Zambiland crew. This reverent, sacred attitude towards music lends to the tent revival atmosphere of a Code Talkers show. At their very best, they resemble a transcendent, ecstatic ritual, with Bruce in the role of high priest and Bobby Lee cast as the sorcerer’s apprentice. This is music that is not content to merely entertain, but seeks to uplift the soul.

What exactly is it that makes Col. Bruce so good at achieving this elusive goal? Rodgers has a theory. "Bruce tries to destroy the band to see how strong it is," says Bobby Lee, who has been with Bruce long enough that he makes this unusual statement very casually. "He’s so off that if you’re not on, it will stick out like a sore thumb. It makes you awake beyond belief."

Indeed, waking people up has always been one of Bruce Hampton’s strong points. His sheer unpredictability forces anybody who plays with him to be ready for anything at any time, which is why some of the best improvisers in the jam band world are Col. Bruce alumni. The same chaotic spirit makes him very challenging to play with, but Bobby Lee doesn’t mind.

"I crave that shit, man!" he exclaims gleefully. "When he goes out, it just makes my playing that much tighter. I just hope that everybody else is willing to get in that airplane with us and got the other side of the ocean."

THE HOUSE THAT BRUCE BUILT

It is a balmy summer Saturday night and I am sitting on the patio at the Brandy House with Bruce Hampton, Count M’butu, and various friends and relatives. Bruce is quizzing the crowd with various brain teasers and puzzles, a favorite pastime. Tonight, the Code Talkers will be adding a new element to the mix, keyboardist Ike Stubblefield. This gives Bruce a chance to engage in another favorite pastime, flaunting his encyclopedic musical knowledge. He says that Ike:

A) Is the cousin of Clyde Stubblefield, James Brown’s legendary "funky drummer."

B) Used to be Stevie Wonder’s organ player, which is like being Jimi Hendrix’s guitar player.

"He’s the best," Bruce says confidently, in a voice that tolerates no disagreement.

Soon, Bobby Lee pulls up in his Jeep, his trusty axe slung over his shoulder. After exchanging pleasantries, we head inside to talk. We eventually get around to talking about the Brandy House, which has built a national reputation as a jam band mecca. "What makes this place so special?," I ask Bobby Lee, expecting to get some vague answer about "vibes."

Instead, he gives me a sly smile and boldly declares "Listen, if Bruce Hampton wanted the Atlanta jam scene to be at the McDonald’s across the street, that’s where it would be. A couple of years ago, Bruce was looking for a place to call home, since he didn’t really like any of the local clubs. He went into the place and said ‘Look, we’ll bring in (John) Popper and the guys from Phish, and you’ll have people on the roof. That’s how it got started, and it’s just grown from there."

Well, I didn’t see anybody on the roof tonight, but the place sure is packed, and the crowd gets an incredible show. It turns out that Bruce wasn’t just spinning one of his tall tales: Stubblefield really IS the man, laying down thick keyboard grooves with a church-organ flavor. Bruce sounds better than he has in years, his coarse, gruff voice full of soul and passion. His unusual guitar playing is as strange as ever, but it seems more proficient and focused.

And Bobby Lee is particularly sharp tonight, getting a wide range of sounds out of his guitar without any help from "them pedals." He shines the most on his songs, singing each word with conviction and tearing up his guitar solos. Perhaps the best part of the whole show is a scorching exchange between Rogers and Stubblefield. As they trade licks back and forth, Bobby Lee breaks into a wide smile. He realizes that Ike has cracked the code, and they begin to talk.

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