Canada's Garnet Rogers is one of folk music's fore-most performers, and the path of his creative life has been a remarkable one. That path took a sharp turn when his older brother, the legendary singersongwriter Stan Rogers, died in a 1983 air disaster. Garnet Rogers, who had served as producer, backup musician, and inspiration to his brother but had remained very much in his shadow, then had to find a musical voice of his own. Over two decades he did so, gradually emerging as an artist with a stature comparable to that of his brother.
Garnet Rogers was born around 1955, in Hamilton, Ontario, an industrial city at Lake Ontario's western end. His parents were from the Atlantic coast ("Maritime," in Canadian lingo) province of Nova Scotia, and he spent several summers there when he was young. Rogers grew up hearing a great variety of music. The two Rogers brothers spent Saturday nights listening to the broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry variety show, carried from Nashville, Tennessee, into Canada on the powerful signal of radio station WSM. Their mother loved classical music, and Garnet began learning his first instrument, the flute, when he tried to imitate a Johann Sebastian Bach composition he heard on the radio.
Another influence, one that Rogers shared with other musical young people in the 1960s, was folk music. When he was eight, his parents took him to hear Bob Dylan at Toronto's Massey Hall, just after Dylan began to anger folk traditionalists by adding electric instruments to his music. When Dylan came back on stage after a break to perform with The Band, his electric backing group at the time, "all hell broke loose. People started screaming and ripping up chairs and throwing them and being carried out on stretchers," Rogers told the Ottawa Citizen. "Fights broke out in the lobby, and I'm sitting there, holding onto my dad's hand, thinking, 'This is the greatest!'" When he got home, Rogers began practicing Dylan's "Desolation Blues" on a ukulele.
Stan Rogers, six years older than Garnet, recruited his brother as a backup musician while Garnet was still in high school, and after graduating, Garnet joined Stan on the road at age 18. They helped form a large band called Cedar Lake, which boasted 20 members at its peak. But that relic of the 1970s didn't last. Cedar Lake, Rogers told the Boston Globe, consisted of "a bunch of complete and utter lunatics, really disgusting, underrehearsed weirdo hippies, most of whom have found well-deserved obscurity." Stan Rogers, on the other hand, became one of Canada's top folk talents, and a rival to Gordon Lightfoot. Garnet did arrangements for his brother and produced some of his best-known songs, such as "Fogarty's Cove."
The brothers' musical partnership ended with the death of Stan Rogers in an Air Canada plane disaster at Greater Cincinnati International Airport on June 2, 1983. For several years after this tragic event, Rogers faced depression and a variety of pressures, although he continued to perform solo at venues he and his brother had scheduled and became an adept performer of Stan Rogers' songs. Meanwhile, the brothers' agent tried to steer him in the direction of commercial stardom. For a time, Rogers considered giving up music completely.
He stuck with performing, however, and soon developed a following of his own, releasing his debut album, Garnet Rogers, in 1984. In 1986 he appeared at the prestigious Winnipeg and Vancouver folk festivals and began an ongoing relationship with New England audiences with a concert at Club Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He mixed traditional ballads and songs by other writers into his sets along with his brother's songs, but the critical step in establishing his own career came when he began performing his own compositions.
The first time he tried it, he introduced his own song as a work by an unknown Australian writer. "I wanted to see the reaction," he explained to the Toronto Star. "People were very supportive of me after my brother's death, but I didn't want them to support my songs just because of loyalty to Stan." After the show, however, listeners asked where they could buy recordings of the song by the imaginary Australian artist. In 1990 Rogers released his Small Victories album; it was his fifth release on his own Snow Goose label, but the first to feature his own writing.
Rogers's music developed into something quite distinct from his brother's. Until later in his career he avoided the Maritime themes that had dominated Stan Rogers's output, leaning instead toward sharply etched story songs that delineated crucial moments in the lives of ordinary people. In terms of instrumentation he was far from being a typical folk artist, making use of an array of electronics, especially guitar synthesizers, on recordings and even on stage. Rogers's 1996 album Night Drive, one of his most successful, featured electric guitars, booming drums, and a Hammond B-3 organ. His baritone voice, emanating smoothly from his six-foot, four-inch frame, was a richer and more resonant version of his brother's.
Rogers pursued an independent path, avoiding major-label recording deals and making a living mostly by touring. "I realized there's a vast untapped audience out there that would never go away," Rogers told the Toronto Star. Reaching that audience, across Canada and on both coasts of the United States, involved long nights of driving; Rogers refused to fly after the disaster that killed his brother. Giving nearly 150 performances a year, he put over a million kilometers—600,000 miles—on a 1991 Volvo.
The title track of Night Drive dealt with Rogers's memories of his brother. Performing that song (and another from the album, called "Golden Fields"), "I get into a total dream state. It's almost like I disappear from the stage and I have no sense of myself and no sense of the audience." The 1999 Rogers album Sparrow's Wing marked another move in the direction of coming to terms with his brother's musical legacy, as Rogers shaped his songs around the Maritime themes his brother had loved, while keeping musically to a style of his own.
Rogers had cultivated pockets of American fans around such prestigious venues as Cambridge's Club Passim and the Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but American music buyers had more opportunities to discover his music when All That Is: The Songs of Garnet Rogers, an anthology of the singer's best work, was released by the Minnesota-based Red House label in 2002. Rogers toured that year with folk troubador Greg Brown, and returned in 2004 with a new release, Shining Thing, that found him in a mellower musical mood. "These new songs make me sound as if I've found my medication at last, as if I've made up my mind to work at being a happier person—which isn't far from the truth," Rogers told the Toronto Star. In early 2005, Rogers once again went out on tour, leaving the Ancaster, Ontario, farm he shared with his wife, Gail, a journalist.
For the Record . . .
Born c. 1955, in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
Performed with brother Stan Rogers, late 1970s and early 1980s; launched solo career after death of Stan Rogers, 1983; released debut album, Garnet Rogers, 1984; released first album featuring own compositions, Small Victories, 1990; toured widely in Canada and U.S.; released All That Is: The Songs of Garnet Rogers on Red House label (U.S.), 2002; released Shining Thing, 2004.
Addresses: Agent—Fleming & Associates, 733-735 N. Main St., Ann Arbor, MI 48104. Website—Garnet Rogers Official Website: http://www.garnetrogers.com.
Garnet Rogers, Snow Goose, 1984.
The Outside Track, Snow Goose, 1986.
Speaking Softly in the Dark, Snow Goose, 1988.
Small Victories, Snow Goose, 1990.
At a High Window, Snow Goose, 1992.
Summer Lightning (live), Snow Goose, 1994.
Night Drive, Snow Goose, 1996.
Sparrow's Wing, Snow Goose, 1999.
Firefly, Snow Goose, 2001.
All That Is: The Songs of Garnet Rogers, Red House, 2002.
Shining Thing, Snow Goose, 2004.
Boston Globe, May 9, 1986, p. 41.
Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), March 5, 1998, p. D5.
Ottawa Citizen, March 25, 2002, p. D4.
Toronto Star, April 20, 1988, p. D1; August 29, 1992, p. G5; December 26, 1996, p. B12; December 9, 2004, p. G3.
Washington Post, February 10, 1995, p. N18; November 19, 1999, p. N9.
Washington Times, November 20, 2003, p. M2.
Worcester Magazine, July 24, 2002, p. 18.
"Biography," Garnet Rogers, http://www.garnetrogers.com (December 19, 2004).
"Garnet Rogers," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (December 19, 2004).
"Garnet Rogers," Fleming Artists, http://www.flemingartists.com/bios/gr-bio.html (December 19, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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