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Roger Rabalais journeys from Tombstone to the Coal River

Courtesy photo
Singer/songwriter Roger Rabalais performs at First Presbyterian Church Tuesday as part of the annual GoodNight New Year's Eve celebration.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- History is full of good stories. They're just not all absolutely true.

Roger Rabalais thought he had a pretty good idea of what went down between the Earps and the Clantons in 1881 at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz., but then he picked up an old Time-Life book series about the Old West.

"I realized the story wasn't really black and white, good guy versus bad guy," said Rabalais, who performs at 6 and 8 p.m. Tuesday at First Presbyterian Church for GoodNight 2013. "The Earp brothers were, in a lot of ways, just as bad as the Clantons. Everybody was really living on the edge,"

The true story, he said, is mesmerizing. It became an obsession for the former radio executive-turned-singer/songwriter. Off and on for more than 20 years, Rabalais worked on songs about Wyatt Earp, the town of Tombstone and the colorful characters from the time -- but he wanted his songs to tell the truth as well as entertain.

"I played some of the songs back when I was living in Colorado," the Louisiana native explained. "I'd play them everywhere -- at local clubs, rodeos, bonfires and even cattle drives."

That last one still sounds a little weird to him, but Rabalais said that, every once in a while, he got hired to play music at the top of a mountain.

"They'd drive the cattle up the mountain, have a meal and then bring the cattle back down," he said.

It was just something they did in Colorado.

Most of those songs followed him to West Virginia when he settled in the area in the late 1990s, but it took until 2012 before he was finally ready to record them.

"I could have recorded them years ago, but I just wanted to wait until I was sure I could get them right," he said.

"Tombstone 1881" was released in late summer this year.

While the story takes its cues from history, the record was inspired by "The Legend of Jesse James" and "White Mansions," a pair of concept albums written in the 1970s and '80s by British songwriter Paul Kennerly, which feature performances by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Charlie Daniels and others.

"They were just very well done records," Robalais said.

Not all of his song are about history, although he is attracted to the subject.

"I grew up on the Gulf Coast," he said. "Waylon Jennings, Jimmy Buffet -- they're some of the people who are my roots, I guess. I like a good story and strong characters."

There are plenty of those here in West Virginia, he said.

"I was asked to contribute a song for the Coal River Group. They wanted us to find something either recreational or historical about the Coal River, and I went straight for the history."

Using Google, he found out about Captain Bill Griffith, a riverboat captain in the mid-to-late 1800s.

"There were actually three Captain Bills on the river at the time," Rabalais said. "Back then, people were really proud of their nicknames, and there was a Lying Captain Bill, a Fighting Captain Bill and a Drinking Captain Bill -- but they all answered to all of them because they wanted to work."

So, he wrote a song about the lying, fighting, drinking Captain Bill.

"I sort of rolled them all up together," he said.

It's a song he's been playing lately, although not as much as he'd like.

For a year or two, Rabalais oversaw the songwriter stage at the Daily Cup in South Charleston, but then the coffeehouse moved to downtown Charleston and cut out its evening hours.

"I miss that," he said.

Still, Rabalais said he's looking forward to playing GoodNight. He promised a few originals and a few covers.

"There will be plenty of music and some stories," he said.

Sometimes, the two might be the same thing.

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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