Innerviews: Frustrated songwriter finally living his dream
A Louisiana native, 66-year-old Roger Rabalais, made his living in radio as a sales and production executive. Through it all, through every new position and relocation, he nursed a (mostly) suppressed desire to write songs, play music and sing.
A five-time attendee at the annual Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp says something about the seriousness of this festering yen. So does the "Tombstone 1881" CD he released last year. Inspired by the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, he wrote the songs in the late '80s and early '90s.
In 1999, he settled in Charleston. Now, in retirement, he can oblige the muse for music that tugged at him all those years.
He's the cohost of the weekly songwriter stage at Timothy's on Quarrier Street, a place for singer-songwriters to share and showcase their original tunes. He penned a song for the Coal River Group. He contributed a song for a benefit CD based on the January water crisis in Charleston.
Free at last to pursue his passion, he's having the time of his life.
"In my career I have lived in eight states -- Louisiana, Florida, Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, West Virginia and Colorado.
"I grew up in Baton Rouge, the son of a physician. When I was 3 or 4, we moved to New Orleans while my dad did his residency in OB-GYN. We returned to Baton Rouge by the time I started first grade. I finished high school there in 1966.
"When I was a kid, I used to draw a lot. In the second grade, we had to do an essay on what you wanted to be when you grew up. I said I wanted to be an artist. My father was a gifted illustrator, but he chose to become a doctor.
"I remember dad taking us to see Gene Autry and I watched a lot of Hopalong Cassidy, Range Rider, the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers. So I was always into all of that.
"Around the fourth or fifth grade, Elvis Presley broke the scene, out of which came my interest in music. I played trumpet through middle school but didn't become interested in guitar until I heard the Kingston Trio in the late 50s and early 60s.
"Still a schoolboy in Baton Rouge, I started playing folk music, 'Tom Dooley' and 'Puff the Magic Dragon,' tunes like that. I didn't perform except at home. When I was a senior in high school, with the British invasion of 1964, I began my garage band experience. Some friends and I had a garage band. We were called the English Castles. We played the LSU fraternity party circuit and battle of the bands, things like that. I was the lead vocalist.
"Throughout college at different times, I talked to various people about forming bands, but I wasn't a trained musician, the kind of guy you call to sit in for your band. I'm a strummer, not a lead player.
"I started at Southern Methodist University in liberal studies and finished at LSU with a B.S. degree in general studies. It was during college that I became interested in radio, but only from afar. I knew some friends involved in it. A fellow I knew in high school was already a deejay. I ended up in sales.
"I was interested in radio as a creative medium. After college and broadcasting school, my first job was at a small station in Pensacola, Florida. I started as a copywriter and a production manager. I did not know then that radio is famous for short-lived jobs and ownerships. Within a month, I was let go because the station was sold.
"I was a newlywed and suddenly had no job. I walked out of the production manager's office and into the sales manager's office. He was putting together a new sales staff. I needed a job and went to work in sales.
"I got pretty good at it because I centered my attention on the selling of ideas instead of selling audience and numbers. I centered on the message itself and became pretty well known for production, on the way I would put a commercial together, more than reading copy over a piece of music.
"I did a lot of clever scenario type commercials and used music a lot. I always enjoyed writing. Through that first job in Pensacola, I got into sales and another station heard about me and brought me to work for them. That job petered out after so long, but I stayed on, part time on the air and part time writing copy, so I was a jack of all trades and master of none. I was still just 22.
"After a year or so in Florida, I ended up in Lake Charles, Louisiana for all of the '70s. That is where I made a lot of friends, including friends who years later bought a station here in Charleston and called me when they were staffing. From '80 to '86, I worked at radio stations in Aspen, Colo.
"It was 1987 when I came to Charleston with WCHS. It was owned by a company out of Lake Charles. One of the people I worked with was John Dickensheets. Jim Nesbit was general manager, and I was general sales manager. I was here a couple of years and then went back to Aspen in 1990.
"Through all that, I would occasionally sit in with bands as a singer. I did have a band in Aspen the second time around.
"I first went to the Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp in 2005. I was living here then. I returned to Charleston in '99 after I married a West Virginia girl. We had a long-distance relationship for 10 years. I relocated here rather than her relocating.
"I got into sales with a company that did real estate presentation folders. I did that with two different companies for the next 10 years.
"The Kingston Trio has evolved from many people over the years, but one of the almost founding members was John Stewart, a very prolific songwriter of Americana songs. His most famous is 'Daydream Believer' by the Monkees. He is on the level of Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. He was one of the first of the singer-songwriter genre.
"My brother and I grew up listening to the Kingston Trio. He lives in Nashville and stumbled on a website about the fantasy camp. We went together in 2005 and have been back five times. You get to sing with the trio.
"They were all alive when we started. Two have died since. In my case, I was on stage with John Stewart and Nick Reynolds on either side of me. You perform for an audience in concert. I performed 'It Takes a Worried Mind' with the real trio. I sang lead.
"I started songwriter stage in the fall of 2010 at the Daily Cup Cafe in South Charleston. After two and a half years of doing that once a month, they moved to downtown. Several factors affected their ability to remain open at night, so we lost the venue.
"Over the next year or so, I was looking for a venue. I got together with Anna Pollitt at Timothy's.
"A lot of successful country artists have come out of this tri-state area. The Judds. Brad Paisley. Little Jimmy Dickens. Billy Ray Cyrus. Kathy Mattea. Billy Ed Wheeler. He wrote a lot of songs for the Kingston Trio. That's where my songwriting aspirations came full circle. I had heard of Billy Ed Wheeler in high school for songs like 'The Rev. Mr. Black' and 'Coal Tattoo,' all covered by the Kingston Trio.
"We do songwriter stage on Tuesday nights. We feature local and regional singing songwriters, people who write and perform their own material. Ron Sowell. John Lilly. Regulars from Mountain Stage. Todd Burge. Julie Adams and Steve Hill. Mike Arcuri is my cohost. One recent show featured Micah and Mark Atkinson. Micah is the vocalist on my 'Tombstone 1881' CD.
"The CD is a labor of love I've had in my head for a long time. Years ago, I picked up some books on the Wild West and became fascinated with the story of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral -- 30 seconds in history that have lived in infamy all these years. I didn't realize the intricate relationships and personalities involved in that culminating event, including Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Virgil and Morgan. He had another brother not involved in the street fight, or the shootout as they called it then.
"It didn't even take place at the O.K. Corral, but that sounds a lot more charismatic than 'Shootout in the Vacant Lot Behind the O.K. Corral.' I call my CD a 'cowboy opera,' a term coined by a friend, a re-enactor in Colorado, Marcus Morton. All the songs are original. I hired studio players in Nashville and a top notch recording studio.
"I've been dabbling in songwriting for some time. I got interested in that by listening to the music of Lennon, McCartney and Jimmy Buffet. They inspired me to become a songwriter.
"The songs on the CD were mostly written from 1987 to '92 or so. I first started writing songs in 1980. The first one was about a visit I made to Hawaii when my older brother was stationed there. I wrote the theme song for songwriter stage, 'One More Irish Coffee.'
"We have a special show this Tuesday, the return of Ron Sowell along with Dave McCormick, who is one of our area's leading songwriters; and a friend of mine from Nashville, Ron Frugee, a self described 'full-bleed Cajun.' On Sept. 4, songwriter stage moves to Thursdays.
"I'm involved in a project being headed up by Trish Ansley. She's gathering up songs about our water crisis for an album to be produced locally, 'The Water Project.' It's going to be used to set up water banks around the country. I'm pleased that I was asked to write a song for it. It's called 'Don't Let Them Pump and Go.'
"I feel very content and happy now with my life in Charleston and my wife, Carolyn. We've been married 15 years. I feel good about where I am. West Virginia is being good to me.
"There is a great music community here that needs more attention, and that's part of what Songwriter Stage is about -- local and regional singer-songwriters performing original material in the round. It's an opportunity for them to play together. They wouldn't get to do that otherwise because they're always playing gigs."
Reach Sandy Wells at 304-348-5173 or firstname.lastname@example.org.