Perrin C. Smith
The Ballad of James Rogers
He has a list of accomplishments nearly a book long, but, somehow, never the full glow of the spotlight.
Written by Perrin C. Smith, October 20, 2020
He was about to retire. Locked into his decision in June 2013, James Rogers stood backstage at The Celebrity Theater in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. He had just played one of his final shows. The curtains had closed behind him, his Martin guitar was packed away in its case. After nearly four decades in the music business, he was bowing out.
But, as with most things in his long and storied career in music, his simple exit was never going to be so simple.
When his stage manager found him, he was busied with other things. He came with a message for James: Dolly Parton’s outside, he said. She wants to speak to you.
James finished what he was doing, but what else could be more important than Dolly? Quickly, he made his way through a dressing room and out the back door. There, secluded away from the building, was Dolly’s tour bus: the “Gypsy Wagon,” as she refers to it.
Climbing up the stairs, opening the door, he was met by the beige, cream-toned interior. Then he turned and saw her, alone at a table.
Serene. Kind. Dolly.
She was waiting for him. “Hey James,” she said. “How are you?”
James, who is something of a local sensation, is first to admit: “My name doesn’t mean much west of the Mississippi.”
But his adventurous career has allowed him to rub shoulders with music legends like Dolly Parton and George Strait. He even opened for Glen Campbell. He has entertained millions all over the world, from humble beginnings in lounges around Northwest Georgia, all the way to the White House. His career has taken him high and low, but never far from his base in Southern Appalachia.
It all began, he recalls, at age five. Long before he stood about six feet tall. Before he’d created a stage presence that riled audiences into standing ovations. Longer still, before he grew his iconic brown mustache and let loose his stylishly long, just-above-the-shoulder-length hair. As James tells it, his career began in 1954, during a first grade performance at a Parent-Teacher Association meeting.
“I reckon she heard me being a loudmouth,” James said. His teacher had handpicked him to perform at the show. “Evidently, I passed the test. They heard me and thought, ‘Oh, this one can sing on tune.’ So, they went with me.”
His first show was a far cry from his decades-away performances where he would be robed in bespoke, hand-crafted costumes designed only for him. His first performance had him costumed with a construction paper hat. He was playing a “raindrop soldier,” and the performance stirred in him what he would later recall as his first acknowledgment of wanting to be an entertainer. The performance was a hit.
By 11, James was armed with a Sear’s catalog Silver-toned Roebuck Guitar that would never stay tuned, his ideas of being an entertainer began to find footing in music he could create on his own.
It was backbreaking work. Horrible, hard. He was working construction, at 20, carrying sheetrock to a site, back and forth all day, for $100 a week. It was honest work. But music, the dream, was on the back burner.
“I grew up in a world where my parents were factory workers,” he said. “That was the real world, but I always loved music.”
Construction was reality. But in 1973, it brought him to the home of Jim Evans, the owner of Light Fantastic Lounge in Rossville, Georgia. Evans’s personal work problems seemed to permeate the worksite like a bad smell. His talent had gone to Atlanta and left him shorthanded and in need of a replacement.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Evans kept saying.
Bill, James's boss at the site, turned to Evans. “You ought to let Rogers play for you,” he said.
Evans looked at James. He was shaggy, sweaty, and young. Realizing that his problem was dire enough to book a sheetrock installer he asked, “Well, would you want to?”
The Light Fantastic Lounge was small, but it was a gig. The marquee outside had emblazoned in big, red letters: LIVE MUSIC ALL THE TIME. That day, at 1 p.m., the live music was going to be James Rogers.
He stepped inside. Nobody there. He guessed that this was a trial run. A safe way to see if he could entertain the afternoon drunks before moving up to primetime. To see if he could really sing as well as everyone, or at least Bill, thought. So, he walked past the U-shaped bar, past the one patron seated there, the waiters, and Evans, and straight up to the stage.
A lone barstool. He unpacked his guitar, sat down, and launched into his first song—then another, and another. By the end of his first-ever set, the man at the bar was moved to tears.
One of the bar workers looked to Evans. “You should really hire this guy,” she said.
Music, the dream, came closer to reality.
The next few years were busy. He recorded an album. His song, “Fly, Eagle, Fly,” was chosen as the Tennessee Bicentennial song in 1976. And, before long, he was performing all across the Southern states.
A man—whom today James wonders if he’s named after the drink, or the drink after him—Tom Collins, started looking at him for a recording contract. He wanted to make him a star. The two had met in Nashville. Tom, a music producer, had generated hitmakers like Ronnie Milsap and Barbara Mandrell.
The call came suddenly:
“It’s down to you and one other guy, James,” Collins said over the phone. James was touring, staying near Hilton Head where he was playing at a resort. “Can you call me tomorrow?”
The next day, James called again. It was odd, he remembers. Quiet.
“I’m sorry, but we’ve got to go with the other guy,” Collins said. “He’s got more money behind him.”
“That was a heartbreaker,” James later said. But the other guy? That was George Strait.
Over the next decade, he continued to perform. Opening twice for Glen Campbell, his music hero, in Wisconsin. But after those days, the dream needed more reality. He was married with two small kids. Life changed.
“There’s always pros and cons to settling down,” he said. For one, you don’t have to travel and can keep your family. But the downside? You’re limited to where you are. This is what he felt when, in the early 1980s, he auditioned in front of a talent scout for the theme park Silver Dollar City in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
“Well, oh boy,” he said, a hint of sardonic skepticism in his voice. “Who would want to perform at a theme park?”
But it turned out all right, at least as he looks back four decades on. He was hired as a regular performer.
In 1986, Silver Dollar City was bought by Dolly Parton and rebranded into what is now Dollywood. James continued on with his musical performances—the rebrand made little difference to him.
But the rebrand brought with it the need to record new commercials. James was asked to do his set for a TV spot. So, he did. The cameras rolled on him as he played the guitar, sang, and put on a show.
“The fans are a big part of my persona,” he said, a gentle smile on his face.
Even then, his shows heavily involved the audience. He would saunter down the stage, out into the audience, and pick a person in the front row to sing with him. So, he did as he normally would. Down into the audience, and there, sure enough, was someone to sing with. It was Dolly. Their first meeting in what would become a decades-long friendship.
He bent down, singing to her. She watched him while the cameras were tight on them together. Then, in the middle of his song, she leaned in close. Smiled, then kissed him.
“You know, James,” Dolly said in her sing-song voice thirty years later. “There’s one thing I’m disappointed in you for.”
“Well, what’d I screw up this time?” he said. They had been sitting together at that table inside her tour bus for nearly an hour, the two of them shooting the breeze.
“All the times we’ve done shows together,” she said, a sly smile on her face, “of all the times we’ve sung, we’ve never really done a song together.”
“Well, we did that one—”
“Yeah, but that was for a show,” Dolly said. “I mean a duet. We never sang a duet together.” She paused for a moment, looking up at James once more. “Would you sing a duet with me?”
“Now, you’re not losing it, are you?” he said. He smirked. “You know this is James Rogers, not Kenny?”
“Oh, shut up,” she said. They laughed.
A short while later, he left her tour bus, packed his bags, and returned home. Proud of the life he’s led. Proud to have met music greats. Prouder still to have entertained millions. He, the local hit.