What About Bob?
A man let's call him White Rock Man slouches in the back of a bus, idling at the side of a steep stretch of road. As the engine cools, the bus sits between two cities and a pair of gigs: last evening in Sacramento and tonight at the Crystal Palace, which is some kinda ski resort, he guesses.
But White Rock Man doesn't know and doesn't really care; he's too busy mumbling through phone interviews and obscuring his annoyance with Gary the tour manager, who made him answer his cell, which now prevents him from curbing his hangover with a midday nap.
And while maybe you've heard of him, probably you haven't. A professional musician by the numbers, White Rock Man let's call him Bob Schneider played somewhere around 250 shows in 2005, and is a permanent fixture in his hometown of Austin, a city known for germinating a closely related species: White Songwriter Man.
With his husky voice and devil-may-care tousle, Schneider has lived at the border of pop stardom for more than a decade, leading near-miss bands such as Joe Rockhead, the Ugly Americans, and the Scabs through myriad permutations of alt-rock. While he possesses the talent, the determination, and "the look" needed to captivate rock-loving minions, things have never fully clicked: Schneider has never been able to eclipse his status as just another White Rock Man.
Certainly, he's received numerous invitations to the big dance: Dave Matthews digs his music, Universal signed and dropped him, and Sandra Bullock used to date the guy. The self-released version of 2001's Lonelyland sold a staggering 15,000 copies in a single Austin record store, and he's been named the Next Big Thing about a thousand times, which happens to be the number of tunes Schneider claims to have written along the way.
"I try to write a song a day," Schneider reveals, in the half-asleep, slacker inflection so common to White Rock Man. "I get up, I go to work on a song. I've been doing that for the last 11 or 12 years. It doesn't take that long to write a song. It's like any job, you know; I get up in the morning and go to work."
In 2005, Schneider's relentless ethic delivered him yet another invite, this one from the popularly infamous Dixie Chicks, who asked him to lend a hand in writing songs for their Grammy Award-winning disc Taking the Long Way.
"Most of it was just sitting around, talking, and shooting the shit," Schneider says. "Then we would bandy about some ideas and go home to work on them individually. We'd get together the next day and show each other the ideas. It was very low-pressure."
In the end, the Chicks decided to record "Thin Line," one of the Texan's older compositions. Befitting Schneider's career, though, the song didn't make the commercial release of Taking the Long Way, getting issued instead as a Best Buy-exclusive bonus track. Still, Schneider secured an opening slot on the Chicks' subsequent tour. So his band hit the road in 2006, serving mostly as entrance music for Dixie Chicks fans as they settled into the plastic seats of cavernous arenas.
"Ideally, you play for as many people as possible," Schneider says. "And it's good to get some exposure to play on a tour like [that], where, you know, even if people don't see you, they see your name. Ninety-nine percent of people at a Dixie Chicks show have never heard of Bob Schneider in their lives. Of course, I'd like to be the one selling out giant stadiums five nights in a row, but getting to perform music live in front of anyone is a gift. It doesn't matter if there are five people or 15,000."
The fortunate few who parked in their seats early enough to catch Schneider mostly heard songs from his seventh record, The Californian a set of growling rockers that sometimes recall White Rock Man's once-popular cousin, White Rap-Rock Man. The best of these, tunes such as "Party at the Neighbors" and the JumboTron ballad "Flowerparts," have much in common with the radio-made rock of the Foo Fighters. The record demonstrates Schneider's well-practiced writing, wry lyricism, and soaring choruses in spades. Recorded in under a week, it also spotlights his love for fast-'n'-loose hard rock.
"My band had been together for about four years, and from doing so many shows a year, we work well as a group," Schneider says. "I wanted to record it in a way that would showcase that. I wanted this to really sound like it had a live rock 'n' roll spirit."
And while he mentions how that spirit dovetails with the other two sincere, if clichéd, aspects of his life as White Rock Man (e.g., sex and drugs), it's the funky title track of The Californian on which Schneider's protagonist hollers a mantra that may well be his own: "born to be the king of rock 'n' roll."
So, Schneider, were you really born to be the king of rock 'n' roll?
"It doesn't seem like it," he admits, pausing while the sound of speeding cars passes his cooling tour bus. "No, that's not me."
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