Cover Story

Roger Clyne Builds an Empire From His Music

Roger Clyne sits at a table at Four Peaks Brewing Company's Tempe stronghold, and he's about three beers into an afternoon dominated by Pumpkin Porter. Through the patio speakers, Coldplay's "Yellow" comes on.

When the song came out, Chris Martin's reedy, thin falsetto crooning "your skin, oh, yeah, you're skin and bones" could be heard seemingly everywhere. Yet Clyne's still an unabashed fan. He speaks reverentially about Coldplay.

"Everyone [in the band] is playing deep-drive. They're running past the finish line on this one," Clyne says, gazing off into the distance. "I just think they believe [in what] they're playing . . . It's yellow, it's dirty -- but it's luminous, too."

Reminded that many critics find Coldplay's music too flimsy to be taken seriously, Clyne continues, "Would it be cheesy if it wasn't overplayed? Or would it be a treasure to you if you were the only one who'd heard it? That's why I can say [Coldplay] has something happening . . . I don't want their acceptance in the world to corrupt them for me."

Looking back on Clyne's career and musical output over his long career, it's not surprising that he would have sympathy for Coldplay.

Many react to Clyne's music in the same way.

Since the '90s, when Clyne's first band, the Refreshments, signed to a major label and scored a radio hit with "Banditos," his music has straddled the line between Southwest mythologizing and frat-friendly party songs about drinking tequila.

See also: Border-Jumping with Roger Clyne

The former music helped lionize him as a hometown hero, and while the latter tunes have contributed to an infectiously fun reputation that has characterized his band's shows since the Refreshments days, they've also brought him detractors.

Known by some of them as the "Jimmy Buffett of Arizona," Clyne's been dismissed as an over-aged bro with a tequila problem.

But they miss the fact that after the Refreshments dissolved, Clyne's songwriting matured and (in the lyrical sense, if not the alcoholic one) sobered up. He's tackled themes of age, death, and existentialism, in addition to honoring life's celebratory moments. He and his bands, the Refreshments and Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, have put out nine full-length albums.

Clyne's lyrics glorify partying and drinking tequila, sure. His songs sometimes contain moments that venture into cheesiness, which have non-fans in his hometown rolling their eyes at the mention of his name. And the reactions are justified. But those moments exist side by side with moments of brutal honesty, sometimes within the same song.

The Refreshments song "Mexico" contains the line "Found a hooker and lost my erection / So I had to lie in the letter to the boys back home," a line from which you can extrapolate an entire story. Who is this narrator? Where did he find the hooker? Was his impotence the result of too much tequila or a last-minute moral reconsideration? And why is he writing a letter? Why are the "boys" expecting tales involving prostitutes? It's a line filled with vulnerability and honesty.

But then, in the same song, Clyne continues, crooning: "The good guys and the bad guys, they never work past noon around here / They sit side by side in the cantina / Talk to señoritas and drink warm beer." The line comes off as seeing the world through gringo-colored glasses, a saccharine "tacos in paradise" naivete about the world and his place in it.

In this regard, perhaps a more apt comparison would be to Bruce Springsteen. "Born in the U.S.A." never was meant to be a song that Republican politicians would play as a patriotic booster at rallies, and Springsteen bristled when Ronald Reagan did just that in the '80s. But that chorus is catchy, and people choose how they interpret song lyrics, even if that interpretation happens to be wrong. There's a gung-ho patriotism in the chorus that exists alongside the desperation at the American condition present in the verses.

Clyne faces a similar situation -- people hear the cheese and immediately dismiss him, while Clyne is left wondering why people didn't dig deeper. Not surprisingly, Clyne prefers the Springsteen comparison to the Buffett one.

But he resembles both Springsteen and Buffet, especially because he's a savvy businessman whose main income in the digital era is from live shows and merchandise. That is, he's an independent artist who's built a mini-empire in the Southwest that's about much more than his albums.

In Phoenix, Clyne packs rooms with thousands of people -- concertgoers at his October 18 show at the 1,000-capacity Pressroom paid $35 a ticket -- and fans approach him on the street and in restaurants for autographs.

They drink his private-label tequila, Mexican Moonshine (available at more than 300 stores and restaurants nationwide), hire his band to play private parties, and, with thousands of others from around the country, make an annual pilgrimage to the Mexican fishing village that serves as the physical manifestation of his deep-felt connection to Mexico -- Puerto Peñasco (a.k.a. Rocky Point) -- for a weekend-long party he calls Circus Mexicus.

Clyne exists in a word of devalued recorded music, but he has sacrificed and persevered and came out king of a hill that he would like to build into a mountain.

But, he says, he wants to do it on his own terms, in a way that honors the principles and values that have sustained him through an often-trying career. He's burned through publicists and managers, he says, because he's not been willing to sacrifice his vision for big-time commercial-music success.

"I think we're on our sixth or seventh management direction, and at some point, I'm either going to be proven totally right or totally wrong," Clyne says. "This madness in my vision -- to be able to take the career to more people and maintain its integrity -- will [turn out to be] impossible and mad or obvious and right."

For now, he has found a partner in Red Light Management, an artist-management service with offices in New York, Los Angeles, Charlottesville, Virginia, Nashville, Atlanta, Bristol, and London.

"I was blown away by what I saw," says Red Light Management's Charlie Brusco of the first time he saw the Peacemakers at a Chicago venue. The Atlanta-based Brusco entered the music industry in the '70s and managed Lynyrd Skynyrd, and now his clients include Styx, Don Felder, the Outlaws, and Collective Soul. "Everyone [in the audience] was singing the words to songs that I didn't know."

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David Accomazzo is a music wrangler, award-winning reporter, critic, and editor with more than a decade in the business.
Contact: David Accomazzo

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