Rodney Rice Finds Kindness Through Connection For His Self-Titled Third Album

[Cover photo credit to Laura Partain]

Americana singer/songwriter Rodney Rice has recently released his third studio album as a self-titled LP arriving in a number of formats, including vinyl. His journey into songwriting and recording made strides when he took the opportunity to enter a studio for the first time and dive right into recording a full album, and since then, he hasn’t looked back. In fact, he’s only looked more intently into his own life for storytelling and outwards to his audiences for a meaningful connection they find in his songs.

Rice’s third album was recorded at The Bomb Shelter in Nashville with Drew Carroll, and this time around he pulled from a wide range of song traditions ranging from Roots music, to Country, to Blues and he was joined in The Bomb Shelter by musicians like Dave Racine on drums, Dennis Crouch and Jack Lawrence on bass, Jeff Taylor and Micah Hulscher on keys, Steve Daly and Sean Thompson on guitars, Kirk Donovan on trumpet, rounded out with Sam Hoffman, Maureen Murphy, Kyshona Armstrong, and Nickie Conley on background vocals.

I spoke with Rodney Rice about his earlier experiences with songwriting and recording, what motivates him as a musician, and about why connection makes the world a kinder place.

Album photo credit to Laura Partain

Hannah Means-Shannon: Where do you think your songs come from?

Rodney Rice: The songs are personal to me. A portion of each one, and that varies from song to song, comes from deep within, whether it’s from something that happened to me or to someone close to me. I may surround that with melodies and other players are putting their two cents into it, which leads to something bigger than me that has a life of its own. It’s really nice to see people connect with that. If you listen to my music, you know that there’s an underlying theme of sad times.

I think most art comes from that type of thing, something that affects you which you need to get out. Some people are fortunate enough to express that through music, or through other types of art, even woodworking. When someone else connects with it, you think, “Man, I felt so alone when I wrote that, but here are all these random people who connect with it.” There are also those moments on stage where you get that immediate feedback. If I’m streaming or making videos, I don’t see that, but if I’m on stage, I get that immediate feedback which justifies all the heartbreak that went into the music. Then I realize, “That’s why I do this.”

HMS: There’s a seemingly disproportionate relationship between all the emotion that goes into the writing of a song, and all of the stress of recording and releasing it, and the end result as a recording or a single performance. But if you think about it, the song then exists forever, so it’s actually not a short-change. It just seems that way if it never reaches people. It’s a paradox.

RR: Yes, it is a strange thing. Also, some of the songs on my first album were written many years ago, maybe even when I was a teenager, but that spanned a lot of time, because the last one was probably written in the recording studio. That’s a large span. That’s fairly common with first albums. Some of those songs, when I sing them again, I realize, “Well, I’ll be damned! One of those old songs is relevant to me again!” It’s usually going through another heartbreak situation, or what have you. If it helps me, fifteen years after I wrote it, maybe it can continue to help other people, too.

HMS: To go back in time a bit, I was reading about your first step into recording your first album, and it seemed really brave to me. Crossing that line into recording music can be hard. Was that an unusual time in your life?

RR: I was in Texas, and I’ve always been a huge Billy Joe Shaver fan, so I went to see him all the time. I became friends with his drummer, Jason McKenzie, and was talking to him after the show. I said that I had a few songs and would like to record, but I didn’t know how to go about it. I sent him the songs and he got back to me. He offered to play drums on all of them and suggested we work out of Congress House Studio in Austin.

I had never been in a recording studio before. It was a huge learning curve. Everyone was really supportive and encouraging. I got it done and made it up as I went along on how to get it out into the world. I sent it out to local radio stations. Local radio played me a lot and this was amazing to me. It was that encouragement that kept me going. I really had no expectations and I still am humbled by anyone who gives me the time to listen what I’ve put together. Time is valuable so I really appreciate everyone’s time.

HMS: What led up to your choices recording this album? I know it was a different venue.

RR: I knew about The Bomb Shelter, where I recorded this album, from a couple of other records, Hurray for the Riff Raff and Luke Bell. I read the liner notes and thought I wanted to work there someday. My first album, I started off never having been in a studio, and for my third album, it was all analog, totally organic Production. I never thought I’d do that! It was big growth for me and represents the fact that I am not stopping now. This is what I do.

HMS: There’s something very striking about how comfortable you seem with your own songs, whether it’s from your first album, or from your third. In your acoustic videos you’ve released, it’s very revealing. Stepping into that must have meant accepting the feeling of being uncomfortable, of being the inexperienced person in the room for a time.

RR: Oh yes. I think my reason for doing it is that the songs are so important to me. They really get me through tough times. As far as being the most inexperienced person in the studio, I always want to be the most inexperienced person in the studio!

HMS: That’s a good point!

RR: I want everyone in there to be better than me, and I want to be like a sponge. It’s amazing to see all these other musicians in there, coming in and doing their thing. I would love to be called up someday and hear, “We need some Rodney Rice on this session!” I’m not in that role yet, but maybe someday I will be. To be around people who do that every day is so amazing.

They are really special people and have amazing talent. But going into that situation is trying to be accepting. I try to do that with my whole life, accepting the uncomfortableness and trying not to be too worried about it. I just accept and honor and own the songs. I give my best. It’s a vulnerable thing, you know? Other than connecting with fans, the next best thing is connecting with other musicians in the studio.

The song starts in my head, then it becomes a voice recording, then suddenly we’ve got an organ, stand-up bass, and background singers! Over the three albums, I’ve gotten better at pulling people in to do that as part of this cool process.

HMS: In this case, I know you were working with Drew Carroll. What form did he want the songs to be in when you came in? Were they rough demos?

RR: Yes, they were really rough demos on my phone. We’d kick around ideas. I had some horn ideas for some of those tracks.

HMS: That’s great that it was already in your head, seeing expansion possibilities for the songs.

RR: Drew, specifically, was instrumental in hearing what I wanted and knowing who to call. I don’t really tell people what to do because I want them to have some skin in the game. They have creative license, too. I don’t know how to play horns! I could just hear a New Orleans-style horn. It’s bigger than just me, and that’s the cool thing about it. People put their fingerprints on it and they react to the track, to the words, and to how I’m performing in the studio. My sessions are creative and collaborative.

HMS: Were all these songs written more recently?

RR: All of these songs were written since the shutdowns though I don’t know if they are “pandemic songs.” One song, “How You Told Me So,” makes lots of references to losing people and being isolated. I was kind of thinking about people who didn’t really believe in me and how they “told me so.”

HMS: [Laughs] I’m sorry to laugh, since it’s a serious subject, but it’s a very funny phrase in a dark way. I remember that I was on a flight to my college interview as a young person and the person sitting next to me on the plane told me that I was going to fail and not get in. A total stranger! Well, I didn’t fail, and I did get in, but it was a ridiculous experience.

RR: Yes, how bad was their morning that they had to rain on everybody else’s parade?! What I was going for with that song was, “Remember those people. Don’t be like those people!” If you clock out, you miss the lesson. Don’t be like those people. Be kind. Give the benefit of the doubt.

HMS: This links to what we were talking about earlier, since there are kind of delicate moments in life that could almost go either way. We might not believe in ourselves enough to do something important, like record a first album. That’s a big argument for being kind to other people because you don’t know when those moments are.

RR: That’s true. People hear it all the time, but you don’t know what someone’s going through. You don’t realize that you can do something small to make someone’s day or make it a lot better. Being negative and adding insult to injury isn’t the way. Music humanizes people and so much in this day and age exploits fears and differences. You can do that or you can send out love, forgiveness, and hope, and the world would be a lot better place if everyone adopted that. It’s hard to be negative to someone if you have a connection, and music connects people. At least for me, it does.

HMS: I saw a quote online recently. It said, “If everyone in the world was a musician, it would be a much better place.” Now, we can’t say that all musicians are nice or kind people, but on the whole, I think that statement has merit because of empathy and personal suffering.

RR: It’s true! It really is! I agree with that. Maybe I’ve written one or two happy songs, but most of my songs come from some kind of trauma or heartbreak that I’ve experienced. Those become a blessing and a curse! [Laughs] But I gotta keep doing it. John Prine said that it takes five [albums] to make a lifer, so I have to keep going to get at least two more out. I’m also a hopeless optimistic.

HMS: Wow! I don’t meet too many of those.

RR: They must be rare! It’s a dangerous thing.

HMS: You also collaborated in some of your songwriting for this album.

RR: Yes, I like to do that a little on every album. They are always close friends. I like to include a co-write or two. Here one of the people I collaborated with was Dale Lewis. Dale Lewis is a friend and a great Bluesman. He’s everything you’d think about being a river man and a Bluesman. He had a song and wondered if I wanted to do something with it, pull it together, and put it on the album. I was flattered. I love that song, “Little Pieces.” That’s maybe my favorite one on the album, and I put in the first spot on the B-side. If someone has really tuned in, that one will really hit them in the soul. I really enjoyed working on that song with Dale. I hope I can write more songs with other people in the future.

HMS: How did you work with Dale? Did you each supply little bits and pieces, or jam together?

RR: Yes, we kind of jammed together to get all the little bits and pieces together. Then I said, “Man, I’m going to go and finish this thing!” Dale’s got his version that’s actually a little different. He’s got his version and I’ve got my version, which is cool. It’s really inspiring, too, because I never know when I’ll be moved to write something. I can predict, when I’m going through some rough times, personally, that at some point I’m going to start cranking out songs! [Laughs]

It may take a while, but if I’m behind the wheel, driving across country somewhere, and I hear the wind, the road, maybe some dogs barking, then something just comes out of nowhere, suddenly, and there’s a song. Either it comes to me all at once, or I get enough parts to put it all together.

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