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Spotlight: Jason Roberts

Picture of Jason Roberts
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Jason will be performing throughout Bob Wills weekend!

Jason Roberts will be performing throughout Bob Wills weekend this year. He is an excellent Western Swing performer and we are so happy to welcome him back. To learn a little more about Jason Robert this is a great article published on allthingsstrings.com. Have a look and then come listen this April! Don't miss the "Live Music in the Museum" shows.

Fiddler Jason Roberts Swings with True Texas Style

By James Reel

When Jason Roberts was an 11-year-old kid in Texas, he pulled a busted-up fiddle out of his late grandfather's closet and let his mom casually talk him into taking a few lessons. Today, 20 years later, Roberts is a top western-swing fiddler and a veteran member of the Grammy-winning band Asleep at the Wheel. Bandleader Ray Benson says of Roberts, "He is the best musician I've ever worked with, and I've worked with the best." Pretty high praise from the man behind a band that's gone through nearly 100 musicians in its 30-year history.

Roberts has been riding with Asleep at the Wheel for a dozen years now, and it's not a gig that will let him go stale. He's on the road about 200 nights a year, and the band doesn't just play the usual concerts; it also has a stage show called Ride with Bob, in which Roberts portrays pioneering fiddler Bob Wills. He doesn't merely play the fiddle. Roberts has to act, too.

"It's tons and tons of speaking part and tons and tons of music," Roberts says. "I never did any acting up until we started doing this production, but I'm a movie buff and I knew I could remember lines and I could learn where to stand on stage. It turns out that most of us in the cast are as natural at it as walking or eating or breathing. And the rewarding thing is when people who knew Bob Wills come up and say, 'Man, you got it spot on.'"

According to Benson, it didn't hurt that Roberts has a gift for absorbing songs faster than a cotton shirt soaks up Texas sweat. "He has a photographic musical memory. He can hear something just once or twice and sing the words, play it, hit the melody, the bridge, the chorus, everything," the bandleader says. "And not just on the fiddle. He also plays mandolin, guitar, some piano, steel guitar, bass—I reckon if it's got strings, he can figure it out."

Roberts was born in 1975, the year Bob Wills died, so he never saw Wills in action. But he did have the good fortune to have one of Wills' Texas Playboys as a mentor early on: fiddler Johnny Gimble, who'd married into Roberts' family.

"We'd see him at family gatherings," Roberts remembers. "As a little kid, I'd be sitting in the living room seeing Johnny Gimble right there fiddling and playing electric mandolin. I thought, 'Wow, I want to do that.' I'd learn his licks wrong off of cassettes and LPs, and then I'd go and say, 'Johnny, is this how you play this?' He'd say, 'No, try it like this,' and then I'd go home and practice it for a couple of years.

"He was so generous with his knowledge of music. When I was 13 or 14 years old, just starting to get into improvisation on the fiddle, one day out of the blue I got a cassette tape in the mail from Johnny, just Johnny sitting in his living room, him and his fiddle, playing and telling stories, demonstrating licks, chords, riffs, delving into theory a lot. He started guiding me through that just out of his generosity. He's the one who figured all this stuff out as far as applying it to western swing fiddle and taking it in a direction nobody else could have.

"I can't emphasize enough how much that one tape out of the clear blue sky helped me. Later, I got to jam with him on occasion. He's a quintessential improviser. You think, 'Lord, how did he think to play that?' It's the wildest, coolest stuff you've ever heard."

Roberts himself was impressing people with his own fiddling when he was still in his mid-teens, picking up ideas from the recordings of great Texas-swing fiddlers that Gimble was turning him on to. Young Roberts was so good at what he calls "jazz with a cowboy hat" that when he was only 15 he got a chance to play for Ray Benson.

"After he played," Benson recalls, "I said, 'When you get out of high school, let me know if you want a job.'"

Sure enough, Roberts joined Asleep at the Wheel when he was 18. "It was perfect from day one," Benson says. "I knew it and he knew it. This was music he'd grown up on, and he had the total ability to pull it off.

"Music, especially improvisational music, is a muscle, and it gets stronger the more you use it. Jason was able to expand his repertoire of licks very quickly because every day we improvise. This is one of the best things a musician can do for his or her playing, whatever the music. And as the years have gone by, Jason has become one of the really great improvisers."

After about a year with Asleep at the Wheel, Roberts left to play with country star Clay Walker. Benson was displeased. "I said, 'That's ridiculous. You can't do that. You're not gonna get a chance to play western swing with him.' His idea was that going with Clay Walker was the big time. I was very angry when he left. He didn't understand that he'd be treated like a sideman, paid like a sideman, never have any say in what was going on. But he found out what it was about, and after a year or a year and a half he called my piano player and said, 'Hey, can you talk to Ray about letting me back in?' I was so angry I told him not to come back. But he came back anyway.

"About the first week he came back he went rollerblading, fell down, and broke his wrists. It was really funny."

Luckily, Benson got over his evil glee, and now he says Roberts is like a brother to him, even though they're of different generations. That doesn't mean they don't have disagreements, but, according to Benson, they are always resolved amicably, without broken bones.

"He's the best person I've ever worked with," Benson declares. "In the studio he's extremely versatile and 100 percent reliable, unless it's early in the morning."

Benson knew that Roberts would have the talent to portray Bob Wills in Ride with Bob, but Roberts had to be talked into it a little. "I was a bit skeptical, to tell you the honest truth, going into the deal, because I'd never done any acting," Roberts admits. "But I had the fiddle parts down, and I can come as close to playing it the way Bob Wills did as anybody can. It's really surpassed my expectations."

It turned out that one of the big challenges for Roberts wasn't the acting, but stripping a lot of his own personality from his playing. "Bob Wills was notorious for playing the melody," Roberts says. "He wasn't a hot improvisational fiddler. That's why he hired the jazz guys in his band; he'd play the melody, then he'd point his fiddle bow and they'd take off and play the hokum.

"I really, really love to improvise. So when I'm doing the show I try to rein it in and I don't play a lot of hot jazz fiddle. I can't give it up altogether, but I try to find a happy medium of how I think Bob would have played it and blend it with my own style."

Roberts has already had a pretty intense musical life in his first dozen years or so as a professional, but he's not nearly worn-out yet.

"Music is a strange business, feast or famine," he says, "but I've been really fortunate in the gift I have with my ears, being able to hear what I hear and learn songs and retain them. If you can do that, if you can learn quickly and play off the cuff, you'll have gigs. I'm in a great spot in my life and my career. I get to play music as my job, and it certainly doesn't feel like work because I love it so much.

"My only plans right now are to keep on keeping on, and try to play in tune."

 

To see original site visit: http://www.allthingsstrings.com/News/Interviews-Profiles/Fiddler-Jason-Roberts-Swings-with-True-Texas-Style