A J Roach - Silver tongued singer bends the truth

A.J. Roach admits to being a liar – in the nicest possible way. The singer, songwriter and guitarist from Scott County, Virginia, who has charmed Scottish audiences over the past five years with his wonderfully distinctive singing style and gripping stories drawn from backwoods life, doesn’t believe that anyone is so interesting that they can write songs solely about themselves. So he makes bits up, bends the truth.

Sometimes the truth only needs bent a little to make a line scan better. Take Grandaddy, where Roach sings about a character who ‘used to press five cent pieces from the ore on the side of the hill.’ This was actually his father’s grandfather and the coins he counterfeited were silver dollars. The problem was, the silver was so pure that when Grandaddy dropped one on the table, it would land with a thud instead of bouncing. So he ground glass from milk bottles into the powder and made his home-made money realistic enough to spend.

As the song goes on to say, if Grandaddy had realised what he’d tapped into on that hill and staked a claim, instead making just enough dollars to buy his own basic needs, he wouldn’t have had to run the risk of arrest for counterfeiting or for carrying on his real business as a provider of illicit hooch – white lightning – to the county. His great-grandson also would probably have been too rich to bother with the troubadour’s life. So perhaps we should all give our thanks for Grandaddy not being greedy.

Roach’s upbringing on a farm in a ‘holler’ with a population of some sixty or seventy souls is a world away from his life now in Brooklyn, New York, where he moved recently after spending nine years in San Francisco. It was a world away, too, when he moved to the big city to attend college at the age of seventeen in 1992. His original intention was to become a visual artist and he was all set up to work on graphic novels, having already been working for two years for a company that would have given him his own title with complete artistic control in another three years.

“Going to college was a huge culture shock,” says Roach, who returns to Scotland this weekend at play the Big Tent, Belladrum and Southern Fried festivals and tour with fellow songwriters Nels Andrews and Ian Thomas Parks. “Between adjusting to being away from home for the first time in these new surroundings, keeping up with college work and trying to have some sort of social life, I just had no time to continue with the illustration work and do it properly. So I kind of substituted music for art as a means of expression, formed a little band and went out singing to people.”

Singing had been part of his life since he started going to church at the age of three and he credits this with giving him a vocal tone that sounds very old, even ghostly.

“I think it’s just a vocal colour that you’re exposed to in rural Virginia,” he says. “If you listen to Ralph Stanley and Jimmy and Jesse Reynolds, all these old bluegrass singers, they have a similar sound that they’ve picked up in church. The church was certainly a big influence in shaping the way I sing. People refer to it as the high lonesome sound but I think that’s a misnomer. I think it might be something that people brought over here from Scotland or Ireland. My friend Nuala’s [Kennedy, singer and flute player] father heard me singing an Appalachian ballad and said it sounded like sean-nos, the old Irish style. So it could be older than any of us realise.”

Roach’s musical guide at church was his uncle, who lived on the same farm and without children of his own came to regard A.J. and brother Travis as his own. When a teenage A.J. found a guitar under his father’s bed and his father, an otherwise very patient man, proved less than wonderful as a teacher, his uncle took over, showing him some of the songs they heard coming from the radio on a Saturday when the local AM station closed down and the Grand Ole Opry came blasting out of Nashville.

“Looking back, we were pretty isolated down there,” says Roach. “We didn’t watch much TV - we only had two channels – and although we knew the world was out there, we assumed that everybody lived the way we did, working on a farm and playing instruments. We’d see things on TV but that was television, we thought it was made up. That’s why going to college was such a culture shock.”

A lot of Roach’s background may have gone into his songs and it may be a background that speaks from another age but he’s also capable of tapping into things that everybody can relate to, such as broken hearts and disappointment, in the here and now. And if people haven’t actually done some of the things he sings about – he didn’t actually set off to kill the local sheriff either – his talent as a storyteller can draw them into a narrative and make them feel that they’re actually witnessing these events.

His two albums to date, Dogwood Winter and Revelation, are full of incident, atmosphere and observations that show an artist’s eye for description.

“I’m actually looking at songwriting more and more from the point of view of a visual artist,” he says. “If you look at the work of the Dutch masters, these paintings are so real they look like photographs and if you look at modern art, that can be just as powerful and beautiful but it feels like what you want it to feel like. So there are some songs where you take the listener down a certain path all the way to the conclusion and there are songs where I want to give them a few options and they can draw their own conclusions. It’s a more interactive way of songwriting – they can decide themselves what it’s about. So you have the pictorial style and the abstract style but essentially what I really want is to be really good at both of them.”

From The Herald, July 23, 2010.

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