Good luck at pinning a style on Frank Rogers. As a producer, songwriter, publisher and independent-label owner, he’s had some level of involvement on some of the most diverse commercial sounds that have emerged out of Nashville since 1999.
The acerbic charm in Brad Paisley’s “Alcohol” and “I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song),” the bluegrass underpinnings in Josh Turner’s “Would You Go With Me,” the Southern-rock swagger in Trace Adkins’ “Ladies Love Country Boys,” the soulful shades in Jerrod Niemann’s “Lover, Lover” and the unassuming simplicity in Darius Rucker’s Grammy-winning bar-room sing-along “Wagon Wheel” all have some relationship to Rogers. He’s not the central voice in any of those recordings, but he’s provided a steady, guiding hand in the process of finding and capturing the core of every one of them.
In a sense, Rogers has made his living through a balancing act of good ears, quick decision-making, long-term vision, an obsessive work ethic and an admirable adaptability.
“I like being a chameleon,” he says. “In a writing session, for example, there are certain things that I’ll write just for me. But I love co-writing with artists, because I’m pulling things out of them, and I’m kind of the editor of what they’re trying to say. With the records I produce, it’s really the same thing.”
A chameleon’s ability to change color, of course, is a form of protection. But for Rogers, that chameleon-like adaptability is a form of nurturing. By maintaining an everyman disposition and style, he’s able to move among Music City’s movers and shakers without drawing attention to himself, to become one of the best in Nashville at identifying and growing talent, and at making music in a recording studio or a songwriting session.
To date, he owns more than 35 #1 singles as a producer, and the publishing company he built – Sea Gayle Music – with Paisley and fellow songwriter Chris DuBois garnered more than 650 cuts and at least three dozen #1 copyrights, including such titles as Luke Bryan’s “Drink A Beer,” Tim McGraw’s “Southern Girl,” and Alan Jackson & Jimmy Buffett’s “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.” Sea Gayle became the first indie in nearly three decades to win Publisher of the Year from the performing-rights organization ASCAP, and it accomplished that feat two years in a row.
Around the same time, Sea Gayle emerged as an independent label and production house, supplying ready-made albums by Jerrod Niemann and Sheryl Crow to the town’s existing major labels.
“Jerrod made his first album without a label’s involvement – and honestly without our involvement,” Rogers says. “It was just him going to do his thing, and he came and turned it in, and it was great. And what he made needed to come out as it was without any changes. The best way we found to do that was to become Sea Gayle Records. We’re making the music first and then taking it out to labels.”
It’s a producer’s job to oversee all the details of the music – finding the sound, organizing the arrangement, hiring the right musicians and coaxing the best performances from those players and the artist. And it’s a skill set that Rogers came by naturally as he grew up in Sumter, South Carolina. His father, Frank M. “Buzz” Rogers IV, was a certified public accountant and a guitar collector. And Frank’s grandfather, Buzz’s dad, taught fighter-pilots for the Marines during World War II and played saxophone in a big band.
So Frank’s analytical, nurturing talents – acquired from a C.P.A. and a flight instructor – were a direct result of good coaching and genes. But so was his ability to differentiate the nuances in a clutter of instruments. He tagged along as his grandfather visited audio stores in a constant search for the perfect sound equipment.
“I’ve seen him go with a big-band record into a hi-fi shop that was hyping these new $25,000 speakers,” Frank recalls. “He put a record on and listened for about 20 seconds and goes, ‘Can’t hear the second trumpet section. These speakers are no good. There’s a hole in the spectrum.’”
Buzz gave Frank a guitar for Christmas one year, and Frank got serious with the instrument around the age of 12. But where most kids learn guitar by playing well-known songs with easy chord structures – songs very much like “Wagon Wheel” – Rogers was never really enamored with figuring out other people’s hits. He was immediately caught up in writing material on his own.
“As soon as I picked up the guitar, I learned two chords, and I started writing a two-chord song,” he says. “If I had to learn stuff for a band I was playing in, I would, but I never really learned much of other people’s stuff. I just always liked creating it.”
During his senior year in high school, Rogers recorded one of his own songs at a local studio, and when he finished, the owner told him he needed to cut a second song they could use as a B side. So Frank sat down at the piano and played another tune he’d written. Buzz was taken aback – it was the first time he realized that his son could play piano.
As a direct result, Dad subsequently took Frank to a Charlotte, North Carolina, music store to buy a keyboard as a graduation present, and it proved pivotal in his development. The salesman was about to leave for lunch when Rogers walked in. He put off his break and got a sale – but he also told Frank that he’d studied the music business at a college in Nashville called Belmont. Rogers applied, and when he was accepted, he bowed out of attending the College of Charleston.
“My dad has said for years, ‘If we missed one stop light, we wouldn’t have gotten that sales guy, and your whole life would have been different,’” Frank shrugs. “That’s actually where the Darius song, ‘This,’ came from.”
Rogers proved a quick study at Belmont. By his senior year, he was staff engineer at the campus recording studio. And he had a part-time job with EMI Music Publishing, just a few blocks from the school. From there, he took a fulltime job as an assistant for Jimmy Gilmer, who ran EMI’s production company.
One of his music teachers in South Carolina had told Rogers that the best way to handle an unfamiliar situation is to “wander with confidence.” And he took that advice to heart in Nashville.
“The first time I ever sat down at a Hammond B-3 organ, someone said, ‘Hey, we need a B-3 player.’ I said, ‘I’m your guy.’ I had never seen one in my life. So they’re getting sounds and I’m pulling these bars going, ‘What do these do?’ If it was a bass player, guitar player, engineer, back-up singer, keyboard player – anything I could get into the studio to do, I would do it. And by the end of the session, it seemed like I was always running it. It was just kind of my natural thing. And then when I went, ‘Oh, I’m a producer. That’s what I do.’ I didn’t know it had a name.”
But Rogers wasn’t just a budding producer – he was also a budding producer with patience. Rogers didn’t push Gilmer for opportunities. Instead, he waited until Gilmer had built enough trust to ask Rogers if he knew any writers that might be worth signing to EMI.
As a matter of fact, Rogers had cultivated a friendship with Paisley, a fellow Belmont student who shared an interest in traditional country music. They’d started writing with DuBois, who was working at ASCAP, where Paisley interned – and Rogers put together a demo for Gilmer. That demo featured three songs that would all become hits at a later date: “I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song)” and “I Wish You’d Stay,” both Paisley singles; and “Another You,” a success for David Kersh.
“It was,” Rogers says with great understatement, “a decent first demo session.”
Rogers continued producing Paisley’s demos as he shopped for a recording deal, and when Arista signed him, Paisley insisted Rogers get a chance to produce him. Two of the first four songs they recorded – “Who Needs Pictures” and “We Danced” – became Top 10 hits on Paisley’s debut album. At the same time, a few demos Rogers produced on Darryl Worley got him signed to DreamWorks. Rogers’ career was launched, and he became a regular contributor – all be it in the background – to some of the music that became a piece of the soundtrack to American life in the early 21st century, including Paisley’s haunting duet with Alison Krauss, “Whiskey Lullaby”; Worley’s 9/11 reaction “Have You Forgotten”; and Turner’s R&B-shaded “Your Man,” popularized not only on country radio, but also on American Idol.
“There’s something about seeing something go from a feeling or a thought into something tangible, and helping it along that journey,” Rogers observes. “It’s fun to me to really, like if I’m writing a song, to start with really just an emotion, and figure out how to convey it with lyrics and music. But that also happens through the tones and the tempo and the arrangement and the sonics when I’m making a record.”
During his time at EMI, Rogers quietly began writing songs on the side. He co-wrote Paisley’s clever “I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song)” and two of Paisley’s first three singles, “Who Needs Pictures” and “Me Neither.” Rogers would go on to write Darius Rucker’s upbeat “Alright” and “This,” and the writing set him for another executive venture.
In 1999, the same year that Paisley’s debut album was released, Rogers, Paisley and DuBois convinced EMI to join them in a co-venture that established Sea Gayle. It was a risky move – one of the company execs told them point blank that those kinds of deals never worked – but it was a lucrative time in the music business, and the three upstarts were already showing enough talent that they were worth a long-shot investment.
They were extremely serious about the company. It was extra work, a lot of long hours, and they refused to take a dime out of the revenues for themselves for years. It paid dividends for Music Row. Some of Nashville’s best young songwriters – Niemann, Chris Stapleton (“Drink A Beer”), Brandy Clark (“Mama’s Broken Heart”) and Lee Thomas Miller (“You’re Gonna Miss This”) – are, or were, Sea Gayle writers.
“When we were coming up, a song was not fully written by Brad or Chris or I until we had run it by the three of us, and we would critique the crap out of our stuff,” Rogers says. “We felt like we could help develop writers, and we still have an open-door policy with our writers. They may agree with it or not, but we’ll give them our honest opinion on a song. And it’s the opinion of a writer who understands. It’s not just, ‘Oh, I don’t like it. It’s not purple enough.’ We can give a detailed opinion.”
In fact, Rogers is imparting his knowledge in yet another sector of the business these days. Even as he continues to produce hits, he’s mentoring the next generation of producers. The Sea Gayle label turned the production reins over to previously untested songwriter Dave Brainard and session bass player Jimmie Lee Sloas to produce separate albums on Niemann.
“It’s not healthy to have a handful of people produce all the records,” Rogers suggests. “There are kids that are doing cool, new things. We need to give them a shot. I can still make records, and I’m still valid, but there’s also another whole generation that needs to be getting shots. I think it’s healthy for the whole industry to take a chance on new people.”
That’s why it’s difficult to pin a style on Frank Rogers. His voice is best heard when it’s not evident. He’s probably most adept as a quiet leader, a guy who finds a chameleon-like way to shift from songwriter to producer to publisher to businessman, helping others wander with confidence as they find their own method of self-expression.
“There are many different ways to write or record a song, and there are many different kinds of artists,” he says. “I think my job is to figure out the right way to make the right song for an artist at a particular point in their creative life. I don’t ever want there to be a Frank Rogers sound.”
In early 2016, Frank sold his publishing interest in Sea Gayle Music to Spirit Music Group and started his newest business venture, Fluid Music Revolution – a joint venture with Spirit.