If you wondered if the snappy-dressing country singer on that U.S. Cellular TV ad a few years back was for real, rest assured that Kent Rose is all that and more. He’s a throwback to the guitar-toting country troubadours of yesteryear and at the same time a product of the rock and roll era, certainly the only performer of his kind in the greater Chicagoland area.
For the last decade, he’s sub-billed himself as The Voice That Remembers. It’s an apropos title, for Rose remembers plenty. “I wanted to convey the fact that I was not a kid, and that I was familiar with all the stuff that had happened before, and had kind of a historical approach without being an archivist, because I don’t want to be one of these folk guys who has a lecture before every song,” says Kent. “So I thought, ‘The Voice That Remembers!’”
Rose’s musical odyssey has twisted and turned through the folk era, Chicago’s late ‘60s/early ‘70s rock scene, a short stint in teenaged country star Tanya Tucker’s road band, a spot playing saxophone in a vintage soul combo, and a lengthy tenure crooning pop standards with a society orchestra. But he’s best suited for where he’s at right now: singing his own wonderfully crafted material as only he can, usually in a solo setting. “All of a sudden, it seemed to me that I had real-life experiences that were universal, and that other people had gone through as well,” he says. “And that maybe I could write a song that would connect with somebody that I didn’t know. So I just kept at it.”
A native of suburban Glencoe, Illinois, Kent was exposed to all sorts of sounds as a lad. “My parents liked folk music a lot, so there was a lot of Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Mahalia Jackson, Paul Robeson, all that kind of stuff around the house,” he says. “We sang on family trips, and I just decided that I loved it. So when I was about 11 years old, I got a banjo-ukulele and started playing it. Not a great instrument, but it got me started. Then I got a guitar.” Younger folkies such as the Kingston Trio and the Brothers Four caught his ear, as did Josh White, Bob Gibson, Joe & Eddie, and the Highwaymen. But his musical diet wasn’t limited strictly to folk.
“My cousin gave me some records, so I had Elvis Presley on a 45, and I had Don Gibson on a 45, and I had Buddy Holly, which was my first 45. My younger brother kept bringing home Fats Domino 45s, so I got to hear all those, and early Isley Brothers,” says Rose. “I liked a lot of pop music at the time. In the ‘60s, it was starting to get kind of interesting. And I did see the Beatles and all that. But I already liked the country sound. One of the first 45s I got was Stonewall Jackson singing ‘Greener Pastures,’ the flip side of ‘When They Ring Them Golden Bells For You And Him.’”
Making his own music became a priority. “I was pretty much caught up in it. I didn’t know whether I’d ever be able to do it for a living or anything. At that age, you just think, ‘Wow, this is fun!’” says Kent. “So I played parties at the skating rink. I was in a ukulele duo for a little while and played with a folk quartet, the Guildsmen, doing the four-part harmony. Then I got an electric guitar. They threw me out of the band for that. Then I joined a couple of bands in high school and played the Byrds, Love, the Leaves, that kind of stuff.
“Sir Richard’s Knights was one of them, which had the Farfisa organ. There was one called the Dover Souls, and another one called the Backpage Incidents. Another one was called the Peep Show. They were mixed bands. ‘60s rock, but also Paul Butterfield. The Doors, that kind of thing. And I went to see a lot of concerts when I was in high school, just because I could—the ones at the Electric Theater and the Kinetic Playground,” he says. “Some rather embarrassing ones, like the Jefferson Airplane and Iron Butterfly show, which will live in a kind of infamy. But there was really cool stuff, like Tim Hardin on the same show with Spirit and Procol Harum or somebody like that. These weird combinations of things. But I thought it was great. You’d go there, and for me, coming out of the suburbs, it was like another world. Because in the suburbs, you’re listening to rock music, and I’m thinking, ‘Yeah!’ Listening to country music I didn’t talk about too much.
“Probably the tipping point was when I went to college, and I was at Beloit College for a couple of years. That was all about all I could take,” he continues. “There was a guy, Jim Peterman, who used to play with Steve Miller’s band. And he recorded a duo I was with. We didn’t get signed, but I think he was working for David Anderle for Elektra, sort of a scouting thing. They said they didn’t like the harmony singer. Well, I didn’t feel bad because I didn’t sing any harmony.” Kent was already flexing his songwriting muscles.
“Because of writing the songs, my mom mentioned this guy, Michael Melford,” he says. “Michael was a producer and a mandolin player. He produced some stuff for Rounder—Bashful Brother Oswald and a Rose Maddox record. And Michael Bloomfield’s ‘It’s Not Killing Me,’ he produced that record. He said, ‘Do one thing: listen to Hank Williams. I know you’re going to like him.’” Melford’s prediction came true. “Michael said that if I would write charts of my tunes, he’d give me some free studio time at Chess. But I had no idea how to write a chart, and I just wrote a letter saying I didn’t think I was ready for that. So I left college and wound up playing solo up in Madison, Wisconsin,” says Rose. “I played at coffee houses.”
During his 1970-74 Madison sojourn, Rose honed his compositional craft. “When I started, I wanted to write songs that I thought were legitimate and didn’t sound like a guy from Glencoe trying to write a country song,” he says. “I finally wrote one when I was out there, and I thought it sounded to me like a really good song. And I just thought, ‘Why not?’” Working at a Madison record shop offered access to all sorts of great music. “I had a really nice Jimmie Rodgers, the Blue Yodeler section that only I bought from,” Kent chuckles. Then the Baraboo Band gave Rose a reason to move back home in June of ‘74.
“I had known the guys in the band from high school. They had been playing and were pretty popular in a lot of the clubs, Poor Richard’s and Durty Nellie’s and places like that,” he says. “The lead singer had gotten into an argument and quit, and they wanted a new singer. They asked if I thought I was interested, and I said yeah. I was renting an apartment up on Johnson Street up in Madison, and I promised the guy below who had kids that I wouldn’t play after nine o’clock at night, but these guys came all the way from Chicago to audition me. I played them some of my songs, and I apologized the next day to my neighbor.
“The first gig I had with the band, we played at my old high school, New Trier. We were opening the show. Styx was the headliner. Luther Allison was second-billed, but his truck broke down, so we actually got some of his money because he didn’t get there on time,” says Kent. The Baraboo Band garnered quite a local reputation as country-rockers. “Everybody was into Pure Prairie League at that point,” Kent notes. “We had a steel player, Rick Mann, who used to play with Wilderness Road and a bunch of bands. He played with the Flock too. So we were doing pretty well.”
Opportunity came knocking in 1975, in the sexy form of one of the hottest young talents in the country field. “At the time, the Eddie Boy Band was king on Lincoln Avenue. Tanya Tucker came to town to do a show. She had just signed to MCA, and the Eddie Boy Band wanted to sign with MCA. So she wanted them to back her up. They didn’t want to. But they recommended us. And then her manager went down to Nashville and talked to both Tucker and the band, and sold them on us. I think the price probably had something to do with it. Eddie Boy did sign with MCA. We went down to Nashville, and we went on tour with Tanya for about six months or something like that.
“We felt like it was good in some regards, but that we weren’t pursuing our own music. We were just playing the same 10 or 12 songs that she did every night. And the glamour of the road was a bit mythological. We were just bored,” he says. “But it was an interesting experience, getting to open for a lot of the guys that I thought were tops, like Marty Robbins and Don Gibson and Ray Price on a bunch of shows, and Freddy Fender, Johnny Rodriguez. I got to meet Johnny Gimble on one gig, and Jerry Reed down in Abilene, Texas.
“She didn’t really want to be a country singer. She really wanted to be Elvis Presley to some degree. So she would open her shows with ‘Burning Love,’ and we played a show in Louisville, and it was Lynyrd Skynyrd headlining, and Elvin Bishop was second-billed. We were opening the show. It was kind of weird, but it was great,” recalls Rose. “We never got to rehearse with her. We’d do a couple of songs at the beginning of the show.” Kent played rhythm guitar and handled harmony vocals behind Tanya during their six months as her backing group. “I sang the following voice on ‘Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone),’” he says.
“We did shows with Red Skelton. We did shows with Mercer Ellington. We did shows at the Superdome with Bob Hope, Raquel Welch,” he says. “We started too soon and cut off Bob Hope in the middle of a joke, and he whirled, and all of a sudden that friendly guy that you see in the movies—he was definitely hacked!”
The Baraboo Band lasted eight months as Tucker’s backing outfit. “We had a piano player out of Chicago who had played with a sort of psychedelic rock band called Aorta during the late ‘60s. And he was so bored that there was one part where he was supposed to play a piano thing, and he played ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket.’ And he was no longer working with the band on the next gig,” says Rose. That wasn’t the final straw. “We were playing at Magic Mountain. Snuff Garrett was in the audience. He had written her big hit at the time, ‘Lizzie And The Rainman.’ And there was a drum roll that the drummer changed on that show for the first time. It threw Tanya off, and that was pretty much the end for us.” The band was changing direction anyway.
“It got more and more rock. A couple of the guys in the band were big fans of Genesis and Gentle Giant. I just felt more and more like we were drifting away from why it was I had gotten in the band,” says Kent. “So I felt that at a certain point, the band had nowhere to go. Some of the guys in the band needed more money than we were making. I mean, we were packing places, but there still wasn’t making any money. I figured I’d get another gig right away. It didn’t quite turn out that way. I realized that I’d been playing with a popular band for these years and hadn’t made enough money to have my car repaired.” That was 1978.
It was time to temporarily table dreams of musical stardom. Rose snared a job as a landscaper that lasted until his paycheck bounced. A more stable position was in order. “I applied at the post office,” says Rose. “Went to work there.” Still, Kent began venturing down to Leland Avenue and Clark Street on the western border of Uptown, where Pam’s Playhouse, as authentic a country music bar as existed within Chicago’s borders, was situated. “It was the first time I’d ever sat in with a band where I didn’t know the guys,” says Kent, who sang Haggard’s “Mama Tried” and the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man” his first time there.
“I started playing out in the honky tonks out in Round Lake. There was A Bit of Country, there were a bunch of joints out there. I’d get gigs out there when the guitar player’s brother, he took the weekend off with his 30-06 to go shooting. It was deer hunting season,” he says. “Leroy couldn’t make it, so I would. Because I worked pretty steady out there for those guys, I started working with them and other bands in Waukegan, North Chicago, Kenosha—mostly hillbilly stuff. I didn’t feel like I played well enough to do anything else, but it was pretty steady work. And the good thing was, I could still work at the post office at the same time.”
Kent also began sitting in with the Sundowners, the legendary country trio that held court for many years at the Bar Double-R Ranch in the Loop. “That definitely taught me a lot about performing and how to be responsible, and showing up on time, and the kind of stuff that they cared a lot about. And I started taking myself a little more seriously,” says Rose. “But I realized when they offered me a gig playing solo between their sets, I could do it occasionally, but I was getting up at four in the morning to go to work at the post office.”
At one point, Kent picked up another instrument entirely and tried his hand at another genre altogether with a ‘60s soul band, Alfonso & the Nightshift. “A friend of mine had an alto sax, and he was going back to school,” he explains. “He said, ‘I’m not going to play it. Do you want to buy it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure!’ It was not a great one, but I started on it. So I started playing, and went to a few jam sessions. I played a little bit at the end of the Baraboo Band. And I got a tenor, because I’m not a jazz guy.
“So then I ran into this trumpet player at Mr. Kiley’s. I’d sit in there with my saxophone, he’s playing trumpet. So one day he gave me a call and he says, ‘Hey, there’s a bunch of guys who are putting together something, kind of an old soul band. Would you be interested in doing it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, this sounds like a lot of fun.’ So we went through the process of finding a lead singer, which is not easy to do. When Alfonso came in, he was playing drums, actually. And they convinced him that he should be a singer and not play drums, which was fine.”
The Nightshift snared some high-profile gigs during its two-and-a-half-year run—Park West, Biddy Mulligan’s, an opening slot for Delbert McClinton up in Madison—but things came crashing to a premature halt. “Some fisticuffs went on between members of the band,” says Kent. “I was not involved, but that pretty much brought it to an end.”
Another offer gave Kent a chance to perform in yet another very different setting. “A friend of mine’s father was a society guy. He was more like a Harry James-type trumpet player, real straight—not a lot of solos, just melody, but good,” he says. “He’d been at the Shubert Theater in the pit. And they asked if I was interested in joining that band. I thought, ‘Well, that’d be interesting. I’ll give it a shot as a society singer, a boy singer, so to speak.’ And I also thought, ‘You’re always better off playing with people who are better than you are,’ which was easy enough for me to do. So I joined up with them.
“At the same time, the Rattlers, which was the offshoot of the Jump ‘n the Saddle Band, they needed a sub, because Ollie O’Shea was doing Pump Boys and Dinettes at the time, which was five days a week. So I had this weird life where I’m learning the tunes from the Rattlers and doing the tunes from the society thing,” he says. “Going from Hank to Frank is a big jump. For me, it was probably the biggest challenge.” That featured singer role with Ray Sassetti’s society band lasted from 1988 all the way up to 2007. “I hung on to the gig because I did what was asked of me, and I never viewed myself as being so important that I wouldn’t do my homework,” says Rose. “And I thought it was good working with them because it taught me how to be a better singer.” But Kent yearned to do his own thing too.
“At a certain point when I was with the society group, I started going out to open mics, because I was writing again,” he says. “When I went out to open mics, all of a sudden I realized, ‘Okay, I’m never going to write songs like Gershwin or Cole Porter, but so what? Nobody does.’ And they still don’t. So I just thought it was important to continue and find whatever it was that I had been doing earlier in my life, and keep playing guitar. I had guitars again, because at one point I was down to no guitars. So I wrote a couple songs. ‘Blue California’ was the first song that I thought, ‘That’s it!’ But later on, when I was making my comeback, so to speak, I was in a bar and there was this really attractive woman, and I got the first line of the song, and I thought, ‘Yeah! It’s still there! You just have to be out here.’ You know, you can’t sit at home and write.”
While awaiting his turn at one of those open mics, Kent’s auto was crashed into in the club’s parking lot by a female vocalist also dropping by to sing a couple of tunes. For most struggling artists it would have been a disastrous turn of events, but it inspired Rose to get creative. “When I was driving home that night, I just thought, ‘Man, women keep smashing up my cars!’” he says. “And I thought, ‘That’s a good title for a song!’” “Women Keep Smashing Up My Cars” and “Blue California” comprised half of Rose’s 2001 debut EP Depot and Diner, cut at Solid Sound Studio in suburban Hoffman Estates. “I took two older songs and two newer songs and recorded them with a full band,” says Rose. “It was less than satisfactory experience for me, because I had done so little recording.”
One Riot, One Ranger, Rose’s first full-length CD in 2005, took the opposite tack, presenting Kent in a solo setting. “I’d go through a series of players with bands, and people are interested. But they’re more interested in gigs than they are in rehearsing, and/or learning tunes,” he says. “I started thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll just start playing solo.’” Rose laid down no less than 29 songs in five hours at Craig Williams’ Dr. Caw Studio in north suburban Northbrook. “Each time you go into the studio, you learn something more about how to record, and that’s what I did with One Riot, One Ranger,” he says. “I really intended it just as a demo, and then I thought, ‘You know, I can live with this.’ Because to me, it’s straightahead. It’s what I sound like. When people come out to hear me and I don’t have a band, this is just what I sound like.”
For the first time, Rose’s creative muse was on full display on the self-released album (16 of the 29 songs made the final cut, along with the contents of the old EP), a rowdy “I Can Hardly Tell (That It’s Saturday Night)” underscoring a pervasive Buddy Holly influence in its choppy chording and non-stop ebullience. “Everybody steals one song off ‘Peggy Sue,’” he says. “The moving chords that Buddy Holly used, I always thought it was a great sound.” The album’s slightly mysterious title stemmed from his day job. “It was a phrase that one of my postal supervisors used to use when he’d say, ‘I’m the only guy here. One riot, one ranger!’” he says. “I thought, ‘It’s a great line, and a good title for a CD.’” Originals including “Restless Cat,” “Hammered And Nailed,” and “Trouble Ain’t No Trouble At All” confirmed that Kent’s songwriting skill was the impressive equal of his performing chops.
In 2009, Kent filmed the commercial that made him a mainstay for awhile on the television airwaves. “I saw an ad on Craigslist,” he says. “There was an ad from O’Connor Casting saying that if you were a U.S. Cellular customer and you had an interesting story to tell, that you should audition for this commercial, a ‘real people’ commercial. And that they would give you a telephone that people would call. So I thought, ‘Nothing to lose!’
“So I wrote them. I described myself as the last of the great Jewish hillbilly singers,” he continues. “They said, ‘We’re really interested,’ and they had me come down for an audition.” The director asked Kent if he’d ever heard of Jimmie Rodgers. He answered in the affirmative. “One of the guys asked me, ‘Could you do a song for us with yodeling in it?’ I said sure. So I did one of mine called ‘Waltzing On Air,’ which is on One Riot, One Ranger, a sort of abbreviated version of it, and threw in a few yodels. And they go, ‘That’s great!’ Then one of the guys, he goes, ‘Yeah, have you ever thought about writing songs like that?’ I said, ‘All the time. That’s one of mine!’ So they waited a couple of days, and they called me up. And they said, ‘We’re gonna do it with you!’
“I rode around on the el while they filmed me. Then they came to my house and shot the rest of the commercial out there. Six five-ton trucks pull up by the house at five o’clock in the morning. My neighbors were impressed for a minute or two. And then they shot. I had no idea what was going to be in the commercial.” After an exasperating wait, the spot ran heavily during the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Part of the ad campaign’s charm (there were several others in the series) was that a phone number was provided so you could call the subjects—a genuine working number. “When it showed, the phone just started ringing,” says Rose. “They had this separate phone they had given me. It was a mixed experience. Some of it was very good. I did meet some musicians I hadn’t talked to in a while, and people I went to school with that I hadn’t talked to in a while. And some people were impressed who are no longer impressed. And then there were a lot of people who were kind of hostile, I guess would be the nicest way to put it. Ripping me on the phone for wearing a red satin shirt!”
Did the commercial lead to increased gigs? “Amazingly enough, I think my career trajectory went down. Even places where I played, the television was on when the commercial ran, so you had this great moment of the television running with me on it, and then down below I’m playing Hank Williams or something. People said it was like the greatest moment ever. And that’s one of the clubs I didn’t get back in, where I couldn’t get a call returned.”
Rose released a 2011 followup disc, Live At Reggie’s, cut at a popular nightclub on Chicago’s South Side. “I had all the material,” he notes. His solo troubadour tendencies enable him to perform at venues that very few singers would attempt. For the last three Thanksgivings, he’s serenaded pastry lovers in front of Hoosier Mama Pie Company, and he strolls through the stalls at farmers markets all over the city and suburbs. Of course, Rose is more than happy to entertain at nightclubs too. He battled a persistent drizzle at this summer’s Jeff Fest on Chicago’s Northwest Side, delighting damp music lovers as darkness fell. You couldn’t see Kent too well despite his classy Western wear towards the end of his set, but you could sure hear him.
A throwback to an earlier time who nonetheless remains contemporary, Rose is a true man of the people. “There’s nothing wrong with working a regular job and playing music and thinking it’s okay,” he says. “That’s what people did for all those years. When you think about all the musicians who used to be around, they played music in the evenings. It wasn’t about being a star or anything like that. There were no stars. It was something that they shared with other people.”
Fortunately, Kent Rose has plenty of songs to share with us. And he's doing so in 2016 with a brand-new disc recorded in Nashville: All That American Night.
--Bill Dahl, Music Historian & Journalist
Find out more about Bill Dahl at http://www.billdahl.com/