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Hot and Roddy

J. Roddy Walston is plugged into Richmond, having traveled “the long way back around.”



J Roddy Walston and the Business lit up the late-night television circuit in September, following the release of a rowdy third album "Essential Tremors" on ATO Records.

There were appearances on "Late Show with David Letterman" and "Conan," and it all climaxed with a headlining gig at the legendary 9:30 Club in Washington.

"That felt surreal, especially for the guys who grew up in Baltimore and Richmond," Walston says. "All the supportive people in our world were so excited. Things were finally happening."

Just don't call them Southern rock — that might crush their buzz a little. The singer and his mighty band often are lumped into that Americana subgenre, given the hearty helping of piano rolls and unabashed guitar solos played by a bunch of longhaired guys.

"If there was no baggage to that established category, maybe I'd be OK if someone called it that," Walston says from the road in Charleston, S.C. "But even the guys who were a part of that initial wave in the '70s thought it was a ridiculous term. Rock 'n' roll came from the South, so why would you define one part of it as Southern?"

The 33-year-old Richmond frontman, known for his wildly distinctive, piano-pounding performances grew up in Cleveland, Tenn. But he didn't get into the ivories until much later in life. The self-taught player was in a band circa junior high and simply "got tired of the straightforward guitar-bass-drums sound," he says. That led him to start messing around with old organs, synthesizers and keyboards.

"I slowly moved from holding down one note to making up chords on my own," he says. "From that, I started writing and taught myself to play in my own weird way."

Walston acknowledges that his early interest was with everything except the classic country and gospel played by members of his family. "I avoided it pretty hard as a kid," he says.

In what he calls "the long way back around," Walston sat down with his grandmother, who was an "amazing gospel, country piano player" for a lesson in old-school sounds.

"That old Southern, country, gospel kind of influence comes out very easily now," Walston says. "Around 22 or 23, it just started to happen. It was like realizing I could speak Spanish or something."

His work is fueled not only by music of the South, but also its people. "When I moved away to Baltimore, I realized that while I didn't totally fit in where I grew up — that's home," he says. "The South, particularly the Southeast, has these salt-of-the-earth people that can drive you crazy, or sound insane when they're on the television, but there's a rhythm and flow, a sort of musical nature to the way people speak."

Walston's lyrics embrace characters that live a hyperbolic existence, and he swears it's not but so personal. "If you think every song that I'm telling is my own story, I'm like the most tragic or awful person on the planet," he says, laughing. As a songwriter, he says he turns every element all the way up to the extreme and "watches it explode."

Combined with his playing style, a soulful wail and fiery onstage hair-flinging that rivals Beyoncé, it's no wonder this guy who lives in a little house near Carytown has made more than one appearance in Rolling Stone magazine lately.

"I once read that the three most stressful things in your life are getting married, getting a new job and moving to a new city," he says. "My wife, Sarah, and I did all of those things at the same time." The couple met in Cleveland and decided to pursue full-time careers as musicians — she's a trained opera singer — and like most, they fell on hard times.

"We were dumb poor," he says. "I say that because we didn't have to be in that situation, but wanted to because we were kids." The pair made their way to Richmond when her parents offered up free digs, a little cabin on their property with minimal amenities. That was five years ago and Walston's local roots since have taken hold.

"We're now fully plugged into the scene and the city. I made an effort to start going out seeing bands and making friends. The timing of it was pretty rad because Richmond is really starting to take shape and I like the pace right now. Unlike Austin, not every person is moving here," he says. "I like that people my age can afford to buy a house or start a business because the cost isn't insane." S

J. Roddy Walston and the Business play Friday Cheers on May 30 with the Kopecky Family Band. The Brown's Island show starts at 6:30 p.m. and admission is $5.


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