At the helm of the Boulder-based alt-country band Gasoline Lollipops, singer/songwriter Clay Rose shares his thoughts about inspiration, the legacy of Hank Williams and confronting demons.
By Dave Kirby
Who exactly are the Gasoline Lollipops?
“When people stumble into one of our shows,” says singer/songwriter Clay Rose, “depending on what song they first hear, they’ll come up afterwards and say, ‘First I thought you guys were a rockabilly band,’ or ‘No, wait, you’re a psychedelic rock band,’ or ‘No, you’re a folk band. Hey, what’s going on here?’”
The answer to the question is, all of the above.
“I like to keep ’em on their toes,” Rose chuckles, and he means it.
Now in their seventh year, the GasPops, as they’ve come to be known around Boulder and the northern Front Range, have established themselves as one of the most original and musically arresting forces on the local scene. Streaming services and social-media channels may casually pigeonhole them as “alt-country,” but Rose, musically bred from the seemingly disparate DNA strains of punk and traditional country, shifts between genres effortlessly, channeling Johnny Cash and Steve Earle, Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt more or less at will.
The six-person band itself fairly explodes live on stage, furious guitar breaks laid across speedball country figures, fiddle tunes amped to 11, rolling waves of string and electric instrumentalism backing Rose’s succinct and frequently tortured songs of self-doubt, uncertain redemption and bargaining with oblivion.
“God is in the jack, the devil’s in the ace/I’m a king bettin’ on his queen/but a deuce took her place.”—“Devil’s in the Ace,” from the EP Death
Someone suggested a new tag: goth-Americana. Probably about right.
Surviving vs. Living
Delivered in alternately fragile and menacing timbres, Rose’s songs come from his own vision of struggle, despair and rage. The son of a songwriter (his mother is Donna Farrar, who penned a hit single for Willie Nelson a generation ago), Rose grew up with one foot shakily planted in a bumpy, rebellious teen life in Nashville and the other in Colorado, with plenty of time on the road, busking in Austin, L.A. and various other locales, eventually settling in the Boulder area, crafting his persona and songwriting on now-lost stages like Tulagi and Penny Lane.
Rose has also been fairly upfront about his own struggles with alcohol, the fiendishly disloyal mistress of many songwriters.
“So pass that wine around, my friends/redemption will just have to wait. We’ll be drunk by the time this world comes to an end/and I’ll see you at the old pearly gates.” —“Jesus Ain’t Dead,” from the EP Resurrection
Now that he has a 6-year-old son and has been sober two years, Rose’s songs reflect on the various losses and wasted time spent raging against himself, against the hand he drew, and against indifferent agents of redemption.
“Obviously, all of us addicts and alcoholics got a lot out of drugs and alcohol; otherwise we wouldn’t have done them for so long. And then we get sober, and you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he says. “You can’t throw the life out, the inspiration, the spontaneity. The joy, the love—you gotta find those somewhere else. If you don’t find those somewhere else, you’re not living on borrowed time, you’re not livin’ at all. You’re just surviving.
“I’m an extremist, I’m an adrenaline junkie. If I just wanted to just survive, I wouldn’t be trying to do this for a living.”
Rose stays close to his punk roots, the mohawked kid freaking out his elders, mad as hell, raising hell. But if his rage is rooted in punk, his soul is rooted in country, the plaintive testimonies of Everyman’s hurt. Punk, however, at least the proto-genre that fired him up 20 or more years ago, is long dead, burned out from exhaustion and the inevitable grind of time.
Some say country is dead, too. And ironically—GasPops recently won Westword’s Best Country Artist of 2016 award, the latest in a series of local plaudits—Rose concurs. “Absolutely [country is dead], and thank you for pointing that out,” he says. “It all really comes down to Nashville’s definition of country. And that’s why Nashville sucks, because they took Hank Williams’ legacy and smeared [expletive] all over it, put it in a shiny package and everybody bought it.”
Digging Through Darkness to See Dawn
For Rose, it would seem, it comes down to ego. The country stars of today, carefully crafted and deeply invested in the videogenic demands of the expansive commercial country-music market, are, really, all about themselves. The songs, the hats, the pickups, the iconography of rural Americana. It’s about the star, and his or her salesmanship.
Someone once said that the first time somebody else claps for one of your songs, it isn’t yours anymore.
“I don’t know that it was ever yours to begin with,” Rose observes, cryptically. “I think the best writers are the ones that are the least present when they’re writing. They’re pulling the song out of the ether. The songs exist, they’re all there. And they blow in and out like clouds. Sometimes they’re there, sometimes they’re not.
“But when they’re there, if you’re thinkin’ about writing a song, and you know what you’re going to be writing about, you’re missing everything that’s all around you. You’re writing a very finite song, to the best of your ability, which isn’t very good. … We’re all extremely limited.”
If Rose is remotely concerned whether people will “buy” Gasoline Lollipops, he doesn’t let on. Having completed a three-EP song cycle last spring with the release of Resurrection (the prior EPs were titled Death and Dawn), the band has scheduled a vinyl release of the full-length Soul Mine at the storied Fox Theater on Dec. 16. Engineered by Rose himself (a last-minute conflict robbed the band of their planned engineer), the full-length album is a contrast of tones. The Side A songs are the rockers, the spit and vinegar; Side B are the ballads, gentler, more reflective, teetering between hopefulness and resigned acceptance.
“Find the truth/it shines right through carbon/I started out digging for diamonds and gold/now I’m digging through the long dark night of the soul/to see dawn.” —“Soul Mine,” from the LP Soul Mine
Rose laughs a little, vaguely conscious that the album is a bit of a gamble. “Well, it’s always a crap shoot. Who knows, maybe they’ll hate it. Pile it up on a parking lot like a Dixie Chicks record and run over it with a bulldozer!”
Maybe. At least it got someone’s attention. But worrying about it binds Rose to his ego, and that’s a showstopper. “How many people aren’t slaves to their ego every waking second?” he says. “That’s my No. 1 goal. I put that first. I put staying sober second. I put playing music third.
“Number 1 goal is to experience five minutes of freedom a day.”
Dave Kirby has been writing about music for various publications since 1978. He lives in Boulder with his wife and their two dogs.