Rodgers fluent in the language of music

Georgia born Bobby Lee Rodgers, a graduate of UGA, became the youngest teacher at age 23 at Berklee College of Music. Special photo

Georgia born Bobby Lee Rodgers, a graduate of UGA, became the youngest teacher at age 23 at Berklee College of Music. Special photo

Carlton Fletcher


ATLANTA — Musicians come from a different planet than us mere mortal creatures, and they speak a language we can only ever hope to understand.

That’s why they hire PR people.

Georgia-born and Georgia-raised Bobby Lee Rodgers has no such go-between. He speaks the language of music in a way that all who are paying attention can readily grasp. And, oh, what the man has to say.

“When I’m playing, I’m playing for two people,” Rodgers said from his Atlanta home during a recent phone conversation. “I’m playing for that connection between me and any other person who’s engaged with the music. Musicians are always communicating; they’re reaching out to anyone in the audience who is really listening.

“A lot of people don’t really listen, but when they do, the music becomes the conduit for a two-way conversation. I don’t play for a crowd; I play for that one-on-one connection with every person who’s listening, whether it’s in front of two people or 2 million.”

Rodgers, formerly a principle with Col. Bruce Hampton’s Codetalkers and now frontman/guitarist for his own Bobby Lee Rodgers Trio, became a favorite at the Live Oak, Fla., Wanee Festival when he first played there with Col. Bruce four years ago. Even when the Codetalkers ceased to be, though, he was invited back.

Now he’s a mainstay, and he will play three sets at the 2012 festival, including 11 a.m. wakeup gigs to start the day Friday and Saturday.

“I did eight years with the Codetalkers, and when that was over I was ready to step away,” Rodgers said. “The music business had gotten so crazy. But I got a call from the people at Wanee, and they said, ‘We love you, the fans love you, and we want you to come back.’ I had done a couple of gigs under my own name, but it felt a little weird at first.

“Now, I’m excited. I feel like I’m setting out to start teaching again.”

Born in Rome and raised in Augusta, Rodgers left for the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston after graduating from the University of Georgia. Before long, he’d turned the tables at Berklee and at 23 became the youngest teacher at the renowned institution.

“They asked me to teach this five-week guitar program that they had, and when that was over they asked me to stay on full-time,” he said. “I only expected to be there a couple of semesters, but I ended up staying for five years. My method of teaching was to encourage the students to go out and play, to get their music out there while they were young.”

While at Berklee, Rodgers recorded songs he’d written with musicians he’d never met before, and the group surprisingly claimed top prize at the annual Boston Music Awards.

Rodgers met kindred spirit Hampton in Nashville after his passion for teaching waned, and he spent the next eight years taking his music to the true believers. Now he carries the torch under his own banner.

“Music is the tool I use to form a language,” he said. “I believe people can learn to speak that language if they listen in much the same way a normal child can hear words and sentences being spoken and learn to communicate.

“But the language is not about reciting, about tracing. That’s not the goal. The idea is to grasp the nuances of the language, piece by piece. The idea is to learn the accents, not just the vocabulary of the music.”

The sharing of this language of his music, that rare instance when a connection is made between musician and audience, is what keeps Rodgers playing.

“When I realized what this thing was was when the Codetalkers were playing a show at the Brandy House in Atlanta,” Rodgers said. “We’d recorded one of our shows live and gave out a copy of the CD to everybody at the show. A girl came up to me and gave me the biggest hug and said her brother had requested that that music be played while he was going through and recuperating from brain surgery. She said that’s what got him through the ordeal.

“Man, when you can feel that kind of connection, that kind of energy so that you can, in like 10 half-millionths of a second, ask yourself what feeling needs to be put out there and immediately respond, that’s what I play for. When that’s gone, man, I’m done.”