It was supposed to be a fun little adventure: Form a country music cover band in Tucson and spend long weekends gigging in Rocky Point, Mexico.
Seven months later, Backroads has instead turned into a big little deal, with gig offers from country bars throughout Tucson and road shows that will return them to Rocky Point and San Diego next month and take them to Colorado in October.
“When they talk about a wild ride, it has been,” says lead singer Rick Williams.
“People are like where the hell did you guys come from?” adds drummer Andy Saenz. “It’s kind of turned into something bigger than we actually thought.”
Backroads was Saenz’s idea, dreamed up over a cold beer in a Rocky Point bar with a classic rock cover band playing background noise.
Someone at the bar suggested it would be nice if there was a country cover band to counter all the rock bands playing the Rocky Point bars, and that’s when he came up with his plan.
Form a country band, pick up a regular gig in Rocky Point and spend long weekends on the beach.
He floated the idea early this year to some friends, who thought he was crazy; no one signed on. So he put an ad on Craigslist for a bass player, guitarist, drummer and lead singer. Although he’d clocked time in his younger days with local rock bands, the 41-year-old former Tucson concert promoter wanted to be more of a behind-the-scenes manager.
Saenz met Williams, 38, through a friend, and Williams eventually brought along bass player Chris Pritchard, 48, with whom he had played in another band. Kansas City native and recent Tucson transplant Gage Schmidt, the baby of the band at 27, answered the ad for lead guitar.
Since no one stepped up for the drummer’s role, Saenz found a drum kit and took the job himself.
The band dubbed itself Backroads and started rehearsing. They had a plan, one that Saenz had seen work when he was on the production crew at Marana’s long-closed New West back in the late 1990s/early 2000s.
“It kind of comes back to the whole concert thing,” he says. “I did research on the internet and figured out what were the most popular country dance songs from the 1980s and ’90s. … The goal was that when you hear the opening (chords), even if you weren’t a country fan you would know the words, like ‘Friends In Low Places.’ We didn’t want to pick all of our favorite songs. We wanted to pick the songs for people to dance and sing.”
That includes classics by George Strait (“Amarillo By Morning”) and Alan Jackson, (“Don’t Rock the Jukebox”), honky tonk gems from Tracy Byrd and Tracy Lawrence, as well as hits from new artists including Chris Stapleton and Jake Owen, Kenny Chesney and the Zack Brown Band.
“We found songs that made sense,” says Saenz, who sells real estate to make a living. “We play waltzes and songs they would be able to dance to and know all the words.”
After a few weeks of playing some trial run shows for friends and family, Backroads decided they needed a true test before they put themselves out there in Rocky Point. So Saenz in early February called up Clint Bolin, who has run The Station neighborhood restaurant/sports bar in Marana’s Continental Ranch area since 2012.
Bolin has had live music in the bar for a couple years, but mostly it’s a guy or a gal with a guitar tucked into a corner.
A full band with a drum kit? That was a whole different proposition.
“I was kind of a believer that the space that I have wasn’t necessarily made for a drum set,” he says. “I just thought the drums would be too loud.”
But Saenz assured him it would be fine, and Bolin gave them the go-ahead with no real expectations of how the night would turn out.
That February night became a turning point of sorts — for Backroads and for Bolin. The parking lot in the small shopping plaza on Wade and Silverbell roads was so full that people parked in the neighborhoods just west of the firehouse right next door. There were not nearly enough seats in the bar, especially since a big chunk of the dining room was taken up by the drum set and the three other musicians.
Not that anyone was looking for a seat, Bolin says. He hadn’t seen the dance floor — that space circling the band and spilling into the bar — so full. And folks were drinking and eating; business boomed that night, he recounts.
A month later, Backroads got its second big gig, playing at The Stadium Bar and Grill on West Orange Grove Road. A week later, they played Eddie’s Cocktails on East 22nd Street and by the middle of March, they started picking up a couple gigs a week, including at Marana’s Old Father Inn and at the Outlaw Saloon on West Roger Road.
“They are a really good cover band,” says Brandon DeGeest, who co-owns Outlaw Saloon, which hires Tucson country bands several nights a week. “They play the music that people want to dance to. A lot of the cover bands play a lot of the older stuff and waltzes.”
DeGeest says there are two kinds of bands: The water bands, whose audiences drink a cocktail or two before switching to water; and the beer bands, whose audiences never make that switch to water.
He puts Backroads in the beer band column.
“People come in and they will grab dinner and get drinks. Not only that but half the time they’ll play longer than they’re supposed to and that brings in even more people,” adds Bolin, who has brought Backroads back to his bar several times since that first show.
Williams remembers being a bundle of nerves that February night at The Station. Would the audience like them? Would they mesh as a band? What would he do with his hands now that he wasn’t playing guitar as much as he did with other bands he’d fronted?
“For years I hadn’t sang without my guitar in my hand,” says the construction worker. “A lot of the songs, I don’t know what to do with my hands.”
Williams has been trying to find his place in Tucson’s music scene for years. He’s fronted metal bands, tried his hand as a solo act and played in a country band. None of them ever got far beyond the rehearsal stage.
Pritchard was a bandmate in one of those failed ventures a few years ago.
“We probably worked at it almost a year, year and a half, and it just got to the point that man, this isn’t right for me,” says Pritchard, who fixes UPS trucks for a living and figures he’s been in 10 to 15 bands since his first while attending Marana High School in the late 1980s. He ended up joining the Army and serving two tours in the Middle East with Desert Storm.
With their career fits and sputters, both Williams and Pritchard had quietly convinced themselves that maybe this whole music thing was never going to really come through for them.
Until they met Saenz, whose pre-real-estate life included promoting hip-hop concerts and foam parties not so many years ago and working the country concerts at the New West.
Saenz says one of the reasons Backroads works is because of his bandmates’ passion. They love performing, especially Williams, whose voice Saenz calls amazing. Williams seems to channel most of the artists he covers, adding a little nuance and personality so that he doesn’t sound like he’s mimicking or parroting the singers so much as emulating them.
“If you go to see a cover band it should be as close to the cover as possible. I sing it the way I hear it in my head,” says Williams, who has written a few songs and is working on incorporating original music into their sets.
On Aug. 24, Backroads will debut in the Friday Night Country series at Desert Diamond Casino’s Monsoon Nightclub on Tucson’s south side. Even before they step on stage, the band already has been invited back for the following weekend — which Desert Diamond Casinos Entertainment Manager Fernando Campa says is pretty unusual. He doesn’t like to book bands back-to-back, but when he heard Backroads live for the first time in early August, he couldn’t help but think there was something special going on with this band.
“Their music mix is spot-on,” he says. “They keep people dancing and having a good time.”
Campa heard about the band a couple months ago from a friend who’d seen them at Roger Clyne’s Banditos Restaurant and Bar in Rocky Point. He made a few calls and tried to get them into the rotation when he launched Monsoon’s Friday Night Country in early July. But Backroads was booked weeks and months out, he says.
At that Marana show in August, Campa cornered Saenz during a set break and they nailed down the August dates. Campa says he hopes to include the band in the Friday Night Country rotation beginning in September, alongside other showcase regulars including Billy Shaw Jr. Band, Drew Cooper, Jack Bishop Band and Tony Corrales Band.
Backroads guitar player Schmidt, who moved to Tucson 18 months ago with his wife and 3-year-old son, thinks of his role in Backroads as his best-ever part-time job. His full-time job is with a Tucson sign company, which he says has been pretty flexible with his band schedule.
“It’s really good fun,” he says of playing in the band, then recalled a recent Rocky Point show when he looked out into the crowd and spied a couple he recognized from Tucson. “That was baffling to me, having fans follow us up there to witness the experience.”
Williams confesses he’s no longer pinching himself. That nagging insecurity that the audiences in Tucson and Mexico were just being nice and the band’s run was about to come to an end are pretty much gone.
They disappeared in Rocky Point, back where the dream began.
“The time when I realized what we had going on, we had gone and played in Rocky Point and we came back for a show two weeks later,” he says, “We went back and we were walking down the strip and people were like, ‘You’re the singer of Backroads.’ That’s pretty humbling.”