Shelter From the Storm

Rep. Phil Roe’s Bluegrass Guitar Helps Wash Away the Weariness Of Lawmaking

Posted January 24, 2012 at 4:53pm

Rep. Phil Roe has three really good guitars at home, but the one he keeps in his Washington, D.C., office is a piece of junk.

He seems to be the only one bothered by the guitar’s quality, though, because when he plays, it nearly floats away. After a hard vote or a hard day or even a good day, you can find this Tennessee Republican back in his office strumming his six-string.

Other than the guitar tucked away in the corner of his office, there are no outward signs that indicate this Congressman was a member of a well-respected 1970s bluegrass band.

The Pony Express released just one album, now out of print, to quiet acclaim in 1972. The band’s second album was halfway complete before life and circumstance forced the band to take the break that turned into a breakup.

However, Roe, an obstetrician before he came to Congress, doesn’t seem especially distraught over the road not taken to musical stardom. He shows off his band’s 1972 album proudly, and he still counts at least one of his former bandmates as the “best friend he has on this Earth.”

Roe talks about Congress, Washington and politics with the bemused, tired expression exclusive to those with several Congressional sessions under their belts. But when he picks up his guitar, his whole countenance changes.

The first song he plays is off the Pony Express album, “Teardrops Will Kiss the Morning Dew.” It is, he says, one of the earliest songs penned by the Grammy-winning songwriter Paul Craft. The track was later made famous by bluegrass legends Alison Krauss and Union Station.

He is a bit apologetic when he first starts playing, claiming he hasn’t picked it since Krauss and her band made it famous. But, quietly and skillfully, the good doctor kills it.

The second time he plays for Roll Call he is accompanied by his staff assistant, Alex Large — a talented bluegrass guitarist and vocalist with D.C.’s Second String Band — and Roe performs beautifully and without apology.

It isn’t surprising that Roe is a bluegrass, country and folk music fan. The man can weave a yarn. His stories unfold quickly, one behind another, and he has a seemingly endless supply.

He tells about visiting the Songwriters Hall of Fame to see Craft and watching country superstars Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Wynonna Judd and Taylor Swift perform; he talks about his summers bugling at Boy Scout camp (he can still blow a mean bugle), and he tells stories about his childhood in the country.

“The home I first lived in was three rooms,” he explains. “It didn’t have indoor plumbing or running water, but nobody did where we lived. And the school I went to had … eight grades in two rooms.”

“Every morning … we listened to the farm report, and they would [play] country music and we’d listen to that.”

The farm report, according to Roe, “would tell you the weather forecast and whether you could plant your crops, what corn was selling for and all the things that could be interesting if you were living on a farm.”

“I grew up in rural middle Tennessee,” Roe says. “At that time, it was the smallest town in the state of Tennessee, and we played music. That was how we entertained. My mother’s family did. My father’s family did.”

And that’s how music got under his skin.

After elementary school, his father took a job in a factory and moved the family to a relatively urban area — “still really rural compared to [Washington]” — and it was there Roe took up his first instrument, the trombone.

“I got to high school, and that’s when, in the early ’60s, the folk scene was coming on,” he says. “Vietnam [War] was starting.”

It was then he decided to pick up the guitar and start his first band. Later in college, he started the Hickory Hill Singers, a folk music group playing in the style of the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Bob Dylan.

He was still country, though to his way of thinking, it wasn’t much of a leap between folk and country music.

“Those songs, if you read the lyrics, actually say something,” he says.

At first, it seems like he’s talking about the Vietnam-era folk standards made popular by Dylan, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell, but then he smiles: “I mean, what’s one of those country songs? ‘I knew she was over me when I saw her all over him.’”

Roe joined the Pony Express after medical school, when he was completing his hospital internship.

“After graduation, we met some guys,” he says. “We would work all night — we’d work these shifts in the emergency room — I met this guy, Steve Barnes, he’s an orthopedic surgeon now.

“[Then] Steve and I met Tom [Eades], who’s my best friend to this day. Tom’s a cardiologist [now].”

The last member of the group was Jim Auther, now an attorney.

The young men would get together after their 24-hour shifts at the hospital and jam.

“Just for entertainment,” he says. “I mean, we were working a hundred hours a week as interns. It was crazy.”

“Jim was in the service, he had just gotten out and was getting ready to go to law school, but he wasn’t in law school yet. We had a lot of energy, and we’d get around, and we just started playing,” he recalls. “We’d get together just to relax and play music, and so we put this group together.”

For two years, Roe says, he worked every other night at the hospital and played with the band.

“I went to the hospital at 6:30 in the morning on Monday and got home Tuesday night about 7.”

The Pony Express would play Tuesday nights at a bar, packing in customers and fans. Then Roe would get home Wednesday morning, head to the hospital that night and work until Friday night.

“I was young and stupid, so I could do that,” Roe says.

His schedule during Congress’ busiest weeks can be just as trying. It is no wonder, then, that the Congressman, like the intern, would find solace and respite back where he always has: in his music.