Robert J

by Kristen Winiarski
June 2008

Madison's Robert J on the cover of Maximum Ink in June 2008

Madison's Robert J on the cover of Maximum Ink in June 2008

A man who simply goes by “Robert J” fronts the band The Rowdy Prairie Dogs who jam on the Potawatomi Stage at Summerfest on its concluding day, Sunday, July 6 at noon. I had the opportunity to talk with this man who has been through so much just in the last year: dealing with a heart attack, forming a new band, and now, preparing to play Summerfest next month. When asked about the festival, Robert J said, “I’ve played there [Summerfest] about 6 or 7 times, mostly with the Moon Gypsies, I played with a band called Howlin’ at the Moon…I’m always excited to play Summerfest; it’s a big party.”

Robert J got started in the music industry at a young age, playing the guitar when he was just two years old. He is a guitarist and singer, but most of all a songwriter. When asked how he got started in the music industry, it was obvious it was a long effort, “Ohhhhh okay, actually I graduated from college and I had been playing in bands in Detroit. And I jumped in the band van and moved to Colorado in a van.  I had been playing a little bit, but that was pretty much when I decided okay, I’m just going to go be a musician for a while.” When he jumped into this van, he was also jumping into the band Happy Trails, merely one of about 20 bands that Robert J has been a part of.

The most recent band before starting the Prairie Dogs was The Moon Gypsies. Robert J talked about the transition between bands, “I’d been in the Moon Gypsies for the last 9 years in Madison and we were kind of folding up because well, [I was] doing other musical projects and Chris [Wagoner] and Mary [Gaines] from the Moon Gypsies have a band called the Stellanovas which is kind of a jazzy little trio and I myself wanted to pursue songwriting again more than anything. I was the main songwriter in almost every band I’d ever been in, including the Moon Gypsies, but I kind of just wanted to try some other things and so I put two records out last year and one was called ‘The Revenge of the Rowdy Prairie Dogs’ and I always thought that’d be a cool name for a band and then I kind of went into that country-bluesy, country-rock kind of sound.”

The name for this Americana band actually turns out to be approved thievery from one of Robert J’s closest friends. Robert says, “I came up with the name, actually a good friend of mine from Sun Valley, Idaho, who I’d written songs with, Jefferson Keys…That has been his fictitious name for a band for years and last time I talked to him I said, ‘You know Jefferson, I got a whole crop of country songs here and I want to know if I can steal that,’ and he said, ‘By all means cause I’m never going to get to it.’ So I stole it from one of my best friends. I wish I could say I came up with that one myself but I didn’t.” Self-formed or not, Robert hopes the band name will inspire people to pick it up and give it a try, if out of nothing more than just curiosity and because it’s a pretty sweet name.

This band adds to all the others that Robert J has been a part of that have helped to make him the artist he is today. In addition to his influences that include Elvis, The Beatles, James Brown, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, he also says that, “I was in bands all the way along and every person I played with showed me something or gave me a key to unlock one door.”

Another key to his success has been The Sunday Night Jams. The way it began was not a typical one, as Robert J says, “It all started because a friend of ours who was a potter, wanted to have a party and display and sell his pottery but he wanted it to be fun so he hired us to do a jam and provide music. From that, the owner of Morgan’s, Mike Rogers, heard it and said, ‘Let’s do this every Sunday!’ and I said, ‘Let’s!’ and it became a jam and it was a fun one.” After playing these jams every Sunday for about 7 years, the whole party moved to the Anchor Inn and ran about another 3 years. All together, Robert J played 518 Sundays in a row! What other musician can say they know they have a gig every week for a year and a half? Robert J reflects on it, “It was a jam session every week I would hire different musicians as the house band and me and a friend, Chris Bank, started it…and it was a wonderful time! Every Sunday night there were 200 people there for years and years and it was a great night because a lot of musicians had off, a lot of people that we worked with, the bartenders and waitresses would come out that night. It was a great scene. We did a lot of jamming throughout the years…We had a lot of people come in and jam with us. It was a blast. It started in 83 and it went into 92.”

With a career spanning a few decades, Robert J has been through many of the changes throughout the history of music such as how the industry has changed and how bands disperse their material, I was curious as to what he thought of it. He seemed to agree that most of the changes were beneficial, with the exception of the radio industry. He said, “Everything’s changed. I mean, radio alone, when I started the jocks could put on some of what they wanted to play, then it got more like a music director decides what’s being played. Then it got to where all the radio stations were being bought up by just a few companies and they would hire consultants to tell what all the stations play and so it’s kind of..”

“More Monopolized?” I suggested.

“Oh exactly, and so that’s changed, you know there’s more bands than ever, that’s changed. Things like American Idol and Karaoke and Internet and so many other things to compete with the entertainment of music. A lot of people want to go out and be the star of the show; they do karaoke or whatever and I don’t mind karaoke but now it’s kind of like a big democracy of music in a way, almost anybody can put out a record because the technology capabilities are affordable to everybody and almost anyone can be a star by going to karaoke, being the front man for that song, and I’m not knocking any of these things… except for the radio one, that has been terrible I think, the way that several companies own, have total control over what’s available. There’s like four tenths of one percent of all the music in the world is getting played on commercial radio and I long for the old days when the jocks had a little bit more control and played a wider spectrum of songs. But then the internet is a wonderful thing that kinda counteracts that… all the sudden we sold records in Brazil and Israel and Europe and all over the place and that would have never happened I don’t think if it wasn’t for the capabilities of Internet and that type of thing.”

Despite the issues with the radio industry, Robert J has not gone unacknowledged for his achievements. He was deeply touched by the MAMA’s, (Madison Area Music Awards), “That was a wonderful surprise, you know, I was nominated for 7 awards and I looked at the categories and I saw who I was up against and I could easily lose every one of these going into it. One of the first awards given away was the Male Vocalist of the Year and I won that and I went, ‘Alright! I got one! I’ll be happy at that.’ And then I started winning for The Rowdy Prairie Dogs and then I got called up for best Americana song, best pop song, best country song…and I went ‘Oh, man..’. Then the last two awards were, I think, for pop song, and then for rock album of the year. After winning pop song with ‘A Beautiful Blur’, I walked off stage; I was just blown away. And the people on the side of the stage are saying, ‘Don’t go anywhere Robert, you’ve got another one.’ And then it just really hit me, after I accepted that award and I walked off stage, I was in tears. I was just overwhelmed with being appreciated by your peers in the music industry and other fans as well who voted. I felt very blessed and very lucky and overwhelmed. {Laughs} It was awesome. I didn’t expect it at all. I thought I could win a couple but to win 6 is incredible. And the Moon Gypsies won a W.A.M.I. which is a Wisconsin Area Music Industry Award for best acoustic folk band of the year. It’s been a pretty cool year.”

Robert J has come a long way from the gandy dancer, which he told me is “a guy who spikes and picks and fixes rails and does all the common labor on a railroad.” For the future he says, “I’ve got most of the next record written for The Rowdy Prairie Dogs and since my heart attack, I’ve written about 24 songs. Most of which are starting to be finished and I usually don’t write that many that fast but when you’re kind of scared to the bone and you kinda see your life flashing in front of your face there for a second, it kinda opened up my whole creative process and [has] given me a lot to write about, feelings and kind of a rebirth of passion for what I do. Like I said in an earlier article,  when I was having a heart attack at the ER all I could think about was my wife, kids, and the songs that I hadn’t finished writing yet. That’s what my life is and that’s what I’m going to work towards doing for the rest of my life. I plan on being around a long time.”

Check out to order “The Revenge of the Rowdy Prairie Dogs” and other CD’s of Robert’s or venture out on the last day of Summerfest at noon and check out their show!

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Robert J
CD: The Revenge of the Rowdy Prairie Dogs Record Label: Popbomb Records

Download The Revenge of the Rowdy Prairie Dogs on Amazon