If you’re in the market for a funky southern trio whose music is as unifying as their origin story, look no further than Sir Rod & the Blues Doctors.
Every artist knows that collaboration is hard—there’s a reason most bands break up, after all—so when I meet a group of musicians who genuinely like each other and are working toward a clear common goal, I know I’ve found something special.
Enter Sir Rod. When they applied to be a Braver Angels artist of the month, I was first drawn to the unique, multi-generational story that led frontman Rod Patterson to take up the torch of his late uncle, the acclaimed Sterling “Satan” Magee. But as I learned more about the varied political leanings and interests of the group, I realized that this trio was a shining example of bridge-building on more than one level.
Here, we talk about how a blues music documentary helped these gentlemen find each other, how one 90-minute songwriting session gave way to a unity anthem, and how our own John Wood Jr.’s work has inspired them to help Americans “Come Together.”
Learn more on their website and follow them on Facebook to stay hip to their next moves, including a 2022 tour (starts May 20 in Gulfport, Florida!) and an upcoming live album aptly named Keeping It In the Family.
Ok—I almost don’t know where to start with you guys! There’s so much I’m curious about, but let’s begin with your origin story. As a solo singer-songwriter, I’ve always been fascinated by how musical partnerships begin. So talk to me about Satan & Adam—the noteworthy blues duo started by Adam and his colleague Sterling Magee years ago—and how that was a springboard for Sir Rod & the Blues Doctors?
Adam Gussow: The Satan & Adam story is an epic that played out between 1986, when I first jammed with Mr. Satan (Sterling Magee) on 125th St. in Harlem, and April 2018, when Sterling and I last reunited and jammed in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival world premiere of the documentary Satan & Adam. Sterling changed my life; our partnership took us across the country and across the seas. I never imagined that the Satan & Adam story, unlikely as it was, would open out into a whole other improbable epic partnership, but that is what has happened, thanks to Sterling’s nephew, Rod Patterson, reaching out to me as he did.
Rod Patterson: I was always a Satan & Adam fan but never considered being part of any kind of group or band until I saw the documentary on Netflix—powerful stuff—and I thought to myself, what a shame for all the music to end.
About a month prior to seeing the documentary, I accidentally figured out I could sing my uncle’s music. At the end of one of my rehearsals, one of my uncle’s songs came on my iPod. I started singing to it over a microphone, and our voices blended—and I thought to myself, wow, I sound like my uncle! And then thought nothing else of it.
Then I saw the documentary. I was blown away, so I sent an email to Adam and the rest is history. 🙂
Alan Gross: Having Rod assume a considerable amount of the frontman responsibilities also adds degrees of freedom to our playing and singing. Plus, Rod is fun to hang with.
Once you three partnered up, how long was it before you started recording music and ultimately touring? What were some of the highlights and challenges along the way?
Rod: I sent Adam the email in September 2019, and by November we were in the studio recording. Matter of fact… the first time I physically met Adam was at the recording studio.
Adam: I think we actually hooked up for the first time in January 2020, in that improvised studio in Water Valley, Mississippi. But yeah, once we resolved to get together and see if there was any real musical connection, things moved quick. I’ll be honest: I wasn’t sure that Rod could walk into the room after a five-hour drive from Atlanta and groove with Alan and me, since we’re such an unusual duo, with me playing foot-drums as well as harp, Alan on guitar, and no bass player. But the moment Rod walked in and we stood face to face for the first time, the vibe was like family. There was a level of trust and harmony from that first moment.
Rod’s got a gift. But we’re even stronger together, working as a trio. I just wish Sterling were alive to see what we’re doing.
Adam mentioned to me that he’s a fan of our own John Wood Jr.’s work. How did you first discover Braver Angels, Adam?
Adam: It was a live conversation on YouTube called “Race, Policing, Experience and Perspective” featuring Coleman Hughes. The conversation took place on June 22, 2020, three or four weeks after George Floyd had been killed, and America was in an uproar—one that mingled protests, rioting, and various modes of troubled policing, all of it stoked by a media frenzy. I consider myself a reasonably grounded guy, but I had been knocked way off center. Wood and Hughes brought me back, calmly and thoughtfully. Wood in particular has a gift for listening to the spread and finding common ground. It was through Wood that I found Braver Angels.
If Braver Angels had a theme song, it might be your title track, “Come Together.” Tell me more about how this song came about! What inspired it, and how did you hope it would speak to the country’s current civic challenges?
Rod: After rehearsing the songs that we were going to record in the studio for about a month. The night before, I was to leave to go to Water Valley to record our final four songs for the album. Adam sent me a random email with a YouTube link to a song he thought may be potentially good to record. I had to get up at 4 a.m. to make a six-hour drive, so I was praying that I wouldn’t like this song. I clicked the link and I fell in love with it immediately! It took me an hour and a half to write. I think it was divine intervention.
The music kinda reminded me of a Janis Joplin vibe… so I went on YouTube to do some Janis Joplin research and I heard the lyrics in one of her songs (“Little Piece of My Heart”). The word “heart” jumped out at me. The lyrics started to flow.
At that time, 2019, there was a lot of political strife in America—a lot of division—and I guess that was on my mind. I always believe that America is so much better because of our diversity. It’s what makes the USA strong. Divided we are weak… we are stronger together. So let’s “Come Together.”
Each of you—what’s another favorite song of yours off the album? Care to share the origin story?
Rod: “Freedom For My People” was composed by my uncle, Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee, and performed by him and Adam on 125th Street in Harlem in a scene captured by U2 in Rattle and Hum (1988).
“Which of you men, if you had 100 sheep, and lost 1 of them, wouldn’t he leave the 99 in the wilderness, and go after the 1 that was lost, until he found it? When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing” (Luke 15). The point is, the other 99 sheep’s lives are still important… even if one sheep that’s lost is a black sheep.
Gross: “I Feel Good.” Three guys do a solid cover of a classic James Brown tune.
Adam: “I Want You” is a Satan & Adam original; it was the first song that Sterling and I laid down on our first day in a recording studio, back in 1990 and became the lead track on our debut CD, Harlem Blues. Rod spent enough time woodshedding with the Satan & Adam recordings that he got a lot of Sterling’s flavor into his voice, but he also knew how to make the song his own.
When we were about to record it in the studio, I took a big slug of bourbon just before we hit, very much as Sterling and I had baptized a bottle of Stoli vodka in the studio exactly 30 years earlier. And then, with those old ghosts floating through the air, Rod and Alan and I launched into it. And suddenly that sound, and that song, was alive again. A magical moment, like a 30-year time warp.
In “Come Together,” you appeal for listeners to open their minds to one another. I’d love to hear from each band member individually: in the last decade or so, are there ways you’ve opened your minds to the “other side” or shifted your understanding of any particular issues?
Rod: Yes. Being a motivational speaker meeting thousands of diverse people around the nation and world, I’ve come to realize we are more alike than different. It’s all in exposure. I ask people to open their minds to other points of view. Realize that all truths are not true and all villains aren’t bad. You have to do your own research and draw your own conclusion.
Adam: Danged if it wasn’t another Braver Angels conversation moderated by John Wood, Jr. that did the trick: “Systemic Racism & the Data” featuring Wilfred Reilly, Roderick Graham, and John Wood, which took place on July 23, 2020. I was actively seeking new perspectives at that point, trying to find my feet as a liberal centrist who’d always thought of myself as progressive but who was sensing some distance opening up between myself and what Matt Yglesias has termed the Great Awokening.
The dialogue between Reilly and Graham, both of whom were new to me, blew my mind. My innate heterodoxy responded to Reilly’s cheerful and fearless anti-woke statistical critique, but then Graham came on and made his case, sometimes edgily but never angrily—and he impressed me, too. He spoke to that side of my divided soul. And Wood, once again, kept the dialogue civil, provocative, and humane. That was incredibly heartening—his ability to do that in that uniquely pressured revolutionary season. I’ve never forgotten it.
Rod, I heard about your anti-bullying work and would love to learn more about that. Would you explain how anti-bullying became a passion of yours and what shape that work takes?
Rod: I was part owner of my first school touring company, DSA (Diversity Showcase Assemblies). One of my responsibilities was checking the company email, but the one day that I didn’t, a life-changing email came through that I did not get the opportunity to read, and the results were devastating: one of those emails was from a school girl contemplating suicide, and come to find out later on, she did end her life.
That has always remained in my mind because I always felt that was my responsibility, and so I have just been on a quest. I just know about the one that I lost, I don’t know how many I have saved and that fuels me to keep going.
Rod: For me, it’s listening to underlying common pain/feeling or disagreements. Then weave it into a story that rhymes.
Adam: I try to stay away from politics when I write songs! But if you search YouTube for my name and Trump, you will find one snarky, abrasive, sexually suggestive, and utterly tasteless little ditty, an adaptation of the blues classic “Mama Don’t Allow,” uploaded a few days after that big women’s march in DC around the time of his inauguration. There was a lot of energy in the air back then. I hoped it might go viral. Nope.
Do you think artists, as public figures, have a responsibility to behave a certain way, talk about particular issues, etc.?
Rod: Yes! We become accidental role models… whether we like it or not.
Gross: I think everyone—regardless of their political perspective—has a responsibility to respect others. Be nice. We should all talk about that; let’s “Come Together.”
Adam: It’s tricky, because I’m a professor as well as musician, and one of the things I do as a scholar is write and speak about cultural and racial politics. I often try to create dialogues between competing positions, but sometimes my heterodoxy leads me to go “wait a minute,” and remain skeptical—withholding my immediate condemnation of the things everyone leaps to condemn, seeking countervailing evidence, and sometimes doing ideological battle when the principles I value are under attack.
Yet when I make music—when I’m actually making music—I’m always working towards unity, towards brotherhood. Sterling and I did that on the streets of Harlem: creating an image of brotherhood in the midst of a dark season in New York City’s history of racial strife. Sir Rod & The Blues Doctors are about that, an undeniable positive vibe that says, “Hey people, we are the solution to this mess. Come on in and stay awhile.” I’m a fan of beloved community, finally. That’s where my heart is, and my family life.
Can you name any musicians across the aisle? Who are your favorite?
Rod: Frank Sinatra (fave), Kanye West, Gene Simmons.
Adam: I suspect that Cowboy Troy’s politics are somewhat to the right of mine, but I’ll confess to being a fan of his one-off country-rap hit, “I Play Chicken With the Train.”
Do you have any advice for musicians navigating your local music scene?
Rod: Practice, practice, practice… treat practice like part of your musician job!
What’s coming down the pike next for Sir Rod & the Blues Doctors? Are you finally playing live again after a pandemic hiatus? Any plans for a new album or tour that we can plug?
- Keeping It In The Family – Sir Rod & The Blues Doctors LIVE Album
- The Keeping It In The Family Tour – Kicks off on May 20, 2022, in Gulfport, Florida
Do you have any ideas for how Braver Angels could be a positive force in the creative community?
Rod: A Braver Angels Music Festival in 2023. 🙂
Adam: Hell yes! Create that space and they will come. We will, too.