Roosevelt Collier

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The born-into-it sacred steel player talks about his mission to touch and heal people through music ahead of Oskars Blues’ CANiversary

The Oak Room | Oskar Blues 17th annual CANiversary | November 16

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By Sarah Baranauskas

“I first got introduced to blues — like real blues — when I was in ninth grade,” Roosevelt Collier said, during a recent interview with The Marquee on the phone from his home outside Orlando, Florida. “My friend gave me this tape and was like, ‘Yo, you have got to listen to this.’ I didn’t know what it was,” he continued. “It just had a big ol’ piece of tape on the side of the cassette that said ‘SRV.’ So, I went home that night, put it in my tape player, and the first thing I heard was this guy ripping the guitar. I was like, ‘What…the hell…is this?’ I was floored. I still remember that night, I stayed up all night, just playing the tape and learning the music. So, the next day at school, I was like, ‘Yo yo! ‘Who is this? What is SRV?’ And my friend was like, ‘That’s Stevie Ray Vaughan.’ I was like, “Stevie Ray who? Well, anyway, I need every tape that you have!”

At that point in his life, Collier had already been playing pedal steel, in the sacred steel tradition, at his family’s church, the House of God Church in Perrine, Fla. But he immediately felt the kinship between the blues and gospel and, inspired by Stevie Ray, began to expand his musical palette.

“Gospel is the base of just about every genre of American music,” Collier reflected. “Especially the blues. The one thing that’s different is the lyrics. Plus, with our family, being kind of rebels, we were already playing blues and funk in church. So, it felt natural to me to start playing around town in local blues nights.”

Most musicians have a story of when they first felt the pull to their instrument of choice. But, in Collier’s case, it wasn’t about being exposed to, and then intrigued by, the pedal steel. He was simply born into it. “It was something that was more of a calling,” he said. “Almost like I didn’t have a choice. I don’t want to say it was given to me, but my family played this instrument at church. It was embedded in me.”

Collier comes from a family steeped in music. His mother was a singer and, after the sudden loss of his father, when Collier was only a baby, his three uncles stepped in to help raise him. Those uncles just happen to be Alvin Lee, Derrick Lee and Keith Lee, founders of the legendary sacred steel ensemble The Lee Boys. Touring alongside his uncles and cousins in the band from a relatively young age, Collier learned the ins-and-outs of being a touring band, from managing the business side, to working a crowd.

In the years since, Collier has shared stages as a special guest with The Allman Brothers, Umphrey’s McGee, Los Lobos and The Del McCoury Band, just to name a very few. But it was only last year that Collier felt the call to release his first solo album. “I felt like, once I was able to get my first album out, it would help me establish myself more as an artist, not just Roosevelt the gunslinger, you know?”

Produced by Snarky Puppy’s Michael League and recorded live in the studio over three days, Exit 16 is a biography told through pedal steel. It is also the number of the exit on the Florida turnpike that leads to Collier’s childhood home.

Exit 16 is really a story about who I am, where I’m from and where I’m going,” he described. “I have been infused with a lot of genres but I didn’t want to put it all on one album. I wanted to tell a story. Since my base is the gospel, as well as the blues and funk, you’re going to hear a lot of stuff in that direction. But then there’s a transition on that last song, ‘Spike,’ which is more edgy. That transitions into where I’m going — the other elements of me that will be on the next record.”

Chapter two of Collier’s story is expected next year.

In the meantime, Collier has his sights set on Oskar Blues’ CANiversary celebration, which he will headline this month in Longmont. The CANiversary, as the name implies celebrates 17 years of Oskar Blues, putting it in the can. “Don’t come sitting down, because we’re going to dance!” Collier exclaimed. “Definitely expect a lot of getting downtime, you know? Everybody get ready. It’s going to be a throw down, for sure.”

Even when he’s throwing down, and the audience is getting down, Collier’s spiritual roots are fixed firmly in his musical ethos: “My whole mission, after all the fun is said and done, is to touch and heal people through music. That is in every set, everywhere I go. I’m always looking to heal or touch someone through music, even if it’s just for an hour or two. There’s so much madness [in the world]. But that’s why they say that music is the language that everybody understands. I don’t care what world you’re from — what planet, what race, what ethnic background, what gender — doesn’t matter. The common language we all have is music.”

The Oak Room | Oskar Blues 17th annual CANiversary | November 16

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