About the song: Almost There

Oddly enough, the title track of the Almost There album was originally sparked by a song it sounds nothing like: “You Really Got Me,” by the Kinks. I love figuring out fresh, unusual arrangements of classic songs, and I’d done that with “You Really Got Me”—instead of the speedy, sliding power chords that Dave Davies played with the Kinks, I worked out an alternate version in dropped-D tuning that was a blast to play on acoustic guitar. One day I was fooling around with the riff from my Kinks arrangement and wound up slowing it way down and totally changing the rhythm, and suddenly I had a new groove that became the starting point for “Almost There.”

(By the way, messing around with another song is a great way to spark ideas for your own songs. In fact I wrote a lesson for Acoustic Guitar about this subject. Here’s an excerpt.)

Anyway, I started singing over my new guitar groove, and something like the opening lines popped out: “Almost certain that I’m almost there / Almost across the line.” I liked the repetition of almost and began collecting phrases with the word: almost heaven, almost cut my hair, almost famous, almost fine, etc., with no idea how or why I might use them. Having no idea is key—at this initial stage, the cardinal rule of songwriting, for me, is to avoid having any ideas or judgments about what I’m doing. As I like to tell my students: Write first, think later.

Eventually a character began to emerge in these lyrics, a well-meaning guy who keeps trying but doesn’t fully deliver on anything (isn’t he a bit like you and me?). A story was forming. At this point I shared what I had with Wendy Ramsay, my partner in crime, and she came up with the chorus melody, which brought a kind of ’60s grooviness to the song that I loved. She also had the idea of overlaying a bit of the melody of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” played on the flute, over my rhythm guitar; live, we sometimes perform the song this way.

JPR and Wendy Ramsay at the Almost There sessions. Photo by Juan Junco.

JPR and Wendy Ramsay at the Almost There sessions. Photo by Juan Junco.

In terms of the songwriting, the last piece to fit in was the bridge (“The time is coming…”), which takes a number of unexpected harmonic leaps. I have no clue where those came from—they are purely instinctual. It was a fun, sort of mathematical challenge figuring out how to navigate back to the chorus and the original key from this twisty interlude.

The core album track was recorded live in the studio, with me on acoustic guitar and vocal, Josh Dekaney on percussion, John Dancks on upright bass, and Wendy singing and playing flute. Later, back in my home studio, Wendy layered a couple of clarinet parts to create the sweet instrumental harmonies on the bridge and ending.

We often open shows with this song, and the groove never fails to make me smile. Ooh yeah.

ALMOST THERE

Words by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, music by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers and Wendy Ramsay

I am almost certain that I’m almost there
Almost across the line
I am almost wishing that I cut my hair
Guess I’m looking almost fine
Check it

If this is almost heaven, then I’m almost dead
Off to a better place
I could be almost famous for the life I led
Or vanish without a trace
Check it
Ooh yeah

Anytime you call me you will find me standing by
Any situation I will almost be your guy
Check it

Almost told you how I almost feel
Almost every night
Sang my confession on a reel-to-reel
Almost got it right
Check it
Ooh yeah

Anytime you call me you will find me standing by
Any situation I will almost be your guy

The time is coming when I’ll cross that line
With the banners waving, the sun will shine
As I raise the cup, celebrating the day
Balloons are rising in the azure sky
In the blur of faces I catch your eye and then
All the other voices fade away
Away

Anytime you call me you will find me standing by
Any situation I will almost be your guy
Any way you want me
I will try to satisfy
Anything you ask me
You know this is my reply
Ooh yeah

“Understated raw beauty”: Minor 7th reviews Almost There

“If you’ve ever doubted that music creates happiness, this top-notch CD will quash your reservations: Almost There will raise even the darkest spirits, even when the lyrics depict life’s sadness. You will be compelled, as Pepper Rodgers, a triple threat as singer, guitar player, and lyricist, sings on jaunty ‘Eight Days in January': ‘I found this little tune, so freaking cheerful I can’t help but sing along.’

“The album of twelve songs of roots rock/blues/folk has an understated raw beauty; Rodgers’ spare, tasteful guitar and banjo are given inspired accompaniment by Wendy Ramsay on flute/clarinet/accordion/backup vocals, Josh Dekaney on percussion, and John Dancks on upright bass. Pepper Rodgers was a grand prize winner in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, and this varied collection shows why. Every song is a winner, thick with evocative lines—’a crunch of gravel in the noonday still….I hang my soul to the wind’ (‘The Wrong Way Home’), strong melodies (‘Don’t Think That I Can Say Goodbye’), powerful grooves (‘Almost There’), and wickedly good, subtle, understated guitar playing (‘Closer’). Especially among the mostly uptempo pieces, the slow, bluesy ‘Somehow’ is an absolute stunner.

“Pepper Rodgers would undoubtedly be much more widely known had he not been busy focusing on teaching and music journalism (he’s a founding editor of Acoustic Guitar magazine) but this grievous oversight is one that Almost There should go a long way to correct. In ‘Turn Away’ he sings: ‘If I sing this song for you, will you sing with me?’ You bet you will—this CD will hold you hostage.”
Céline Keating, Minor 7th

“Mind candy for the listener”: Almost There review

Syracuse New Times Almost There review header

“Singer, songwriter, musician, and music journalist Rodgers is clever in his songwriting on Almost There. While on one side he is ultimately revealing, he also does well to dwell on the universal themes beneath the personal stories, finding the common ground between the artist and listener. Lyrics consistently turn phrases that catch a curious ear. . . .

“Musicians on the album are perfect choices. Rodgers’ guitar work is endlessly engaging and Josh Dekaney lends his always-prime percussion. John Dancks holds steady on bass and Rani Arbo provides fiddle and backup vocals. But the truly understated star is Wendy Ramsay, who contributes flute, clarinet, accordion, and glockenspiel as well as tender backup vocals that provide the kind of harmonies that cause chills. The disc is a trip through styles and lyrical themes, but all provide mind candy for the listener to chew on.”
—Jessica Novak, Syracuse New Times

Trampled by Turtles interview

It’s easy to say that it’s a bluegrass band because of the lineup, and there’s a lot of influence, for sure, but in bluegrass circles I don’t think anybody is calling us a bluegrass band, which is cool. We just try to be ourselves and that’s it.—Dave Simonett

Last summer I met up with Simonett, the guitarist and main songwriter for the string band Trampled By Turtles, for a backstage interview at the Newport Folk Festival. The story is now posted on the Acoustic Guitar website.