Laying Off the Whiskey

Chattanooga songwriter Roger Alan Wade cleans up himself, and his act, for the follow-up to All Likkered Up

If you know Roger Alan Wade at all, it's probably through Jackass. The Chattanooga singer/songwriter has been performing since the early 1980s, but his relationship with Jackass star Johnny Knoxville—the two are first cousins, or "worst cousins," as Wade describes them—helped get his novelty country songs on the gross-out stunt show and led to Wade's most successful album, 2005's All Likkered Up.

The songs on All Likkered Up—"Psycho Bitch From Hell," "Butt Ugly Slut," and "If You're Gonna Be Dumb, You Gotta Be Tough"—are part of a ribald country-music tradition that dates back at least to Roy Acuff and includes, most notably, David Allan Coe.

"They were exercises for when I wasn't writing meaty songs," Wade says. "We were just having fun and a couple of them ended up in the Jackass movies, so we got loaded and ended up making a record."

One significant difference between All Likkered Up and Coe's underground compilations from the 1970s and early '80s is that Wade kept his songs relatively free of profanity. "I wanted to keep a shred of decency, which is about all I can manage," Wade says. "I did try to do them without cussing. I think I said ‘ass' and ‘whore,' but those are kind of borderline. I never used the F-bomb. They seem like they're profane as hell, but they're just as profane as the listener wants them to be."

There's still some of that juvenile humor on Wade's new album, Stoned Traveler. Wade rewrote Shel Silverstein's "A Boy Named Sue," a hit for Johnny Cash in 1969, as "A Sioux Named Boy." But even the few funny songs, like "Sioux" and "D-R-U-N-K" ("I'm a D-R-U-N-K S.O.B. Tonight"), are morbid and self-lacerating in a way that few pieces on All Likkered Up were. And the sad songs, like the nostalgic "The First Time I Saw Waylon," "Cohare Cohares," and "Loneliness Is My Only True Friend," are statements of nearly unbroken despair. Much of it recalls the darkly poetic early-1970s work of Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, and Townes Van Zandt. Stoned Traveler is the hangover that comes after the party songs on All Likkered Up. So it's not surprising that the 51-year-old Wade was close to rock bottom during the sessions and entered rehab almost immediately after the recordings.

"I got sober and clean about seven months ago," the 51-year-old Wade says. "I've gotten back to taking the time it takes and the solitude it takes, as far as writing things that really matter. I'm still trying to convince myself that it all matters, but it's been a positive thing, laying off the whiskey.... I realized it wasn't going to get no better. It was time to do it."

The title of the new record was supposed to be Stone Traveler, a reference to the Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson. "In his last days, he was back and forth like a maniac, visiting all these places he'd been before," Wade says. "He became a stone traveler. So I was getting the artwork ready for the new album, but I'd gone into rehab and the guy who was doing the art misunderstood it."

Wade doesn't regret that his novelty lyrics overshadow his more serious work. All Likkered Up and his associations with Johnny Knoxville pay the bills—the two have just started a weekly show on the Sirius satellite radio network called Outlaw Country—and provide a built-in audience. But he does want to gradually win over new listeners with his current sober songs.

"I just got where partying was a priority," Wade says. "It didn't take a lot of effort to come up with limericks about overweight, loose women. Now I've got to work my way out of it. I still enjoy those songs and I'll throw them in a show. It's just not the sole focus anymore. Stoned Traveler's got a lot more serious stuff on it. I'm using the same tools, but I want to build a better house. I was just building a bunch of little whorehouses. I don't want to be introspective all the time and do this tortured artist crap. I just want to be honest and make what I'm doing seem worthwhile."