Roger Clyne is probably the best songwriter you've never heard of. His songs strike a perfect balance between witty and mournful, using cowboy imagery and silky smooth melody to spin tall tales about love, loss and all the drinks that come with them.
Between his breakthrough band, The Refreshments and his current band The Peacemakers, the Arizona guitar-slinger has penned 11 full-length albums with the consistent quality one expects from the likes of Tom Petty.
Yet Clyne is still probably best-known for penning the theme to the long-running animated sitcom King of the Hill, a song most can hum, but few can credit to him.
"That's kind of the story of our life," Clyne told BW in a phone interview. "We're the world's most famous unknown band. It's the twilight zone every day."
But that's the inevitable result of writing music totally outside the zeitgeist. The Refreshments hit in the mid-'90s, at the height of the grunge movement. And though Clyne's lyrics touched on grunge-endorsed themes like frustration and nihilism, his whimsical outlook didn't match up. Nor did the tunes he set them to. The Refreshments were without doubt a rock band, but not in the way Nirvana or Zeppelin or even Nickleback are rock bands. The Arizona quartet sounded a bit like a Jimmy Buffet/Husker Du collaboration, an approach that confounded many listeners. The closest comparison was their fellow Arizonans, The Gin Blossoms, whose poppish "rock" also struggled with the rigid genrefication of the era. Together the two bands came to define "The Tempe sound." But even The Gin Blossoms were emotionally darker, more instrumentally aggressive and far less cowboy, than the boozy que-sera-sera approach of The Refreshments.
"We were definitely almost antithetical to the grunge movement and we weren't really accepted by the mainstream because of it," Clyne said. "We were more of a celebration band than an angst band. But it was cool to be unique. Cool for us even if we weren't cool."
Clyne said his style of juxtaposing frustrated lyrics with upbeat cheerful music was something he learned from The Smiths, a band they also sound nothing like.
"Ultimately it's good music to drink beer to," Clyne laughed.
The Refreshments had a hit in 1996 with "Banditos," a song about gleeful bandits sneaking across the Mexican border with starship captain Jean-Luc Picard's I.D., "cause he [the border guard] don't speak English anyway."
Too light-hearted for grunge and not aggressive enough for the punk resurgence that followed, The Refreshments quietly put out two more albums, then quit their label before it could quit them and went their separate ways.
But rather than call it a day, Clyne and Refreshments drummer Paul Naffah recruited ex-Gin Blossom Scott Johnson and started over with a new band, The Peacemakers.
That was 10 years ago. And they haven't stopped touring since.
"Going from being on MTV's 120 Minutes to playing in tiny clubs, it's not an easy blow for the ego to swallow," said Clyne. "But I'm more of a fan of counting blessings. We're not a big band but we're still a band."
Clyne wears humble well. In the last decade, The Peacemakers have put out eight full-length albums and earned fans with the sort of loyalty generally reserved for hometown sports teams.
"We really should make jerseys," Clyne joked. "For home and away."
He also started his own boutique tequila brand, Mexican Moonshine, which Sammy Hagar told him was the world's second-best tequila, right behind his own, Cabo Wabo. Clyne is especially proud of his hooch's ecologically sustainable production practices, a rarity in tequila production, but something he hopes to see catch on. The band can't sell the tequila at the merch table due to interstate commerce laws, but Clyne doesn't mind.
"It's a giant learning curve," Clyne said of making Mexican Moonshine. "I'm in way over my head, but it's fun."
The other thing that Clyne has worn well over the last decade is maturity. The skipping towards oblivion approach of his earlier material has evolved. The clever lyrical irreverence remains, but an earnest gratitude has been layered on top with songs like, "Maybe We Should Fall in Love," and "Hello New Day."
"I took pride in being a smartass," Clyne says of his songs for The Refreshments. "I exercised my power in challenging other things. My world was much smaller then. I had never experienced what love was and I hadn't become a father. I'd never been an American businessperson. My world was small and it was easy to find Goliaths. And it sure was easy to throw that stone."
When he pens an album, Clyne forms it around a central idea or attitude that he wants the album to embody. For his latest work, No More Beautiful World, he said he was shooting for the honesty of disillusionment.
"I don't mean disillusionment to be a bad thing. It can be an awakening for a truth. And I think an awakening for a truth can be really important for a human life," said Clyne. "I'm a man now who's past 40. And I need to be honest. I didn't want it to be a comic strip."
Disillusionment may not seem like it matches up with Clyne's newfound positivity, and Clyne agrees.
"Sometimes I preach most what I most need to learn," he said. "I don't embody that positivity 365 days a year. Some of those songs were trying to get myself to learn and practice what I preach."
But if that split, that drive for self-improvement is what's produced such great songs for the last 15 years, let's all raise a shot of tequila to hoping Clyne never learns a damned thing.