Tuesday, March 9 was a night of thick snow, jammed highways and, in the end, a disappointed audience awaiting the arrival of Rocky Votolato.
The crowd wanted to hear the prolific singer/songwriter's new material and old cuts from treasures like The Brag and Cuss. But they never saw Votolato.
They didn't know he was in the midst of a snowstorm between Flagstaff and Albuquerque, N.M.
He didn't die. Nothing like that. But on the way to the show the 33-year-old lost control of the steering wheel, spiraling 60 mph in front of a semi-truck and eventually crashing into a ditch just off Interstate 40. The night's gig, obviously, was canceled.
"It was a miracle because there wasn't a scratch on the car and we weren't hurt," Votolato says, laughing in hindsight. "Remind me to never tour the West Coast during the winter. We hit a snowstorm almost every day."
But Votolato's songwriting will take him to the West again and again, given that his newest album, True Devotion, is a win for Barsuk Records, which released it in February. It's a semi-autobiographical Folk-centered collection, one that basically says, "Hi, I'm Rocky, and this is a snapshot of my life during a three-year hiatus."
"I always try to walk this line between autobiography and fiction," he says of True Devotion. "I feel like there's still some arc to it; it's not a journal entry. I think that's important for artists to do — to keep it real and honest. But I like pulling inspiration from literature and stories."
What do we find on the new record? In a way, a poet wielding an acoustic guitar, his warm storytelling lifted by an innocuous trifecta of drums, keys and strings.
"It's more of a concept album than anything I've ever done, in that it's a story," Votolato says. "It's a real narrative about someone who's lost — extremely lost — and confused in the beginning of the album and then moving through some of those issues."
The final product gave him a sense of renewal, lifting him from a dark rabbit hole where balancing affections for his wife, children and craft was a struggle. Writing and recording alone in the studio made for potent self-examination, Votolato says.
"I've dealt with depression my whole life, and I don't think I was totally aware of it," he says. "A lot of what I was doing during this period of isolation. … I was trying to get to a place where I wasn't so mentally sick, where I could head back out on tour and try to give this another go.
"I just got to a place where I wasn't perusing my music. I couldn't write music for a really long time."
That was rough and completely foreign to Votolato. True Devotion is his 10th record. His Indie Rock band Waxwing broke up in 2005, and his solo career began around 1999.
"I've always been prolific, and I've written hundreds of songs," he says, "but I think I really got to a place where I was taking that for granted. Because when it was stripped away, I realized what a gift it was to be able to communicate that way."
Votolato found his muse again when he wrote the sun-setting "Lucky Clover Coin," and he finished True Devotion after a stint in a home studio or, as he calls it, "the vacuum."
“This was different for me, because it was the first time I was involved on the engineering side and on the mixing side," he says. "I was doing more of the actual recording, getting the sounds of the guitar, the vocal takes. ... It was kind of an eye-opener for me.”
He gives a nod of appreciation to friend and string guru Casey Foubert's engineering know-how. He usually mans the studio, but, Votolato says, "Once he showed me what to do — he made sure I wasn't totally screwing it up — then I was able to work on the recordings alone, which really opened it up for me to just explore.
"You just really learned to trust your own intuition and that's what I think I really got out of recording alone — just learning to trust myself when it came to making decisions about the way things sounded or what was the best take. And it's fun! I sort of feel like I was painting a picture."
In the wake of True Devotion, Votolato played several “living room” gigs. Despite that near-death accident in Arizona, he's touring again … with an iPhone and acoustic guitar in tow.
ROCKY VOTOLATO performs Thursday at the Southgate House with Brooke Waggoner. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.