The state of Florida is known for many things—some kitschy, some historical, some just plain shameful (hanging chads, anyone?)—but it’s safe to say that the Sunshine State can claim a certain form of music as its own.
It’s part Americana, part folk, part rock, part island escape, part troubadour-ish. The style of music that Gamble Rogers played throughout the state and around the South encompassed so many other musicians’ styles, it’s a bit of a mystery why he wasn’t a star like other Floridian musicians, like Tom Petty or all the Skynyrd boys, or Jimmy Buffett or even Gram Parsons.
Local journalist Bruce Horovitz has written Gamble Rogers: A Troubadour’s Life, the first book to take an in-depth look at the Winter Park native James Gamble Rogers IV, folk artist and a man of the people. Some of these people weren’t real, but characters interwoven through the stories Rogers would tell between the sings he played at various St. Augustine venues, particularly Tradewinds Lounge, that den of delight depending on which night you go.
Horovitz’s biography includes accounts gleaned from interviewing many of Rogers’ friends and family, most of whom are still in the area. The singer-songwriter was destined to be an architect like his father, but the notion of traveling around, singing and telling stories, took hold instead. After a stint up north with various folk groups in the ’60s, he came back down home. Rogers wasn’t committed to any career, but slowly, he resuscitated folk music, which by the ’70s had been electrocuted by Dylan and became passé. Rogers put his own tilt on old standards, many of which he’d heard as a boy, spending summers on a farm in the Appalachian foothills. To fill the gap between songs, and to amuse himself and the audience, he began to spin yarns about peculiar folks who did the darnedest things in the fictional county of Oklawaha.
Rogers took his masterful finger-picking guitar playing and nonstop commentary to public radio, appearing often on NPR’s popular All Things Considered program. Soon he had loyal followers outside Florida and the South—yet still never the multitudes that spring forth with superstars. Perhaps it was his folksy, aw-shucks approach to music—and life itself—that kept his audiences narrowed to the kinds of listeners who just wanted reassurance that the world wasn’t moving too fast.
Rogers was known to be honest, compassionate and courageous, courteous in a Southern gentlemanly way. He helped struggling musicians get a leg up in the business, getting them gigs along the folk circuit. His good deeds were often unheralded, however, because Gamble Rogers was not one to blow his own horn.
Horovitz spares no details as he writes of Rogers’ final good deed, that of trying to save a drowning man off Flagler Beach in October 1991. He’d been camping at the beach, at a site now designated Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area. A girl told him her dad
was drowning in the rough water and Gamble, who didn’t even swim, rushed in to help the stranger. He died in the effort, and those who knew him say it was a fitting, if tragic, death. The man who gave so much to others has now been properly documented in Bruce Horovitz’s insightful and, yes, loving biography.