Before they hit the amphitheaters, get up close and personal with today’s country stars

Along with the country headliners coming to D.C.'s outdoor summer venues, smaller country acts are hitting the area club scene. The Post's Chris Richards explains why he thinks you should get up close and personal with Randy Rogers Band at the 9:30 Club. (Jessica Rosgaard & Jonathan Elker/The Washington Post)

Ready for your country music baptism? Come a little closer.

Every summer, Nashville’s biggest names swarm our area’s biggest venues. But as lively as those massive concert extravaganzas can be, the performances occasionally end up feeling distant and impersonal.

That makes this spring a fine time to visit our region’s more intimate venues and get acquainted with the nuances of a great country song. Randy Rogers Band — headlining the 9:30 Club on Feb. 28 — prefers to sing them up close and personal, anyway.

After 13 years on the road, the hard-touring Texas quintet has roughly 2,000 concerts under its belt buckle. The audiences have run the gamut. Last March, Rogers landed a gig opening for George Strait and sang for a horde of 85,000. Last month, the band headlined a theater in Seattle that seats a cozy 500.

“I think it’s easier to convey your emotions to a few people versus thousands,” says Rogers over the phone from a recent tour stop in Oregon. “A lot of the songs that I’ve written are pretty autobiographical. So the closer you are to me, the more likely you’ll be able to tell.”


Randy Rogers Band. (David McClister)

You’ll also be able to hear the terrific rasp in Rogers’s voice — a quality that makes the straight-faced singer sound like he’s always got a big emotion stuck in his throat. Whether he’s using it to suggest broke-down sadness or hungover happiness, the grain of his voice imbues his songs with a palpable sincerity.

You can hear it all over “Trouble,” the group’s sixth studio album, released last year. On “Fuzzy,” Rogers is laughing through his headache after a roaring Saturday night. On “Had to Give That Up Too,” he’s grimacing through his heartache after falling out of love. On “Flash Flood,” he’s bracing for the turbulence of falling back in.

The thing that ties all of these disparate tunes together? They have to work on stage.

Rogers serves up a quote from his great Texas forbearer, Ray Wylie Hubbard: “‘Be careful what you write because you could be playing it for 25 years,’” Rogers says. “I’m serious about that when we go into the studio. . . . We’re a live, touring band. So we don’t want to cut anything we don’t feel good about getting up and doing.”

That makes Rogers a rare breed in Nashville — a mainstream country singer that cuts songs for the stage instead of the radio.

“We stick to our guns,” Rogers says. “I think it’s probably cost us in certain aspects of our career. But I also know it’s why we have a career.”

* * *

Randy Rogers Band isn’t the only worthy country act scheduled to grace our nightclub circuit this spring.

Last year, Brandy Clark’s debut album, “12 Stories,” proved her to be one of the finest songwriting talents in country music. Now, Clark is scheduled to make her Washington-area debut opening for Sugarland belter Jennifer Nettles at the Lincoln Theatre on Valentine’s Day. If you don’t have a date and need a good cry, Clark’s heartbroken songs might be the perfect thing to kickstart your tear ducts.

On Feb. 21, Strathmore hosts Josh Turner, one of the finest baritones in the genre. Still touring behind his chart-topping 2012 album “Punching Bag,” this gig qualifies as a second victory lap.

A few big-name veterans are expected to visit the region’s smaller rooms this spring. Travis Tritt will perform at the Birchmere on Feb. 5 and Rosanne Cash headlines the George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium on Feb. 14.

And then there are Washington’s really small rooms.

Hill Country Bar-B-Q in Penn Quarter and Gypsy Sally’s — a new nightspot in Georgetown — both host rising country acts with great regularity. Chicago’s Robbie Fulks will support his brainy 2013 album, “Gone Away Backward,” at Gypsy Sally’s on Feb. 11. The Whiskey Gentry, a brazen, bluegrassy Kentucky group unafraid of covering Procol Harum, will perform at Hill Country on March 1.

And if there’s one country star out there who’s capable of making a massive room feel tiny, it’s Kacey Musgraves. The country newcomer’s intimate and indelible debut, “Same Trailer Different Park,” stands as the best album of 2013 in any genre. Musgraves opens for Lady Antebellum and Kip Moore at the Patriot Center on Feb. 21.

Five others to watch

Kanye West at First Mariner Arena on Feb. 14.Nothing says, “I love you” quite like, “I bought you tickets to the greatest pop music spectacle of our time.” Do not miss the second lap of West’s “Yeezus” tour when it lands in Baltimore on Valentine’s Day.

Courtney Barnett at DC9 on Feb. 19.She sounds like she just rolled out of bed, but listen to what the woman is saying. This rising Australian rock singer’s lyrics are as sloppy, funny, deadpan and as casually smart as her sense of melody.

Ex Hex at Black Cat on March 5.Local guitar wizard Mary Timony didn’t wait long after the demise of her indie-supergroup Wild Flag to form her already-excellent new band, Ex Hex. So don’t slack on your air guitar practice, either.

Lorde at Echostage on March 20.This New Zealand teen is certainly the biggest pop sensation of the moment, but is she the future of pop music, too? That should be easier to ascertain after seeing Lorde in person at her Washington debut.

Kraftwerk at the 9:30 Club on April 4.These electronic music pioneers have always given us something beautiful to listen to, but on this tour, Kraftwerk is also promising something to gawk at — a series of innovative 3-D projections.

Best Bets:Chris Richards picks 10 can't-miss shows.

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Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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