M 897 Artist Spotlight: April 2013
M897 Michigan Artist Spotlight: Root Doctor
--Seminal Lansing-based blues band is in the M
897 Artist Spotlight for April 2013
Story by LCC Radio Staff Reporter Karen Hopper
“We are a great blues band, if you’ll excuse me saying that,” says Root Doctor organist, keyboard player, and back-up vocalist Mike Skory. He describes the seminal Lansing band as “The Allman Brothers meets the Temptations” and says, “We really believe in having people dance, so a lot of our original material, you can shake a leg to it, and that’s what we want. We all did grow up in Michigan, and Motown music has just been infused into us. It’s like blood. We can’t escape it even when we try.”
Root Doctor got its start in 1989 through the Lansing open mic scene. Original members were Skory (Hammond organ and keyboards), lead vocalist and frontman Freddie Cunningham, bass guitarist James Williams, Dick Rosemont on drums and Scott Allman on guitar. Skory left the band for many years due to work commitments but returned four years ago, bringing Bill Malone with him. The current lineup consists of original members Freddie Cunningham, James Williams, and Mike Skory. Bill Malone on guitar and Bobby Gardner on drums round out the lineup.
20 years of changes
Skory calls the music business “A lot more entrepreneurial” than it used to be. “When you play a job, it’s very rare that you rely on someone else to get the crowd for you. Each band and musician has to market themselves. You’re in a constant wave of marketing.”
Skory says that Root Doctor benefits from some of the new tools available to musicians--and he’s not talking about Facebook or Autotune (though, Root Doctor does have a Facebook page) Instead, he’s speaking as a businessman. In addition to touring and playing local gigs, Root Doctor relies on iTunes and CDbaby for additional revenue.
Also, “keyboards are lighter than they used to be,” Skory jokes.
All of the band members in Root Doctor are also vocalists. “The other guys in the band, they’ve been lead singers in their own right, so our harmonies come together and are strong,” says Skory.
But “Fred’s voice is the Root Doctor. He’s got a one in a million voice. No one sings like that anymore. Honest to god--I don’t know anyone,” says Skory, whose own voice brims with admiration when discussing Cunningham.
“Fred’s a great blues shouter,” says Skory, “but also a great ballad singer.”
A crowd-pleasing setlist and active fanbase
Skory describes Root Doctor as a no-drama band, but their show is not without a sense of theatrics and tension-building. While their setlist varies according to the particular gig, typically, they start a set with a shuffle, sans Cunningham.They move into “The Blues Will Take Care of You,” a track off of their first album, and then Cunningham is introduced. From there, says Skory, “we keep it upbeat.”
And the crowd in Lansing? They like to dance. Skory wouldn’t call them rowdy, “but they do like to shake it. They’ll be out dancing pretty quick. Doesn’t take much!”
“Toward the end of the set, we get into the crowd pleasers.” These songs include “Dark Eyes,” a “big sounding tune” off of their most recent CD, Joy.
“Detroit City goes over real good. It was written by a local musician called Jeff Baldori,” says Skory. They also play an Allman Brothers cover, “Soul Shine,” that is popular with fans.
Except they don’t call them fans. They call them friends. Root Doctor has been active for more than twenty years, and their friends are loyal. Skory says local fans help the band promote their events and albums.
Root Doctor may be their own biggest fans. “Ya gotta be, don’t ya?” laughs Skory. But when Skory sings Cunningham’s praises or raves about the local songwriters who appear on Root Doctor recordings, what comes across is far from ego and bravado. It’s all about joy, enthusiasm, and a love for the music.
Tapping local resources for the next album
“Lansing seems to be a very creative place right now; people writing and playing their own songs,” says Skory. And Root Doctor takes advantage of all of that creative energy and the wealth of talent they find in the community.
Detroit City is by Baldori. Dave Matchette contributed harmonica to “Dark Eyes.” Horns were by Those Delta Rhythm Kings. They’ve tapped Holt-based lyricist Lisa Bonotto to pen many of the songs on their upcoming album, due out near the beginning of the summer season. Jason Strotheide from the Hoopties is contributing a song to the upcoming album. And Glenn Brown of GBP Studios in East Lansing will record their next album, as he has recorded all of their previous albums.
When Root Doctor finds themselves in need of a new
band member, they don’t need auditions. It’s simply a matter of
picking a friend. “People just kind of appear! There’s not a science
to it,” says Skory. “We know all the musicians in town, so they’ve
kind of already auditioned.”