The Rusty Rockers are anything but rusty, proving their worth at venues like the Black Oak and Thunder Valley casinos and for the California National Guard at the Stockton Armory.
What began as a two-piece band out of Rail Road Flat in 2012 with founders Steve Johnson and Terry Cooper has grown to a sextet that was voted best band the past four years in a valley publication.
The members, all over the age of 60, include Johnson of Mokelumne Hill on lead vocals, Cooper of San Andreas on lead guitar, Lee Bickford of Columbia on bass, Rich Church of Valley Springs on drums, Joe Bellamy of Pine Grove playing keyboard and Michael Hopkins on pedal steel guitar. Barry Duncan of the band Blow Daddy plays saxophone occasionally.
The group has come a long way since its first gig at a Relay for Life event in 2012, but the members still enjoy performing at fundraisers. The men agree on their favorite causes to support: veterans.
Cooper has performed since the age of 8.
“My dad would turn over a wash basin and I would stand on that to play the stand-up bass in his country band called the Rhythm Riders,” said Cooper. “We would play in all the dance halls in Mountain Ranch, Mokelumne Hill and San Andreas.”
Though he admits to stepping away from country music when Credence Clearwater Revival was big on the scene, he eventually returned to his country roots.
“I like the old country music; there is meaning to the songs,” he said.
Cooper is self-taught and began adding 1950s and ’60s music to his repertoire over the past 10 years.
“I enjoy seeing people with smiles on their faces singing the words to the tunes along with us, and to have people dancing to the music,” he said.
Johnson discovered his musical talents in 2006, when he began taking piano lessons.
“Soon I realized singing was my real strength,” he said.
By 2007, he was performing solo shows at convalescent homes, Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, wine tasting rooms and private parties.
Both avid motorcyclists, Cooper and Johnson first met on a ride to Lake Alpine. According to Johnson, soon after that fateful ride, the two met at a mutual friend’s house; Cooper had his guitar and Johnson brought his keyboard.
“We just connected,” Cooper said.
Johnson does most of the band’s promotional work and said “over the years the gigs have been steadily increasing in number and venue size.”
When not performing with the Rusty Rockers, Johnson still has his one man show, Singing Steve Johnson. The transition from one-man band to a full ensemble brought its own obstacles.
“It’s a much more involved relationship between musicians,” said Johnson, indicating the intricacies of timing in tunes, key signatures and more.
Both Johnson and Cooper strive for that moment when songs come together so perfectly they “hit that sweet spot” when players feel a kind of euphoria.
Though most often just the core of the band performs, Johnson enjoys when venues are large enough for the rockers to add musicians.
“A steel guitar adds to the country western music … It’s phenomenal. When you add a sax to ’50s and ’60s music, well, boom, what a sound.”
Cooper enjoys music with a message, whereas Johnson favors the “old-time crooners.” He says his favorite song to sing is “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis Presley.
“It’s always been my feeling,” said Johnson, “the key to success is surrounding yourself with talented people with the same goals. Then the sky is the limit because everything else just falls into place.”
Cooper agreed with Johnson’s success theory and advises youths who want to make music a career to “be serious about gigs, perform in a professional manner, dress in a professional manner and to take each job seriously. My dad always taught me to do it right or don’t do it at all.”
Johnson’s advice for performers to remember is, “It’s not about you; it’s not about the band,” he said, adding it’s about the people the band is entertaining. “This is especially true at fundraising events; you have to remember why you are performing and not get too caught up in your own ego. You have to put that aside and keep it in check. But most of all, have a good time!”
The Rusty Rockers have a full schedule of performances planned for the upcoming months, including a show at the Sutter Creek Theatre in Sutter Creek on Saturday, May 13. The band will also play in Mokelumne Hill from 5:30 to 7 p.m. July 14 as part of the Calaveras County Arts Council’s annual Music in the Parks summer concert series.
For more information on the Rusty Rockers, visit therustyrockers.com.