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Roth releases Van Halen bluegrass tribute

David Lee Roth returns with a new sound on ‘Strummin' With the Devil’
/ Source: The Associated Press

The guys in his band have changed, but David Lee Roth hasn't — too much.

The blond mane and leather pants are gone from his days fronting the seminal rock group Van Halen in the 1980s.

But Roth's boisterous personality is still intact. He was in town recently to promote his latest project, a bluegrass tribute to his former band called “Strummin' With the Devil: The Southern Side of Van Halen” that comes out Tuesday, and he seemed every bit the David Lee Roth of old — a wisecracking cross between Robin Williams and Wolfman Jack.

“This album has already been roundly accepted by a number of communities,” he told The Associated Press in an interview at his Nashville hotel on Friday. “It's a familiar tome already. You know the words, you know every vowel, every high kick, every hoot and holler, every bell and whistle that goes along with this music.

“It's been 27 summers — like the way I put that? (explosive laughter). That's metric for years. Sounds like less. Sounds thinner (more loud laughter). Easier to digest, like 'I'm watching what I eat as opposed to I'm on a diet' (laughter). I venerate the language also, sir (laughter).”

Anyone who listened to rock radio in the 1980s knows Roth's story. He emerged as Van Halen's party-loving lead singer in the late '70s and stayed with the group until splitting on less-than-amicable terms in 1985 for a solo career that started strong and then petered out.

To this day, rock fans still debate whether Van Halen was better under Roth or his successor, Sammy Hagar.

More recently, Roth took on the daunting task of replacing Howard Stern on a syndicated morning show for CBS Radio. His show was canceled in April after three months.

In a posh hotel suite with the bed still unmade and empty beer bottles on the end tables, the 51-year-old Bloomington, Ind., native picked up a guitar and played a country-flavored tune he said he wrote when he was 9 and discussed his appreciation for 1970s country-tinged rock acts like Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

“Someone asked me ‘Are you imitating Bon Jovi doing this?,’” Roth cracked, referring to Bon Jovi's recent country hit, “Who Says You Can't Go Home.” “I said, ‘Wise up, man, I'm imitating the Eagles.’”

The tribute album began with Roth deciding he wanted to cut an acoustic record and putting out the word to some of Nashville's finest pickers, including Blue Highway, the John Cowan Band, Mountain Heart, Larry Cordle and David Grisman. He said he wanted the album to be a credible interpretation of Van Halen, rather than a tongue-in-cheek exhibition.

‘White boys playing reggae’“Nine times out of 10 when people do a tribute album or tribute songs for somebody, it's what I call ‘white boys playing reggae,’” Roth said. “They know they can't, we know they can't, so they sing like they can't and play like they can't. They gently make fun of the idiom or sing in a false accent.

“My only real insistence was that we reinvent the songs completely. Take it way past where we found it to the degree you may not even recognize the song until the vocals come in, so other ingredients of the music present themselves that you may not have been consciously aware of before.”

As odd a concept as the record might seem, it mostly works. Hard rock classics like “Panama” and “And the Cradle Will Rock ...” retain the energy of early Van Halen, but with mandolins and fiddles instead of electric guitars and drums. The first single, “Jamie's Cryin',” takes a new, mournful tone with the acoustic instrumentation.

Roth sings on only two tracks: “Jump” and “Jamie's Cryin'.” The singer who made a career of leaping into the air on stage and surrounding himself with scantily clad women in his videos didn't want to go over the top.

“I'll never convince you that I'm either a cowboy or black. Those two songs stuck out as the most legitimate,” for his vocal style, Roth said.

If he had sang on the others, “Well ... white boys playing reggae.”