As he now approaches his 70th year, Michael Kim Roos has been a musical underground man his entire adult life, writing hard hitting, tough-as-nails original songs for the better part of 50 years—following his own drummer, making passionate music without compromise, because he has to, because he cannot imagine himself not making music. While supporting himself and his young family as an English prof at a major Midwestern university, he quietly honed his craft, coming out of the shadows for occasional public performances at small venues on campus or as far away as Nashville’s Bluebird Café, but never straying from his commitment to producing clear-eyed songs from the Bob Dylan-Bruce Springsteen-John Prine school of music.
Only when he was ready, with a basic eight-track home studio set-up and his musical and vocal skills at a sufficient polish, he recorded his first album in 1985, Kangaroo, a synthesizer and guitar-based song cycle on an artist’s life, released on vinyl in 1986, and still prized by collectors. It ranges from the searing guitar and surrealism of “4th of July in the Asylum” to the introspective harmonica-driven folk-rock of “Stay Alive.” Throughout, he sang like his life depended on it.
He continued writing songs in the late 80s, and in 1990, as his marriage disintegrated, he spent a six-month sabbatical from teaching to hawk his music in Nashville, making weekly appearances in the clubs around the music city, and eventually getting several songs placed with a publisher. A highlight of his time there was being selected for a Songwriters Sunday Night Showcase at the Bluebird, the venue that has launched many a songwriter’s career. But at the end of his sojourn, he recognized that truly breaking into the Nashville scene would require a full-time commitment, a lot more than a six-month sabbatical, and he couldn’t turn his back on his financial and family obligations.
So, the following year, back in Cincinnati, he released his second album, Flood Wall, a collection of the acoustic demoes he produced during his time in Tennessee. Highlights of the album were the violent folk tragedy of “All Along the Flood Wall,” the heartbreaking end-of-romance account in “Cut and Dried,” the acerbic wit and social commentary of “Lonelyhearts Waltz,” which included an early swipe at the ego of Donald Trump, and the most rocking song on the album, “Fuel to the Flame,” another autobiographical scorched-earth account of the end of a marriage.
In the 90s, music took a back seat to the writing of a novel, which remains unpublished, but in the early 2000s, he gathered what he had learned of the writing process and produced his first published book, One Small Town, One Crazy Coach, a powerful creative non-fiction account of an Indiana high school basketball team’s improbable success under the leadership of a highly unconventional coach. Drawn from his own childhood experience and numerous interviews, the book was published in 2013 by Indiana University Press to glowing reviews. Former NBA coach Del Harris called it a more realistic followup to the film Hoosiers.
In the gaps between writing, revising, and editing the book, however, he never drifted far from his passion for music and songwriting, and in 2010, he released his third collection of songs, Begin 2, this time going for a completely acoustic sound, on which he demonstrated his skills not only on guitar, but also banjo, mandolin, and dobro. Like determined sailing ships in a gathering mist, the songs ventured intrepidly into alternately dark and light philosophical and spiritual waters, featured on “Holy Slow Train,” “Plato’s Slave Boy,” “Little Blue Ball,” and “I Like the Buddha.” Other numbers, like the bluesy “Blacksburg” (the Virginia Tech massacre), “New Orleans” (the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina), and “Jesus Forgot” (the Iraq war), met contemporary traumas and social issues head-on.
A late career foray into the scholarly study of Ernest Hemingway led to publishing numerous academic articles and then to an acclaimed comprehensive Hemingway guidebook, Reading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, published in 2019 by Kent State University Press. Though these activities required time and energy that could not be spent on music, the songs and recordings nevertheless kept flowing on their own schedule.
By spring 2020, he was ready to release album number four, Ship of Fools, his most musically adventurous offering yet, songs that, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, “didn’t pussyfoot around or turn a blind eye to human nature.” You could say that what Roos saw happening in the world did not make him happy. The eight songs might be his most Dylanesque and include the longest he has ever released, the explosive sax-driven, philosophical odyssey of “The Edge of the Abyss.” “Dark and Scarlet Moon,” his first jazz number, recorded with a trumpet, sax, and piano combo, is a tribute to John McCain. The album concludes with two Hemingway inspired songs—“Caporetto” and “Unfinished Church”—the latter performed live by request at a Hemingway Society meeting in the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 2018. Called his best work yet, Ship of Fools puts Roos’s growth as a songwriter and musician on full display.
Locked down like most everyone else under the coronavirus pandemic, Roos continues to produce tough-minded music, sharp-eyed critiques of the failures of leadership and intimate personal accounts of life in a time of plague. These include a tribute to the late great John Prine, written immediately after the songwriter’s death from COVID-19, and now his latest project, “Republican Sex,” a long-distance collaboration with a West Coast friend and a rollicking political satire on the hypocrisy of the Donald Trump administration. A rowdy video to accompany the song is in the works, set for a September 2020 release in time for the fall presidential campaign.
As he sang in the closing tune to his first album, “Torch,” Roos intends to sing until he dies, to write songs and make uncompromising music that satisfies him first. If anyone else wants to ride along, that’s fine by him. If not, the holy slow train rolls on, no matter what.
22 August 2020