Darkness on the Edge of Town

 Photo: Claire Roeth

Photo: Claire Roeth

Conifer country singer taps raw Nashville roots 

By Steve Graham

Johno Roberts can wax nostalgic about his Southern childhood.

“I sure miss those country nights, staring up at the Tennessee sky. I miss my mom, my brother too, fresh-cut hay, the morning dew,” he sings with a twang on “Wild,” by his country band, the Hang Rounders.

His lyrics have the directness and heart-wrenching details of legendary country songs. Other songs reflect the pitch-dark side of his childhood, but in this case they lead into a sweet ode to his daughter, Ellymae Wild Roberts.

“Now she’s three feet tall, hell, she’s five years old, big brown eyes, pretty blond curls, she’s my baby, she made Colorado my home,” Roberts sings.

Raising a family in Conifer, he is giving his daughters a far happier childhood than he had in Nashville. But he’s also mining his experiences and his Tennessee roots to bring some real country to the Colorado music scene with the Hang Rounders.

When Roberts was 2 years old, his father went to jail. His dad was released, then died two weeks later, when Roberts was 16. But three years earlier, Roberts ran away from home to jump freight trains and shoot heroin.

He was scared straight after he and some friends were playing with a gun that accidentally fired and killed one of them.

“After I lost my best friend, that’s what knocked me sober,” he said.

It all sounds like a grim movie — or a classic country song. 

“All my songs are pretty much about my own downfalls and I use it as an escape and a therapy,” Roberts said. “People want to see the train wreck. They don’t want to watch you cruise around in a Prius.”

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He said he is happy to provide catharsis for listeners.

“If I can make somebody feel less alone in the world, I guess I’m doing a good thing,” Roberts said. 

Country music also made him feel less alone growing up in “honky-tonk bars all over the city,” where his single mom sold cocktails.

“I was always bathed in the best of country music as a kid,” he said.

At 7, Roberts started learning guitar from Sammy Kershaw’s pedal steel player, a neighbor. He met plenty of other musicians and soaked up Nashville’s country scene.

When he was on drugs, he wasn’t playing music or “really doing anything.” Once they sobered up, he and a friend decided to escape Nashville and drive west for a fresh start.

They arrived in Denver when the flagship REI store was having a garage sale, and some outdoor enthusiasts were camped in the parking lot. They pitched a tent and joined in for midnight tubing on the South Platte River.

“Denver seemed cool, so we stayed,” Roberts said.

He got a roofing job that eventually took him to Florida and Oklahoma for disaster recovery work. With nothing to do in rural Oklahoma after sundown, he started playing and writing music again.

When he eventually returned to Denver, he worked with Curt Wallach, who was then a bike messenger and now co-owns the Hi-Dive. They started playing music together, and Wallach decided they needed to share Roberts’ lyrics.

“Johno is a fantastic songwriter, and creating a fitting background for his words is fulfilling,” Wallach said.

To fill out the band, Wallach tapped an old high school friend, Dan Feely, to play drums. He also recruited bassist Matthew Lilley from the Legendary River Drifters, and pedal steel player Ty Breuer.

The Hang Rounders started as a dance band for country two-stepping nights at Globe Hall. There wasn’t much true country music in Colorado at the time, and most of the other band members were playing in rock bands.  

“We were all involved in different subcultures around Denver,” Roberts said. “Presenting to that whole crowd, we didn’t know what to expect, but people instantly accepted it.”

He said other Denver musicians have also been very supportive. 

“We just play music because we love doing it,” Roberts said of most local bands. “There’s not a lot of ego, which is a breath of fresh air, especially after growing up in Nashville.”

Wallach said the Hang Rounders are really about playing good music and having a good time.

“We’d love to meet you and dance around and have some drinks and forget about the hell world we live in for a night,” Wallach said.

Steve Graham is a freelance writer and former newspaper editor who likes taking his two young boys biking, hiking and brewery-hopping in northern Colorado.