“I came out of that meeting with tears rolling down my cheeks,” Tibbs told AudioCulture. “I said to [wife] Denise, ‘We’ve done it. We’ve been knocking this thing for 30 years and here it is. We’ve got it in our hands. We have absolutely nailed it.’
“We had been up there for four trips, and it was like an apprenticeship. Each time we got better and better at what we were doing. And I say ‘we’ because Denise was half the team. She was way better than me at relating to people and talking to people and merchandising [such as] CDs.”
With the ink still fresh on his Music City Theatre contract, Tibbs returned to New Zealand to tie up loose ends and his world came crashing down. “We came home, and our daughter Renee fell ill, and it was game over for us. The next two years were about caring for our daughter and that whole journey, and she passed away in 2016. After that, I just gave up. I had no music in me. The guitar went under the bed and stayed there for five years, and I did nothing at all.”
Tibbs returned home to tie up loose ends and his world came crashing down
But it was steady, gentle persuasion from bandleader and New Zealand Country Music Association President Michael Tipping that saw Roger Tibbs return to the stage as a guest artist at the Matamata Piako Country Music Awards in January 2020.
“Michael Tipping stuck with me,” Tibbs recalled. “Every six months through that period, he would ring me and say, ‘Will you come up and do a show for me, Roger?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t do it anymore.’ ‘Okay, I’ll call you in six months,’ and he did. In the end I said, ‘Yeah, alright,’ just to get him off my back!”
The spot was a huge success and Tibbs followed it up as guest at the 2022 NZCMA Entertainer of the Year. In 2023, with a bunch of his own songs that have been going through his head for the last few years, Tibbs is heading back into the studio with Tipping as producer to record a new album.
It’s a far cry from when his debut album Yodelling Man launched him onto the scene in 1984, forever branding him as a yodelling cowboy and selling upwards of 60,000 copies in New Zealand and Australia within a year of its release. The LP brought Tibbs a Golden Guitar at the 1986 Australasian Country Music Awards in Tamworth for Top Selling Album.
“It was completely crazy,” Tibbs said. “That album is amazing. It’s full of mistakes, it’s full of wrong words, and it still sells today. It’s been pirated and burgled and reproduced by everyone in the industry. It should have made me a million dollars a long time ago, but it never has done.”
What it did do was kick-start a recording career that has seen Tibbs release a further seven albums, including one recorded in the States, and perform in Australia, Canada and the US, all while maintaining a successful carpentry business in the lower North Island.
As a child, Tibbs was enthralled by his father’s collection of Wilf Carter 78s
One of four boys, Tibbs was born in the Hutt Valley. His mother was “pretty handy” on the piano accordion and his father was a yodelling cowboy who worshipped Canadian country star Wilf Carter. Young Tibbs was enthralled by his father’s collection of Carter 78s and would stack them on the gramophone, teaching himself to yodel along the way.
In his teens, Tibbs took up with a later version of The Hutt Valley Country & Western Society Band that had grown out of the Lower Hutt Country Music Club. When that band evolved into Southern Comfort, Tibbs joined again, hooking up with lead guitarist Frank Hall and his big-voiced partner Ruby and a succession of drummers.
Yodelling was always part of his act. “It just seemed to be part of what I did,” Tibbs said. “It was a curse as well as a blessing. You kinda get nailed down into a box that’s marked ‘yodelling cowboy’ and it’s a little bit hard to get out of that sometimes.”
Changing their name to Borderline, the band worked steadily around Wellington for two or three years until simmering friction turned into a full-scale argument one night. Tibbs packed up his guitar mid-gig and said, “See you later” and never returned.
In 1980, he and wife Denise were driving through Porirua when they noticed a sign for the Kapi Mana Country Music Club’s Waitangi Country Music Awards being held that day. They turned the car around and went in for a look. After much encouragement from Denise, Tibbs asked if he could have a go and ended up winning the runner-up title.
Two years later he went back to the same competition and won the overall prize. Success followed at the Nelson club’s awards and the Old Time Country Music Awards in Christchurch, winning overall titles at both and becoming a recurring guest on TVNZ’s hit prime time show That’s Country.
“I have very fond memories of that show,” Tibbs said. “Right from the time they picked me up from the plane until they delivered me back, it was absolutely professional. It was beautifully produced, a really tight group of musicians on it, backing singers, the venue, the whole nine yards. I can’t praise that thing up enough. And there’s never been anything else like it since.
“The regulars who were on it – and I’m talking about Patsy [Riggir] and Suzanne Prentice and John Hore [John Grenell] and Noel Parlane – they were there before me, and they were going into every lounge in the country week after week after week. It was just wonderful exposure for those guys. I got on the last three series, but it was tailing down and then it ended.”
In 1984, Tibbs entered the New Zealand Gold Guitar Awards in Gore and won three sections but was pipped for the Gold Guitar Trophy itself by Gore local Peter Cairns. Convenor of the awards was That’s Country producer Trevor Spitz, who had earlier that year been criticised in the Commission of Inquiry into That’s Country for his alleged favouring of his client Suzanne Prentice over other artists on the show.
Trevor Spitz said, “there’s no way I’m gonna let a yodelling cowboy win at Gore!”
“I remember going to Trevor just after the final and saying to him, ‘What did I do wrong, Trevor?’ I remember to this day he said to me, ‘Roger Tibbs, there’s no way I’m gonna let a yodelling cowboy win at Gore!’”
While there, Tibbs was approached by a representative of Music World who said label boss Hoghton Hughes was interested in releasing an album of yodelling songs. Tibbs was at first reluctant to record a full-on yodelling LP but saw it as an opportunity to get a foot in the door of the recording scene.
Laid down over two nights with engineer John Phair at Tandem Studios, in Christchurch, Yodelling Man was released in 1984. It contained 17 yodelling numbers, including ‘She Taught Me To Yodel’ and Dunedin pioneer Les Wilson’s ‘Silver Wings’ and ‘Rockinover River’, and sold truckloads on the back of prime Music World radio advertising.
Hughes was soon on the phone again, this time proposing an album of traditional country standards and just two yodels. Chestnuts, released in 1985, was nowhere near as successful but at least kept Tibbs’ name in front of the public, especially now that That’s Country had ceased production.
At the end of the year, another call from Hughes: “He rang me and said, ‘Look, you’d better get yourself over to Tamworth, you’ve won something over there. And I’ll see you there.’” Hughes never showed but Tibbs received the Top Selling Album award for Yodelling Man at the 1986 Golden Guitars.
Despite the enormous sales – outdoing the latest Slim Dusty LP at 60,000 – royalties got lost in the mail and there was trouble looming with Music World. “I never actually met Hoghton, he only ever spoke to me on the phone,” Tibbs said. “I think in the end he didn’t want to face me.
“We never did get substantiated sales figures. That all ended up in a pretty ugly court case in the end. It turned out to be a big black hole that we were just tipping money into and not getting anywhere at the end of the day. But that’s a whole story on its own, that one.”
Tibbs’ next two albums were released independently. Produced by former That’s Country guitarist Brian Ringrose at Tandem, 1988’s Southbound featured the nucleus of the That’s Country band: Ringrose, Wayne Allen (drums), Peter Gillette (keys) and Paddy Long (pedal steel). Released in 1995, Born To Be A Cowboy was recorded at Marmalade Studios in Wellington and produced by multi-instrumentalist Rob Winch. Jayrem would later take the best of both albums and release it as Selections.
In the meantime, life took Tibbs’ focus away from music. “Kids happen, mortgage happens, business happens,” he said. “If we’d been dedicated obviously, we should have packed up and gone to Auckland and chased things up there, and maybe further afield. But other things just seemed to be more important at that stage in our life.”
In 2005, Manuka Sounds released the album You’re Everything To Me, recorded at Manuka Studios in Orewa, that included seven of Tibbs’ own songs. It featured contributions from pedal steel guitarist Glenn Ross Campbell, guitarist Rob Galley and fiddler Cath Newhook, but sold little.
Three years later, Tibbs’ parents invited Roger and Denise to join them on a trip to the world’s largest outdoor rodeo, the Calgary Stampede in Canada. Unbeknownst to her husband, Denise took a punt and negotiated with the Stampede’s entertainment manager to have Roger added to the programme. They thought Tibbs would be an ideal addition to their Western Heritage Day line-up.
At a Canadian festival a queue of people 200 metres long lined up to buy Tibbs’ albums
“And within about a month, we were up there,” he said. “The Canadian people gave me a wonderful time. [Afterwards] there was a queue of people 200 metres long. We just sold all our CDs just like that. We had to get some more sent up!”
Back in New Zealand at the following year’s Marton Country Music Festival, Tibbs met visiting American duo Tex and Mary Schutz. When they learned of Tibbs’ involvement in the prestigious Calgary Stampede, they invited him to come to the United States and do some shows and eventually became his US agents.
“They had a big million-dollar bus, and we all kind of toured about in the bus. It was all in the Midwest states: up and down really from Canada down to Mexico, a section of America I really came to love. I always had this dream at the back of my head that I wanted to go to America with my music. It took us a long time, but in the end we did get there.”
While albums This Ole House (2009) and Mule Skinner Blues (2011) were recorded in New Zealand, Tibbs’ gospel album, The Place Where I Worship (also 2011), was recorded on one of four trips to the Midwest. The record resulted in his induction in the Old Time Country Music Hall of Fame in Anita, Iowa.
Tibbs dipped his toe into the Nashville water but found the place full of sharks happy to take your money with nothing to show for it. The bustling entertainment city of Branson, Missouri, with its 108 live shows in fixed permanent theatres, was more to his taste.
“By the fourth trip up there, we were really starting to do the business. We were starting to operate at a really high level. I was playing guitar better than I’ve ever played it, and I’d worked the Americans out. I knew the songs to do. They were kind of amazed at this Kiwi boy who knew all these old American songs.”
But fate had other plans and, with the illness and passing of Roger and Denise Tibbs’ daughter Renee in 2016, Roger put his musical aspirations to bed. That was until the gentle, continued urging of Michael Tipping brought Tibbs’ return to the stage in Matamata.
“I never thought I would sing again,” Tibbs concluded. “And I was quite satisfied with that. I thought that part of our life was behind us, it’s gone. There seems to be a bit of karma floating around for us, because everything just seems to be falling into place just lately and very suddenly I’m feeling very enthusiastic about it all again.”