Vidor band director keeps Grammy in box under desk
The windowsill of Don Rollins’ office in the Vidor High School band hall is lined with UIL trophies, two rows deep, celebrating the band’s accomplishments.
His Grammy Award for Best Country Song of 2003 is wrapped in foam in a cardboard box under his desk.
The Vidor native, who won the award for co-writing “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” for Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett, returned in 2014 to his hometown and high school, where he runs the program that first got him hooked on music.
Although the Grammy is put away, the office shows signs of time spent in Nashville. Certificates testifying to the success of “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” and a signed photo of Reba McEntire and Carole King adorn the wall, above the racks of guitars and piles of papers on his desk.
On a recent afternoon, Vidor’s jazz band practiced in the band hall behind him.
The job takes someone who knows Vidor and its traditions, says Rollins, 56. “It’s unique, and it’s my hometown.”
The Vidor job “requires a lot of weird knowledge,” like coordinating fireworks and marching in the dark for homecoming, and directing one of the few military-style bands in the region.
Rollins returned to Southeast Texas from Nashville, where he lived “about two minutes down the lake from Johnny Cash’s old place,” in 2013 to teach saxophone at Lamar University. A year later he decided to stick around after longtime Vidor band director Ronnie Touchstone retired.
Although he sometimes misses Tennessee’s four seasons, “I like what I’m doing and I like where I’m living,” he said. “I tend to follow where the music thing leads me.”
“The music thing” has taken him to Lamar University, where he studied under Jimmy Simmons, to Nashville, where he worked for music production company Warner/Chappell, and now back to Southeast Texas.
“That’s a mistake I see a lot of young talented people make over and over again - they don’t go with the flow,” Rollins said, and stick to their plans rather than following opportunities.
While still in high school, Rollins played with Simmons’ band on jazz nights at Carlo’s on Calder. A few years later, he was a student in Simmons’ music department, where he “built himself a nest” more quickly than other students.
While Rollins is known for country songs, he’s an “extremely talented” jazz and classical musician, Simmons said.
“As a teacher, you just dream of those things happening to your students,” he said of Rollins’ success in the industry, which he said makes him a model teacher now.
At the college level, “I’ve always felt you don’t want professional teachers, you want professionals to teach,” Simmons said, because they have experiences to share with students.
While his days now are filled with some of the “goofy things” a high school band director has to do, Rollins still writes songs several days a week, he said.
“This year, I made some changes,” he said, stepping back from playing to make song-writing more of a priority again. He keeps notes in his phone for song ideas, something that’s always come naturally, he said.
“I’m as much of an English geek as I am a music one,” he said, passing time as a college student in particularly boring college classes writing Shakespearean sonnets.
Rollins said he writes songs in “verses and big clumps, fast.”
When he and Jim Brown sat down to write what became their Grammy-winning hit, “we started at 10 o’clock and we were done by lunch,” Rollins said.
He was in a Target store when he got a call that Alan Jackson wanted to record the song. Rollins said he and Brown intended for the song to have a “Margaritaville” vibe. He thought Jackson was “way too country for that song.”
The decision made more sense when he learned it would be a duet with Buffett. The song went from a demo cut in March 2003 to the top of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart by mid-summer.
“You never know when something’s going to resonate,” Rollins said. At the time, he was writing five days a week. He can’t remember what else he was working on.
“You just flush your brain and go into the next appointment,” he said.
Rollins has been writing as long as he’s been playing, he said, starting with guitar lessons when he was 7. He picked up the saxophone in high school and “in ninth or 10th grade, something snapped,” he said.
“I never was a practice room rat, most of my improving’s been done on stage,” he said, starting with his first gig at the South Texas State Fair.
That’s the advice he gives to his students now, he said, because it’s the best way to learn what people like to hear and see their reactions.
“There’s nothing like watching the song in front of your audience,” he said. “That’s what I really recommend.”
Although he’s written “probably over 1,000 songs,” he’s still got a few on his bucket list. He would love to write for Tim McGraw or Tricia Yearwood, he said, and “everyone would have loved a George Strait cut.”