Robert Earl Keen and Randy Rogers want to come clean about their fictional identities: They’re The Stryker Brothers.
After secretly collaborating on a 13-track album, Burn Band, which they released under the fake band name on Sept. 7, the Texan country stars tell Billboard they’re ready to take credit for the LP, a mix of honky-tonk and the hard-driving sound of Texas’ red dirt country. They plan to perform one and only Stryker Brothers show on Dec. 22 at The Moody Theater in Austin.
Keen, the celebrated 62-year-old singer-songwriter, and Rogers, the 40-year-old leader of the Randy Rogers Band, were only acquaintances before last year, when they bonded shooting promotional videos for John T. Floore’s Country Store, a roadside music venue in Helotes, Texas.
After a successful songwriting session in April at Keen’s ranch, they decided to release their work anonymously so fans could judge the music on its own merits.
“We didn’t tell friends, just spouses and managers,” says Rogers, adding that he didn’t even tell his own band. “It has been fun to deny this whole thing — and possibly crazy.” Has keeping the secret had been tough? “Yes it has, because I drink,” laughs Keen, who admits he only slipped up a few times. “Most of the people I told were good o’ boy friends. I’d call them the next day and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to keep this under wraps.'”
Without their names attached, the album has garnered 55,000 on-demand audio streams, according to Nielsen Music, but the artists’ surprise reveal could still pay off, drawing more attention to the collaboration than it might have gotten otherwise in the crowded streaming landscape.
Fake-name releases are unusual: In the 1970s, English band XTC released an album through its label, Virgin, under the name The Dukes of Stratosphear; the band members used pseudonyms in the album credits and initially denied involvement. In the late ’80s, Prince released two albums as a group called Madhouse, which, heavily disguised, opened for Prince on his 1987 tour. More recently, a fictional, computer-generated Instagram star named Miquela has been racking up streams on Spotify.
Keen and Rogers had their 12 songs recorded, mixed and mastered in two weeks, quietly gathering what Rogers calls “the Austin A-team” of musicians to back them: Producer and instrumentalist Lloyd Maines played a range of guitars, Glenn Fukunaga played bass, multi-instrumentalist Chris Gage did keyboards, Brian Beken played fiddle and Les Lawless played the drums.
Then they began to spin their tale. They created a mysterious website for the Stryker Brothers that reads like a whodunit: “The Stryker Brothers are an enigma…their history is nebulous yet their contribution to the musical tapestry of a generation is undeniable. Where did they come from? Where did they go? And why isn’t their music out there already?”
According to the site, woman named Mary found their recordings — along with a handwritten letter on Apollo 16 letterhead — in a metal trunk that had survived a fire in her father’s house. They chose the name The Stryker Brothers — Cole and Flynt — because the name The Arsonists was taken, the duo told Billboard, and they wanted to evoke a photo taken last year while Keen was burning a dozen or so acres on his property.
Austin musicians were also enlisted to tell stories of the fictitious brothers. “I’m pretty sure I’m one of their kids,” says singer-songwriter B.J. Barham in an interview posted on the site.
The clues on the website link to the album’s songs, such as the Apollo 16 letterhead, a nod to “Charlie Duke Took Country to the Moon.” Duke, the Apollo 16 astronaut and 10th man on the Moon, lives a few doors down from Rogers in New Braunfels, Texas. Before the 1972 mission, Duke had asked a Houston disc jockey to make a country mixtape he could take to the moon, and so the DJ wrangled some country stars and recorded four half-hour segments for the Apollo 16 tape that featured Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and Jerry Reid and Chet Atkins — parts of which are included in the Stryker Brothers track.
Thirty Tigers, a Nashville-based label-services provider, had already worked with The Randy Rogers Band and was eager to distribute the project, said co-founder David Macias. “From a music standpoint, it seemed a no brainer. I agreed to do it after hearing just one song.”
But Macias admits facing difficulties getting the album heard by the artists’ fan bases. “I think the back story that was created was clever and there were some great materials that were created for it, but there were still a ton of outlets that were not willing to take the leap on something that appeared to be so obscure, or if they suspected what was going on but couldn’t confirm it, didn’t want to cover it.”
Rogers isn’t concerned, though. “The Stryker Brothers aren’t trying to get a record deal,” he told Billboard. “I heard they blew up in a fire.”