This is an article from the MAY/JUNE 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on the Bacon Brothers, Pops Staples, Iconic Axes from the Grateful Dead and Others, Conquering Iceland in a new Land Rover Discovery Sport, order this issue online by clicking anywhere in this text.
FROM RUSH TO RUSHMORE: A former rock journalist, John Roberts now spends his days reporting the news, interviewing U.S. presidents on TV, and playing guitar.
By Joe Lalaina | Photos by Troy Stains
As a senior national correspondent for Fox News, John Roberts is usually the one conducting the interview. But not today. Standing in the living room of his Atlanta home, blasting out Rod Stewart riffs on a 1959 reissue Les Paul, the Canadian-born journalist answers questions about his love of guitar playing with as much enthusiasm as he plays his prized axe.
“Rod was literally sweating on me when he was performing at the very first Rock in Rio festival in 1985,” Roberts says, recalling Stewart’s show. “I was crouching on a camera catwalk in front of the stage. When Rod leaned out towards the crowd, he was right on top of me.
“I’ve always wanted to be a rock star,” he adds. “But traveling with and interviewing all these famous music icons was the closest I ever got.”
As you might have deduced, Roberts was a rock correspondent in his former life. From 1979 to 1986, he hosted the Toronto music program The NewMusic on CITY-TV, where he interviewed bands like the Police, U2, and the Clash, “before people even knew who they were,” he says. “I’ve also interviewed Rush, Queen, David Bowie, ZZ Top, and many other big-name artists, but when I turned 30, I stopped doing it because I didn’t want to be a rock journalist for the rest of my life. Covering rock bands was a young-person’s game. I wanted to report the news.”
To that end, Roberts has enjoyed a very successful career. His resume includes a stint at CBS News from 1992 to 2006, during which he became chief White House correspondent, and at CNN, where he co-anchored American Morning from 2007 to 2010. Along the way, he picked up several Emmy awards, was inducted into the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame, and interviewed prominent political figures, including four former U.S. presidents—George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton—and one future president, Barack Obama, when he was a candidate.
“When you’re in a position as a journalist that you can interview the president, you know you’ve probably reached the pinnacle of your career. It can only go downhill from there,” Roberts jests. “I’m proud to say that there probably aren’t many persons who can say they’ve interviewed such a diverse array of famous people as I have, other than maybe Oprah Winfrey. I’ve also been a war correspondent, which is an adrenaline rush unlike anything. The long and varied career that I’ve had as a journalist has left me with a rich set of memories and a broad background.”
Music is, of course, part of that past. Roberts’ early exposure to the Beatles and, subsequently, Led Zeppelin engendered his interest in the guitar, as did his brother’s old Hohner guitar. “I loved that thing and always wanted to play it,” he says. “For my 13th birthday, my mother, who worked as a secretary at a car dealership, gave me a guitar that looked very similar to that guitar over there.” He points to a 1965 blond Telecaster in his living room. “The one that my mom gave me was a ’64 Tele, and she bought it from a car salesman at the dealership. She paid $225 for it. The Telecaster that I own today is not quite the same as the one that my mom gave me, but it takes me back to when I was a teenager.
“Five years after my mom got me that Telecaster, when I was 18, I did one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done in my life,” he continues. “Every Tuesday night I’d get together at a friend’s house and play bluegrass. But I didn’t have an acoustic guitar; all I had was my Telecaster. So one day I stupidly took my Tele to this music store in Oakville, Ontario, and said to the clerk, ‘How much will you give me for it?’ He gave me $225 for it, exactly what my mom paid for it. So I turned it in for this horrible 12-string acoustic, which didn’t last long. That ’64 Telecaster that my mother gave me is probably worth about $12,000 today. And I got $225 for it. Since that experience, I will never sell any of my guitars.”
Roberts next picks up a 2005 Gretsch White Falcon in his living room and strums a few riffs. “I’ve always loved the sound and look of the White Falcon,” he says. “The pickups are very hot. When you combine hot pickups with the resonance of the hollow body, the guitar just sings when you amplify it. I’ve always been a fan of the Cult. Billy Duffy is very innovative. I love the chiming riffs that he plays on his White Falcon.”
Roberts sets down the White Falcon and grabs another guitar. “Here’s a gorgeous 1994 Les Paul 1959 Flametop reissue finished by Tom Murphy,” he says with pride. “This is number 69. To my understanding, this is from the first run that Murphy did. He made somewhere in the vicinity of 140 to 200 of them. Its tiger-striped maple top just glows. It’s a classic-looking electric guitar.”
Roberts adores acoustic guitars, as well. He leans over and picks up a Taylor 914ce and starts playing Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” Soon, though, he’s presenting it for examination and pointing to the label inside the soundhole. “It’s says here that it was made for the NAMM show in 2001, but the guy I bought it from at Washington Music Center, just outside of D.C., told me it never went to the NAMM show,” he explains. “Taylor thought that the guitar was so perfect that it would create unreasonable demand, so they supplied NAMM with a less-perfect guitar.
“I don’t play fingerstyle because I never had the patience to learn,” he adds. “I play with a flat pick. At this point in my life my brain is so hard-wired that it’s not pliable enough to learn to play the guitar really well.”
Working in broadcast journalism has allowed Roberts to meet many intriguing people, including his spouse, Kyra Phillips, who is an investigative and documentary correspondent at CNN. “Kyra says, ‘You can only play one guitar at a time. Why do you have so many of them?’ So I tell her, ‘Look at the walls in this house. You can only look at one piece of art at a time. Why do we have so much artwork?’ All the art on these walls is hers. Guitars are my version of art. I love going into a room, grabbing a guitar, and playing it for while. It’s meditative.”
Roberts and Phillips met several years ago when they worked together at CNN. “I knew about Kyra long before we ever met,” he explains. “She was reporting the news on CNN in the afternoon, and every day when I was sitting at the booth at the White House working for CBS I’d watch her on TV. When I got a job at CNN, I did a morning show with her for a couple of months, and that’s where our relationship developed. At the end of 2010, she was pregnant with our twins and was going to give birth within three months, so I moved to Atlanta to be with her. When I moved to Atlanta, I was offered a job at Fox.”
Roberts’ four-year-old son has already taken a liking to one of his father’s guitars. “My son calls this my Halloween guitar,” Roberts says, reaching for his Lado Earth guitar. “Toronto-based luthier Joe Lado made it. This is the type of guitar Iron Maiden’s Adrian Smith was playing in the Eighties. My friend Rik Emmett [of Triumph] and I would laugh about something that Lado would say: ‘Fender and Gibsons are shit—Lados are the best guitars,’ Joe would say in a thick Yugoslavian accent. This Lado has a scary, sculpted shape. It’s like a Gibson Explorer that went to the evil side.”
Roberts also has a José Ramírez 1A classical guitar, but it’s currently in the hands of Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw. “Tommy is a good friend,” Roberts says. “I told him I had this guitar and that I wasn’t playing it. So when Styx played Atlanta in 2013, I bought it with me to his concert and gave it to him. Now it’s one of Tommy’s prized possessions.”
Roberts bought the Ramírez at The Guitar Shop in Washington, D.C., when he was working at CBS. The purchase was inspired by an interview with Sting in which he talked about playing his classical guitar in the front foyer of his house in Italy, where the echo sounded especially good. “I thought, Wow, that’s a romantic idea—let’s see if I can do that,” Roberts says. “When I saw the Ramírez, I could tell it had really been played a lot, but it was good enough for me. Over time I found I wasn’t playing it much—the action was a bit high, and every time I’d play it, something would go wrong with it. A few times I had to bring it to a luthier in New York for repair, but it was too much to look after, so I gave it to Tommy.”
Alex Lifeson is also among the guitarists Roberts counts as a close friend. Roberts is actually featured in the acclaimed documentary, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage. “Rush and I grew up in the same city,” he explains. “Rush was the big Canadian band, along with the Guess Who, but our circles never really crossed until I started working for the music channel in Toronto. I remember wanting to do a piece on Rush, but they weren’t doing a lot of television. I finally talked them into doing a TV interview. What really cemented the relationship was when I went back to Canada in 1990 to co-host the morning talk show Canada AM. I was looking for a place to play golf and was checking out this country club north of Toronto, and I recognized this guy on the driving range. I walked over, and it was Alex. We played a round of golf that day and became friends.”
In 2010 when Rush played in Atlanta, Roberts got to interview the band for CNN’s American Morning. “The band’s manager said they might be able to get me on stage to perform with the band during soundcheck,” Roberts says. “Sure enough, they brought me on stage, strapped one of Lifeson’s guitars on me, and we played ‘Limelight.’ That was such a kick. It was like living a dream. I hadn’t played with anybody since 1985, and I’ve certainly never played with anybody of Rush’s caliber.
“The time I spent with Rush in Atlanta morphed into something very special,” he continues. “Kyra knows how much I’m crazy about guitars, so she called Alex and asked if he’d give me a guitar lesson. In 2011, Kyra and I went to his home outside Toronto. After Alex, Kyra, and I played a round of golf, we had dinner, then Alex gave me a guitar lesson, and we sat around drinking wine all evening. Playing with Rush onstage and getting a guitar lesson from Alex are among the memories that I will never forget.”
This is an article from the MAY/JUNE 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on the Bacon Brothers, Pops Staples, Iconic Axes from the Grateful Dead and Others, Conquering Iceland in a new Land Rover Discovery Sport, and more, order this issue online by clicking anywhere in this text.