Cutting Edge Cowboys

Country Ain’t What It Used To Be

By Holly Gleason Published November 14, 2008

Although they were once banned from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, drummers eventually found their way into that most traditional of venues, and it wasn’t long before country music began to include bashing and crashing. When Alabama introduced a true band dynamic – having honed their chops in the salt air clubs of Myrtle Beach, Florida – it seemed the last bastion of etiquette had fallen. Yet country musicians (save for the frenetic propulsion of the Kentucky Headhunters, Hank Williams Jr., and Dwight Yoakam) were always a bit more polite than their rock and roll counterparts.

But with the intensity stakes being raised by country artists steeped in serious ’70s and ’80s rock – artists like Kenny Chesney, Brooks & Dunn, Toby Keith, even Rascal Flatts to an extent – it’s not surprising that many new acts hitting the scene come out of the chute hell-bent on pounding rather than merely marking time. Whether it’s the surging backwoods country of Halfway To Hazard and their Berklee-schooled technician Steve Sinatra, the blues-driven barroom stomp of Indiana’s hardcore heartlanders Flynnville Train, the swagger of Florida-born songwriter Jake Owen and his secret weapon Myron Howell, or the thumping drive of four-part-harmony-marked Nascar ravers, Whiskey Falls, these breakout acts all have one thing in common: They know the beat is where – for them at least – the country meets the road.

Steve Sinatra: An Academic Approach

At one end of the spectrum, there’s Halfway To Hazard’s 23-year-old Steve Sinatra. A Berklee grad from South Florida, he landed a gig with Sarah Buxton a few weeks after arriving in Nashville, did some sub dates for Texas icon Pat Green, and then took up the sticks with the roughshod Kentucky duo David Tolliver and Chad Warrix, whose backwoods brand of song-driven rock caught the ears of Tim McGraw and Byron Gallimore, who produced Halfway To Hazard’s self-titled debut.

“There are a lot of physical aspects,” says Sinatra of what some would consider his decision to musically slum. “People think country’s so simple, but playing a groove that’s solid and in time and feels good – keeping that consistent can be just as tough as playing a bunch of technical stuff, because you have to stay right there, but interact in a way that’s interesting.

“But the thing about country, too, is that when a song’s really good you don’t need much. The musicians can all play as well as they can, and it’s not about flash so much as it is really sinking into the song and playing. And people can feel it. There’s a magic that happens that is about the playing, and you can’t miss it.”

But even Sinatra admits that Halfway to Hazard breaks some country conventions. “They come from a musical place that’s more rock and roll than country,” he says, “people like the Black Crowes and the Allman Brothers, who are loud and proud, and have more common ground with country than people realize. But it’s better than other genres because when all the elements come together – the songs, the players, the dynamics – there’s nothing like it.”

A fan of “big, fat, open drum sounds,” Sinatra needed all that tone as the outdoor warm-up act on Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s Soul II Soul tour. “Sometimes you’re right against a concrete wall, sometimes in the wide open, you just never know,” he says. “And you realize you’ve got to grab people when they’re walking by, going somewhere else.

“You have a couple seconds to hold those people and make them decide to stay and listen to you rather than going straight in. One of the quickest ways to get them is the beat, so you want to be simple, but you also need to play something that catches their ear – and the way you sound can be a big part of that. So you’re not just listening to the music, you’re also trying to figure out the actual physical dynamics of every different situation.”

Tommy Bales: A Background in Blues

Flynnville Train’s Tommy Bales found his true center as a drummer while punching it out in the clubs around Indiana, playing the gamut of blues, from the originators to the mavericks and from the swamp to the city. So when brothers Brian and Brent Flynn were looking to put some more wallop in their country, they reached out to the time-honed, bar-tested rhythm section of Bales and bassist Jeremy Patterson.

Though they hadn’t intended to “go country,” Bales and Patterson immediately recognized the overlap. “A straight shuffle is very much stripped down,” Bales says. “I started in the blues in the same way – that train shuffle is where it all comes from. It’s just where you go from there. I can’t say all music is based on it, but I can say that almost all the music I love is.”

Bales considers himself a groove player, and has always been known as a heavy hitter. “Someone who just slams it out there!” he stresses. “When it came to merging the two worlds [of blues and country], what really helped me was listening to [Kentucky Headhunters drummer] Fred Young, because he’s not a country player at all – but he knows how to drive that kind of music. He gets how to make that rocking, blues-based playing work for country.”

Flynnville Train has spent the last several months on the road as the support act on Toby Keith’s big arena tours, and Bales knows the value of hitting hard in that size venue. “It’s balls-out from the downbeat til the end,” Bales laughs. “You just feed on it, and it feeds on you. But you want to have some control to it, too, because it hits the crowd harder that way.

“When we record, especially when we started working with [Kentucky Headhunter] Richard Young, who went in the studio with us before [Flynnville Train signed with Show Dog Records], it was about capturing the performance. We don’t even use a click track except to set the timing. We talk a lot about groove, time, and feel, so we know what we’re going for. We’re all clear about what it is we want, where we think we’re going, but then we get out in the studio and we play.

“So, if that’s how we do it when we’re recording, there’s nothing like taking that onto the stage with us. When you use that attack, it makes those hyped-up adrenaline arena shows feel like an intimate club gig.”

With a self-titled debut that merges mainstream country hooks with more serious playing, ranging from the frenzied “Last Good Time” to the honky-tonk raver “Truck Stop In The Sky,” Bales understands the notion of bringing the backbone to the beer hall – and it’s defining the scrappy quintet with the veteran stripes in all its hard-won glory.

Myron Howell: Grounded In Gospel

Myron Howell may be the most unlikely candidate for “the man who hits country hardest,” but the “greaziness” of his playing really makes the solidly built drummer stand out. A Memphis native who grew up playing in the church, his road to Nashville was anything but preordained. It was more curiosity about the music being played three hours to the east on I-40 and a friendship with Swedish bass player Vidor Bronin, who plays with LeAnn Rimes, which led the gregarious Howell to Music City.

When country newcomer Jake Owens – who hit the Top Ten fast with the euphoric “Yee Haw,” and then came back with the self-seeking mid-tempo “Startin’ With Me” – needed a drummer who had enough smack to connect with Kenny Chesney’s giant crowds, Bronin called the 33-year-old man with the red beard and goggles. Raised playing old-school gospel in the funkiest sense, Howell had gone on to a distinguished career with the BarKays, Confunkshun, Tom Jones, Chaka Khan, and Patti LaBelle, as well as playing a few early Justin Timberlake dates.

Even with all of that experience under his belt, Howell realized he was facing a new challenge when he heard Owens’ songwriting, with its slightly aggressive, lean barroom feel and soul-scraping bareness. “I’d played jazz, gospel, rhythm & blues, rock, the blues,” he says. “You’ve got to keep growing, and Jake has a little rock thing to it, so it’s where I put all my time now. And it’s funny: playing with so many Caucasians, they want that grease, that slinky soulful thing that makes you want to dance.

“Even though it’s country, which is pretty straightforward, it sounds pretty mechanical if everybody plays on top of the beat. But if the drummer pulls it back just a little bit – it feels so good, well, that’s the grease. You know, that brown, chicken-fried, can’t-cook-with-it-no-more, crunchy grease.”

But Howell’s contribution to Owens’ sound goes beyond the feel and into sheer power. “My mom and dad were musicians, so they had me learn bass for the note value,” Howell says. “But when it came to my playing, Dad used to tell me, ‘If you’re going to play your kick and snare strong, then you’ve got to keep it like that across the kit. You can’t be strong with the kick and the snare, then be wimpy everywhere else.”

Howell knows the power of Nashville’s number system – “it’s the bomb” – and is no stranger to the city’s studio scene, but he also understands the flip side of the coin. “It’s about how you connect with the audience, too, and my time with those real old-school good-time bands makes a difference. We’re up there … Jake’s the football team and we’re the cheerleaders. We need to get the crowd into it, get them rocking, and that’s what we do.

“How you do it live, obviously playing with the joy that people can see, is part of what gets the people into it. You can hit hard, but you’ve got to love it because the people coming out can tell. You can’t fake a groove, and you can’t fake having fun out there.”

Jared Poperocking: The Backbeat

Bakersfield, California-bred Jarred Pope has anything but organic country roots, yet his ability to rock the rich harmonies of Whiskey Falls is probably as much a result of his varied musical experience as it is his ties to the legendary California country music mecca that spawned Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Having played everywhere from the Opry to opening shows for the Goo Goo Dolls, Cake, and Puddle Of Mudd, the five-piece group recognizes it’s about making a connection with whatever audience it faces.

“There’s an earthiness to this band,” Pope says, “and because of the harmonies and those unique voices, the way they come together, it really becomes about playing to their timbre – and that makes me more sensitive to what’s happening among the players too, but it’s especially the lyric and the singers.

“I joke that I have big ears and listen first to the song, then as a musician – and if I’m doing that right, I can then manifest as a drummer without making it about just [playing the drums]. If you’re inside the whole of all that, which drum or cymbal is affected by which voice and what they’re singing lets you support them from a much stronger place. A lot of times, less is more: The right cymbal crash in the right spot is everything.”

For a kid who connected with Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions at age four, the idea of being in a country band – even one that is about rewiring the charge of Lynyrd Skynyrd with the thick vocals of the Eagles – wasn’t on the radar. Having played with a steady diet of everything but – ranging from straight bebop to gigging with progressive singer/songwriter Crosby Loggins (Kenny’s son) to touring with Bakersfield rock band Big House, to European favorites the Motherfunk Conspiracy – when it came time to get serious about Whiskey Falls, he took an archivist’s approach to getting oriented.

“Obviously, I try to listen to other players like Shannon Forrest,” he says, citing one of Nashville’s hardest-hitting session drummers. “But it’s also about going back to the roots for me, back to where it started: Someone like Jack Green, who was a drummer who played on a lot of the older records. If you know where it started, you understand everything that was built on top of it – and it gives you a confidence.”

Perhaps Pope’s biggest lesson was that country drumming may be simple, but it isn’t as easy as it sounds. “It’s tricky because it has this swing to it,” he explains. “It’s that eighth-note swing, and the drums are not the only thing making it happen; there’s the rhythm guitars, even the way the words fall. But there’s always the eighth-notes, and it’s what dictates the groove: Whether you play them straight or swing them a little bit, that’s what really drives this kind of music if you’re working for the feel.”

Whiskey Falls has been walking an interesting line: performing at NASCAR tailgating parties where it’s full-slam impact playing (“There’s a lot of big backbeats … and I’m playing pretty hard. And it’s never typical 2/4 train beats, either! I use some heavy rock 2 and 4, some dotted eighths tied to sixteenths. But, you know, they all work beyond that traditional train beat.”) or doing the more vocal-showcasing acoustic performances (“You really sit back and get a whole different perspective on these songs. Rather than just bashing away, it’s just me playing a cajon – which is a wood box – all night long. When it’s that small, you have to truly connect to the songs and find ways to be in there without overwhelming what’s happening between the singers, because it can be pretty delicate.”). But as analytical as Pope can get about the role of a country drummer, he admits that his job depends on one very essential ingredient – the groove. “It’s not always about the big drum fills people are expecting. Obviously groove is better – and thinking outside the box keeps people listening even if they don’t know why.

“For me, I prefer the beat a little bit behind because it creates a little bit of tension and gets people into a real pulled-back place. I mean, the kick drum is always on the 1 and 3; where the backbeat’s going to lie says everything about how it’s going to feel. Ninety percent of the time, pulling back a little lets the players and singers vibe a little better – even when you’re driving – because they’re not feeling rushed, so they can just sink back into the song, really get to its heart.”

Here’s something you may never have expected to come from the mouth of a country drummer: “My favorite drummer is Stevie Wonder,” Pope says. “The timing might be a little loose, but it just always feels right. To me, that’s when music really works, because it’s not just about performances and people actually making music – although that’s it – but the idea that the songs and the moments are alive. If you can make people feel that – and Whiskey Falls sure does – then you’ve given the music a beat that does something more than mark time.”

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