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Southern Hands

A Nashville Percussionists Roundtable

There was a time not long ago when, if you were a percussionist from Nashville, most folks would assume that you played country music. Well, the time signatures have changed. Middle Tennessee boasts world-class “pickers” (guitar, mandolin, and other stringed instrumentalists), exceptional music schools, a huge selection of live venues (including the new pinnacle of orchestral halls, The Schermerhorn Symphony Center), seemingly limitless recording facilities, as well as musicians that can go head-to-head with the best anywhere in the world. The current crop of country artists like Carrie Underwood, Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, Sugarland, and Rascal Flatts have broken the mold and could easily be labeled as “pop” acts. It’s not just music coming out of Nashville, but music coming in — producers and artists from all over, including the hotbeds of L.A. and New York, are coming to work in Music City. This somewhat recent metamorphosis has raised the bar for percussionists to a level much higher than just tambourines and shakers. Following in the footsteps of the retired legendary Nashville percussionist, Farrell Morris, Tom Roady, Eric Darken, Ron Sorbo, Sam Bacco, and Glen Caruba are part of the major root system of country, pop, world, and orchestral spice in the world’s songwriting capital. And if you think what these guys do is easy, you’d better keep heading west on I-40.

(Left) Ron Sorbo

DRUM!: It seems that nobody is actually from here — so why Nashville?
Roady: I worked in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in the ’70s then moved to Los Angeles. I moved to Nashville in 1982 actually to be closer to Muscle Shoals.
Darken: I came from Tulsa, Oklahoma, 20 years ago and just wanted to get involved in the recording industry.
Sorbo: I moved from Pittsburgh to Nashville because it seemed like a reasonable place to move rather than New York or Los Angeles. I just got married, and was looking at the best place to raise my family.
Bacco: I was playing in an orchestra in Mexico City with my wife, a violinist, and we were there for about six years. Nashville was about fifth on the list. We wanted to go to a bigger city, but she won a job in the orchestra and I soon followed.
Caruba: I moved up from Miami in 1993 primarily to make records. I heard through some friends that there weren’t a lot of percussionists in Nashville, and the cost of living was half that of L.A. or New York. I heard of Tom [Roady], and ironically my first night in town I went to a club and there he was playing.

(Left) Sam Bacco

DRUM!: Have you brought any of your previous backgrounds into your sound? For instance, Sam, I’m sure you have some Mexican influences in your arsenal. Do you really use all of that on a Nashville recording or performance?
Bacco: Yes, I have a lot of traditional Mayan and Incan instruments and eventually used them on some country dates. On Garth Brooks’ Standing Outside The Fire we used layers and layers of percussion — it’s about the sound and having the right effect.
Caruba: Ironically, I really didn’t start using unique instruments until my first sessions here in Nashville. In Miami it was the basic gear — congas, bongos, timbales, toys. Eric and I used some odd sounds on some orchestral sessions together.
Darken: Yeah, we pull things from all over the world, and sometimes if the producers knew where some of these instruments came from they probably wouldn’t allow them on the record. Japan, China, Africa — if it fits in the track then we end up using it.

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