Y’all In Clave? Nashville Percussionists Roundtable

DRUM!: What are some of the non-country tracks you have recorded in Music City?
Roady: I think ultimately, before I moved here, Farrell Morris was the one that broke a lot of ground for us. I remember doing a Merle Haggard record with Larrie Londin on drums, and I put down some congas and timbales, and the engineer on that date said, “Do we really want them to know that we put congas and timbales on a Merle Haggard record?” I think we were attempting a new concept of trying to grab something and play it before they [producer or artist] really had a chance to say no.
Bacco: It’s a lot harder to play on a country record, because on a pop record it plays itself. I know exactly what I can play there, but on a song that has lyrics that you have to bring out you have to paint moods based on those lyrics and textures — it’s not for everybody to play. I know a lot of guys that would come into Nashville and not have it because they don’t realize that the songwriter comes first.
Roady: Knowing what not to play …

Bacco: … but knowing what to play is equally important.
Caruba: My first couple of sessions here were with a few legends like Maurice Williams of “Stay” and “Little Darlin’” fame, and the legendary Vern Gosdin. I really was nervous not knowing what the hell to do in this style. Coming from Miami, playing percussion on jingles or R&B and Latin groups, it was real easy to know what to do and play, but this was completely different for me and it took some learning. It was a real good intro to Nashville, referring to what you guys were saying.
Sorbo: I think some of the artists have changed their mood as well. A couple months ago I played steel drums on a Wynona Judd record. Producers now don’t want to see the same thing all the time.
Caruba: Toby Keith and Sara Evans were a couple artists that I used djembe, brushes on cajons, and different uses of mainstream instruments. I think it’s important to experiment and hopefully have a producer that’s open to it.
Bacco: They want to be a crossover act, so they don’t want to be limited to what everyone else is doing.

DRUM!: How much is the music written out or given to you by the producer or arranger, whether it is for live or studio work, and how often are you hired because they want you to do what you do?
Bacco: The orchestra dates do both. They have hard written parts that are specific things, but many times the arrangers will say, “If you hear anything that we didn’t, or if you have any input, just go for it.” A lot of these guys are just learning, too. I have spent so much time with these arrangers and composers in town teaching them the range of instruments, or showing them what mallet choices there are, or what feels right. They don’t think of things all the time, or they may ask for a particular bell, but then you bring in a nickel gong and go “boom” and they go, “Whoa, what is that?” We all have so many instruments, so in my basic cartage pack I can’t bring 500-plus instruments. If the arranger or producer knows ahead of time what sound they want, then that’s the best. Otherwise you get the same old “formula” of mark tree [chimes], suspended cymbal under the bridges, or play the bell line. There are a lot of people that we all work for that it has to be that formula.
Roady: I remember doing a Trisha Yearwood record and Garth Fundis was the producer, and I asked him, “What do you hear or want?” And he said “Tom Roady.” He said, “What about bongos on this track?” And I am like, “Okay!” Garth Fundis is one of the most experimental producers.
Bacco: Sometimes the artist knows what he or she wants. They may say, “Go for it.”
Roady: Oh yeah, then you play on something that you would never think would do anything and it becomes a multi-platinum seller.
Sorbo: A lot of times when the music is written out there will be something really challenging just because somebody played it on their MIDI keyboard. The composer or arranger has been living with that for a couple weeks and they throw it in front of you and it’s very difficult when it doesn’t lay right.
Bacco: The hardest one was doing the Mark O’Connor records because those guys are playing mandos [mandolins], and they make a small jump and then it’s a fourth higher, so playing marimba I’ll have to jump physically a foot, and they have to go an inch! What sits really well on a mando or banjo doesn’t sit really well on a xylophone.

(Left) Eric Darken

DRUM!: One of my favorite stories about you, Eric, is that you played percussion on a Megadeth record, which is cool unto itself, but definitely not your normal Nashville session.
Darken: Those are fun, and what Tom and Sam are saying I think we all do. Respectfully, I know all these guys and they’ll immediately go left of center if they need to. A lot of times, Megadeth being a prime example, the producer and the artist allow me to stretch out and want me to go for stuff that I would normally not be able to.
Bacco: There are so many artists that you have an opportunity to work with in Nashville that you wouldn’t typically think you would have the chance to.
Roady: Like Bob Seger. That was one of the most frustrating sessions I can remember doing. I knew that they had worked with Eddie Beyers for three days before they called me in. I get there and for two days I play with an [Akai] MPC-60 drum machine. Then they wanted me to play like Aldo, the sax player, who would shake four maracas for five minutes at a time with Seger live. But playing with a live band on a Bob Seger song with no real drummer was tough.
Darken: Now with Pro Tools in the digital world, which all of us can speak for this, going in now and playing eight bars or just a section of a song is not uncommon. Depending on who the editor or producer is, you can throw a bunch of tracks to them to edit later in no time.
Caruba: The terminology has changed now: “Fix this” or “move that” or “clean that section.”
Bacco: The question that I ask is, “Is it faster for me to fix it or faster for you [the engineer] to fix it.”
Caruba: Time is money — especially being in a union town.

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