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.
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.
DRUM!: Do you prefer tracking with a live rhythm section or doing overdubs later on that ultimately may save time and money?
Bacco: I always prefer overdubbing for the art of it because I am totally in control of what frequencies I can use that really affect the track. I can make a section livelier or duller and it’s the “me” show. The engineer will take time and get the sounds we want. However, for the camaraderie, for the hang, and certainly for the higher budget records, I like to track live.
Darken: Didn’t you do the Neil Diamond record Tennessee Moon tracking both live and doing overdubs?
Bacco: That was really the best of both worlds. It was so cool because we had three different drummers. There was such a difference between Harry Stinson, Chester Thompson, and Paul Liem. It was more interesting to track with these guys to see which one is more giving than the other, or which one even considers that there is a percussionist in the room and leaves room for that percussionist. Neil Diamond is a great example of another star coming to record in Nashville.
Caruba: I much prefer to do overdubs, mainly because I can work at my own pace, but I agree with Sam, that it’s best if the drummer leaves you space.
(Left) Glen Caruba
DRUM!: Arguably, Nashville has the greatest concentration of recording studios per capita over any other music capital in the world boasting all of the latest technologies.
Caruba: I work regularly for a client that tracks the rhythm section from his Nashville studio, but the engineering and producing is done in real time from his New York studio.
Roady: Almost every writer in this town has their own studio.
Sorbo: And almost every engineer, too.
Roady: It’s really come around to where almost every studio musician has to have their own home studio.
Sorbo: You can paint your own picture. It’s like a coloring book for me, having your own studio in your house. It’s not just using samples, because I bring guys in to really play.
DRUM!: What else do you guys do? Sam, I know you also are a drum designer.
Bacco: Actually, I have a consulting company that does product development for many corporations. For years I worked for Gibson and we had the Mapex line. I was also head of R&D for Slingerland, then I worked for Gretsch, and am presently working with Leedy and Cooperman Fife and Drum, as well as my own thing.
Caruba: I am in charge of product development and marketing for Pearl Percussion. I’m sure you can relate but I find an equal satisfaction in performing as with developing and marketing the instruments that I use, or more so, that other percussionists use.
Bacco: It’s very complementary that one feeds off another as well as a great balancing act. After those thousands of shaker tracks you have to play from top to bottom make you want to go to the shop and drill some holes. Then you go drill holes, and after about your five-thousandth hole, then you’re ready to play shaker again. It starts out of the fear that you’re never going to work again. We all know that you can be the session king for one week, and then no one calls for three months. I play as principal percussionist in the Nashville Symphony, then the product development and repair stuff, and then the studio work. It’s just such a great balance except when everything hits at the same time.
Roady: Being a non-orchestral player, I am so happy that you guys [Ron and Sam] finally have a home [Schermerhorn Symphony Center].
Bacco: Thanks. We actually sold more classical units [recording] than any other group last year.
Caruba: When I meet someone for the first time that doesn’t know what I do, I say I am drummer. If I need to elaborate I’ll get into the many spokes on my wheel: Product developer for Pearl, session musician, teacher, writer, and yes, sometimes it becomes a bit overwhelming but it seems that you always want too much work versus too little.
(Left) Tom Roady
DRUM!: Say you meet a new percussionist that just moved to town, regardless of being a newcomer or veteran. What is the one piece of advice you would give?
Roady: Hook up with as many young songwriters that are going out and performing on songwriter nights and take a djembe or shaker and be unobtrusive. Meet as many of those people as you can, because that’s where you’ll get into demo work then ultimately master sessions.
Caruba: Be professional and have a good attitude. Show up to a session or gig with plenty of time to get a sound check. Especially sessions. If you are a newcomer and you don’t have a cartage company delivering your gear, you have to make sure that everything is set, tuned, and ready to go with enough time for the engineer to get sounds on you and the rest of the group. If it’s a union session and you’re not ready to go at 10:00 A.M. that’s a sure way of not getting the call again regardless of your talent.
Sorbo: Learn to play the piano and start writing songs to make as much money as you can as far as survival. If you can start writing songs or writing anything — sure there are more songwriters than instrumentalists as we spoke about earlier — but over the long haul there is future money that can be coming in, so all the time you are still playing you can also do something else for income. Learning to play piano or guitar, it opens your ears up to when, playing on songs, you have a better understanding of what’s going on.
Darken: Try to find quality environments to play in whether it is church, a club, songwriters, and eventually word will get out if you’re a good player and easy to work with.
Bacco: Create your own work. I didn’t come in to take Farrell Morris’ work. I came in and created my own niche. Go out and create your own group of people that you hang and work with and develop it. Sometimes that can take the better part of a decade to really come into it, but you’re going to be working. You may not be working like gangbusters or making the best thing, but everybody from that generation will eventually do it.