Categories: americana, buddy miller
Tags: americana, buddy miller
Tags: bluegrass, jim & jesse, mandolin
Jesse McReynolds has been an innovative musician for nearly 70 years. Born and raised in rural Carfax, Va., he and his brother Jim were the longest-running brother duo in the history of country music, playing together for 55 years before Jim’s passing in 2002.
McReynolds created his own unique style of mandolin playing using cross picking and single string picking techniques. He has always been a trailblazer in mixing genres, and made albums featuring the songs of Chuck Berry, the Grateful Dead, and John Prine long before it was hip to do so. His grandfather played fiddle on the 1927 Bristol sessions and Jesse was featured playing the same fiddle on the recent Orthophonic Joy CD, a tribute to those sessions, reviewed in the Nashville Musician’s previous issue. Jesse celebrated his 50th year of performing on the Grand Ole Opry in 2014 and he continues to be a passionate and vital artist.
NM: What were your earliest musical memories?
JM: My granddad was a fiddle player, and my father played a little, too. He never played in public, but he showed me a few tunes. Music was our only entertainment growing up. We had one radio in the community, and it belonged to my brother in law. All of the neighbors would go to his house every Saturday night to listen to the Grand Ole Opry, and the music just stuck with me. I was in a car wreck when I was 14 and broke my leg, and went I got home from the hospital, I just sat on the side of the bed and tried to learn how to play fiddle. I don’t know how my mom put up with it, but she did!
NM: How did you and your brother become professional musicians?
JM: The two of us played around home and we’d go out on Saturday night and play in the churchyard and disturb the services. They’d invite us in, but we said, “We’re not good enough to play inside!” We had a cousin who played pretty good, and we just get 4 or 5 guys together and just started playing and singing up and down the road wherever they’d have us. While Jim went into the Army for a couple of years, I got on my first radio show, Norton, Va., on WMVA in 1946. It was me and a neighbor, who was a guitar player and singer. His dad had a motel, restaurant, and beer joint down the road and got me an electric guitar to play and he bought 15 minutes of time for us to play on WMVA. Jim was driving a truck before he went in the service, and when he came home I asked him if he wanted to try to play music for a living. He said, “Well, we can give it a try,” and we stayed with it. That was 1947. We were the only ones from our area who were able to make a living playing music.
NM: When did you start playing the mandolin?
JM: When my brother Jim came home from the Army he bought a mandolin. He played it and I was playing guitar. Somehow, I got to borrowing his mandolin a lot, and I loved playing it. After we got our first little band together, he said, “Why don’t you just play mandolin,” so we switched. First we called ourselves “Jesse and James and The Cumberland Mountain Boys,” but it was too long and complicated, so we switched it to Jim and Jesse. There was another group called the Virginia Boys, and when they quit playing, we started using that name so it became Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys.
NM: Those radio shows must have been the best way to get a career going in those days. What happened next?
JM: It was a regional thing, most stations would have about a 100 mile range. We always tried to plan ahead and be ready to make our next move to another place. We went from the Norton radio show to Wheeling and then Charleston, W. Va., where Grandpa Jones worked. Next, we left Charleston and went to Bristol, Va., to a local station where we had an early morning show. The station got sold and went off the air. Wade Mainer was looking for a band and we went with him to Forest City, N.C., where we played for about 6 months. We got pretty hungry down there, too, so we kept moving. Sponsors were important, and we would audition for different companies all the time, and that kept everything going for us. We had regional radio and television shows in north Florida and south Georgia, with Ford Tractor and then Martha White as sponsors.
NM: When did you start making records?
JM: We got signed to Capitol Records in 1952, and our first record, “Are You Missing Me,” came out in September, but then I got drafted three months later. I was out of the business for for two years, so when I came back in 1954, we had to just about start over again, but “Are You Missing Me” was still our biggest hit.
NM: Did I hear correctly that you were Marilyn Monroe’s chauffeur while you were in the Army?
JM: After I got drafted, I was sent to Korea. Charlie Louvin and I both served over there and played some music together. Marilyn Monroe had just gotten married to Joe DiMaggio, and they were on their honeymoon. Joe stayed in Tokyo and she came over to Korea on a USO tour, and I was driving a jeep for Special Services. After the main show, she and the Red Cross folks would go hang out with the troops for a while, and I was her driver.
NM: What was that first Opry performance like for you?
JM: Cohen Williams, President of Martha White, really helped us to finally make it to Nashville in 1964 to play on the Grand Ole Opry. It was a big break for us. Where else can you go when you get to the Grand Ole Opry? That’s not something you ever forget. Ernest Tubb brought us on the first time, and I will always remember that night. It’s a very humbling feeling to be on that stage where so many superstars have been standing for so many years.
NM: What other mandolin players and musicians inspired you?
JM: We called what we played hillbilly or country music. Bill Monroe was the only one calling it bluegrass back then! Bill was one of my favorite players, and then I got to listening to Jethro Burns, and Red Rector impressed me, too. He played with Carl Story and we did a lot of shows with them, and Red was very unique. He didn’t use a shoulder strap, he just held the mandolin in his arms and played it that way.
NM: Can you talk about the development of your cross picking and single string style of mandolin playing?
JM: When I started out playing I always wanted to do something original that didn’t sound like anyone else. I always heard musicians talk about players who were unique, and I thought I should try to do something like that. I heard Earl Scruggs playing on the Opry with Bill Monroe and then with Flatt & Scruggs on the Bristol radio station WCYB, but I never saw him until later. I thought maybe I could adapt what he was doing on the banjo to the mandolin. I didn’t know he was using three fingers, so based on what I was hearing, I came up with my own version of what he was doing, but with a straight pick. My brother would listen to me, and say “I don’t know what you’re doing, but it don’t sound right,” and I would just say, “I’m trying to do my own thing.” I widened the space between the strings of my mandolin so I could pick each string individually and get a sound kind of like an autoharp. After I got it going, I worked in some of Bill Keith’s chromatic style of banjo playing, which I really liked, as well as what some steel players were doing. Someone in New York heard me and started calling it “McReynolds Crosspicking.”
NM: For years, you have stretched musical boundaries by incorporating material from a wide range of writers and artists. How did the 1965 album of Chuck Berry songs come about?
JM: We were with Epic Records at that time, and Billy Sherrill came to us with the idea. We found out later that Chuck Berry’s publisher had pitched it to a few other country artists, but we were the ones who said yes! Billy Sherrill gave me all of Chuck’s records to listen to, and I thought, if we’re going to do it, we’ll do it our own way. So we went into the Quonset Hut and cut “Memphis” and all the label people cam in and listened to it, and everybody started saying, “Well, this is something different!” We went on and cut the whole album and it’s still one of the most popular projects we’ve done. I’ve always been open minded about different types of music, and I like to listen to rock and roll or anything that sounds musical to me.
NM: How did you come to do a recording session in Los Angeles with The Doors?
JM: In 1968, I was visiting at my parents’ house and the phone rang and I answered it. The operator said, “Hollywood calling for Jesse McReynolds” and I thought it was somebody making a joke, but it was a producer named Paul Rothchild. He didn’t say who he was working with, but he said he had a session out in L.A. and needed a mandolin player. He said we’ll fly you out, put you up and pay you double union scale, and he also needed a fiddle so I got Jim Buchanan, who was playing with us at the time, and we went out there. When I got there, I found out it was for The Doors. I had heard of them but really hadn’t listen to them that much. It was a song called “Runnin’ Blue.” They put on the recording, and it had horns squealing and electric guitars, and I thought “Where do you hear mandolin on this?” Then right in the middle of the tune they stopped the rock and roll music and went into a hoedown type thing. Me and Jimmy overdubbed for a whole session, and it turned out pretty good.
NM: You’ve had a long relationship with (musician/songwriter/producer) Carl Jackson. Can you talk about that a little?
JM: Carl came to Nashville with playing with us for the first time when he was 14. He’s one the greatest guys in town, and he really cares about the music. He produced an album on Jim and Jesse for Rounder, “Music Among Friends” with Bill Monroe, Mac Wiseman, and Porter Wagoner and a bunch of guests. Johnny Cash’s name was on the album, but he ended up being out of town so we never got him on there. Carl’s a great producer, and a perfectionist. He really worked us hard on that one! Carl and Eddie Stubbs got me on the Orthophonic Joy project, and that was a great memorial tribute for my granddad and his fiddle. You know if Carl’s producing it, it’s gonna get done right.
NM: What advice would you give a young musician starting out today?
JM: Make your mind up what you want to do, and stick to it. Nothing’s going to be easy, you’re going to have ups and downs no matter what you do. I’ve had my share of that, and I still will, and it doesn’t fall in your lap like some people want to make it appear. If I could do it, you can do it.
Few men in the history of popular music have had a career comparable to bassist-producer Norbert Putnam.
While still a teen, Putnam made history as part of the original Muscle Shoals rhythm section, playing bass on hits by a slew of Top 40 artists, including Arthur Alexander, Tommy Roe and The Tams.
By the mid-’60s, he and the other members of the Muscle Shoals rhythm section — keyboardist David Briggs and drummer Jerry Carrigan — had made the move to Nashville. The bassist quickly became part of a loose group of younger musicians who were first call for the growing number of rock, folk and R&B recordings being made in Music City.
Putnam was the bassist in Area Code 615, the session super group formed by eight of these younger Nashville cats. The Code released two groundbreaking albums in 1969 and 1970 that strongly influenced the burgeoning country rock and Southern rock subgenres.
In 1970, Putnam and Briggs opened Quadrafonic Studio, which would become a recording destination for a variety of well-known artists, from Neil Young and Joe Walsh to Dan Fogelberg and Michael Jackson.
Putnam made the jump from sideman to producer when Kris Kristofferson backed out as producer on a record with Joan Baez in Nashville and suggested him as a replacement. The result was Baez’s first platinum album Blessed Are…, and the Top 10 single, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” which went all the way to No. 3 during a 13-week run on the Billboard Hot 100.
Impressed by the unexpected success he had with Baez, Columbia Records chief Clive Davis tapped Putnam as his go-to guy for the folk rock artists on the label’s roster. The first artist he sent the producer’s way was Dan Fogelberg, which led to more platinum success. In fact, every artist who went platinum under Putnam’s direction had never even had a gold record before.
Over the next decade or so, Putnam brought his magic touch to recordings by Jimmy Buffett, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Donovan, Pousette Dart Band, Eric Anderson, Buffy Sainte-Marie, The Flying Burrito Brothers and John Hiatt.
In the early ‘80s, Putnam retired from the music business to spend some time as a “normal person” for the first time in his life. Putnam, who has since come out of retirement, recently sat down with The Nashville Musician to discuss his celebrated career and his plans for the future.
You retired from the music business in the ’80s. What led to that decision?
I decided to go away and spend time with my children. I had been working in the recording studios for 24 years, and most of that time had been 12-to-15-hour days. I never knew what it was like to come home at six and have dinner with the family. I wanted to experience that.
Recently, you reversed that decision and have resumed producing and performing. What made you change your mind?
My wife Sheryl and I relocated to Jackson, Tenn., five years ago and purchased a large 1935 neoclassical house with a tremendous four-room basement. I converted the space into a modern digital recording studio. As you may know, my most successful studios, Quadraphonic and the Bennett House, were all well-made older homes. I then started a publishing company with my friend Randy Moore, and after a year of making demos, the bug to record and produce started to come back.
You originally got into producing by accident, right, when you produced Joan Baez’s Blessed Are… album?
What happened was Joanie called me and said she wanted me to lead the sessions. She said she wanted to make a hit record and wanted me to get some of the musicians I worked with to play on it. Kris Kristofferson was supposed to be the producer, but on the day of the first session, Kris was feeling a little anxiety about producing — he was uncertain about the technical aspects, that sort of thing. He called me aside and said, “I talked with Joanie and I think you should produce. I’ll hang out and help with anything I can do, but you should produce.” And I was thinking, “How much money did I need to pay her, ’cause this is a great opportunity.”
The Dan Fogelberg tribute album you’re currently producing sounds interesting. Can you talk about that?
I am always ready to talk about Dan and his immense talents. As most people know, he died a few years ago from advanced prostate cancer. He had no real symptoms to speak of until it was too late for treatment. His widow Jean, who had begun working with the Prostate Cancer Foundation, called to ask it I had any ideas for fund raising. I immediately suggested a tribute album.
How far along are you in the production and who are some of the artists participating in the project?
The project is now well underway with recordings by Michael McDonald, Donna Summer, Randy Owen, Don Henley, Joe Walsh and Zac Brown. Each artist is singing a favorite Fogelberg song. We hope to finish by the end of summer.
Another interesting project you are developing is Uh Band of Legends. What are your plans for that project?
Uh Band of Legends is a group of famous studio players who like to tell stories of their days recording and touring with all the legendary stars. Our core group played with everyone from The Beatles to Elvis to Billy Joel to Kenny Chesney. When we perform, we tell stories and play songs in tribute to the great ones. We then invite the audience to ask questions about our moments with their favorite star. We are making plans to tour extensively next year in Europe.
Also, you’re preparing a musical memoir — what approach are you taking with that?
My wife Sheryl has pushed me for years to write down the stories I tell at dinner parties. These stories are usually prompted by the host asking if I ever worked some of the lesser-known acts like J.J. Cale or Tony Joe White or Jerry Jeff Walker. And I have to admit, after a few glasses of red wine, the raconteur in me rears his ugly head and out comes a funny story. So over the last 10 years, I began to write them down and now I have ninety thousand words ready for assembly in some order. I hope to finish by the end of this year.
Before you became a hit producer, you played bass on a lot of historic sessions, both as a founding member of the Muscle Shoals rhythm section and as a Nashville cat. What sessions stand out most in your memory all these years later?
The early sessions in Muscle Shoals were with producer Rick Hall, who made hit records with a bunch of teenagers. Rick took Jerry Carrigan, David Briggs and myself through his FAME recording studio sweatshop and made musicians out of us. We were making hit records with Arthur Alexander, The Tams and Tommy Roe in the early ’60s. In 1964, that original Muscle Shoals section opened the first Beatles concert in Washington DC.
By 1965, we had relocated to Nashville and there we began to work more pop, rock, and R&B sessions in Nashville’s golden age. I played on big pop hits by Tony Joe White (“Poke Salad Annie”), The Vogues (“Five O’Clock World”), Bobby Goldsboro (“Honey” and “Little Green Apples”) and in the span of one day you could play bass with Loretta Lynn, Al Hirt, Henry Mancini and Elvis Presley. And after Dylan came to town — in came Joan Baez and all the folkies. Nashville in the ’60s and ’70s was a very diverse musical landscape.
But if you ask me to name a favorite, it’s Elvis Presley — the most dynamic singer I ever worked with. A session with the King was an athletic event. Elvis exhibited more unbridled power and strength than all the others put together. I played bass on 122 Elvis tracks; I speak about this at length in my book.
In the time since you retired, the music business has undergone major upheavals. What are your thoughts on the emerging digital paradigm?
I find it all very exciting. The old paradigm, whereby the major labels, in collusion with terrestrial radio controlled all hit records, is slipping away. Artists today are looking to control, manage and own their destiny. I have no idea how it will all work out but it is sure a lot more fun to consider the possibilities. I want to be a part of it!
Eric Church doesn’t pull his punches. He likes to talk straight and there is a focus and certainty to his voice that comes through, even over the phone. He knows where he’s come from, and he knows where he wants to be. And — oh yes — he’s in the process of blowing up.
The AFM Local 257 member has been favorably compared to Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings — not because of his sound — but, rather, because of his willingness to speak honestly in his songs to issues other country artists might avoid. But, this is not about being an outlaw — he’s not — but he’s not Rascal Flatts, either.
Church chuckled as he prepared for the trip to this year’s Academy of Country Music Awards show in Las Vegas in April. He had been named the 2010 ACM New Solo Vocalist before leaving, and was up for the academy’s New Artist of the Year.
“It’s kind of unique going to the ACM’s knowing you already won one,” he said, laughing. “I guess it kind of takes the pressure off a little bit. Of course, this is my third record so I’m not really all that ‘new’ either. I’ve been touring since 2005.
“I think that’s because we’ve done things a little different. People are starting to accept what we’re doing so it’s really cool.”
What Church has been doing is slowly winning over audiences, and following the Capitol release of his second record, Carolina, in 2009, breaking into the top end of the charts. Two singles from that album, “Love Your Love The Most” and “Hell on the Heart” cracked the top ten on the country charts. And, with the advance release of “Homeboy” from the upcoming and yet-to-be-titled album due out in July on EMI, Church is becoming more fixed and finding that real acceptance.
It has been a determined climb. Church moved to Nashville in 2001, painfully green, after graduating from Appalachian State in Boone, N.C., and did the unthinkable — he picked up a phone book and started calling music publishers in hopes of landing a writing gig. It was a natural thing for him to do — he had been writing and performing his own songs since he was 13 years old.
“Coming to town, I think, because I was young I thought everything would be easy,” he said. “I was able to come here, at least, and I took some lumps early on. You know everybody’s going to come here and get kicked around — that’s just how it is. I was young — maybe young and dumb.
“It was such a struggle. I didn’t know anybody — I didn’t even know where Music Row was. I came here and got a phone book and just started calling publishers trying to set up meetings and you can imagine the kind of response I got.”
Church had been playing clubs five nights a week his last couple of years in college, concentrated in western North Carolina. He had wanted to leave school and come to Nashville before finishing, but his father convinced him to stay, and promised to give him money to live on for six months in Music City after graduation.
Despite his playing experience, Church was very much a self-taught man, and though he had built a reputation and a bit of a following in college, he found out quickly he would need more when he arrived in Nashville.
“I guess my classroom, when I got here, was the writer’s nights where these guys were playing their hit songs,” he said. “I remember going and having them just kick my ass —a lot of them were hits, but just to be arriving in town and thinking you’re a great songwriter, and hearing what they were writing here — well, we were a long ways apart.
“I will say I committed myself to studying what they were doing. I lived there. I stayed there. I listened to how they crafted a song. It’s a time I wouldn’t trade for anything but it’s also a time I wouldn’t want to do again.”
That study, along with his innate talent and desire, paid off. Church, the young man who had come to Nashville and picked up the phone book, landed a publishing deal within a year with Sony Tree. Then, a providential turn took place as Sony Tree’s Arthur Buenahora introduced Church to producer Jay Joyce, Nashville rocker of the highest order. Buenahora saw a flicker of the intangible artist in Church. Something clicked with Joyce and the stars aligned. They began to cut demos, and in blinding Nashville fashion, Church was offered a recording deal with Capitol.
The pairing of Church and Joyce, in a way, was only natural. Church’s country swagger, though spawned from a wildly varied mix of musical influences, needed Joyce’s rock & roll sensibility. Together, they found his sound. The resulting debut album, Sinners Like Me, was released in 2006. Three singles, “How ‘Bout You,” “Guys Like Me,” and “Two Pink Lines” made some noise.
Church possesses a pure country voice, but his core attitude is best found in his bigger, rocking numbers. Known for a rowdy live show, he has blurred the lines between rock and country even more. You will find the proverbial wall of sound, as on the current “Homeboy,” layered with acoustic guitars, distorted banjos, driving electric guitars and big percussion, behind his vocal.
Joyce again produced the follow-up, Carolina, as the sound continued to evolve, and the pair is now putting the finishing touches on the third.
“Musically, Jay is the biggest factor,” Church said. “He’s the wild card that always brings something to it musically. He is a person who is really a genius in the studio — really making sure that the song is coming across the right way. It’s always about the song. It’s never about making something palatable to a certain group of people. It’s always about what’s going to make the song sound the best. That’s what a great producer does.”
With his large sound and provocative lyrics, Church sees himself as an outsider, though it is becoming increasingly harder to do. He always has. He grew up in Granite Falls, N.C., raised on two parts Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, one part bluegrass, and two parts AC/DC and Metallica. That fact itself makes for an interesting mix, and Church embodies now what has become a growing, almost typical phenomenon — country artists and fans alike influenced by wildly divergent genres.
“When I was young I got into a lot of Cash and Waylon like everybody did,” Church said. “And I grew up in the ’80s and in that time it’s hard to escape a lot of Metallica, AC/DC, Pantera — these are bands I grew up on. I was getting a lot of exposure to country but also a lot of exposure to heavier rock music — along with Tom Petty, Springsteen and Bob Seger. You add all that up and when we go to make music, I take all that and bring it in — all of what made me up musically and creatively and try to tie it to the sound.
“[In Boone] I was around a lot of people who had a lot of different tastes in music. I know when I went to college I didn’t know every Grateful Dead song, but I sure did when I left … that all matters.”
It was at Appalachian State that Church began to define himself musically. He had written his own songs growing up, but here was the opportunity to put them on the line.
“I started putting songs that I’d written into the sets,” Church said. “I was dabbling late at night when songs were running low or requests were running low, and I’d play some of my own stuff, and I found when we’d play those places again some of the people would request those songs.
“They became somewhat popular just by word of mouth. Those were the first times I thought there may be something here, there may be something to this. That’s when the songwriting really started becoming important to me. I played all the time. I got a real musical education.”
Perhaps, the newfound separation for Church as an artist comes from that place — within the lyric. From the touchy subject of teen pregnancy found in “Two Pink Lines,” to the candid and popular “Smoke A Little Smoke,” to the heaviness found in “Homeboy,” Church has been unafraid lyrically. He has written, or cowritten, every song on each of his records. And, he feels that fact is his strongest attribute.
“A songwriter is who I am — that before anything else,” Church said. “There’s a lot of people out there who record other people’s songs and do a great job of it. I’m just not a person who can walk on stage every night and sing songs that I didn’t write. I think if I walk out there and play them a song that I wrote, then I think there’s a whole other layer of believability — you know this guy not only wrote this song, he lived this song.
“I think if I wasn’t able to do that I would go back to just songwriting and not be a performer anymore. I think it’s the utmost important thing for me.”
Producer Joyce would tend to agree.
“I think what I like most about Eric is that he does write or cowrite the songs, that he is coming at it from the place of an artist,” Joyce said. “His voice and how he writes is so country that it enables me to push the envelope a bit [musically] — but still it’s country because of his makeup. There’s something unique being said by him. He’s being honest.”
And, though Church is given most credit as a wordsmith, Joyce is quick to point out that Church is more than capable on guitar.
“He’s really a great guitar player,” he said. “When someone writes the song — the way they play it can’t be duplicated by a session player, though he has other guitar players. This record in particular, I talked him into playing some electric guitar. There’s something about his rhythm and the way he interprets the lyric — they’re all one thing. And, when you break it all down — underneath the production and everything — it’s just honest.”
Of course, the touchstone for Church is honesty, and he believes that his background, his work ethic, and his exposure to many forms of music give him a unique perspective. He recalls the two songs that flipped the switch for him, and motivated him to do his own thing — Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and AC/DC’s “Back In Black.”
“When I heard that song of his [Kristofferson’s] and the honesty that was coming out of him — how he approached the songs he had written,” Church said. “To hear it coming from the songwriter, that’s when being a songwriter really started to matter to me. Still today I look on that [song] as a changing moment in my life.
“And, the other was the first time I heard the ‘Back In Black’ record by AC/DC. I can remember going to ballgames and hanging out with my buddies. Those two things were defining moments for me.”
New defining moments appear to be on the horizon. And, though Church did not win the New Artist of the Year in Vegas (The Band Perry did), one gets the sense that there will be more nominations in the future. He is someone who has taken chances to get here, and followed the dream.
“I think we’re building on a sound,” Joyce said. “We’re both exploring and defining things. There’s not a whole lot of fear involved with what we’re doing, which makes it a lot more fun. He’s not worried about fitting in to some other situation.”
To that end, Church feels strong in who he is.
“We’re just gonna make our music — that’s who we are,” Church said. “I’m the kind of guy that it excites to do some things that maybe haven’t been done before. I think Johnny Cash did that … I think Waylon Jennings did it. I think Garth Brooks did that. They took the format from where it was and moved it to where they were.
“I think every generation that comes along — if you’re making music that really means something — then you’re gonna move things … right or wrong.”
Aptly named saxophonist Jim Horn is one of the most prolific session musicians of all time. He has seen success as a solo artist, and remains an avid live performer. Horn has been a Nashville resident and Local 257 member since the mid 1980s, and his resume is nothing short of mind boggling.
The Southern California native credits Duane Eddy with kick-starting his recording career, which led to prolific session work with everyone from Phil Spector, Frank Sinatra, and Steely Dan to all four Beatles’ solo projects.
His signature flute parts on Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country” are etched in music history. He has led the horn section for Sting’s biannual rain forest benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden and performed with Billy Joel at Garth Brooks’ Central Park concert. Horn has recorded with artists of all genres, from The Carpenters and John Denver to The Who and the Rolling Stones.
In Nashville, Horn has worked with a typically diverse range of artists like Don Williams, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Kenny Chesney, and still keeps a full session schedule going with no sign of slowing down. He has also released a number of solo records over the years, including Neon Nights, which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Jazz Chart.
Dave Pomeroy and Craig Krampf sat down with Horn at Local 257 to talk about his life and career. “What a pleasure it was for us to hang out and talk with Jim, who is a true class act,” Pomeroy said.
Pomeroy: How did you get started doing sessions?
Horn: I owe it all to Duane Eddy. I left high school to go on the road with him, and we had recorded in Phoenix, but when he took me to Los Angeles for the first time to record, he introduced me to Ben Barrett, who needed a rock & roll sax player. At that time Plas Johnson was playing most of the dates, and I could play in that style. Plas was the man. He would hook the part in one take and that’s what I learned to do from him.
Ben asked me if I could double, and when I told him I played flute, baritone sax, and all the horns, he started calling me, and the next thing I knew I was on a Henry Mancini session when one of the ten bass flute players on the date didn’t show up. Hal Blaine was also a big help to me when I started out.
Krampf: Coming from rock & roll, were you comfortable reading those types of charts?
Horn: Thanks to my mom, I could always read music. She made me take lessons, starting on piano, but when I heard all those sax solos on rock & roll records I knew that’s what I wanted to play. I was 12 years old and I learned to read immediately.
When I started doing sessions, I could read anything, and that really helped me a lot. So did playing a lot of different instruments. I went out and bought a bass flute to play the Mancini dates and that’s when I started collecting a lot of instruments. When I played oboe and English horn on the Carpenter’s records, I had only been playing them about a year. I brought my tone and vibrato to the different horns, so it still sounded like me.
When I played oboe on Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” Vince DeRoza, a top session and symphony French horn player was on the date. As the session ended, he said “You’ve got the sound, man,” and that really made me feel good.
Pomeroy: Can you tell us about the flute part on Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country?”
Horn: Alan Wilson, who wrote and sang the song, called me in to replace the original flute part. He played it for me, and we changed the line around a little here and there. After I recorded the part he asked me to double it. I said, “Are you sure? On a rock record?” He said yes, so we did. He liked it so much that we tripled it. It ended up sounding like a Pan flute. In the mix it’s panned left, right and center. The first time I heard it on the radio driving in my car I couldn’t believe how loud the flutes were in the mix.
Krampf: What were the Pet Sounds sessions like? Were there written charts?
Horn: The records I did with the Beach Boys were special, and a lot of them still pay royalties even now. Once in a while Larry Knechtel would write a chord chart for the rhythm section and Hal Blaine would have a road map, but the rest was up in the air.
Brian Wilson would come over to us and he would pick out an instrument for me to play, as he had me bring everything. He would ask me to try different horns looking for the perfect sound. Then he would sing us parts and melodies and we would memorize them. Nothing was written down. Sometimes, for songs like “Good Vibrations,” we would cut short pieces of music only, just eight or 16 bars and only Brian knew how they would connect in the end. As it turned out, Pet Sounds influenced Paul McCartney to make Sgt. Pepper (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles).
Krampf: You did quite a few Phil Spector sessions. That must have been quite an experience.
Horn: Those were crazy sessions, usually at Gold Star, and everyone was crammed into one small room. Four piano players, two guitars, Fender bass and Danelectro, both played with picks an octave apart, drums, horns, and more, all live. Spector was like the Lenny Bruce of producers. Sonny Bono worked for him so he and Cher would be there, sometimes playing tambourine or shaker. The horn charts were written by Jack Nitzsche and most of the time there was nothing more than whole notes on a lot of the songs. We wanted to play the funky licks but they wouldn’t let us.
When we cut “River Deep, Mountain High” with Tina Turner, they finally let us play the lick! [Horn sings funky intro lick] Phil was trying to keep Ike Turner out of the studio, he just wanted to work with Tina. She was amazing, she just walked into the studio, introduced herself, and lit the place on fire. We cut the track with her in the vocal booth right behind the horns. We didn’t have headphones on, so we didn’t hear the vocal until the playback and then – wow. That was a great record, but it wasn’t a hit at the time. We recorded “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” with the Righteous Brothers in the same studio. No head phones on.
Krampf: I always thought Johnny Rivers was underrated. Changes and Realization were great albums that you played on with him. Were those arranged by Marty Paich?
Horn: Yes. I would play on the rhythm track and Marty would write strings around my part, and then I would be part of the string and horn section on the overdub. Johnny was very smart and owned his own publishing long before it was fashionable, and later on was one of the first artists to produce himself for his own label. Lou Adler actually produced his early records. Bones Howe engineered them.
Pomeroy: How were you able to juggle touring and keeping things going in Los Angeles?
Horn: One time I came home for a while, and people weren’t calling me, because they assumed I was on the road, so I started booking club gigs out in Orange county, just me and a drummer and a keyboard player playing left hand bass, playing weekends. That helped lead me to get the Shindig TV show house band gig with James Burton, Knechtel, and Leon Russell. Plas Johnson’s brother played piano and he had that great New Orleans style. That was a fun gig, and I kept my weekend club gig going too.
Pomeroy: How did you make the transition to working with so many English artists?
Horn: I got to know Leon Russell, who’s still a great friend, when we were in Los Angeles doing sessions, and we did the “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour with Joe Cocker. I quickly found out that all of the English artists that I worked with were really influenced by American music. Then a while later, I got a phone call from George Harrison. He said “Leon says you write horn parts. Is that expensive?” [Horn laughs] George was always very frugal. He said, “All my friends in Bangladesh are starving and Ravi [Shankar] has asked me to help them.”
So I put together a horn section for the record and then George’s Bangladesh concert in New York, and it was an incredible experience. That was the beginning of my friendship with Eric Clapton, and I played the Concert for George with Eric after George passed away.
Elton John came to L.A. to record and I was asked to put together a horn section for “Little Jeannie.” He came into the studio dressed in a mink vest with diamond earrings and silk pants, he looked outrageous! He loved the horn arrangement and asked me to play an alto solo as well. He wouldn’t let me do more than one take. He said “You’ve painted the picture – it’s done.”
Pomeroy: Bobby Keys is an interesting character, to say the least. How did you meet him?
Horn: He heard me with Duane Eddy in Lubbock, Texas when I was 16, and a few years later I met him when we were recording with Delaney and Bonnie up at Leon Russell’s studio in his house. We hit it off right away, and I ended up hanging with him in England for a while in the 70s. Bobby, Jim Price and I played together on sessions in England for people like The Who and the Rolling Stones.
Mick Jagger was impressed that I had actually met Muddy Waters, who was his vocal idol. Bobby and Keith Richards are very close, and we worked with Keith a couple years ago in New York playing in Steve Jordan’s band. He was a total gentleman — on time, sober, and professional, and was drinking tea. That’s the side of Keith that I like. Bobby’s been here in Nashville for a while now, and we still get together.
Pomeroy: What was behind your move to Nashville? Did you have to change your style to fit in?
Horn: Jimmy Bowen, who I worked for in Los Angeles for Sinatra and others, had moved here, and I called him just to say hello and he immediately asked me to come record on something he was working on with Mel Tillis, “There Ain’t No California.” He kept calling, and I started playing on some hits. I had met Denise Draper, a songwriter, and I was ready for a change so I moved here and we eventually got married. I ended up talking a bunch of people into moving here. Steve Cropper, Duane Eddy, Leon Russell, Joe Osborne and other friends would come stay with me, check it out, and ended up living here. Michael McDonald, Larry Carlton, and Donna Summers were some of my Los Angeles friends as well.
Not long after I moved to town, Garth Fundis called me and said that Don Williams wanted to try saxophone on a few songs. I thought, this is great, cutting live in the studio with Don and the studio band. Such a great singer and what great songs. “That’s The Thing About Love” and Walkin’ A Broken Heart” were both No. 1 country songs. I ended up touring with him for two years in the mid 80s. I was still doing my thing, but in a different context.
Pomeroy: How did you end up going on the road with Kenny Chesney?
Horn: He and [producer] Buddy Cannon had called me to play horns on a record every once in a while, and I said “If you keep this up, you’ll have to take some horns on the road!” One day Kenny called me up, and said, “I’ll send you a bunch of songs and you write horn charts for the ones you think could use it, and we’ll try it at a rehearsal and see what works.”
I wrote 13 charts and he loved it. So we went out on the road and the crowd really dug it, even on the songs that had no horns on the record. Kenny had a lot of fun onstage with us, smiling, jumping around, conducting us, whatever. He gave the horn section our own bus on the road — that was amazing. He treats everybody great, never a bad word to anyone. I ended up doing four years on the road with him. I love him like a little brother, he’s a great guy — I hope we do it again.
Pomeroy: What advice would you give a young musician today?
Horn: Practice practice, practice. If your goal is to be the best at what you do and to earn a living playing music, you’ve got to practice and fall in love with your instrument. You should always be listening when you practice and train your ear to make sure you’re in tune, and play difficult lines slowly at first. I played along with records and that helped a lot.
Krampf: What’s coming up next for you?
Horn: I am getting ready to do a record combining Native American flutes with the natural water and nature sounds of Cumming Falls, near Gainesborough, Tenn. Bill Vorndick is going to record the falls for me and I will overdub layers of flute melodies and maybe a few other instruments. It should be a lot of fun and very relaxing to listen to.
I also may finally release some tracks that I produced on Renee Armand in L.A. in the mid 70’s. I called in all of my friends to help record the tracks for us and wrote all of the string & horn arrangements. Renee kept the original tracks that we shopped with to get a record deal, but they were never released. We digitized the tracks recently & they sound great.
Pomeroy: Any final thoughts?
I just wanted everybody to realize how important it is to have your family there for you when you’re in the music business. I always had great support and understanding. I’m now divorced and single and I’m spending a lot of time with my daughter Josie, who I love very much. She’s a strong and beautiful girl. I’m teaching her how to play the flute and she’s learning very fast. Hopefully she’ll join Local 257 some day!
To find Horn’s music online, go to http://www.jimhornmusic.com.
On May 4, 2010, Nashville’s venerable War Memorial Auditorium hosted the Grand Ole Opry’s regularly scheduled Tuesday night show in the wake of the disastrous flooding of the Opry House last weekend. I was in attendance to lend my support to everyone, and it was an unforgettable night and a testament to the healing power of music. The show exemplified all that is good and “real” about country music and our
city. After opening remarks by Grand Ole Opry President Steve Buchanan, Gaylord CEO Collin Reed and Tennessee Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, (who later played “Tennessee Waltz” on piano with the Opry band), Marty Stuart opened the show with a rousing version of an old Flatt and Scruggs tune, appropriately retitled “Let The Church Roll On.”
Many of the Opry staff musicians have lost irreplaceable instruments, amplifiers and more in the flood, but they carried on nobly, battered but unbowed by the tragedy and everyone played straight from the heart all night long. Performers included Chris Young, Suzy Bogguss, Restless Heart, Jack Green, Jim Ed Brown, Jimmy C. Newman, and Jeannie Seely, who had lost “everything” in the flood. All of them sang with passion and commitment befitting the occasion and then some.
The show was emotional but uplifting and everyone in attendance was touched by a collective sense of history in the making. The musical tradition that the Opry represents to our community is a living, breathing thing and is bigger than any building or any trials we may endure. As Marty Stuart and Connie Smith performed a stunning duo version of “Wayfaring Stranger”, followed by the entire
cast singing “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, it was clear to all in attendance that this was the beginning of the healing process our city so desperately needs. I also must tip my hat to all the Opry management and staff who have showed so much class during this extremely difficult time. As President of the Nashville Musicians Association, I am so proud to represent the finest musicians in the world and I know that “Music City” will persevere through these hard times and emerge stronger than ever before.