The Hardest Working Man
When Modern Drummer reached out to catch up with Jerry Pentecost, the drummer filled us in on his impressive performing schedule and concluded, “I’m really just a dude looking for donuts.”
Ah! Perhaps the metaphorical donut? An everyman seeking morsels of wisdom? Wrong. Turns out, he just loves—and frequently refers to—donuts. On tour, he indulges his vice, seeking out local top-rated delicacies.
But far from being Homer Simpson-esque, Jerry is a lanky figure constantly on the go. With his trademark oversized white specs, bundled-back dreads, and coach’s whistle dangling around his neck, the thirty-four-year-old, self-taught drummer bursts with positive energy, humor, and a disarming youthful enthusiasm.
Though Jerry may have a sweet-tooth vice, he doesn’t drink, which caused snags when he first circulated the bars of his native Nashville to meet musicians. To bolster networking, he turned to Craigslist. “I got on and responded to everything,” he says. “It was literally, ‘Play this three-hour blues gig for $25.’ That was around 2007, and I’ve been sustaining as a musician just playing music for the last four or five years.”
The tireless drummer became a Nashville club fixture, known for vaulting onto stages toting his cymbal bag, hitting the gig, and then quickly bounding off stage to barely make the next one—or two. “I do love to do three or four gigs a day,” he explains. “I’ve now played or recorded with just about every Nashville-based up-and-comer. People started taking note, thinking, What gig does he have at 12:30 on a Tuesday?”
Locals soon dubbed him “the Hardest Working Man in Nashville.” It’s paid off. Since 2016, Jerry has served as drummer and bandleader with vocalist/violinist Amanda Shires. To the Sunset, Shires’ latest disc, is a departure from her usual Americana sound, featuring a heavier rock and pop element shaded by country roots. Jerry’s deep-pocketed, multitextured drumming brings grooving drama to the shimmering, gutsy set.
As an acknowledgement of his peers’ respect, Jerry was recruited for the past two years to play in the house band for the Americana Music Honors and Awards at the famed Ryman Auditorium, where he performed with a stream of notables, including Van Morrison, k. d. lang, Rosanne Cash, Irma Thomas, Lori McKenna, and the McCrary Sisters. In addition, he was nominated for the Americana Music Association’s 2018 Instrumentalist of the Year award, being only the second drummer so honored.
Jerry currently maintains an extensive touring schedule with Shires. He’s also been tracking with Ron Pope and will tour with the singer-songwriter as well. When off the road, Jerry still squeezes in gigs at choice local venues and also makes DJ appearances.
And, in case you were wondering, Jerry prefers “old school” regular and glazed. “No designer donuts for me,” he insists.
MD: Your first inspiration was R&B. You’ve said that you initially “didn’t get” country music. Yet you eventually found your way into country music and related scenes, fully embracing it.
Jerry: I grew up in a pretty stereotypical low-income black family household. Marvin Gaye and Al Green were played almost exclusively in my house. That’s where I discovered my love for R&B and soul music. Eventually I found out that Al Jackson Jr. was drumming on many of those tracks and cowriting some as well. That was pretty heavy for me.
When I got my first drumset at fifteen, I got into 311; Chad Sexton’s drum solo on “Applied Science” is one of the reasons I kept playing drums. My first band was modeled after that.
But country was never a thing that was mentioned, though my mom liked Amy Grant on the sly. We’d scroll through the radio, and if something like Reba McEntire came on, I just didn’t get it. Because I didn’t know anything about it: I hadn’t tipped my toe into it.
What eventually got me into country was listening to older stuff like Jerry Reed, Buck Owens, and some early George Jones—man, they’re playing a million miles per hour, but they’re so calm, so cool in their Nudie suits. That culture appealed to me. My whole “simple is key” rule is what appealed to me in classic country: “You mean to tell me I don’t need to be hittin’ all this stuff, and I can literally just serve the music, play a simple beat, and be playing well with other musicians? That’s it!” It didn’t have to be about anything else. Country music was the forum that helped me first understand that it’s the songwriting you’re trying to serve.
MD: How did you first get onboard with country gigs?
Jerry: The first country gig I had, I didn’t know it was going to be country when I took it because the guy that addressed me wasn’t wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. [laughs] Then he sent me the music, and it wasn’t what I thought it would be.
So I was like, Okay, let me figure this out. My favorite group of all time is Steely Dan, with their history of the best of the best drummers. The thing about Steely Dan is, it’s mostly shuffles. So I thought, “How can I apply Steely Dan to country?”Then I realized that country is all shuffles. Then you basically start figuring out, country is on the beat or ahead of the beat, blues is kind of on the beat to behind the beat, R&B is behind the beat…. So you start figuring out where to lay the backbeat, and that’s where I came up with it.
MD: Playing with Amanda, you effectively use various combinations of sticks, rods, brushes, etc. Even when rocking big halls, you frequently use a brush for the snare backbeat, getting a fat walloping sound. How do you achieve that?
Jerry: On a lot of gigs I had at the beginning, I had to play with a bandanna over my snare drum because a female singer-songwriter I was working with at the time said to me, “Oh! So you’re a basher?” I did not want that label to carry with me. So I had to work super hard on listening and getting comfortable with playing lighter.
The problem is, once you start out playing loud, that’s your ceiling. If you start low, the band’s going to start where your ceiling is. Something I preach with Amanda’s band is dynamics. Her voice is soft but very powerful. If you start out loud, you don’t have anywhere to go.
My first country gig was with Jonny Corndawg, who now goes by Jonny Fritz. I played with him for about six years, and I used sticks on only a couple songs. It was a weird trio with just him on acoustic guitar, a fiddle, and me. I called it “power brushes” at that point: playing full grooves, full intensity, but with brushes. I developed a good backbeat with the brushes right there. And it’s weird—I don’t normally play traditional grip, but I do with brushes; that’s what feels comfortable to me.
A lot of brush players don’t like any of the brush grip to touch the head; they have palms down, right over the snare drum, and it’s all wires. But if I’m going to play a pocket, I want a little bit of the rubber of the grip to hit the snare because, A, it chokes out some of the overtones, and, B, it gives you the closest thing to a solid sound resembling a stick.
Sometimes, playing with a brush in my left hand sounds better than playing with a stick on certain grooves, because with a stick you get so many overtones—especially when using in-ears and you can hear everything.
MD: You were featured in one of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Musician Spotlight series of concerts/talks. It’s significant that you brought only a minimalist setup and mostly played tunes with guests rather than soloing or lecturing.
Jerry: That’s all you need. Right now, I’m only playing a snare, bass drum, hi-hat, and ride. So you have to make the most of it. Sometimes I need to use the butt of the brush or butt of the Hot Rod or whatever I’m using. So you’ve got to become comfortable with twirling them around or tossing them real quick so you can get a particular sound, then go back to what you were doing.
When they asked me to do that show, my first response was, “Dude, you don’t want me to solo, right?” Because that’s totally not me. I will do drum solos if I have to, but I try not to because, to me, it’s always like an afterthought.
MD: What’s the key that’s made your phone ring so constantly?
Jerry: The number-one thing above everything is to be a team player. It’s not about you; it’s not about anything you can or can’t do. It’s about what the group can do—finding your role and serving your purpose. And your number-one purpose should be to play for the song.
MD: Your R&B influences are apparent in your sense of pocket.
Jerry: Al Jackson Jr.’s influence has been super present throughout my playing history. I don’t want to say I modeled myself after him, because I’m sure that’s not the first person people would think of when they hear me play—because he was playing raw soul music and I’m playing Americana, pop, rock, and whatnot. It’s just that Steve Cropper called him “the best drummer in the world”—never flashy, just always played what was supposed to be played, every time.
MD: Which country drummers helped you see the light?
Jerry: I could go through a Country 101 of so many greats, but Buddy Harman was special. He’s played on so many records, including Patsy Cline’s, and kind of revolutionized the sound of the Nashville country drums.
MD: Your musical trajectory has been unique. You’ve embraced the common ground between many genres. And the Americana scene has traditionally featured fewer black artists.
Jerry: Yeah, it’s predominantly a white-male genre. But I would hope that’s not why a lot of attention is on Amanda and me right now. I think we were meant to work together. I enjoy playing her music, and she enjoys me playing her music. We have a great chemistry, and she’s been like a sister and best friend to me.
A while ago, a guy reached out to me for a magazine interview, and he was like, “With everything going on in the world, with the police killing black people, as a black artist in a white, male-dominated genre, how do you feel about the attention you’re getting?” I said, “I just want one thing to be absolutely clear: this has nothing to do with me feeling like I deserve something because I’m black. I worked hard every single day. Most days, I get up and work until I pass out with one shoe on at four in the morning, and get up and do it all over again. I don’t want anybody to think they owe me anything, because I’ve earned it all. And I can sleep well knowing that.”
MD: To the Sunset straddles lots of influences, and your playing encompasses that. How do you define your drumming stylistically?
Jerry: I typically say I play everything but jazz. I could hang on a jazz gig. But don’t hire me for a jazz gig. For me, the Americana scene is ever-embracing. It’s the friendliest community I’ve ever been a part of. I basically get up on any given day and prepare for whatever gig is on the table, try to play the music as best as I can, and don’t think about the category. It’s like having a mixed baby; it’s a multigenre thing.
Amanda’s voice is always going to be geared more towards Americana. Plus she plays fiddle, so that’s our connection with roots music. But we say we’re a rock band, and that’s what Amanda calls it. Personally, I just call it music.
“It’s true that the talent is in your hands,” says Jerry Pentecost. “But there are tools along the way. I’ve been with Promark, and when I discovered the Carl Palmer model sticks, it elevated my playing to a whole new level. I could feel things better; I could rebound better. I was like, Man! Was it just that I was using the wrong sticks for me all this time?
“It’s the same thing with my Ludwig Black Beauty snare drum,” Jerry goes on. “As soon as I started playing, it was, I’m playing a drum that GETS me. [laughs] Almost like going out on a date!”
Currently Pentecost plays either a vintage Ludwig Classic Maple set in Bowling Ball Blue Oyster (pictured) or a new Maple Club Date in White Marine Pearl. Each kit includes a 9×13 tom and a 16×16 floor tom; he plays a 14×22 bass drum with the Classic Maple kit and a 14×20 with the Club Date set. His Black Beauty snare is 6.5×14.
Jerry’s Zildjian cymbals include 14” hi-hats made up of a K top and an A Custom bottom, and a 22” K Light ride. His Remo heads include an Ambassador Vintage snare batter and an Ambassador snare side, either Emperors or CS Coated tom batters and Ambassador Clear resonants, and a Powerstroke Coated bass drum batter. He uses the aforementioned Promark Carl Palmer model sticks, plus TB5 brushes and Hot Rods. He also uses various hardware brands, a Roc-N-Soc throne, SKB cases, Fender TEN-5 in-ear monitors, and a Roland SPD-S sampling pad with a Roland BT-1 Bar Trigger Pad and a Nektar footswitch.
John Prine “How Lucky” single (Amazon exclusive) /// Lauren Morrow Lauren Morrow /// Amanda Shires To the Sunset /// Quinn De-Veaux This Could Be Yours /// Henry Wagons After What I Did Last Night… /// JP Harris and the Tough Choices Home Is Where the Hurt Is /// Jonny Fritz “Ain’t It Your Birthday” and “Fever Dreams” from Dad Country