Every musician dreams of finding just the “right” band to join, but after meeting the other members of Alabama for the first time, Mark Herndon was glad that they didn’t hire him. My mother worked as a receptionist at a hotel, and they were hired to play in the bar. She found out that their drummer had given them notice, so she said, ’Listen, I know a drummer who lives near me.’ She didn’t want to say, ’My little boy plays drums.’ She was a musician herself, so I guess she knew how to be cool about it. She told them, ’The last I heard, this drummer was looking for work. I can ask him to come out here if you guys want to talk to him.’ Then she got on the phone to me and said, ’Get out here. You might get a job.’ So I went to the hotel and started talking to them, and right when I was in the room with them, the lounge manager called and fired them because they didn’t play enough disco. They weren’t telling me what was happening, but I knew what was going on. So I said, ‘Well, I’ll see you. You’ve got my number.’ As I was walking down the stairs, I was thinking, ‘I’m glad they didn’t hire me. They can’t even keep work.’”
That should be the end of the story, because all we know that you are only given one chance to make it, and if you make the wrong decision at the crucial time, you are destined to spend the rest of your musical life working country clubs and bars. Which is exactly what Mark continued doing after his uneventful meeting with Alabama. He spent a few more months working the country club circuit in Florence, South Carolina, and then moved to Augusta, Georgia to join a band which seemed to show more promise. That band fell apart almost immediately, as so many bands do, and Mark seemed destined to return to Florence to try again. He never made it back, though. “The very hour I was packing my car, Randy [Owen] from Alabama called me up and said, ’Hey man, do you remember talking to us about six or eight months ago?’ I said, ’Why sure.’ He said, ’We need somebody to play and we remember talking to you. Would you be interested in coming to work for us?’ Here I was facing starvation so I said, ’Hell yes. I’ll be there yesterday.’
“I already had all my stuff in the car, so instead of going back to Florence, I headed for Myrtle Beach, where we had agreed to meet at ten o’clock the next morning. I got there at 9:45, and I was waiting for them when they drove up to the club. I had once read an article in Modern Drummer about what other musicians look for in a drummer, and one of the most stressed points was punctuality being there when you say you’re going to be there and showing up on time for gigs and rehearsals. That stuck with me, and I think it helped get me this job. They were looking for somebody who really cared about working at it.
“I’ve always played real hard, and at the audition I just played my normal way. We played some cover tunes; some top-40 stuff that was popular at the time. I handled a couple of rock things with no problem, but then we got to the country songs and I said, ’Guys, I don’t know anything about country tunes and I don’t know if I can play it.’ They said, ’Don’t worry about it. Just play.’ I played what I thought fit, and they liked it.
“They gave me what I considered a grace period. They probably considered it more of an eyeballing period, like, ’Let’s watch this guy and see where he’s coming from.’ They were really paranoid about it because the guy who had been with them for about three or four years suddenly left. They guys were real down and out. Here they had just signed a contract with a record label, and the drummer up and leaves. According to Teddy [Gentry], all these cats they were auditioning either were good but didn’t have their heads on straight, or else they just couldn’t play. It was very frustrating for them. So they said, ’The job is yours if you want it,’ but it was like, ’Try it out for a couple of weeks and see if you like it.’
“My mother and I are pretty good friends, and I can talk to her about professional things. I told her, ’I don’t know if I want to take this gig or not. That’s not my kind of music right now.’ She said, ’Well, if I were you, I’d take it. It might lead to something better.’ Boy, it lead to something better alright. If I hadn’t taken it I’d be back in Florence kicking myself now.”
Mark started working with Alabama at a Myrtle Beach club called The Bowery. “That place was wild. It’s an ocean-front college beer hall, and it’s wild as hell, people swinging from the rafters. That was right down my alley, I loved it! It was not your traditional country scenario. They had can-can girls dancing on the stage and we played everything from Eddy Arnold to Frank Zappa. A cross section of the world came into that bar, and there would be some of the wildest requests you would ever hear. We made our living down there by passing the hat.
“After working down there two or three weeks, I decided that I was going to stay with Alabama, because I noticed a rapport between the band and the crowd that I had never seen before in a club act. The guys had the crowd literally on their feet by the end of the night. People always come into a bar with entertainment on their mind other than what’s on the stage. But this was more like a mini concert. The people were really digging on what the band was doing. There were a following of regulars, but there were also a certain number of people who were different every night, and they’d leave as fans. I thought that was pretty neat. And I had finally found a band where I felt that everybody was equally as interested as I was, and wanted to work at it just as hard as I did. I wanted to go somewhere; I wanted to play concerts. And they all had that goal. I couldn’t believe it! I had found three kindred spirits!”
It had taken Mark quite a while to find a band he was happy playing in. But then, it had taken Mark quite a while to become involved in music to begin with. His first musical experience consisted of piano lessons when he was 12 years old. “My grandmother was a concert pianist, and my mother was quite a piano player herself, so naturally, little Mark was going to learn how to play the piano. I couldn’t get into it. The piano teacher was wanting me to learn stuff that I didn’t like. If I was going to play music, I wanted to play the stuff I was hearing on the radio. And besides that, the teacher never took a bath. When he sat on the bench with me, learning scales, it was kind of brutal on the nose. Besides that, all the other kids thought it was ’sissy’ for a 12-year-old boy to be taking piano lessons, and at that age you’re kind of influenced by what your friends think.”
When he was in the 10th grade, Mark decided to try out for the school band as a drummer. “I wasn’t really into it, but I thought drums were hot. So I tried out, but I couldn’t play the cadence. The drum major wasn’t very nice, and he wasn’t very patient. He played through the cadence one time, and you were supposed to pick it up, just like that. I guess if I had been a drummer prior to that I probably could have picked it up, but I didn’t get it so they washed me out. It’s kind of funny to look back on now. I couldn’t make it in the band.”
It was a couple of years later that Mark finally became seriously interested in becoming a musician. “I had a friend who was a drummer and he played in a rock ’n’ roll band. They played for a lot of dances at school, and they were real good. I think it was the Senior Prom; they had the people eating out of the palms of their hands. People weren’t dancing, they were up by the stage watching the band. It was like a concert, and it hit me like a bolt of lightning, I had to learn how to play. I’d had friends who had drumsets, and I was always able to tap out a little rhythm. It just came naturally to me. But I never got the fever until that night, and it’s something that has stayed with me ever since.
“I still had a little bit of school left. I was going to military school and I lived in a barracks, and that was not real conducive to practicing. Most of my time was regimented into things I had to do. I had a pair of sticks, and I arranged some 8-track tapes on a table like a tom-tom set-up, and just practiced going from tape to tape.
“When school was over, I went back home. I kind of put it away for a while because I had a summer job working in a factory and it seemed like I was either working or sleeping. But when I went away to college, I set up some chairs with pillows on them in my dorm room, and I’d play along with the radio and things like that. I made my first foot pedal out of a coat hanger and a ping-pong ball. I bent the coat hanger around so it had a little spring action to it, and I straightened out the question mark part of it and stuck a little ball on it, and tapped out some rhythm against a cardboard box. My cymbals were styrofoam packing material stuck up on a couple of pieces of two-by-four. I wish I had a picture of that, because it was classic. I went outside one day and looked up at my window, and my dorm room looked like a junk pile. But I had fun.
“I saved money and saved money, and finally bought my first drum, which was a 20” Slingerland bass drum. Little by little I pieced together a drumset. I had a lot of different brands, but I was adamant about everything being the same color. It took me about a year to get a playable drumset.
“I was probably the biggest hanger-outer of anybody I knew back then. I’d check out every band that came to this club in Florence called Zorba’s, a great rock ’n’ roll club. The group Nantucket used to play there, and so did Mother’s Finest. And they’d get unheard-of bands too, but they’d be equally as good. I’d be there every weekend watching the drummers, looking at their sets, and I’d get to talk to them sometimes. I think that hanging out like that did more for me than any drum lesson I could have bought. I’ve learned something from everybody I’ve ever watched play, and I still do. I still like to hang out, I still like to go to concerts, and I really pay attention to what the drummer’s doing. So I would go to Zorba’s and see a drummer who I really thought was hot. I’d remember some of the beats he used and run back home and practice them until I got them right. I’ve forgotten a lot of them now, but I picked up some coordination from doing that.”
By this time, Mark had moved to an apartment, and he would invite friends over who played guitar. “We’d just jam and mess around and experiment until the wee hours of the morning, much to my neighbors’ dismay. As a matter of fact, I got in a couple of fistfights over the noise back then. They’d come over and tell me to quit, and I’d tell them where to put it, and, you know… It was all college kids who lived around there.”
Eventually, Mark dropped out of school and got a job. One of the guys he worked with was trying to put together a band, and when he found out that Mark played drums, he invited him to a rehearsal. They liked Mark’s playing, and offered him the gig. “Compared to what I know now, it was really a nowhere little gig, but at the time I thought, ’Woah, I’ve landed my first gig!’” The band was playing predominantly heavy metal, with a few top-40 cover songs thrown in. On a good night, each member would make all of 20 dollars, playing at the type of places where chicken wire was strung across the front of the stage to protect the band from flying beer bottles. The other members moved into Mark’s apartment, and he was basically supporting them on the money he made from his day job, and the little money the band made playing in beer joints. After about a year of that, Mark moved out. “I’d had it. It was going nowhere.”
Herndon’s next gig was with a society band, Ed Turbeville & His Orchestra, who played weekends at country clubs, doing standards such as “Harbor Lights” and more top-40 cover tunes. It was Ed who taught Mark about playing for the band, instead of just for himself. “Ed was the first mentor I had; he was the first guy I worked for. He taught me a lot about discipline. When I came to him, it was like a drum solo the whole time I was playing. I was more interested in my own chops than in playing for the band. He settled me down and started me thinking ’band.’ It was a good thing, because I might never have lasted with Alabama if it hadn’t been for old Ed.”
But did Mark appreciate what Ed was doing for him while it was actually happening? “No way. I didn’t really see the light back then. It used to make me so mad, I’d do something that I thought was great, but it was actually out of taste and he’d turn around and cuss at me or something.
“Interestingly enough, Teddy, our bass player, and I talk about this same kind of thing. The older I get and the more I play, the more I get into this ’Listen to us’ concept, rather than ’Listen to me.’ A lot of times when we’re playing, I sort of take myself out and listen to see how much the band is playing as a band, and see how my part is fitting in. If you do something that doesn’t fit, you’ll know it. That’s like putting the ol’ square peg in the round hole. If you’re playing something in 4/4, and you try to throw in a little triplet on the ride or something, and it’s hard to do, then it doesn’t fit. That’s the rule of thumb I go by. If you can do it effortlessly, it will fit in the song. If you have to think about how to do it, it shouldn’t be there. The song pulls it out of you; the particular piece you’re playing will make you play. Your head won’t make you play, your heart makes you play; the music makes you play. That’s the way I perceive it anyhow.
“It’s something you have to learn to do, I think. And I’m just beginning to scratch the surface there. I’ve stubbornly held onto licks and stuff that I know in my heart don’t fit. But technically it’s something I want to do, so I’ll do it and do it, until finally I’ll say, ’Just drop it, man. It doesn’t go there.’ I think I’m growing up as far as playing is concerned. I’ve opened that door now, and I want to pursue it even further. I can’t always get into that way of thinking every night, but it’s coming.
“You have to sacrifice your own ego. To me, that’s where it’s hard to be a professional. Being a professional means sacrifice, and if you want to be a pro, you have to spend your whole life trying to be a pro. I don’t consider myself a pro; I’m still learning. There are a lot of things I still have to get straight. The day I start thinking I’m a pro, I guess, will be the day I’ve messed up. I still do things I know I shouldn’t do, but I’m always interested in playing better. I try not to be guilty of practicing on the job, though. I’ve seen a lot of players do that and it’s not too impressive. That’s usually the kind of band where everybody’s playing for them selves, rather than playing for the band, and it’s kind of annoying to listen to that. But I’m a human being, I make mistakes and I will experiment every now and then. There’s a fine line between practicing on the gig and experimenting, I think. It’s hard to describe, but I think experimenting consists of trying to make the band sound better. Practicing means that you’re just trying to improve your own playing. When you experiment, you aren’t trying to do things that you can’t do; you’re just doing something within your own realm of playing to make the overall music sound better. Maybe it’s just something that comes naturally, like sticking a little chime in at some point, or something like that. If you don’t get any mean looks, it fits. But you can’t spend the whole song trying new things every night. You find what works and stick with it, and maybe just spice it up a little bit every now and then. That way, you and your band are going to grow. You can’t just keep playing the same piece the same way every time.”
Herndon spent about two years working with Ed and his orchestra, and learning to concentrate on keeping good time and a solid beat. Although Mark now realizes the benefit of that training, at the time he found Ed’s insistence on just keeping a beat rather hard to accept. That’s when Mark started putting feelers out, and it was during that time that he first met Alabama. As already described, that meeting did not immediately lead to a gig, so Mark continued working with Ed, and a couple of months later, hooked up with the band in Augusta. “I was in two bands for a while, because I was in the process of leaving Ed and starting with this other band. They had a guy they were phasing out, so he would play on weekends while I was working with Ed. Then I’d pack my car, drive to Augusta, and play with these guys during the week. I finally left Ed to go with these guys full time, and the band only lasted another two or three weeks! It was the classic problem that all musicians who are dedicated have with other musicians who are not, we couldn’t get anybody to come to practice. We couldn’t get any work out of anybody. Then one guy was married and decided that his wife should sing in the group. ’I’m in the band and she’s my wife and she’s gonna sing.’ Oh Lord, it was awful! She couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.” That group broke up, Mark went with Alabama immediately thereafter, and “Before I knew it, I was celebrating a year anniversary with the group, and then two, three, and now it’s over four years that I’ve been with them.”
In that four years, Alabama has had remarkable success. After winning Billboard’s “New Group of the Year” award in 1981, they have gone on to win such honors as The Academy of Country Music’s “Entertainers of the Year” award (three years in a row), and “Vocal Group of the Year” award (two years in a row), a Grammy award for their album Mountain Music, the American Music Award for “Favorite Country Group,” the Country Music Association’s 1982 awards for “Entertainers of the Year,” “Vocal Group of the Year,” and “Instrumental Group of the Year,” and similar awards from Billboard and Music City News. Platinum albums and sold-out concerts further attest to the popularity this group has with the public. To Mark, this is a logical conclusion of that communication between the band and the audience that he first saw in Myrtle Beach.
“The audience rapport is still the same. I sometimes go to concerts, and I’ll think, ’What’s wrong with these people? They’re not raising hell like they do at our shows.’ The other night we were in Birmingham, and the audience was putting out 127 decibels. The audience’. It was unreal. And then we were doing a live album in New York, and the guys from the Record Plant were telling me the same thing. They have a level that they usually set the audience mic’s for a live album, but they had to back that level down about half way. They said the crowd came on so strong that it almost blew them out of the truck.
“I don’t know what it is. None of us are primo musicians on our own, I wouldn’t think, but we work together pretty well as a team. I think it goes back to that ’giving’ thing. I notice that a lot of bands will stand there and play, and never acknowledge the audience, or they’ll just turn around and play to each other, and talk to each other between songs. I don’t sing or talk myself, but the guys out front work the crowd really great. It’s stayed the same since Myrtle Beach, it’s kind of like a big barroom scene. Everybody feels like they’re on stage with us.”
Music is supposed to be about communication. But perhaps one reason some musicians have trouble communicating with an audience is because they have no idea of what it feels like to be in an audience. That feeling is something that Mark Herndon has definitely not forgotten.
“I like to go to the hall early sometimes and just check it out, hang out and get the feel of the place. Recently we played at the same hall where I used to go to concerts. The last group I had seen there was the Eagles, quite some time ago. I found the very seat that I’d been in for that concert, and I just sat there for a good hour while our crew was setting up the equipment. I was just reminiscing, looking at everything, remembering what I looked at and what I thought. And here I was looking down at my stage. It was really a rush.
“You know who I play for mostly? It’s the kid out there in the crowd who is like I used to be all kind of star-struck, eating it up, and wondering what it’s like to be up there. I want to show ’em how it feels how good it feels.to be up there playing. My whole career really revolves around concerts. I’m more into that than I am the recording scene. I may change as I get older, but right now…
“Studio work is interesting. I don’t dislike it, but if I had to spend the rest of my life doing either/or, I ’d want to be doing tours rather than studio work. I’m not much of a studio player; I don’t play on all the cuts on the albums. Live playing is really my thing. There are a lot of funny things that happen on a tour that just don’t happen in studio work. It’s two different kinds of fun, really. The studio is more of an intellectual trip. It’s stimulating because you’re trying new things and the creative juices are flowing. Spiritual feelings are put to rest for a while and the creative ones are used. The give and take is much more intense in the studio because everyone is bubbling over with ideas, but you’ve got to know when to keep your mouth shut because there are other people in there too, trying to work.”
In concentrating on being a good live player, one thing Mark had to learn was to not just listen to the lead player. “I’m really into guitar. I can’t play a lick on guitar, but I love listening to great lead guitar playing, so I had to learn the discipline of working with the bass player. I still listen to the lead, in a natural sense, but a lot of times, if you play with the lead you’ll be too far on top of the beat, because most lead players play ahead of the beat. It’s just a slight edge, but if you listen to that you’ll get faster and faster. I had to train my ear to listen to the bass.”
Soloing is another subject that Mark has had to deal with. “I can’t play a solo. I mean, I can get out there and chop all day long, power triplets and crossovers and all that crap, and do a reasonable job of it, but that’s not musical. Maybe the kind of music I’m playing right now just isn’t conducive to drum solos. But I can’t sit down and just play drums; I’ve got to have some music that makes me want to play.”
Even though Mark is not willing to sacrifice the musicality of Alabama’s show just so he can be in the spotlight for a solo, he does feel that a certain amount of showmanship is necessary if you are going to reach out to an audience. “If you’re talking about playing in a band and getting really involved in the music, I think it’s important to be a little showy about what you do. I’m not talking about showing off, but I think people hear a show with their eyes just as much as they do with their ears. I like to see a player with some charisma. You can get so involved with playing perfect that you don’t think about putting on a show for people. You’ve got to have fun. In a professional situation you can get carried away and get too serious about it. It can get to you if you start thinking, ’We’re selling a lot of records and so people are going to expect a hell of a show. The music has to be perfect.’ You can’t think of it like that. I’m getting myself out on a limb here, but you’ve got to treat it like, ’Let’s all get up here and have a good time,’ rather than, ’How much can we dazzle them?’
“I’m sure that a lot of glitter and stuff works for some groups, but we don’t use a lot of heavy production, and I’ve seen a lot of top-name groups that don’t. Teddy and I went to see the Eagles back when they were riding the crest of The Long Run. They just had the band gear, reasonable lights, a good sound system, and that was it. It was a great show. They had that place eating out of the palms of their hands. Elton John was another one no special effects. There are some groups… I guess they need it, I don’t know.”
On the subject of equipment, Mark has come a long way from the cardboard-box drums and styrofoam cymbals of his college days. He has been with Gretsch for several years now, and doesn’t plan to change. “I’m real satisfied with the Gretsch drums. They sound great. They put some quality into their work, and their hardware has improved 100% over what it was in the past. Those new tubular stands are state-of-the-art. Plus, they’re an American company, so it’s the least I can do to help out an American product. I’ve had offers to go with other companies, but I’m not going to do it. Gretsch was there when nobody else cared. They brought a set out to me in Tulsa, and I loved it. It was big and fat sounding. There’s nothing wrong with Gretsch, and I’m not going to change them just for some kind of glamour trip.”
When it comes to specific set-ups, however, Mark admits to being guilty of changing his kit for every tour. “I had a basic kit last tour, and an elaborate one this tour. I may go back to a basic kit, or I may turn something upside down! It refreshes me to change my kit around.” One of the things Herndon recently added was a second bass drum. “I got interested in it after seeing Rush, and I practiced it for a while. There are only two places I use it in the show, but I thought it would add something. I still haven’t decided whether I’m a one-kick man or a two-kick man. I thought it was very lenient of the other guys in the band to go along with it, you know. They have to live with me, too. I figured they would say, ‘Aw, come on, man.’ But they said, ‘Fine, if you can use it. We don’t care, as long as it fits.’”
Mark uses double-headed rack toms in sizes of 10″, 13″ and 14″, and two floor toms: 18 X 16 and 18 X 20. Evans Black Cold heads are used on tops and bottoms, as well as on the bass drums. The only holdover from his bar days is an old Slingerland snare drum. “I bought that thing in a little music store in Florence, and it’s the baddest sounding snare I have. It’s a 6 1 /2 X 14, and right now it has a Pinstripe on top. I have used black-dot heads on the snare, and at one time I went through a stage of using the Evans black heads on the snare, but that’s not quite what I wanted. I like a fat snare with a lot of brilliance to it, so you can really get it to crack.
“I don’t have an endorsement with a cymbal company. I’ve always used Zildjian, but I’ve been trying out some Paistes. I’ve got a little 10″ splash, a 17″ heavy crash, an 18″ medium and an 18″ thin, a 16″ thin crash, an Earth ride, and a China-type that doubles as a ride on a couple of things. That’s a trick I picked up from Cobham, he’d use his Pang to ride on sometimes. I’m using 14” New Beat hi-hats at the moment. I had an odd combination a while ago, a Paiste Rude bottom on top, and a Sound Edge on the bottom. The Rude eventually wore out around the hole. I use an open hi-hat for a crash sometimes I smack it with my left hand and I think that’s what caused it to break. So I’ve turned the New Beats upside down using the bottom for the top and so far they’ve held up great. My tech’ says they sound better than the other combination. They’re crisp but they have more music to them. I’ve also got an Icebell and a bell tree from UFIP, and a set of wind chimes. I don’t know who the wind chimes are from. They’re silver and have a double row. And then last night I stole an ashtray out of a bar. It has a great ring to it and I’ve thought of a place to use it in the show. So I’m going to have my tech’ drill a hole in it and mount it on a stand.
“I’ve always played with big sticks, except for the time I played with Ed, because we had to play so light. But even now, with 25 microphones on my drumkit, I still play hard. One reason is because that’s the way I feel the music and interpret it. But I’m also concerned about whether the person in the 122nd row can hear it. That’s really silly, because we’ve got a hell of a sound system out there; even if I was just tapping the drums you could still hear it. But I played for so long without any kind of amplification when everybody else had amplifiers and were blowing me away. So I guess it’s something left over from the old days.
“But I don’t start out loud and just play one volume all the way through a show. It’s very important to shade, and to almost even not play in some places, and hit the drums in different ways to get different sounds. If you want a Latin feel out of that little 10″ tom, you can hit the rim at the same time you hit the head, and that gives it a hollow sound. Or you can use hard flams on the snare for more of a rock feel. There are a million different ways you can color. That’s something I’ve really been getting into. I play hard most of the time on stage, but there are a couple of places in the show where we can really shade and make it nice. Dynamics are very important.”
And does Mark find that the other members of Alabama respond to these subtleties? “Oh yeah. I don’t get a lot of compliments showered on me, or I couldn’t get my head through the door. But every now and then one of the guys will say, ’I really liked what you did on such-and-such a tune. It really set everything up,’ or, ’I think what you did there really sucked!’ [laughs] It’s one way or the other, but yeah, we all notice what everybody is doing. In a four-piece band you really have to be conscious of what the other musicians are doing, because if you’re not, and you don’t play together, it sounds worse than a big orchestra not playing together. It sounds emptier. In a small band, the more things you do together, the bigger it’s going to sound. You might think that it would sound fuller if everybody played busy all the time, but it doesn’t work that way. I’ve listened to too many show tapes to believe that.
“Being in a band is a lot like being married, everybody is united, going toward a common goal, but you’ve got to give and take. Say somebody asks you to play something that you don’t like. You don’t always have to do it sometimes you can suggest something else but a lot of times, just to keep everybody happy, you say, ‘Sure, I’ll do that,’ and just let it ride. Nobody likes to be told what to do, but it goes back to what I said earlier about being professional. I have to remember how good it feels when I ask the bass player to play a certain thing, and he says ‘Yeah.’ That makes me feel great and makes me play better. So I should do the same thing for him, or whoever.
“A lot of it is just leaving a person alone. I think if you tell somebody how to play all the time, they get in a straightjacket. They can’t play because they’re always thinking, ’Am I pleasing this guy? Does he like what I’m playing? Is this okay? How about that?’ And that can get to be a real drag. It’s just like in a marriage, you have to let your partner be themself to a certain degree, or else they won’t be worth anything as a person. It’s the same thing with musicians. You have to let people be themselves, or they won’t be worth anything as players. That give and take only betters the band.
“It’s something you have to work at. I mean, we fight like cats and dogs sometimes. But it’s like a family thing. Brothers and sisters fight like hell, but they stay together. Usually, the big problems in bands as far as getting along are all over something small anyway, and it gets built up. So it’s something that everybody who’s a player has to work at.”
Letting Mark play the way he likes to play is something the other members of Alabama have encouraged, in spite of the fact that he didn’t share their country background. Herndon’s original doubts about whether to accept the gig were based primarily on a fear that they were looking for a certain type of drummer, and he would have to adjust his style to fit in. But they liked what he did, and he, in turn, can now see how his rock-influenced drumming gives the group something special. “First of all, my rock background gives me the punch that I think a drummer needs to drive Alabama. Alabama’s music would kind of sit back and not do a whole lot live if they didn’t have somebody back there kicking. And I’m not just patting myself on the back any rock-influenced drummer could do my gig as well as I do. I’m just saying that in concert, their music would be more for sitting back and listening than for getting down and raising some hell, if they didn’t have some force behind it. That’s number one, and number two is that I think my background gives me some different things to draw on than if I’d had a straight country background.
“I draw influences from a lot of people. The guy I patterned myself after for a long time was Barry Borden from Mother’s Finest. He’s now with Molly Hachet. He blew me away because of where he was coming from. He meant what he played. He really drove it home, and he was perfect for that band.
“I thought the work Graham Lear did with Gino Vannelli was just outstanding. There’s some work on Storm At Sunup and Powerful People that is so musical. He really plays music. His work with Vannelli is a completely different personality than his work with Santana. Maybe he’s that good that he can fit himself in with whatever artist he’s working with. I also like some of the stuff Bill Bruford did with Yes, and I like Don Henley for his discipline. There again, he was the perfect drummer for the Eagles. I’ve watched so many people and gone to so many concerts, and I’ve drawn something out of everybody I’ve watched.”
And yet, despite Mark’s positive feelings about his contribution to the group, and despite the tremendous success Alabama has enjoyed, Herndon remains very humble about his abilities. “A lot of times, I get real paranoid about playing in front of other drummers. I think I know where that comes from: it’s because I got started so late. I didn’t slug it out in bars for years. I have played quite a few bars, but it’s not like I have 15 years’ experience playing in clubs. But here I am in this position without a whole lot of experience. It makes me feel a little self-conscious sometimes, and it’s something I have to deal with. But I keep my gig, so I must be doing something right.”
When I suggested to Mark that the thing he has that makes up for his lack of years is an intangible something called “talent,” he pondered a moment and then replied: “I think ’talent’ is your ability to feel music and then to be able to give that feeling to other people. You can get so carried away with trying to be good that you’re fighting against yourself. I think any time you’re playing music and that beautiful feeling just comes out of you like a volcano, that’s talent. And not all people who play have that. It’s great to have the discipline and the formal training and things like that, but it doesn’t amount to anything if you can’t experience that feeling in your heart.”