The Oak Ridge Boys’ Fred Satterfield
From Breaking Ground to Finding Students
FS: I was born in California. I’m from the Los Angeles area. I’ve been traveling and playing for money since I was about 14. I’m 25 today. I started out playing in some gospel/rock bands on the West Coast. Much of my fatback, heart and soul comes from that music, and working around people like the Archers and Andre Crouch. Soul gospel was quite an influence on me, but I’ve always been a rock and roller. My early influences were Cream, Vanilla Fudge, Iron Butterfly— and even earlier than that—the Monkees, and obviously, the Beatles. In 1969, the horn bands came in and I was astounded by Bobby Colomby and Danny Seraphine. Then I wanted to be a jazz/rock player. When the Billy Cobham explosion happened, I wanted to be a fusion player. I couldn’t make a dime doing that so I had to make a decision. “Do I want to be a successful drummer or a phenomenal drummer?” I decided to be a good drummer who’s successful. That’s what’s happening now.
SF: Did you plan out what you were going to do with your music career?
FS: Many of the things that I’ve gotten into I’ve slid into sideways. I would go down to the studios in L.A. and watch Hal Blaine and other musicians play. I’d watch them and learn! I saw Jim Gordon play a couple of times. I liked the way Jim tuned his drums. He was an influence in that respect. I liked Keltner also.
SF: Did you get the opportunity to speak with any of those musicians?
FS: I was getting ready to buy a new drumset around the time Hal Blaine was becoming real popular playing the early Carpenters music. He had a drumset with many small toms. He gave me some advice on buying drums that I needed. Also, they helped me a lot in the time that they would have on break. I tried not to make a pest of myself. Just five minutes with someone would change your life when you’re 15 or 16 years old. I finally got to meet Danny Seraphine recently. It was last summer when they were recording their current album. That’s still a big deal! I don’t have any real big heroes outside of a few musicians. Danny’s been one of my heroes. He was just like you or me. Still playing real good!
SF: Did you study drums? Did you set out to be a “studio drummer”?
FS: I always wanted to play on records. I knew that right away. I listened to records a lot. I took drum lessons at the corner music store and played in the school band. For the most part it was a natural thing. Like everybody, I started with coffee cans and a pair of wooden coat hangers that I took the rods out of. After wearing out a couple of coffee tables, I got a snare drum and started learning rudiments. I never studied formally. I worked with a real good jazz drummer for awhile named Mike Koatronayo. I don’t know what he’s doing today. One area he tutored me in was how to set up a drum kit, setting it in a prone position where everything’s comfortable and easy to reach. At that point, I had a drumset that I’d set up anyway I could! After I began using Mike’s method I found a marked improvement in my stick control and dynamics—just by setting up correctly or comfortably. It’s different for everybody, but a comfortable situation will improve your playing. Mike said something that made a lot of sense. He asked, “Have you ever played in a concert band?” I said, “Yeah.” He asked, “Well, when you stand up, where does the drum come to you?” I said, “About belt level.” He said, “Right!” When you sit down have the snare drum about belt level. Then put your tom-toms like salt and pepper. You don’t want to have to reach across the table to get the salt everytime!” That same theory applies to cymbal set-ups.
I’ve come up the road of “general” lessons. For the most part, I’m self taught, influenced by today’s music, and the popular music that’s been current in my lifetime. I’m a conglomerate of several different styles.
SF: You have a real good melodic concept. Are you aware of that?
FS: I try to be melodic when I play. I’ve gotten to the point where a couple of melodic eighth notes might sound better than a hundred scattered thirty-second notes. My theory with the Oak Ridge Boys has been to try and do that. For the most part I don’t play any “technical” stuff with them. The band still teases me about playing too much here or there, especially Pete Cummings, the guitarist. He likes things pretty much in a pattern. Sometimes, when the music is grooving I like to go ahead and cook a little bit! The Oak’s music has simple chord structures, simple formula ideas that work very well for their heavy vocals. The public seems to like it. They’ve become very popular. Television has always helped add to their popularity.
SF: Is the band always onstage with the Oaks?
FS: The only time that I’ve been off to the side was on The Tonight Show and the Monte Carlo Show. Usually they bring us on. One of the best television shows that I’ve seen them do was a recent John Davidson Show. I caught the flu a few hours before I did the show. I had a 103-degree fever, my blood pressure was sky high. I had the NBC nurse down there. I said, “I need some help.” She helped me, we did the show and it was great. I was so weak that I had to go over to Davidson’s drummer and swap off some sticks. I was using a 2H in my left hand and usually a 5B or a 2B in my right. I couldn’t play with them because I couldn’t lift them!
Ron Heiskell has a new stick called Hi-Skill sticks (formerly The Stik). They’re the best sticks I’ve ever played. I think they’re going to be a big item. I ‘m leery at times about new things that come out. There’s so much jive happening— especially for drummers. But the Hi-Skill model that I’m using is about the size of a 5B and a l i t t l e heavier. Ron told me that David Garibaldi was trying them out, so I said “Give them to me. If Garibaldi’s using them—I’d like to try them.” Garibaldi wrote the book on funk drumming as far as I’m concerned. I learned a lot from Garibaldi. The early Tower of Power records, up to Back to Oakland was my favorite. I like complicated funk things in a horn section. I try to treat the Oak Ridge Boys as if they were a horn section. My predecessor, Mark Ellerbee, the guy who drummed for the Oaks for 10 years, passed that concept along to me. Treat them more like a horn section and just lay down a groove for them. Kick them when they need to be kicked. They seem to like it. The interaction works real good, especially when you have 9 people onstage.
SF: Who do you listen to most onstage?
FS: I listen to a lot of people. Marco Hunt of Carol Sound gives me a real good monitor mix in the two speakers off to either side of me. The bass player, Don Breland, and I like to lock down. He is the most tasteful bass player I’ve worked with on this basis. He’s just content to play very simple. I don’t know how he does it sometimes. Lee Sklar is one of his big people. He’ll play that rolling feel—especially on the 2/4 music—and give me a lot of leeway from time to time. I listen to Duane Allen a lot. He’s the lead singer and he’s got the melody most of the time. Bernard Purdie has said that drummers probably have more melodies in their heads than anyone. I think that’s true. When I’m playing the tunes I’m humming the melody in my mind. I think that old stereotype of, “Aw, he’s not a musician. He’s a drummer,” has pretty much fallen by the wayside.
SF: Country drummers had that stigma for a long time.
FS: Well, they still do! Maybe I can help bring some of them out of the woodwork.
SF: How do you like your Pearl drums?
FS: I can’t say enough about how the people at Pearl drums have treated me. When we first got together they didn’t know me from Adam. I endorse their products and have been very happy with them. Walt Johnston is extremely helpful. Al Duffy, who works on my gear, also works on Chester Thompson and Larrie Londin’s drums. Larrie has helped me immensely. Al Duffy works with a lot of Pearl’s prototype equipment.
SF: Can you give them suggestions and feedback on the manufacturing and design of drums?
FS: Yeah. They want it. I think they’re the most progressive drum company out right now. Their hardware is dynamite. I can mount my equipment anyway I want to. Any other drumset I’ve had, I had to mount the equipment as close as possible to the way I wanted it and then I had to get used to it.
I’ve always used A. Zildjian cymbals. I picked the ones I’m using now at D.O.G. Percussion in Nashville. Larrie Londin’s wife, Debbie, owns the shop and they get their cymbals hand selected from the factory. I selected a Rock 20″ cymbal. It has a bit bigger bell than the regular 20″. Sometimes the Rock 21″ gets a little mushy because there’s too many overtones happening. The Rock 20″ records real well.
SF: Is your stage drumset the same drumset you record with?
FS: I have a Gretsch set that I record with sometimes. It’s outfitted with Pearl hardware. It’s an old set that I bought from a friend. The bass drum was an 18 x 20 floor tom-tom that has been cut down. It’s now a 14 x 20. I use relatively small drums to record with, a double headed set. I also record with a set of Pearl fiberglass drums. They’re 8″, 10″ and 12″ concert toms. The floor tom is 14 x 14 with a bottom head. On that set I’m using Hydraulic heads or Pinstripes on the tops, and an Ambassador head on the bottom of the 14 x 14.
I’m using all wood-shelled Pearl drums except the Varipitch toms. They’re phenolic shells similar to a hard, pressed cardboard. It’s like fiberglass before it’s fiberglass. I’m one of the few people in country music that uses them, I think, at least on the road. I use extended concert toms that are 8 x 8, 8 x 10, then the regular toms are 8 x 12, 9 x 13, 14 x 14, and a 16 x 16 which are all double headed drums. I use a variety of snares on the road. Right now I’m using a 5 1/2 x 14 with die-cast rims and the X-l strainer. My bass drum is 22 x 14.
I use 14″ Zildjian New Beat hi-hats which I matched myself, an 18″ and 16″ crash, a Rock 20″ and an 18″ swish. I don’t have any rivets in the swish right now. I’m trying to get that “white noise” sound. I haven’t seen any other country drummers using swish cymbals either. I don’t want to label myself. I’ll let somebody else do that.
SF: How’s your Gretsch set outfitted?
FS: I use heavy heads on the top of the drums. That way I can get the impact and I can tune the bottom Ambassador heads looser. That eliminates a lot of the overtones. If I use Ambassadors top and bottom I get too many overtones. I hate to put tape on a drum. My drums onstage have no tape on them. I use a Duraline head on my snare drum from time to time. The sound guys love it because the drum doesn’t ring as much. I’ve used them to record with. They give the snare a “fat” sound. However, I generally prefer to use Fiberskyn-2 heads on my snares. I don’t use the Duralines on my toms because they sound too flat. I like the drums to resonate. That’s why I’ve got woodshell drums on the road.
SF: Are you fussy about tuning?
FS: Yeah. Marco Hunt and I have been tuning my drums with a strobe lately to keep them consistent. We find a note that the drum is close to, and then by watching the strobe when you strike the drum you can eliminate some of the overtones—like those that cause the underside of the snare to ring—just by tensioning. You’re always going to have some of that, but we’ve been able to eliminate a lot of it with the strobe. I tune them by ear first.
SF: Do you still learn from watching other drummers perform?
FS: The first time I saw Buddy Rich play live I didn’t pick up a stick for two weeks! You watch those guys on TV and figure, “If I woodshedded a little more I could pick that up.” Then you watch them live and it’s a whole different thing. Elvin Jones is such a soulful jazz drummer. He can take anything and swing it.
I always try to learn when I watch players whether it’s drummers, bass players, a sax player or a violin player— the same things apply. I saw some footage of Bruce Jenner the other day and watching the fluid physical motion, it is an aspect that musicians overlook sometime. You have to be fluid. The reason Hal Blaine and Bernard Purdie stay in the mainstream of the music business is because they’re fluid and they adapt while continuing to project their roots. I read a statement by Carmine Appice where he said he felt sorry for the upcoming drummers of today because there would be no great drummers. I disagree with that. I hear good players all the time. Carmine’s a very good player. Guys like Gene Krupa and Max Roach were the founding fathers for what a lot of us do today. Now let’s start our own legacies.
SF: You play very relaxed.
FS: It’s just a relaxed state. Staying calm. Breathing. I use breathing techniques I learned in martial arts. This might be a little cosmic for most readers, but I think that your heartbeat dictates a lot to where the groove lays in different players. No one’s heart beats the same. Nobody plays the same. Through breathing and breathing exercises you can find a harmony within your mind and body and your playing becomes an extension of that. In martial arts we were taught that our hands were an extension of our mind. When you put a weapon in your hand, the weapon becomes an extension of your mind. I look at that drumstick as being an extension of my mind. There might be days when I’m not feeling so good, but I can still pull out a pretty good show if I go ahead and relax and breathe properly and just get in harmony with myself.
SF: How do you feel about drummers who lift weights and study martial arts to improve their drumming?
FS: I met my martial arts instructor when he was working with Elvis Presley. I studied with him privately for years. It changed my life and I became more assertive at one point in my drumming, and then I became much more confident. In a way, martial arts are just a frame of mind that changed my whole life and my playing. All of a sudden I had several people say, “Hey! You’re really playing good!” They always thought I was a good player, but suddenly there was a sheen happening. It was over a two year period of time that I suddenly realized what was going on.
I’m not into weightlifting so much. I’m not going to dispute the guys who do weightlift. I prefer to stretch more and do more natural exercises for my body. I’m a slim character and I don’t want to get bulky feeling at all. I’m a swimmer. Staying in good shape is essential. I find when I get out of shape real bad, my playing gets really sloppy—especially my bass drum foot for some reason.
SF: How do you stay in shape when you’re on the road?
FS: General calisthenics and I run through some kata. Also, breathing properly. The Chinese believe that breathing is the lord of life. Eating right helps, but it’s very, very hard to eat right on the road.
SF: You’ve been involved in recording some jingles haven’t you?
FS: I was doing a lot of jingles for awhile. Long John Silver’s, AT&T, Keebler cookies, Dial antiperspirant. On the Dial commercial I had set up a whole drumset and ended up playing hi-hat and a little ticky-tack rim thing on my snare rim. Maybe there were 4 bass drum notes in the whole jingle. That was the extent of my creativity that day. I mean, it’s good money, but I love to play for people. A Dr. Pepper commercial is not like playing for a crowd of screaming fans. The money’s one thing, but I have to enjoy playing. That’s the reason I started playing drums—because I liked it. Not because somebody was paying me to take lessons or paying me to play in my basement!
Sometimes musicians can get screwed up playing for other musicians. If you get too involved in too many “technical” things when they’re not needed, you’ll lose your audience. They like to see drummers go across the tom-toms. They like to see drummers hit and catch cymbals. Some showmanship is involved. I don’t want to go too far with that. I’m dedicated to playing good, but I like to play for the fans who are buying the tickets. I like to give them their money’s worth. With inflation the way it is today, when someone spends $10, $12 or $15 to come and see a band they need to be satisfied.
The recent James Taylor tour with Rick Marotta knocked me out. They were on two hours and they entertained me thoroughly. I was not bored in the least. I never heard Marotta play like that on record. He laid down some syncopation that was really extraordinary. His playing on records is usually simple. I’ve geared a lot of my studio playing to that style of drumming.
SF: Didn’t you just play on a Grammy winning LP?
FS: I played on an album that won a Grammy in the Contemporary Gospel category. It’s a musical called The Lord’s Prayer. Ron Fairchild, our keyboard player, played on the album also. The drum tracks I laid down were simple. We’d play pretty much in the pocket. The whole thing was arranged. The drum chart was 14 pages long. It was on a Jesus Christ Superstar format, and any Joe on the street would want to hear this music. It’s not the Deep South type of gospel music. It’s hip! B. J. Thomas sings on it, and Andre Crouch did a tune on the album. Dony McGuire produced it.
SF: It’s interesting how gospel music is really coming to the fore.
FS: That’s some of my favorite music. Dony McGuire’s got a new release that is great! We cut the basic tracks with 4 pieces and got the grooves down. Everything else was overdubbed. A couple of tunes on the LP were left with just the 4 pieces because the grooves were so nice. Another artist I’ve been with in the gospel vein is Reba Rambo. She’s exceptional. A lot of players are getting into gospel music. Joe English, who played drums for Paul McCartney, has a gospel album. Bob Dylan! He’s been wanting to hear some of the tunes that Dony and Reba have been writing. At least I know I’m traveling in the right circle!
When the new wave music came out I liked Elvis Costello, a few of the tunes on the first Knack album. The music I like to go buy is positive music. Earth, Wind and Fire! Man, that is positive music. Steely Dan’s music tells stories. Rhythmic horns have always caught my ear.
SF: Do the Oaks ever perform with a horn section?
FS: From time to time, when we do showrooms in Vegas and Reno. Since I’ve been with the band we’ve been having arrangements written that match the rhythm kicks that we’re doing now. The charts they’ve had in the past aren’t working anymore. I treat the rhythm section different than their previous drummer.
SF: We were discussing the importance of a good attitude before.
FS: If you want to work you’ve got to have a good attitude. I’ve never been fired from a gig. When it was time for me to leave—I left. It’s very important to get along with people and have a congenial personality. The Oak Ridge Boys have an entourage of some 33 people. I live with the guys in the band sometimes more than I live with my wife, Pam. You have to get along! They’re your buddies and family. You have to get along with management people. You have to be a politician to be a successful musician. Being a wiseguy won’t get you anywhere. You need to know when to be cocky and when to lay back.
SF: How do you maintain your positive attitude?
FS: By playing good gigs. I get depressed when I feel I don’t play up to par. I read a lot of science fiction. I might have liked to have been a science fiction novelist. In many ways I’m a dreamer. I’m dreaming of what’s going to happen next. Being that music is such a part of what’s happening socially and morally to the United States and the rest of the world, I’m in a main flow of information and trends. It’s nice to be in a position to express some ideas like breathing and heartbeats and theories that I use.
SF: Is dreaming important?
FS: It’s a requirement to be successful in this business. I have to envision myself doing something before I can actually do it. I have to have a mental picture of what’s going on. I’m also an artist. I illustrate. So, it’s easy for me to get a mental picture. That’s been of immense value to me over the years. I’ve had people mention that to me. I can’t understand why some people can’t get a mental picture.
SF: Do you still practice?
FS: I don’t practice on the drumkit as much as I used to. I’ve got a drum pad on the band bus that I warm up with. It’s hard to practice on drumkits when you live in a condominium. To keep an edge mentally, and to constantly listen to music, and to what other players are doing is of paramount importance. You can’t set the trends all the time. You’ve got to have some input somewhere. I find mine through reading, the media, television, and the majority of it is through listening to music.
SF: Where do you see yourself in five years?
FS: That brings us to the Rockland Road project. The band is made up of the back-up band for the Oak Ridge Boys. Basically, the band is a rock band. We’re working on our own material. It has a “European rock” style to it. We’ll continue to work with the Oak Ridge Boys, but our writing isn’t in their market. Bob Burwell is working on a record deal for us. He’s Michael Murphey’s manager. We’re not pulling apart from the Oaks, we’re just creating a bigger market. I see myself going in that direction first as a recording project and then—who knows? I’ve been doing some co-writing with Peter Cummings and another guitar player, B. James Lowry. Also, I plan on doing sessions whenever I’m in town on call. I love to play more than anything. I want to be a great renowned player one day like all of us want to be. I’m not afraid to work for it. I’ve worked for it up to this point. You have to have that positive attitude in your music, your playing, and your livelihood. Rockland Road is all self contained at this point. We’ve got many influences within the band. Skip Mitchell, one of the guitarists, is a Rolling Stones fan. We have a technical genius like Ron Fairchild who handles all keyboards. Peter Cummings grew up on the Beatles. Don just lays down a rock-solid bass pattern through anything. The influences from all these guys are unique to any other band I’ve worked with. I think that we’re playing music for the people. I remember Jeff Porcaro talking about his group, Toto. Jeff said, “We want platinum albums.” I appreciated his honesty about their goals. Hopefully, I can predict the same things with our albums. We want to be a commercial success so that we can continue to do our music as Rockland Road or as “The Gang” as it’s affectionately known.
SF: Great! Do you have any closing thoughts?
FS: Honor your health, keep a positive attitude, and stay fluid!