Viewing the whole

James Stroud

The day I met James Stroud in Nashville, he got a new set of drums. To say that he was excited would be an  understatement. He felt compelled to thank as many people as possible who had something to do with making those drums—not just the executives at Pearl who had been kind enough to furnish him with the drums, but also the people who had done the work and the finishing. Kind and caring are two words that don’t even come close to describing James. He’s the kind of person who means it when he asks how you are and if he can help. It doesn’t matter that he’s an extraordinarily busy man who is, or has been, involved in every aspect of the music industry.

While building a reputation as an in demand studio drummer, Stroud also had extensive success as an independent and staff producer. From 1971 to 1978, James was a partner in Malaco, Inc., a record and production company in Jackson, Mississippi, where he worked as a studio engineer, musician, and producer. In 1978, he went to work for Bang Records, a CBS custom label in Atlanta, Georgia, as Director of A&R, but found that he liked the more creative aspects of the music business better. In 1980, James took over management of a successful 24-track studio, Northstar Studios, in Boulder, Colorado, forming James Stroud Productions, Inc., and also commuted to L.A. to produce various pop acts. Not long after that, James realized his future lay in Nashville.

While playing for many of Nashville’s major acts and producing some of them as well, James grew to understand and appreciate the importance of the song. In 1984, he began the Writers Group, a publishing company with an open-door policy, furnishing songs to new artists as well as established ones. The company is just one more example that the old stigma of “once a drummer, always just  a drummer” no longer applies in this day and age. James’ entire career is testament to that. Yet, with all the success in other areas, playing comes first in James’ life. He’s been doing it too long and loves it too much to consider himself anything other than a drummer.

JS: I grew up in Louisiana, where I played in high school and learned to read and play the rudiments—the standard situation. During my senior year in high school, I started working in clubs in the bayous way back in the country because I was too young to play in the city. The sheriff came around every once in a while, but they’d stick a cigar in my mouth to make me look a little older.

RF: What kind of music were you playing?

JS: R&B. That’s really where I came from. I would watch Otis Redding play. One night, we sat with B.B. King all night while he sat on his amp, back when he was making $200 a night. We were the only white guys in the club. Some of the bands I was involved with were the first white bands in the black clubs back then.

RF: What year are we talking about?

JS: That was ’67 or ’68. I did a lot of club work there. When I graduated high school, I was going to go into forestry in college. At the time, however, music had me. I started playing clubs around the South, did some road work, and then I moved to Jackson, Mississippi, because the music over there seemed to be so fresh. It was different than Louisiana. I think Louisiana was a little more bluesy in a New Orleans way. In Mississippi, it was more Delta blues—more structured. I had just turned 19, and there were a couple of studios where they were cutting records. I remember going to my first session. We played at a studio that had no heat. I had to wear a big, heavy coat and big gloves. They would only let me use their kit, and the spurs of the bass drum had been lost, so the bass drum would roll over. They built a plywood house over it so it wouldn’t roll, but there was no place for a tom-tom, so I had a snare drum, bass drum, and a hi-hat. I remember buying an old tom-tom and asking them if I could put it on the kit. They said I could if I could find a place. So I nailed it onto the plywood.

RF: Do you remember what record that was?

JS: That was a Peggy Scott/Jo Jo Benson record, which sold a million copies, called “Picking Wild Mountain Berries.” From that studio, I went to a place called Malaco. My first session with them was a record by Jean Knight called “Mr. Big Stuff.” It sold a couple million copies, and then we did a record called “Groove Me.” From that, we got a lot of attention from pop people who liked our sound and the way we played. Paul Simon came down, and I played on some of the Rhymin’ Simon album. I also did some of the Pointer Sisters’ early stuff down there.

RF: When did you leave Jackson?

JS: I went on the road a couple of times. I feel that the studio is the place for me, but you can get in a rut. You have to update your playing. So I like to go out and play live. I went with rockers like Jerry Lee Lewis or the Marshall Tucker Band, because if I was going to go out, I wanted to play hard. So, when I felt it was time to get out of the studio and do something, I would always do something with aggressive music, not necessarily something that was real technical. I never considered myself a technical drummer. I can play the rudiments okay, but I like to play a feel. That always comes first with me. I’ve never made any money flashing or played on a hit record where I played some unbelievable fill. It’s always the feel. I’ve been hired because of where I put the backbeat.

RF: Your type of backbeat is real different from where the backbeat is in country.

JS: Yes, but it’s changing. Larrie Londin and I helped change it. I don’t mean to brag, but he and I play a lot alike. There is a heavy, heavy backbeat and a groove that sits there. Larrie Londin, to me, is one of the best drummers I’ve ever heard. He’s way past me, but we do have a certain way of playing a record that’s similar. Before he and I moved here to Nashville, the drums were almost unheard. That’s not to say the drummers weren’t great, because when you see the Buddy Harmans out there, they’re wonderful players. I’m a fan of his, but he was playing a style that I wasn’t really listening to. I was listening to Al Jackson when he was playing with the Everlys. But the music here in Nashville today has a lot of groove and feel to it, and I think that we brought that to this town. I know that, when we first moved here, I had a certain snare drum that people asked for: “Be sure to bring that snare for that certain sound.” It got me a lot of work. The feel has changed in Nashville. It’s a lot heavier and a lot more groove oriented. Things are built around the drums a little more compared to when we first moved here, where it was acoustic guitars, and some brushes here and there. On most of the Nashville records back then, the bass drum wasn’t even played on the verses—just on the choruses. I don’t know if I could even do that. I think Larrie and I brought a lot of the feel with us. Of course, there are great players like Eddie Bayers and Jerry Kroon, but I think Larrie and I—and especially Larrie—brought more aggression to this town.

RF: But R&B is very behind the beat.

JS: You lay it back; you certainly do.

RF: With country, it’s really more on top of the beat.

JS: You’re exactly right.

RF: When you came here, didn’t you have to adjust to that?

JS: Yes, but if you listen to country music now, it’s what Larrie and I were playing 10 and 15 years ago. Look at groups like Restless Heart or Alabama. Their stuff is more groove oriented. If I do Lee Greenwood, he’s an R&B singer, so what I do works there. But if I do the Whites, it’s a totally different feel—a little more on top. The acoustic guitar is sort of dictating the feel, so I lock in with that. With Lee Greenwood, it’s more keyboard and electric guitar oriented, so I can back that backbeat off and make it feel good. Eddie Rabbitt’s stuff was sort of rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s aggressive, and the feel we came here with seemed to work with his music. His music exploded when we started cutting hose kinds of records.

RF: We keep bandying the word “backbeat” around. Can you pinpoint how you approach the backbeat?

JS: It’s according to the music. If it’s a huge ballad, for instance, I try to put the backbeat on the very back part of the beat. I usually go back and play a tambourine or something to exaggerate that so it shows up. The track sounds a little more majestic when I back off to the very back of the 2 and 4 beats. When I’m doing an R&B session, if it’s mid-tempo, I try to split the difference by moving it up just a little bit but still put it back a little bit—kind of on the back of the middle, if that makes sense. It doesn’t sound majestic, but it sounds a little lazy. It makes you feel the groove just a little bit better. If I’m playing pop or rock ‘n’ roll, I try to put it on top of the beat to give it a little bit of edge and intensity. Of course, I usually make my sound a little harder, and by putting the backbeat a little bit on top, it doesn’t really move the track around, but it adds a little bit of aggression and intensity.

RF: Why did you leave Jackson?

JS: Because I started getting behind the other side of the glass.

RF: Why?

JS: We were cutting hit records down there, and we were short of people. We had producers and artists coming down there, and we were just too busy. So I started engineering the overdubs and mixing after we cut the tracks. I did that for about six years and those records were doing real well, so I decided to try my hand at producing. I took a singer named Dorothy Moore in the studio and produced a song called “Misty Blue” in 1976. The record sold three million copies, and it was nominated for five Grammys. It was a number-one R&B record and a number-one pop record. I felt that, as a player and producer, I had to move on, so I moved to Atlanta and then Los Angeles. I worked there for quite a while and did as much producing as I did playing. I play on all the stuff I produce, also.

James Stroud

RF: Who were you producing in L.A.?

JS: I started working with Nigel Olsson. I started playing with him when I first went out there, and we talked and enjoyed each other’s company as well. He plays a certain style that I absolutely love. He’s the greatest ballad drummer you’ll ever hear and just a wonderful person. Then I worked with an artist by the name of Fred Knobloch and cut a number-one record called “Why Not Me” in 1979. Then we did a duet with Fred and Susan Anton, which was the first time I did anything close to country. It was a top-ten country record. My wife and I had a studio in Colorado, and I would commute. We wanted to have another child, so when we found out Diane was pregnant, we sold the studio and moved to Los Angeles.

RF: In Los Angeles, you were doing pop like Melissa Manchester and Dionne Warwick.

JS: I think people wanted to hear a southern feel on their records, although I don’t know if there really is such a thing. If you listen to Los Angeles players like Jeff [Porcaro] and Russ [Kunkel], they can play the same kind of feel. Maybe it’s the interpretation of the song from a player who is down South that is different. Maybe we interpret things a little differently, because I don’t think we play any better. I think our upbringing, the way we learned, and our environment make for a different interpretation.

Anyway, I went to Los Angeles and did those things, and I worked on a couple of records with a producer named David Malloy. He was producing Bruce Roberts, and he called me because someone had recommended me. We finished the album, and he called me up and said, “We’re going to do an album with Eddie Rabbitt, and I want to change his direction. I would like to try something different and new.” He had me put the band together, so 1 hired Larry Byron on guitar, Randy McCormick on keyboards, David Hungate on bass, and Billy Walker on guitar. We went to Caribou in Colorado for six days and cut Horizon, which was a platinum record with “Driving My Life Away” and “I Love A Rainy Night” on it. That really turned his career around. Everything crossed over. It was rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll, yet it had a southern kind of feel to it. From that, David Malloy, who lived in Nashville, said, “Come down here. Don’t live in Los Angeles. It’s starting to happen here.”

I moved here in 1981. He was my only account, but the week I moved here, I had produced one record that was in the top ten—the Fred Knobloch and Susan Anton record “Killing Time”—and I had played on the Eddie Rabbitt record, which was number one. When I moved to town, I decided that the only way to work here was to take any session that came along. I called David to ask if he would recommend me to a couple of people. He said he would be glad to, so I got a couple of phone calls. My first session was Shirley & Squirrelly, which was a Chipmunks kind of record. But then I started getting calls for master sessions, because they had heard the Rabbitt records and they liked that sound. They actually hired the band who cut that record. We had all moved here, and we started to play as a section for a couple of months. Of course, after that, we branched out. By the third month, I played 90 sessions in one month and nearly killed myself. If you figure that out, I did four sessions a day and had one day off. I wanted to let people hear me play, I wanted to do a great job for them, and I wanted them to hear my sounds and how I interpreted songs. One of the reasons I’m hired to play is because I produce. I don’t only look at a song from a drummer’s standpoint, but I look at it from a production standpoint as well. I think I get to the heart of the matter a little faster maybe than a non-producer. That’s why Malloy would hire me. Jimmy Bowen hired me to play on Hank Williams Jr. ‘s stuff and Conway Twitty’s. From there, Tom Collins hired me to do Barbara Mandrell and Sylvia, and I would also do most of the R&B work here along with Larrie. I did Lou Rawls, Joe Cocker, and B.J. Thomas down here.

RF: Why do you think production knowledge helps you get to the heart of the matte faster in your endeavors as a studio drummer?

JS: I try riot to approach the song as a drummer. I try to get on the other side of the glass and look into the producer’s and artist’s attitudes about the song. I take what I would do as a producer and interpret that onto the drums. I try to see the song mixed with the backgrounds, the vocal, strings added, the guitar lines added, and everything done. Having engineered for ten years, I can approach my drums from a technical side—not my play ing, but the sound and what the dynamics are going to be on the song. That’s because of my production work. I know that the producer expects the interpretation to come from you and go onto the record. So I take it from a producer’s viewpoint as well as a drummer’s and think, “What would I want a drummer to play on this song?” Then I try to play that part. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

RF: Why wouldn’t it work?

JS: Each producer is an individual. I may say, “This is what I want to do,” so I’ll play it, but a particular producer may say, “No, try a different approach.” It doesn’t happen that way a lot, because there are things that you do in music that are fairly structured and constant. You interpret from that point, which is where the individual comes through.

RF: Can you give an example of a song that you’ve recorded recently and tell us how you approached that part?

JS: With Lee Greenwood, I know his vocal range and I know how intense he gets dynamically with his vocals. Knowing Jerry Crutchfield’s production, Lee Greenwood’s singing, the type of tunes they’re picking, and the attitude they’re going for on the album gives me the direction with my drums. For instance, I move dynamically according to what Lee does on the scratch vocals. On the song “I.O.U.,” I asked Jerry and Lee how dynamic the song would be. The track was going to be fairly heavy. There were going to be a lot of heavy guitars and a lot of large background vocals with some beautiful strings on top of it. So then I went through the tune. It sounded a little odd because I played quite a lot of large fills. But, when everything was added, it worked out. Although I wasn’t hearing those things, that’s the way I interpreted it.

Randy Travis is another artist I could talk about. Kyle Lehning [Randy’s producer] and I are very good friends. We just cut a new album, and I knew him well because I had played on his first album. Knowing him as I did, I brought a certain sound to the session. Kyle likes to cut a very acoustic, very natural-sounding record with Randy, and it’s very traditional. So I try to bring not only those kinds of drums, but also that attitude. When we started running the songs down and started talking about the attitude and the direction he was going to take, I tried to put myself in Kyle’s position. I wrote my chart based on what he would want me to do, and what I would want to do to the record. By doing that and then listening to what the other players are doing, you can match your playing to the production. You want to make sure that, soundwise, you’re not stepping on the acoustic guitars, for instance, because it’s a very important part. So you want to tune your drums and play them in a way that, frequency-wise, will not step on the acoustic sound. You want to make the bass drum a little more puffy and softer sounding, with not as much point.

The cymbals I brought were a softer, smaller set, and the hi-hat was not as sharp and crisp. I used an older set of New Beat hi-hats that were a little softer, and I brought a darker sounding set of toms with Emperor clear heads. I changed my snare drum two or three times during the sessions because he wanted certain things. I had a brush snare, a cross-stick snare, and a sort of thuddy sounding snare that I used for certain songs. It was all very quiet sounding. The drums were just there to keep things in line while the bass, the pretty acoustic guitars, and the steel guitars laid on top of it. I try to make sure that the producer does not have to worry about what I’m playing. When I produce, the last thing I want to do is worry about what the drummer is playing because I want to concentrate on the singer, the song, the arrangement, the production, and the sound. So when I play drums, I try to give producers something from my instrument that will not take them away from the artist or the song.

RF: If your orientation all your life was R&B, how did you even know how to play for someone like the Whites?

JS: It took me a while, but that’s what keeps me excited about playing on records. Certainly we all get in ruts, but I don’t think I’ve ever been bored with making a record. What I try to do is this: I try to be the drummer for that artist, for that record, and for that producer. Knock on wood, I’ve never been fired for not being the right player, at least to my knowledge. I try to make it an art, and I try to make it a business. I want to be as good a drummer as I can be, but I also try to take it a step further. What can I do that will make that record better or make that producer more comfortable? I really try to bring the right equipment. I have several sets of drums for different kinds of music. I like to use Pearl drums, and I have four or five sets of them. I have different sizes and I put different kits together. If you buy a kit of drums, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all the sounds are going to match, so I match the kits by the sounds of the drums and not the looks. The tuning has a lot to do with it, of course. Certain country dates—like with Conway Twitty or Anne Murray—are a little softer sounding, so I’ll use a softer head—maybe a head I can tune down— and it’ll get a warm tone.

RF: Can you be specific?

JS: I like to use a clear Emperor  on top and an Ambassador  on the bottom. It softens the sound a little bit. I carry probably a dozen snares to all my sessions. I will never second-guess that. For the rock ‘n’ roll stuff, I have a kit that Nigel Olsson designed with the long cannon-type drums, which were probably the first of their kind. Today you see a lot of the long power toms, but he had this design with a 20″ bass drum that is twice the length of a normal bass drum. The kit has six toms, going from 6″, 8″, 10″, 12″, 15″ to 16″. It is real loud and very powerful sounding. For that, I use two coated Ambassadors. The drums also have wooden hoops, so there is no metal ring to them; you just hear the pure sound of the drums. It’s amazing how they resonate, too, with those wooden hoops. They’re a little harder to play because the wooden hoops are a little higher, but they have such a beautiful sound and such a powerful sound. That’s what I use on the rock stuff and all the big ballads. I used that on some of the Lee Greenwood ballads and the B.J. Thomas things that are a little more poppish.

RF: Can you tell me about the tuning for the various applications?

JS: With the toms, I’ll get the bottom head on tight. Then I’ll bring the top head up and loosen the bottom head just a little bit to where it is a lower tuning than the top head. Then I’ll loosen one lug to make it dip. Sometimes I will even let it flap a little and put a little piece of tape over the loose part of the head, and that will make the tone drop off. There is an R&B kit I use that has the toms real tight and the tone is constant. All my kits are double headed. There was a time when everybody used a single-headed drum, but I’ve used doubleheaded drums for years. In fact, when I came to Nashville, there weren’t that many double-headed drums being used because they didn’t like the ring and the resonance. Those drums have a lot of overtones, but once you get playing and the record starts, you don’t hear all that stuff, and it makes the drums sound a lot better. I don’t believe in padding the drums down. I try to keep tape off the heads.

I’ll also use different kits with different amounts of toms. My country set has three toms, the stuff I do with R&B and some of the pop stuff has four toms, and the rock ‘n’ roll set has six toms. Of course, the tuning is different on all of them, but the bottom line on my tuning is to do whatever makes the drum sound right for the kind of music I’m doing. If it’s a pretty sound, I don’t care where the note has to be. I don’t tune my drums melodically, although they end up that way. I just try to get each drum to sound the best it can, and when it sounds right, I’ll leave it there. I try to keep a lot of padding out of the bass drum. A lot of drums just thud, which is okay for some music, but I like to have a little bit of tone and roundness to it, so I don’t pad it down too much. I have about two dozen different mallets, and I’ll use different ones for certain songs. Even on an album, I’ll change drums, heads, snares, or cymbals. It took me two years to find this one set of cymbals for country that works well.

RF: Which ones?

JS: They’re all Zildjians. I’ve had my ride cymbal forever. I use two crash cymbals that are a little different in tone, but that have the same kind of decay and splash. I  found one in Canada and the other one here in Nashville, but it took me forever to find them. Cymbals can be a problem when it comes to recording, so I try to get cymbals that do not have too much mid-range, but which have a lot of nice, crisp highs to them and that decay quickly. I like to think cymbals are an effect, really. They’re a dynamic tool. The most important part of the kit, to me, is the tone of the snare and the bass drum. The toms are next, and then the cymbals. I’ll try to put cymbals with a kit that will match that sound. The rock ‘n’ roll set has a larger, thicker set of cymbals, of course. I always like to use 13″ Zildjian hi-hats. I have others, but I haven’t really found anything better for the way I tune my drums. I raise the cymbals quite high off the drum so they can be miked. I’m a believer in playing around the mic’. I have a way of setting my kit up, but in the studio, sometimes you can’t set up your kit the way you want to because of miking problems. I try to work around whatever the engineer needs or what the song needs in the way of miking. Instead of being a problem, I try to be an asset.

RF: What kinds of electronics do you have?

JS: I have the Simmons 5, the Simmons 7, the Linn, and an SP-12  from E-mu. I don’t mind playing the pads, but I like to trigger the electronics and enhance the acoustic sound. Most of the engineers and producers here in Nashville like that. When  I’m hitting an unnatural surface, the feel seems to go away for me, even though Simmons has made its pads a little more appealing. There is still something about the stick bouncing off the head that makes it work for me. The ddrums are nice, and I have a kit with Detonators  inside the drums. I also have some I’ll just stick to the edge of the drumhead and trigger the 7’s, 5’s, the Linn, or the SP-12.  I now have a rack that has my SP-12,  my Simmons 7’s and 5’s, and my ddrums. I also have a turbo drive on my SP-12  where I’ll sample other songs and trigger that from my acoustic drums. With that rack, I have a Rev-7, an SDX-90, which is another echo unit, several effects, and a mixer where I can mix everything and give the engineer an output from the back of my rack.

I do quite a lot of programming now, and I’m sampling quite a bit of the sounds that I have also. Last year I got a phone call from England to do an album for Warner Bros, on Little Richard. I went over and had an absolute ball. Billy Preston played on the session, and we had a great, great time. They wanted to use some of the southern players because they wanted that kind of feel, but they wanted to make it a little better technically and update everything. I took the electronics. I have samples of my kit that I’ll put in one of my electronic machines—either the SP-12  or the Linn—and I’ll trigger those. We did a lot of experimenting on the Little Richard album. On one song, we ran a microphone into the rec room and recorded a cue ball breaking the racked up billiard balls, which we put in an A MS. We triggered that sound on top of my snare, and the sound is unbelievable. I sampled that sound, and it’s a killer. For my bass drum sound on one of the songs, I took a sledgehammer and hit a truck tire with it. We tuned it down and added a little bit of point to it, and I have a sample of that. I forced a cymbal down into a boom stand, hit the stand with the cymbal miked, and it had the strangest sound, which we put on top of the snare, too. The album is great. It’s not a religious album, but it’s all positive material because Little Richard is a Christian and won’t do suggestive music anymore. We worked on the project for three weeks and had a great time.

RF: Do you enjoy working with electronics?

JS: I do. I think you have to stay up on stuff, and you have to change. I was reluctant for a long time because I thought it hurt our music and the things musicians were trying to do. I still believe that, but I think electronics are a great asset to us in the hands of people who think drummers should program them. It’s not going to go away, and we can’t let it get away from us, but you cannot play drums with your fingers. There is going to have to be some kind of physical activity to keep the spontaneity, if nothing else. When I play on a record and start getting into something, something happens physically. It doesn’t happen when you’re playing drums with your fingers. But I’m using more and more electronics now, even on Conway Twitty sessions.

RF: I thought engineers and producers were swinging back to acoustics and using less and less electronics.

JS: When I say I use more electronics, I mean that we’re sampling great natural sounds. When the electronic drums first came out, they were used for effects. The effects aren’t being used much now, and I’m glad because I love a natural-sounding  drum.

RF: Do you consider yourself a player first?

JS: I always will. When I fill out an application for something, I always put that I’m a musician. It’s the foundation of what I do. I produce, but I also play on the stuff I produce. Yes I publish, but I also play on the demos I produce for the publishing. Everything is based around the playing, and I think that, if I stopped playing, I would get a little stale. That’s what keeps me fresh as a producer. I can go into a playing situation, see what other producers are doing, and I can draw from that.

RF: If you didn’t play on the sessions you produce, what would you look for in a drummer?

JS: There’s only one other drummer I’ve ever hired to play on a session, and that’s Larrie. It’s because of his background, what he plays, and where he plays the backbeat, although he’s capable of playing it anywhere. The reason I play on all my sessions is to make them go faster. I don’t have to stop everybody and say, “This is what I want you to play.” I just do it myself. Secondly, I can move the session along and arrange the music more easily on the floor than on the other side of the glass. It’s a little faster, a little more economical, and a little more creative.

I like drummers who have honesty in their playing, confidence, and of course, they have to have the actual ability, which shows up in the people like Larrie Londin, Al Jackson, and Roger Hawkins. I like drummers who can interpret a record and who play the very best part that will go with that record. There are very few drummers who really do that. The great ones do, of course. That scares me a little bit about the electronic thing nowadays, because it can get real mechanical. I still go for the feel. I get off on a drummer who is laying the backbeat in there as much as I do a flashy drummer with two bass drums and 40 million toms. I like that, no doubt about it, but there’s something about somebody who can play the backbeat with the heartbeat that is magic to me. It will always be that way with me.