The Business Of Music
This interview should be required reading for anyone contemplating moving to Nashville to attempt to break into the studio scene. Studio drummer Jerry Kroon addresses issues of, problems with, and feelings about his work, the artists, producers, players, and environment of the Nashville studio in his candidly blunt way.
”It’s just a matter of waiting your turn. I’m not saying it’s always fair to the new person, but we’ve all had the same chance. I came here from South Dakota with nothing but a U-haul trailer, my wife, and a dog. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have anything handed to me, so I worked my way up. A lot of people say, ‘You got where you are because of Larrie Londin.’ He recommended me for a couple of years before anybody would take a shot at me. I’ve recommended people like Tommy Wells, who is a real good player. I’ve been recommending him for a year or two, and he’s actually played on bigger records than I did when I started. It’s just getting that chance and getting people to use him more.”
Jerry shares the frustrations and insecurities he has, even though he is playing for the major accounts such as Earl Thomas Conley, Lee Greenwood, Reba McEntire, Ricky Skaggs, Sawyer Brown, Mel Tillis, Ray Stevens, Merle Haggard, Alabama, George Strait, and Lacy J. Dalton. He makes it obvious that, even though at the top of his field, he is compulsive about growth. Almost to a fault, Jerry is a perfectionist, struggling to be satisfied with his own capabilities.
“In Modern Drummer, I read about all these guys I idolize, and I wonder how they’re so good and how they got that way. Then I get to thinking that there’s room for people like me. In a way, guys like me are a testament. I don’t play like Jeff Porcaro or Steve Gadd. I’d love to, but as hard as I try, I can’t. But is there still room for somebody who can’t be that phenomenal? To me, those guys are great drummers. There are good drummers, and there are great drummers. People use the term ‘great’ too loosely.”
RF: But you can’t consider only what Steve and Jeff do as being great. What about extending the term to apply to someone like you who is great at what you do, not great at what Jeff does?
JK: You’re right about that, but I honestly believe that there are certain players out there who denote the word “great.” As a session player, I have to say that players like Jeff and Johnny Guerin are really great because they do what they do so well. They’re the cream of the crop because they’re so versatile. I wish drummers in Nashville had the opportunity to play that stuff. That’s the only drawback to Nashville, I must say.
RF: Why didn’t you go to L.A.? Why Nashville?
JK: I honestly didn’t feel I could handle L.A. I felt intimidated by the city. I had been out there before and played at a club with a band. When it came time for us to move, I wanted to take my wife into consideration also. She would have gone with me wherever I wanted to go, but I felt my chances at working were better in Nashville. As it turned out, it was a very good move.
Nashville, to me, isn’t a large city. It’s an overgrown town, and it’s more family oriented. You can sit down, talk to the people, get together with them, and do things. It’s just home. It still feels good even with the growth we’re experiencing. I like to think I have lots of acquaintances but precious few friends. And they’re people I don’t see a lot, like Larrie and Debbie Londin, but we’re there if we need each other. That’s important in this “I’ve got to do x amount of sessions a week” place where every kid who comes into town, I feel, is like a gunfighter out to shoot me down. That’s a realistic feeling that people need to know about. It’s not all big money and stardom. It’s a job, and I need to look at the long haul. I’ve been really blessed with the work, but I have to keep pushing and keep playing.
RF: It seems that Nashville is comprised of just a few drummers who monopolize the scene.
JK: When I first moved to town in 1971, the scene was fairly monopolized by certain players. I say this with all due respect to the players, but Buddy Harman, Kenneth Buttrey, Jerry Carrigan, Jimmy Isbell, and Willie Ackerman were popular. It was a very close-knit circle. Larrie was one of the first new guys I knew of to break in. Then came Kenny Malone and some others. I see more new players showing up on sessions now than ever before. But in response to your statement about being monopolized by a few, it does seem that there are four or five drummers who end up doing most of it. That’s not to slight the other players, but I think the producers— and there are a lot of new producers doing things—are still using those same people because they have complete confidence in them. There are a lot of new players here who are great rock ‘n’ roll players, jazz players, or whatever, but the people who are doing most of the work still have a good country feel for doing the straight-ahead country sessions. Someone might be into kind of a pop/rock thing or contemporary country and sound fine, but if you throw that person in on a George Strait or George Jones session where you’ve got to play something real simple, it won’t feel right. I’m not saying that everyone is like that, but I believe that has a lot to do with it. I think the people who are working the most seem to be able to cover a more varied spectrum of playing than some of the others who are specialists.
RF: You’ve done a real variety of music from the traditional George Strait stuff to the more contemporary music of, say, Earl Thomas Conley. What is the difference in your approach to the drums on these two opposite ends of the spectrum?
JK: My background is bar bands and the Holiday Inn circuit. The groups I played in were always variety bands—human jukeboxes. We played whatever the Top 40 was. When I first came to Nashville, I got into a country band in the Western Room in Printer’s Alley, so I learned the Loretta Lynn style, Tammy Wynette, Barbara Mandrell—the real stone country feel. That helps me now when I play on a date. If it’s traditional, like Ricky Skaggs or the early stuff we did with George Strait, I’m not going to be dragging in Simmons or trying to play all these hot licks. Let’s get to the meat and potatoes—the bottom line of the tune.
Country songs are not that rhythmically complicated, but they have a nice little groove all their own, which is very important to capture. I’m not a hot-licks player. I know hundreds of drummers who can just eat me up with chops, but I always play for the song. If I can say anything I like about myself, it’s that I always try to be a good background player. I don’t have star quality in me. If it only calls for a stick and a brush and that makes the song happen, as long as it’s tight and doesn’t rush or drag, I’m real happy. I hesitate to say this because I don’t want to make anybody mad or put anybody down. I respect all the drummers in town, but some of the newer people think playing country music is kind of boring. I respect them if they can make a good living and not have to play that kind of music. I’d love to do the L. A. pop stuff, but I get called for what I get called for, and there’s no sense in my trying to push a square peg in a round hole.
RF: When you’re dealing with a George Strait song and an Earl Thomas Conley song, what does each one of those call for?
JK: Earl Thomas Conley has evolved over the last several years I’ve been doing him. He has been going into the more pop end and wanting to get a bigger sound. The producer and Earl have dictated: “We’re going to stray a little bit further from where we’ve been. We want a bigger drum sound, we want more aggressive tom fills, and more power. We want this to really compete with the bigger power ballads.” But when I did the Reba McEntire album that Harold Shedd did with “How Blue” and all that, Reba said, “Look, this is country. This is who I am. I want to get back to my roots and do what I do best.” That tells me right away what Reba wants.
RF: What specifically does that tell you?
JK: That tells me to keep it nice and sim-. pie. Let’s keep the verses one way. Let’s not get too big on the fills going to the chorus. Just keep it right in the groove. Let the vocal take over, and let the acoustics and the lead guitarist take it. To me, that’s simple. It’s from all the years of listening.
RF: How did you break into the scene?
JK: It’s been a long process for me but a continuing growth. I came here in ’71 and went on the road for about three months
with a country artist, Nat Stuckey. He had a record out, and he was real country. Then I worked in Printer’s Alley with a group called the Nashville Cats, six nights a week, for $ 135 a week, five hours a night, playing stone country. Back then, like I said, we were doing the Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette material. I was there for two years, and during that time, I started doing a few little custom sessions, which are sessions with an unknown artist, usually from out of town, who doesn’t have a label. Usually the artist or the producer is paying for it and marketing it. So I gained a little experience there, and then I got on a few demos. Then I went on the road with Ray Stevens, who worked maybe 110 days a year. Then I started getting more demo work. My thing has been strictly word of mouth. Larrie recommended me for a couple of years before anybody took a chance on me. Then once other people heard me, they’d say, “Oh yeah, we’ll try him. I’ve heard of him.”
RF: It really was a long process. Did you ever get discouraged?
JK: I probably get discouraged more now than when I started.
JK: I just have so many things I want to do: other goals and different record things I want to play on. As I look back, other people have come to town with track records, and they’ve jumped right in there. In a year or two, they’ve gotten the big dates. When I look back over my career, I find that it’s been very steady and consistent. Thank the Lord that I’ve never been out of work. After five years with Ray, I got to the point where I could not afford to go out and play with him. In ’79 I quit, and it’s been really good ever since. There are frustrating moments. I have a family that’s dependent on me. It’s frustrating, but I’m doing what I want to do. I’m real grateful for the consistency of it. I’ve had good friends who have come here and done well for a couple of years. Then all of a sudden, it’s slowed down and been a struggle. Consistency has always been a strong point for me. And the work has gotten better and better. I’ll be honest with you. When I am passed over by some of these people, I say, “Wow, how do they get to do those? I wish I could do that. I know I could do a good job.” But by being patient and trying to wait, it comes around. This year has been wonderful. I’ve played on a lot of different things and with new people.
RF: Such as?
JK: At the end of last year, I did my first movie score, playing music cues for the Jerry Reed movie What Comes Around. That was with a 30-piece orchestra and it was great.
RF: That must have been a nice stretch for you.
JK: Yes, because I’m a self-taught reader. I’ve learned to read over the last five or six years. We don’t get to read much here, so it was a little tense for me, but it was a real challenge. I wanted to really do it to prove to myself that I could, plus I wanted to be a part of something exciting. It really came off well, and it was a real boost to me. I recently did a big band swing album with Buddy Emmons, who is a steel-guitar player. He’s a great jazz player. That was the first time I played with a big band. We did stuff like “Undecided” by the Ames Brothers and all these things I always wanted to play. I was a little intimidated because I didn’t have the experience, but it came off great.
A great thing that happened was that Eddie Bayers hired me to play drums on a Sonny Throckmorton session. That’s really neat when another drummer thinks that much of you—especially of Eddie’s caliber. Several months ago, I worked with Paul Worley on some Coors jingles. And Paul uses a real tight section. Paul and Eddie Bayers go back a long way. It’s little things like that that are so neat. They probably don’t mean much to most people, but when you’ve been doing sessions, it’s hard to stretch out and break new ground.
So there are little confidence builders and things like that that let you know you are getting somewhere. It has nothing to do with the money, but those little things mean a lot to me. I’m the kind of person who has never banged on doors. I don’t have anything against people doing that, and it seems to be a new trend for Nashville, but when I came to town, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t come in like some hot dog trying to take other people’s jobs. I wanted these people to respect me, and I wanted to earn my way. I didn’t want to go in the back way. It’s not that I was intimidated by them or afraid they weren’t going to like me, but I respected Buddy Harman and all those guys, and I didn’t want to politic my way in there. I just held my own and waited. I didn’t even come here to be a session player. My wife and I came here because I felt I could work in Nashville. I thought that I could get road work with a country artist. I didn’t want to be 40 years old and working in a bar in Sioux City, Iowa. I felt that I had to go somewhere where there was enough going on for me to keep working because I wanted to be a musician. This is my life. The studio thing just evolved, and I fell into it.
RF: Most studio players will tell you that they didn’t set out specifically to be studio players. Now, there are a lot of young players who start out saying that they want to be in the studio, yet you need that other experience to qualify as a studio player.
JK: “Studio player” doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re the best drummers or bass players or whatever, but we can make that song happen in 30 minutes or an hour. We can work under pressure, and after we shoot our best shot, if a guy asks for something different, we can give him something different. Someone out there playing in a club may be really good at one thing. I’ve seen it happen. A guy will come in, and he’s just scorching on the guitar or whatever. It’s his natural thing. But then the producer will say, “Can you try something a little different? We want to double this with the steel guitar.” The guy will come unglued because he’s limited. He can do his thing, but maybe his thing doesn’t fit on that song, so what else do you have?
That’s where I think studio players excel. First, they work under pressure, they’re very precise in their playing, and they can get along with different people very quickly. I go in, they hand me a chart—whether it be a real chart or a numbers chart—and I get to the bottom line in a hurry. That’s what most studio players can do. They have the ability to take something that somebody has been playing for months, and turn it into something really magic in 30 minutes or an hour.
RF: What prepares you for that?
JK: What prepared me was that I have really worked at being a good player. I spent time playing country music and I listen to records a lot. I still practice a lot.
RF: What kinds of things do you practice?
JK: I practice different patterns and things I don’t play in the studio, so I can try to get further ahead. It’s hard to do new things when you don’t get to play them all the time. It’s very frustrating. I’ve got a bunch of different books, and some days I’ll work on reading. Some days I’ll just play a groove I heard off an Al Jarreau record, or maybe I’ll try to cop something Jeff Porcaro did. I try to keep pushing myself. I’ve been very blessed in the studio, but I don’t want to get lazy. I’m still like a new kid in town. My attitude is that I have to keep going and do better. I have this little aggressive thing in me that says, “Gee, Jerry, you didn’t play that real good. You’ve got to do better than that. There are drummers out there who can eat you up. You need to keep going.”
RF: There are people who believe that their playing life is only five years.
JK: I believe it all depends on the person. I’ve known people who had a wonderful thing going and who have blown it in a matter of two or three years.
RF: How does one blow it, and how does one keep it together?
JK: Obviously, the way you blow it is drugs and not doing your job. You become successful, you’re climbing up this studio scale, you get busy, and you don’t take care of business. I think that, if people keep themselves in shape mentally, more so than physically even, it will be fine. I’ve got to learn new things, listen, and stay aware. I’ve got to think about equipment. I’ve got to stay on top of the current trends. With a good, healthy attitude—which is sometimes hard to maintain because we all get fried around the edges— you can be a survivor. Maybe you’re not the one with the best chops, but you always get to the bottom line, which is that the producer can count on you, you sound good, you have a good attitude, you work well, and you give 110%. With that kind of attitude and a blessing of decent health, you can do it for a long time.
I’m counting on doing it for a long time. Age has nothing to do with it. The reason some of these people get too old to do it is that they’ve gotten very successful and they quit trying. They get too secure: “I don’t need to practice. I don’t want to get any of that electronic stuff . …” I may not want to do a lot of that either, but that’s what is required for my job.
RF: Do you find that, in Nashville, artists and producers are loyal?
JK: Some of them are loyal, and some of them are hard to figure out. I guess that’s the way with any session player, but I’ve played on many number-one records for people and then found out they’ve used someone else the next time. One thing that has helped me deal with that is the fact that, hey, I’m hired for x amount of hours, I go in there, and they only owe me for that amount of time. I think, “Gee, I’ve gotten number ones for them. What more do they want? Records are selling. I’m doing a good job. That account should be mine.”
That’s a myth we get into. I fall into that myself. With all the years I’ve been doing it, sometimes I still get hurt when I’m not called back. I’ve learned to deal with that a little more in the last few years. I had to because it was starting to drive me nuts. I do have some very loyal clients where I’m first call, and sometimes they don’t even want to cut without me, which feels great.
RF: When you’re new on the scene, is the producer the person you need to get to know or is it the artist?
JK: It may be different for other people, but for me, I always wanted to get the respect of the other players. I figured that, if I worked on a demo date and did a good job, there would be four or five people who would spread my name around. Word of mouth by the players is what helped me because, face it, certain leaders can be influential with the producers. Sometimes a producer will say to the leader of the session, “I want you to use this drummer and this guitar player,” but other times, the session leader will say, “You can’t get Larrie or Eddie? There’s this new guy, Jerry Kroon . . . .”Ultimately, I’m there to satisfy the producer. That is my main consideration, but while I’m doing that, I want to satisfy those other players because that’s four or five potential voices talking you up when they leave.
RF: And if you satisfy them, you’re satisfying the producer and hopefully vice versa.
JK: Exactly. It’s like a sports team. We play together.
RF: Did you have any training at all, or did you completely teach yourself?
JK: I’m self-taught. I didn’t really start playing drums seriously until I was 17 because I was always into sports. Just like most people, I listened to records and tried to learn the feel. When I got to Nashville, it was the same thing. I put on the records, and tried to play to them and learn the feel. I practiced at home, listened to other drummers, and listened to their ideas.
Reading-wise, I’m basically self-taught. You have to ask a lot of questions. You also have to sit home, and go over and over it. I think I’ve turned into an adequate reader. If I had the chance to read at least two or three times a week, I could be a great reader. I enjoy reading. It’s a challenge for me. The frustrating part is that I’ll go for months and not read a note. Then all of a sudden, somebody will come in with a chart. It’s like that movie. All of a sudden, it was a click track in my ear, a 30-piece orchestra, and those guys all read. I’ve been blessed with good ears, and when it gets weird, I rely on my ears. I always wanted to go to Berklee or something like that, but it was like moving to L.A. I thought, “I don’t know if I really fit in there.” So the basic thing was self-motivation. That’s what kept me going.
RF: Do you work with a lot of click tracks?
JK: In the last year, I had a rack put together where I have my Linn drum machine, my Simmons, and my own cue system. I play to a click all the time. I’ll program a shaker, cabasa, or cowbell, and I’ll play to it. I don’t feed it to the other players. In the contemporary Christian scene here, some of the people, like Mark Hammond, were using clicks a lot. It was really working well, so I started trying to do it. When I realized that some of the guys might not mind working with it, it took a load off me. Then I thought, “I can have the ultimate steady track without it being a human drum machine.” Certain rhythm sections I work with—no problem. Then I started getting some negative feedback from some who said, “Do you have to have that thing going?” I was just enjoying it because it was freeing me up from being a timekeeper to doing more things.
RF: What didn’t they like about it?
JK: They didn’t like something steady wacking away in their earphones. That’s when I decided to get my own cue system, which only I hear. Larrie has done that for a long time. I really like that. Ninety percent of the time now, I can go home at night knowing the drum track and the basic track are in the pocket. This is a wonderful thing. I’m still human. I’m not going to be exactly precise, but I can give it a real human feel, and it stays real steady. So I use that all the time now.
Sometimes, if I know who the other players are, I’ll put what I program into their cue, and they love it. I have to walk on eggs with some people because they think it makes the feel stiff. I don’t want to make anybody mad, but it helps me do my job. My job is to play steady, and keep it from rushing or dragging. My favorite records are in the pocket. That’s the kind of player I want to be: solid and in the pocket.
RF: You mentioned that you really had to get into electronics. When was this, what happened, and how did you feel about it?
JK: At first, I didn’t know. When the Simmons came out, I thought, “That’s fine, but we’re not cutting Chaka Khan here. We’re cutting George Jones and Reba McEntire.” I was probably one of the last people to get the Simmons, and I’m supposed to be a busy studio player. Everybody got them, and then everybody burned out on them. By the time I got my stuff, producers were saying, “Boy, whatever you do, don’t bring the Simmons.” It was overkill. Luckily, I waited, and as opposed to getting the SDS5 or SDS7, I got a real simple setup. I got the SDS8, I bought the Detonators, and I’m triggering. Everybody else bought all the expensive gear, but I waited and narrowed it down. I looked at the people in Nashville I respect the most and saw what they were using. If I were in L. A., it would be a totally different thing. What I heard from the engineers and other drummers was that they wanted to hear acoustic drums triggering the Simmons with a little bit of white noise to give it that AMS expanded sound. So I bought a simple Simmons setup, an MX-1, and I have my Linn. I just do some triggering. Now I have the flexibility where, if they want a real pop/rock sound, I give them the Simmons effect, and if they want just a “fattener”—an embellishment of a drum sound that I already have—I can trigger off that and give them the Simmons toms or whatever. It was difficult figuring it all out. I’d buy something and think it was the ultimate piece of gear, and two months later, somebody would say it wasn’t happening anymore.
On the Sawyer Brown stuff that I did a few months back, they wanted a more pop-sounding record, so we hooked up AMS, I changed the chips in my Linn, I hit the acoustic drums, and it triggered the Simmons chips in the Linn. I like simple things. I don’t want to get into that game of new toys every week.
RF: As you said, with Reba McEntire, you wouldn’t bring all that stuff anyway.
JK: I did Reba when Harold Shedd produced her, and I used basically acoustic drums. I do know that Jimmy Bowen, who Reba is with now, uses a lot of electronic sampling, like triggering Simmons. I think they have an SDS7 brain, and when they do what we call the cross stick, which is the country rimshot, they’ve got that sampled as well as various different rimshots. They’re into that, but I don’t hear that big of a difference. Basically, I go for a real good acoustic sound. If they want effects, I have my little rack of stuff I can give them. But I think it’s turning back to more acoustic sounds. The Simmons and Linns are going to be around, but I’m hearing more and more that they’re going back to human rhythm sections, even in L.A. At one time, we all had to have the Hal Blaine setup with all the toms. Now, I think drummers are back to three toms—maybe four. For me, it was “Let’s get something simple that enhances what I do and keeps me competitive with Eddie, Larrie, Stroud, and some of the other drummers I respect.”
RF: When I think of Nashville recording, I think of the entire rhythm section in a room cutting live.
JK: That’s us. Some of the sessions that I felt were tightest right away were when I went in with three or four pieces. I prefer to go in with piano, bass, drums, and maybe electric guitar, turn on the click track, and go. The simpler the rhythm section, the easier it is to make it tight, but budgets don’t necessarily let that happen.
RF: What have been some of your favorite sessions and why?
JK: Obviously, the first favorite session was the first time I played on a hit record. That was for Jimmy Bowen, and it was Mel Tillis’ ‘I Believe In You.’ There’s an interesting story behind that. There was a 6:00 session and another one at 10:00. Larrie was booked for the 6:00, but he said he absolutely couldn’t do the 10:00 because he had something booked, so he suggested they call me. It was Joe Osbourne, Reggie Young, and all those heavies. I’d had a little experience, but that was the major leagues. I got in there, we did the song, and it went number one. The neatest thing about that, just to show you about friendships, was that Larrie got me on the session and then discovered later that he was open for the 10:00 because his 10:00 was canceled. They wanted him to play the date, but Larrie said, “Hey, give this guy the shot. You hired him, and he’ll do a good job.”
RF: You must have been nervous walking into that one.
JK: Yeah, I was a little nervous.
RF: How do you get yourself comfortable real fast when you walk into a situation like that?
JK: I try to do what I do best, be real attentive to what’s going on, and not let being nervous psych me out. I try to say, “I’m here, nervous or whatever. How does the song go? Is there any tricky part that I might have trouble with that I need to outline?” You need to get a game plan going. Okay, Larrie Londin is your favorite drummer, and I don’t play like him. I’m here. What can I do? I just want to do a good job. I’m nervous, so there’s no sense in trying anything fancy like I might do if I were feeling real good and were on a roll. Let’s get to the bottom line. What do they want in the verse and in the chorus? I figure it out and go from there. I always revert back to the bottom line. A good groove and steady time will work. There will be days when I can do that, plus I feel a little hot where I can let it out and play some real nice things. When I don’t feel that I can think of anything or I’m a little unsure of my creativity, I stick to the bottom line. I guess that’s what I like about the Porcaros and people like that: They’ll give you the steady track, but they’ll also give you a burst of exciting stuff. Some days I feel like I can give that burst, and other days I don’t. But I know from experience that, if I play real solid, steady, and tasty, that will work.
RF: Doesn’t the stuff over and above that come with time and knowing a producer?
JK: Exactly—and confidence in yourself and knowing you can take a chance with this guy—knowing you can stretch out here and he won’t slap your wrists. When you walk in that studio, whether it’s five players, six players, or whatever, you’ve got to wear a lot of different hats, and being a psychologist is one of them. First of all, you’re there to work for that producer and satisfy the artist. Then you’ve got other people you’re dealing with. Maybe there’s someone on the session you’re not really good friends with. Okay, you’re professionals, and the bottom line is to get the air cleared. I find that, if I’m working with somebody who doesn’t really like me or doesn’t really want me there, I block that out and say, “Look, this guy is paying me good money to be here, and I have to give him a product.” I’m a product. I’m like a can of 409. As long as I do a good job, people use me until something else comes along. That’s what the longevity is: being consistent. You don’t have to be flashy or great, but there’s a greatness in even being consistent. That’s what has helped me maintain as long as I have maintained. I’ve seen drummers who have so many licks, and who play more in a drum check than I play all year. I do what I do, and I get some of those ideas sometimes. But the important thing is what will make this record sell and what will make this record feel good.
RF: Can you think of other favorite sessions?
JK: Terri Gibbs. We did “Somebody’s Knockin’.” That was my first real big single. I guess that was special, even though I had played number ones in between the time I played that first Mel Tillis number one and Terri Gibbs. It was all of us coming in there—strangers—and the magic of that: the feel, the atmosphere, the attitude, the new artist. She was a bar singer in Georgia, and here she was recording. That was really great.
RF: Other people might come in with the attitude of, “She’s only a new artist. She’s not Mel Tillis, or George Strait, so I don’t have to put my best foot forward. Maybe no one will ever even hear it.”
JK: I’ve never had that attitude. I’ve had days when my attitude hasn’t been great, but basically, I want to please these people. I know you are hired to play the sessions and you get x amount of dollars, but I think lots of times we’re playing for ourselves, too. It’s, “I want to do a good job. I want to be part of this tune.” That was exciting for me, because that was one of the first artists I worked with where we took a newcomer up the ladder with phenomenal success for that first year or two.
Other sessions that are memorable for me are the sessions that are firsts, like doing my first national jingle. I did some “Me And My RC” commercials, which I heard on TV. Other firsts, like that film music or that big band album with Buddy Emmons, are great. I guess it’s those kinds of things. It’s exciting the first time I work with an artist who all my friends have played with, like Jerry Reed. Those kinds of things are special. And getting those moments where you did something you’ve never done before, and somebody comes up to you and says, “Man, you really played that great. I didn’t know you could play that way. You sound like you’ve been doing that for 20 years,” is really great.
RF: Do you find that this is a fairly thankless job, though—that you don’t really get that much feedback from people?
JK: Sometimes. We’re studio players, and we’re supposed to be the best—perfect.
RF: So they expect it and might not acknowledge how good you are.
JK: Sometimes I want to back off. I’d like to just go away for a while. I’ve dealt with a lot of good artists who I have thought were really nice people and who have treated the musicians wonderfully. It’s not usually the top artists who treat you bad. It’s usually the ones who aren’t of the superstar status who might feel they have to prove something. They’re the ones who give you a lot of trouble sometimes. Then sometimes it’s real sad, because you’ll go in and cut a record with somebody, it’ll be a number-one record, that person will become successful, and then next time you do that artist’s album, he or she will have changed because that person has become a “star.” That’s sad. You’re a part of that individual’s career, and it’s sad to watch. But that’s part of the reality of the studio situation that people need to know. It’s not a glamorous thing, and you’d better treat it like a business and be prepared for a lot of heartbreaks. You can make a decent living, and if you’re inclined to work under pressure with ups and downs, you can have a wonderful career. For me, that’s what I want to do. I enjoy the fact that all I have to do is go in there for three hours. I like to create a song, play on it, hopefully watch it go up the charts, and I don’t have to play it six nights a week on the road.
RF: Do you miss live playing at all?
JK: I’ve got a family, so the studio thing for me is really great. I’m a Monday through-Friday guy. I give it all I can Monday through Friday. Saturday I work in the yard. Sunday we’re pretty involved in the church and it’s a family thing, so I don’t care to be gone on the weekends. If I were part of a James Taylor thing or something, maybe then. I might do some road work eventually, not for the money, but on a limited basis. I do love to play live. I went out and played with Ricky Skaggs a couple of years ago when his drummer at the time, George Grantham, broke his hand. I really enjoyed that. Ricky asked me to go out because I played on some of the albums, so I was the logical choice. I’d heard all these stories about, “If you’re in the studio, you can’t play live.” I wanted to see if I could go out and do it, and I did. I trashed two snare heads in two shows, but I heard the tape back and it sounded as good as the album, so I felt real good. I had one rehearsal and I had to make all my charts, so while the rest of the band was out by the swimming pool, I was in my room because I was responsible for counting off the tempo. That was a lot of pressure because Ricky is a very particular person, but I did a good job.
RF: As you mentioned, people have lots of preconceptions about studio players, like they can’t play live, they’re too rigid, or they’re boring. There’s a lot of negativity surrounding a very important job. Toto has certainly gotten its undue share.
JK: Oh yeah, and they’re wonderful players. We just have to be people who are gifted at working under certain conditions.
RF: But as Porcaro once said, look at the pressure a Paul McCartney puts on someone. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
JK: People need to know that it is pressure. I didn’t know how much pressure it was. In fact, at one time, I can remember thinking while I was working in Printer’s Alley, “Gee, if I could just get my foot in the door and get a couple of sessions a week, that would be great.” So I got my foot in the door and I got my two sessions a week, but once I got in there, the demands were incredible. I’m not talking about just the demands by the people you work for, but also the pressure of knowing that you have other people wanting your job. And the music business—thank you for giving me a good living, but you’re very fickle. I’m here today and gone tomorrow. I hate the business, but I love making records and being part of working with some of the people I work with. I think, “Man, I’m from South Dakota, and I’m playing with these people. This is wonderful! I never expected this.” I’m deserving of it now, because I’ve paid my dues.
When I really enjoy that the most is when I get away from Nashville on a vacation or something, and happen to turn on the country station just to listen. I’ll know that’s my friend playing steel guitar and I’ll think, “Boy, he really does play good.” When we’re here doing it all that time, we take each other for granted or we’re always in a hurry. I think studio players are a special breed. It’s something more than just the playing because I think I’m an example of it. There are a lot of fantastic players who do more than I do, but there’s something about me and the other people who do it that’s different. I certainly don’t want anyone to think that’s cocky, but that’s almost something I can’t put into words.
RF: When we began this conversation, you mentioned the frustrations of not being able to accomplish some goals. What are those goals?
JK: I want to grow as a player. I’m a pretty frustrated player. Maybe it’s the Barbra Streisand syndrome. She says she never wants to listen to any of the records she’s done. I listen to her records thinking, “Wow, how does she do that?” I hear something I’ve played on, and I’m glad I played on it, and it sounds really good, but I keep thinking, “I want to do this. I want to be like this.” It’s my own little hang-up, but it’s a hang-up that drives me nuts. I want to do better, and I feel that I need to do better. Maybe it’s for my own satisfaction more than anything else.
RF: You seem to be the kind of person who will never be satisfied, though.
JK: You’re right. It’s sad.
RF: Not really, because it’s what keeps you going and motivates you.
JK: And sometimes it drives me crazy. But yes, that’s the positive side I want to lean on.
RF: Sometimes there are people who need that to really give them that motivation.
JK: I need that because I’ve been in the business long enough now that it would be easy for me to be burned out. The thing that stops that is something inside me. I won’t call it an obsession, because it used to be and that was bad. I used to think that my happiness depended entirely upon how many sessions I did, how much money I made this week, etc. The Lord turned that around. I was literally going nuts. I was so depressed and frustrated all the time that I couldn’t enjoy anything. God really helped me do that. I want to give Him the credit for that, because He’s a very important part of my life. Sometimes I don’t exemplify it in my frustrations, but He really helped me deal with the studio thing.
The studio thing is really a strange breed of cat. I’ve gotten over it being an obsession. I now say, “Okay, I’m doing the best I can, and I’m not sitting there waiting for the phone to ring.” I’ll get up at 8:00 in the morning, and I’ll do a 30-minute workout before I do a 10:00, a 2:00, and a 6:00. I keep saying, “Jerry, you can do better. You owe it to yourself. He’s given you this talent.” But now it’s just my career. Monday through Friday, I’ll go as hard as I can, but on the weekend, I’m going to be with my family, so it’s rounding me out a little bit. It was a terrible obsession. When I’m down, I like to think, “You really are blessed to be able to do something that a lot of people would like to do.” Regardless of whether I make the best money, it’s a unique thing. When I play on a track and it really feels good and I’ve done a good job, that is a wonderful feeling. That’s what it is all about. Especially if I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a producer who is really good, the song is good, the artist is glad I’m there, and I feel that kind of family thing, then it’s a wonderful feeling. That’s what it’s all about. I need the money, it’s my career, and it’s a job, but that’s the special part of it. Those moments are what I strive for.