Features

Greg Morrow

Jason Aldean’s Rich Redmond sits down with the first-call Nashville drummer to trace his journey to the top of the charts.

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Every one of us has favorite players who have left a lasting impression on the way we play, record, and perform. I’ve been particularly influenced by many of the marquee Nashville studio drummers who came before me, and none more than the great Greg Morrow.

Morrow’s discography includes hits for Blake Shelton, Kenny Rogers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Trace Adkins, Sugarland, Luke Bryan, the Dixie Chicks, and Sheryl Crow, among many others. I first learned of him in 1997, while auditioning for singer Deana Carter, whose album Did I Shave My Legs for This? Greg had played on the previous year. The tracks sounded different and fresh for contemporary country, with their inclusion of loops and below-the-belt playing.

Morrow’s unique style was my “gateway drug” into familiarizing myself with Nashville drummers, and Greg became a mentor to me. Recently I jumped at the opportunity to discuss his amazing career.


MD: Did you come from a musical family?

Greg: No one in my family made a living playing music, but music was always there, especially gospel. My mom and her parents had a trio that sang in the Assembly of God church, and my dad and his little brother sang bass in a quartet. My grandfather on my dad’s side of the family owned the first guitar I ever saw, and he would teach me chords.

MD: Your parents must be proud of how far you’ve come.

Greg: My mom was always extremely supportive and actually got to come to a show a few weeks back. She was always the band-practice chauffeur. My dad took a
while, but before he passed in ’98 he said to me that he believed I had made the best decision by coming to Nashville and that I should keep doing what I was doing. It was a great moment of resolution for me.

MD: When and why did you start playing drums?

Greg: I don’t ever remember not playing. All my earliest memories involved beating on something. I’ve always believed the ability was a gift from God. I could always hear something, sing it in my head, and then make my hands and feet do it.

MD: Did you take any formal drum lessons?

Greg: My first teacher was Miss Rebecca Doss at the Central Academy of Music in Memphis. I’m sure she was frustrated with me. [laughs] By the time I got involved in lessons, I could already play along with records and play songs with all the right parts. When I played sticking patterns on a pad, it just didn’t affect me in the same way.

MD: Did you ever get your reading together?

Greg: I’m not a great reader, but I can read. When I was in my high school band, a friend of mine, Mike Fruitticher, worked with me on reading so that I could audition for the Memphis State University band. I’d learned a snare drum piece for the state solo and ensemble competition. I picked a solo in 5/4 time and I nailed the notes, but I didn’t play with any dynamics, so the judges gave me a 2 rating instead of a 1. I added the dynamics and used that same piece to audition for the Memphis State band. The director, Tom Ferguson, gave me a scholarship for $65. That was about a third of the tuition at the time.

MD: When you moved to Nashville, were you familiar with the styles of top players like Larrie Londin, Eddie Bayers, and Lonnie Wilson?

Greg: I actually knew Larrie Londin well. I used to work at a drum shop in Memphis called the Drum Stand. My closest thing to a big brother, Dave Patrick, who’s a legendary figure in the drum industry and a fantastic drummer in his own right, taught me so much about drums and their construction. We did lots of custom drums for bands like Earth, Wind and Fire and Foreigner.

Larrie and Dave were great friends, and Larrie would do clinics at the store. I actually got to build a few drums for him. I believe we built the drum he used on [Steve Perry’s hit] “Oh Sherrie” and the one he used in [Rodney Crowell’s country supergroup] the Cherry Bombs. Larrie was a very gracious and giving man. He came to Melody Music Shop in Memphis when I was fourteen years old, and that was the first drum clinic I ever saw. He’d just signed with Pearl Drums and played a blue oyster wood-fiberglass double bass kit. I had never heard of him at that point. He played a wide-open drum solo and brought the house down. He was just ferocious.

MD: You’ve played with Amy Grant for years. Can you talk about your history with her?

Greg: When I lived in Memphis I was a member of the Christian rock band DeGarmo and Key. We played lots of auditoriums, theaters, and civic centers. At the time it was very edgy—meaning loud—music for the genre. Amy had three studio records out then and wanted to do a live album, so her management hired our band to back her up. We played in Tulsa and Oklahoma City to record a live album, and they ended up doing two separate albums. After that we did a tour to support these albums. Soon after, Amy proceeded to become a superstar, and DeGarmo and Key continued on with our career. Then, in 1988, her management called and asked me to play drums for her new touring band.

MD: Was this a crossroads for you?

Greg: Yes, I had to quit the band I had played in for nine years. It was everything I ever dreamed of: arenas, a tour bus, a drum tech, good money. The tour went on for eighteen months. I met lots of folks, and it changed lots of things for me. After that tour, I went back to Memphis and waited for the call to come for the next tour. It never came. That was a hard lesson on what it really means to be self-employed in the music business. It was a lesson in always being honest with yourself and about knowing your position. Believe me, it translates to studio work as well.

MD: Fast-forward twenty years…

Greg: In 2008 I got a voicemail from Amy herself. She said she’d listened to board tapes from that tour and it sparked a feeling she hadn’t had in a long time. She wanted to put that same band back together to celebrate the release of those live records we’d recorded twenty years earlier. So in 2008 we went out and did twenty-four shows, and I’ve stayed in her live situation since then. It’s an amazing band. There’s no drama, just great music and awesome gigs.

MD: Most people move to Nashville and starve for five years. You immediately started playing on hit records.

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Greg: I commuted for a couple of years. I rented a room from a friend and put a phone in. If I didn’t have anything going on in Memphis, I would hang out in Nashville. I never was much of a networker, but I could answer the phone if someone called.

A producer named Norbert Putnam brought me to Nashville for a few projects and was always very encouraging. He sat my wife, Pam, and me down and said very matter-of-factly, “This is something you can do.” In other words, based on what he heard in my playing, he felt I could attract steady work in Nashville. He did it in a very encouraging and fatherly way. I remember saying to him, “People actually do this all day and get paid what”? It was a level that I hadn’t experienced before.

Another person that helped in my move to Nashville was Chad Cromwell, who recommended me to producer Scott Hendricks. Chad had played a few showcases with an artist Scott was producing, named Faith Hill, but he still needed to put a touring band together for her. Scott called me in Memphis and asked me to come to Nashville and audition. I drove down, played “Piece of My Heart” and “Take Me as I Am,” and they hired me later that day.

One night after a gig Scott told me, “We love having you out here, but you need to be playing sessions. The way you play will work in Nashville, and I think people will enjoy it.” My wife was thrilled that I finally heard what countless people had told me for years. So we purchased a house in Nashville, right before our daughter started kindergarten. Immediately Deana Carter’s “Strawberry Wine” and LeAnn Rimes’ “One Way Ticket” became big hits, and the door was now open. Within three or four months of moving to Nashville, I had played on two number-one songs.

MD: You’ve recorded for country acts, pop acts, singer-songwriters, and bands. Do you have an idea of why people enjoy playing with you?

Greg: People like playing with musicians who listen. The click and the grid are parts of modern music production that aren’t going away anytime soon, but the key is to negotiate peace between those aspects and the other participants on the floor. A good group of session musicians makes an artist feel comfortable. They make the music feel familiar, like putting on an old pair of shoes. Even if it all happens between 10 and 10:45 a.m., we strive to make it feel like we’ve been playing it on stage together for five years.

On the studio floor, it’s never about what I do—it’s what we do. There are so many other musicians in the studio that have talent and heart. You have to know when to speak and when to listen. Some people want to be the chief all the time, and they aren’t usually fun to be around, though sometimes you do have to step up and guide things along. How you do it makes the difference.

MD: What’s the key to setting up a cue in the studio and playing with clicks?

Greg: I personalize my clicks for each song on the MPC2000. I use shakers and cowbells that sound like a percussionist in the band. There’s a rigid element to it, but it sounds like music and it’s fun to play to. If producers want something personalized for the song, they have to realize it takes time to do that.

Often songwriters come in with loops and we track to that. I really like the MPC because it reads MIDI beat clock, so it will drive from a Pro Tools click. I can even add parts to an existing loop with the MPC. I think it still sounds fresher than all of the canned laptop loops that are happening. Dre likes it.

MD: What’s your attitude toward getting a good studio drum sound?

Greg: You should know how to get the sound you’re hearing in your head. Know what your instrument will do. My Slingerland Studio King kit is my go-to set, and it’s a favorite for engineers around Nashville. It’s easy to get sounds on. I don’t like drums that ring too much, just a punchy fundamental with a nice decay. I use the usual assortment of tape and towels to broaden the palette without changing out the kit. I bring a range of snares that I keep tuned for specific purposes—Ringo here, Bonham there, low and gushy to high and tight. The thing is to spend a minute to cast your sounds to each tune. A change in snare or a more mellow ride cymbal can make a big difference in the overall feel of a track.

MD: You’ve had a passion for recording your whole life. What are your thoughts on mics, outboard gear, and recording?

Greg: I think you can get trapped in the cycle of chasing your tail and second-guessing every choice you make. I was eleven years old when I did my first session. My band had to record a track to lip-sync to for a TV show. Roland Janes engineered my band at Sonic Studios. Every garage band in Memphis did their first demo there. We played and sang live with no monitors, and he mixed straight to mono tape. There were probably five RCA 77 mics on the whole session. It sounded amazing, and he never seemed to give it any thought.

There are certain tried-and-true things, like an SM57 will work on every guitar amp and every snare drum, on toms, on most bass drums, and even sometimes as overheads. You may get more overhead sizzle if you use condensers, and you may get more thump if you use a D112 on the kick, but knowing where to put the mic is every bit as important as what mic you use.

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MD: Do you think it’s important for up-and-coming drummers to be experts at Pro Tools?

Greg: I do think it’s a skill you need to nurture, because we’ll be working on our own a lot more. I like having someone engineer me, because I like to have
someone to hang out with! It just feels more like a team effort. I will say, though, that I did an album with Kim Mitchell and Joe Hardy called Ain’t Life Amazing where we were never even in the same country, and it worked out great. It just feels like a very well-rehearsed performance.

MD: How has Nashville changed since you moved here in 1996?

Greg: There’s more music happening here than anywhere else, but there’s less than there was ten or twelve years ago. Rosters are smaller; there are fewer records being recorded and way fewer publishing companies and demo sessions.

MD: Lots of young musicians are moving to Nashville now instead of New York or L.A.

Greg: At great expense, many of the music schools have told students, “You’re ready. You have achieved. You’re certified.” That just means they’ve finished this particular body of work. The work is just beginning when they get to wherever they’re going.

MD: Is there any room for young players to do what you do?

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Greg: I know there are tons of young guys that have touring gigs and think they’re ready to play sessions. But copying someone else’s part is a different skill set from conceiving one on your own, under the gun, with time constraints, as someone else’s money is being spent. Here’s the long and short of it: Instinct is so important as a session player. Experience helps you develop that instinct, and playing anyplace, anytime gives you that experience.

Folks around here have traditionally been very intuitive to BS. You can’t force your way into the music business; you have to perform your way in. You have to be willing to face what you don’t know and be ready for opportunities when they come. It took a long time for me to be ready for Nashville. I moved here at thirty-eight years old.

But there’s beauty in all of it. I’ll do anything that I have time for. I love getting to sub for Jimmy Lester with Webb Wilder. I’ll jump in the van and play West Virginia. You should never insulate yourself from experiences available to you. I’ve been blessed in that work has always come my way. I consider the hundred-dollar club gig as much of a blessing as the double-scale Blake Shelton gig. Faith is strong in my life—childlike faith. I try to honor my creator, and then it’s easy to keep everything else in perspective. Music is temporary relief from the trials of life; it’s not the be-all and end-all for anything. Music is a piece of life.


Greg Morrow

Drums: Slingerland Nashville-made
Studio King
A. 6.5×14 Ludwig chrome-over-brass Supraphonic snare (also chooses from 5×14 mid-’60s Rogers wood-shell Powertone and other models)
B. 11×14 tom
C. 16×16 (or 16×18) floor tom
D. 16×24 bass drum

Cymbals: Bosphorus
1. 14″ Groove series Fat Hats
2. 18″ Traditional crash
3. 20″ Traditional ride
4. 19″ Traditional crash

Morrow’s alternate Zildjian K Constantinople setup includes 14″ hi-hats, an 18″ crash, a 19″ crash/ride, and a 20″ Medium Thin High ride.

Sticks: Vater 3A Lite, Power 5A, and Swing models with wood tips; Regal Tip fixed wood-handle wire brushes

Electronics: Akai MPC2000 drum machine (eight-output version); Yamaha Subkick; Beyerdynamic DT-150 headphones; Shure in-ear monitors and Beta 52A, SM7B, SM57, and KSM44A mics

Heads: Remo, including Coated Emperor or Coated CS snare batter and Hazy Ambassador bottom, Smooth White Emperor tom batters and Smooth White Ambassador bottoms, and Smooth White Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter

Hardware: DW 3000 series

Live, Morrow plays a DW Collector’s series FinishPly kit in purple onyx silk, including a 5×14 or 6.5×14 snare, a 9×13 tom, a 16×16 or 16×18 floor tom, and a 16×24 bass drum, with 3000 series hardware, including a rail mount for the rack tom and a shell-mount cymbal arm.


Influences

Jimi Hendrix Are You Experienced? (Mitch Mitchell) /// Big Star #1 Record (Jody Stephens) /// the Rolling Stones Hot Rocks (Charlie Watts) /// the Beatles 1 (Ringo Starr) /// Van Duren Are You Serious? (Hilly Michaels) /// ZZ Top Rio Grande Mud (Frank Beard) /// Sly and the Family Stone Greatest Hits (Greg Errico) /// Badfinger Straight Up (Mike Gibbins) /// Yes Fragile (Bill Bruford) /// Robert Johnson King of the Delta Blues Singers (none)

Photos by Rick Malkin