One can’t help but be intrigued by a drummer whose playing experiences range from Ted Nugent to Crystal Gayle, who grew up in Florida, lived in Detroit with Nugent, and now lives in Nashville. With musical interests as diverse as Weather Report to Little Feat, Vic Mastrianni is now able to taste variety playing with one of the longest working bands in the industry, the Dirt Band. The Dirt Band treats their audiences to an eclectic selection of musical styles, from good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll to downhome bluegrass, and everything in between. And for the past year and a half, Vic has been adeptly supplying their drum beat.
“I love this band,” he smiled, seated in his San Diego hotel room. “From the beginning, I wanted to be in a band that played good all-American rock ‘n’ roll tunes, had good vocals and happy songs. This band is perfect. The Dirt Band has gone through more changes than a lot of groups have, but I think this band can do some country music and bluegrass stuff and still be considered contemporary. Groups like Alabama and Charlie Daniels emerged doing country music with rock and I think those are the people the Dirt Band will appeal to, only this band is so much more sophisticated in attitude, image and appearance. This band offers me the expression to play the kind of drums I want to play, although there are still a lot of things I haven’t yet done with them that I can do. There’s a lot of freedom there, though, and I think they like my ideas.”
Having been through several drummers in the past few years, founding member Jimmie Fadden described what the Dirt Band expects from their drummer, and why Vic fits the bill: “What we need is someone aggressive and consistent. Vic is persistent about his job and stays after it. He seems to be very happy playing this music, whereas the other drummers didn’t necessarily want to play our kind of music.”
Mastrianni formed his strong musical opinions at a young age. Watching his father and uncle working as jazz musicians, Vic found that genre of music too confining, with “white shirts and no soul,” as he put it. His father, however, saw to it that Vic had formal lessons from Leo Shurpa in West Palm Beach, Florida, from ages nine to high school graduation.
“My dad wanted me to be an Ed Shaughnessy, and that meant reading. Beyond that, he said, if I wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll drummer, it didn’t matter, but I’d have to learn to read. I didn’t totally agree with that, but I did learn a lot and could see where it was really helping me in school bands. I also learned a lot from a drummer by the name of Duffy Jackson. Duffy was a child prodigy and when we graduated high school, he went on with Liza Minelli, Lionel Hampton and Count Basie. He was the same age as I, but he taught me a lot because he was getting lessons from Buddy Rich and he was a powerhouse on drums even as a little kid.”
After high school graduation and playing with the top local band, Vic moved to New York in 1971 to fulfill a record deal with a group of local guys who called themselves Shotgun Messenger. After the all-too-familiar horror stories of broken promises, the record was never released. But the band did benefit Vic in that they had opened for the Amboy Dukes on a couple of occasions, and the following year, Ted Nugent requested that Mastrianni take over the drum seat Joe Vitale had just vacated.
“I listened to the demo tapes with Vitale on them and thought, ‘This guy is hot! I don’t know if I can do this.’ It was slightly intimidating because they seemed as though they were more seasoned than I, and Vitale was doing things on the drums that I didn’t really have control over yet. It seemed so easy for him, but I got hold of it finally, and when all was said and done, I didn’t really have a problem keeping tastefulness in that kind of music. I was already into stuff like Billy Cobham, and as far as being powerful, I think Cobham is more powerful than Nugent is. And there is a guy named Cozy Powell who had started playing with Jeff Beck. The way those two guys played is exactly what I wanted to do in drumming. So I just took it into that gig and that’s the way I played it. The fact that the bass player was also into more funk jazz helped, plus, Nugent is funky. He grew up in Detroit and he knows all about black music, if anybody does, but he’s made the decision to be what he is. Basically, though, I found it real easy to be tasty and to use the power for something exciting. I was intrigued by the power because it gave me a chance to really let loose. The first few times you let loose it’s like a wild stallion. Once I got control, I found that there was something there and I could still play soft, but if I really wanted to lay into it, I had opened a new door that hadn’t been there before. Some drummers, I think, do not understand the power. Sometimes they use it in the wrong places and that’s why sometimes people say that some drummers are too loud, or it sounds like they’re building a house. It’s just that they don’t really know where to take the song.
“When I left Nugent in ’75, I was ready to go see a shrink, though. I thought I had lost my chops. In the beginning, I thought I was really getting better and better and had full intentions of keeping it that way. But the more popular the band got and the more touring we did—opening for Kiss and ZZ Top and stuff—I’d just go out there and play two hours of one, solid, hard-rock beat, just as fast as I could go and as hard as I could play. The finesse was going away after a while. As he’d up our salary, though, and things got better, it just seemed worth sticking around for. But after a while, I definitely felt as if I were loosing my grip.”
After leaving Nugent, he joined some friends who had moved to Nashville, and soon found himself joining them to back Buffy St. Marie.
“At that point, I couldn’t even play with just one bass drum. I had started playing double bass at 15 or 16 after seeing Carmine Appice’s set up, and I never really got away from that. All of a sudden, in 1975, which was many, many years later, I had to completely change. I had played with two for so long that I mixed all my beats between two bass drums and it was the only way I could play. I had learned to play so powerfully and hard that I had to use two bass drums or I would have had a heart attack. I just didn’t have enough control with one foot. Those guys were real patient with me because it really took me a few months before I got a grip on opening and closing a hi-hat. It was almost like starting over, but I had to learn it because all the studios and all the drummers played this specific set up, whereas I had always played eleven-piece sets.”
Some work with J.J. Cale followed, as well as some touring with Tracy Nelson who he had met through a songwriter by the name of Mac Gayden. During this time, Vic also worked on Gayden’s ABC album which was cut down at Criteria Studios, giving him the opportunity to experiment extensively in a recording situation unlike the two albums he had done with Nugent [Call of the Wild and Tooth, Fang & Claw}, which consisted primarily of straight ahead playing and little overdubbing.
Returning to Nashville, he worked some with Jack Clements, and did whatever studio work came along, but knew he could never be happy focusing exclusively on session work.
“I stayed in Nashville because it had the air about it, mainly because of my friends, that we could just put a band together. Peace and Quiet [the band that backed Buffy St. Marie] was the motivation to stay, more than anything. My two friends had already gotten in with studios and we had unlimited time to cut anything we wanted. I was trying to get abreast of it and learn more about the scene in Nashville because I didn’t dislike country music. My motivation was primarily to make it in the business, and I wasn’t about to let country music stand in my way. Half of what Jack Clements did was country music. He’d have someone like Waylon or John Prine there and it was country as hell. I’d be the only unseasoned player in the bunch. After eight years in Nashville and the studios, I’ve definitely gotten a hold on what it is and what it requires. I find it very limiting. You’d better be ready to sit back and do only that and have had all your wild oats sowed. When I first saw what was going on there, I was intrigued by it, but I also saw that thing I had seen back with my father—the jazz straight-laced feel and its lack of expression—which I didn’t like. The first couple of weeks I was there, I talked to Larrie Londin, who was so generous and open and invited me to sessions. What I thought was, ‘If I were like him, maybe I could to that. But right now I really want to be doing something with a band that has the feeling I want to portray—not what a producer wants to portray.'”
Peace and Quiet, a band Vic described as “similar to the Dirt Band minus the banjo,” was putting an album together independently in 1977 when Crystal Gayle called and asked them if they would become her back-up band. “It was my first experience on a tour bus with a Nashville country singer and that was interesting. It was great being with my friends, and in retrospect, I think that’s part of what scared me about Michigan with Nugent—being up there by myself. With my friends playing country music, I could too. I didn’t feel out of place. We had a good time and we could talk about it after the show.”
After two albums [When I Dream and Crystal], Crystal replaced the entire band with older studio musicians. Vic conjectured, “I think we pushed her a little too far, musically, sometimes. We even got her to cut a reggae song once in the studio,” he laughed.
But again, the right time and the right place paid off. Both the Dirt Band and member John McEuen, in his solo act, had opened for Gayle. Upon changing drummers, the Dirt Band asked Vic to join, only six months after he’d left Gayle.
“I took it as a challenge that they had been through several drummers in the past. I also like the fact that the Dirt Band has been around as long as it has because I feel that makes for an even better opportunity. Look at all these struggling bands like J. Geils, Steve Miller, Bob Seger, and even Nugent, who for years had mediocre albums out and minimal record sales, and then one day, pow! I think the Dirt Band has just as much, if not more, opportunity and lot more capability than most for turning out monster hits. At this point, I’d like to know what reasons there are not to stay. That’s how I look at it. I’ve already looked at things the other way, like with Nugent where I felt, ‘Oh, he won’t make it. He’s been around for years and if he were going to make it, he already would have.’ That’s one of the reasons I can’t look at things like that anymore. Obviously, I was wrong. I left about two years before he skyrocketed, so I’m able to take those slaps in the face from all those old groups. I just have to look at it as if it’s a matter of time.”
Although bluegrass is certainly not the extent of what the Dirt Band plays, it is, perhaps, considered one of the most difficult styles to master. Vic says, however, “I’ve always wondered why people say bluegrass is hard to play. When I first moved, playing with brushes was one of the things I did best. Somehow, I could play anything with brushes. I realized that from being able to play so fast with Nugent, I had learned to play quick and snappy. I was able to relax even at a fast tempo and play very steady. A lot of drummers just can’t get over the tempo and I think they find they can’t keep up with it. Country audiences don’t clap on two and four, they clap on one and three, which is totally opposite from rock ‘n’ roll. When you clap on one and three, you actually should almost pick it up a little bit, because they’re clapping in a strange spot and it makes it more fun. When they’re clapping on two and four, it’s got to be right in there because a two and four clapper is going to know if you’re rushing. With bluegrass, the faster the beat gets, the more exciting it gets and that’s what the people like. That’s not to say you should rush, but it’s important to keep it exciting.
“I don’t think the drummer in a bluegrass situation is there to stand out like a solo instrument. But what he can provide can be important as an underlying blanket of rhythm that provides more for the banjo player to play off of. Brushes on a snare drum can really add to a rhythm so the other instruments can concentrate more on chords and tonal value and the bass player doesn’t have to slap so much. As long as the drummer is doing what he’s supposed to, I think it can have its place. I don’t mind being in the background when it comes to that because I don’t enjoy playing anything that doesn’t fit anyway. With the Dirt Band, there’s only a quarter of the show that I do with brushes, though, which is mostly on the fast songs, except for ‘Ripplin’ Waters,’ which is a ballad. Actually, that is the hardest to do because it is the exact same beat as the real fast bluegrass things, except I’m playing it real slow. The pattern you use for a bluegrass thing is the right hand playing the beat and the left playing staggered upbeats. When you do that at a slow pace, you’ve really got to listen to the vocal and forget what you’re doing so you can stay with the vocal. I sing the song while I’m playing. On most things, the less I think about what I’m playing, the better I play.”
Throughout the years, various members such as guitarist Jeff Hanna, harmonica player Jimmie Fadden and bassist Jimmy Ibbotson supplied the drums for the band. But Vic’s open and receptive nature does not allow that to inhibit him. In fact, quite the contrary: “I’ll always give them the chance to suggest and I’ll play whatever it is they want to hear. That doesn’t mean that that’ll be the final word, but if Jeff asks me to play something, I’ll play it for him because that’s the only way all of us are going to find out if the idea was worth trying. Some drummers are pretty closedminded about that and they get defensive, but I figure that if I’ve got my own ideas, I’m not going to forget them. I always like to listen, and actually, most of Jeffs ideas are worth listening to. He’s real aware of drums since he likes them and dabbles in them. Also, maybe sometimes I am lost for what to play in a song and I welcome that input. Fadden knows a lot of that Cajun stuff, and I while I had played regular straight country, I had never done a lot of actual cajun music. Fadden plays drums on ‘Diggy Diggy Lo,’ which has a weird French beat. The snare drum does a little bit more rhythm than just one and three and plays like double beats. I like what he does on that and it has enabled me to learn how to do it so that when we do ‘Bayou Jubilee,’ which is in that vein, it comes easier.”
His desire to experiment with different musical ideas, however, is satisfied in his time off from the Dirt Band, and he plays bass and piano well enough to compose. He continues to stay as involved with as many Nashville projects as possible, working with a band which includes members of Jimmy Buffet’s back-up band, writing with the Allman Brothers’ co-producer, and doing whatever studio work comes along. “Sometimes that’s difficult because I’m in and out of town so much, so I tend to work mainly in conjunction with songwriters who seem to be more flexible,” he explained. But it all adds to the total picture in which Vic feels he has the best of all worlds.
“I would say that one of my favorite bands right now is the Police. That’s the kind of drumming I’d like to be doing more of. But I really have a wide variety of what I like and I can definitely sit down and enjoy what I do with the Dirt Band and not feel like I’m missing anything because I can go home and do that, and I do. There are a few bands I work with in Nashville. Nashville is one of those towns where you can play in five groups at once, and each one has a totally different attitude. One group, the Nerve, is very progressive and everybody steps out and does solos. The Dirt Band is something I’m proud of, though, and it has a little more business attached to it. These guys are a little more serious, and while maybe those other bands deserve to make it, I don’t think that’s what they’re after. If I had to choose between one and the other, I’d be much more happy, much more satisfied, and much less frustrated by playing with the Dirt Band than I would be playing music I supposedly really love where I’m not doing anything and not getting anywhere. I couldn’t even begin to put that in front of this. I don’t feel that it’s the least bit of a compromise. Sure, there’s more you want to do, but you can’t have everything, so you have to choose what you like the most. This is what I’d rather have the most when it comes right down toil.”