At the dawn of the ’70s, music fans noticed the credit “Drums: Russ Kunkel” popping up on reams of LP jackets. From that pivotal point, Kunkel’s momentum as a session ace surged through five decades. The drummer’s tasteful parts and elegant time pocket earned him A-list status in L.A. studios, especially in the emerging “singer-songwriter” scene. Right out of the gate, his superb drum tracks helped mold the foundations of that genre, including ultra-classics such as James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James (1970), Carole King’s Tapestry (1971), and Joni Mitchell’s Blue (1971).
Kunkel united with guitarist Danny Kortchmar, bassist Leland Sklar, and pianist Craig Doerge to form the quartet famously known as the Section. That core, along with satellite members—including guitarist Waddy Wachtel and multi-instrumentalist David Lindley—became a hit-making fixture in West Coast studios. Amazingly, Kunkel simultaneously maintained a busy touring schedule.
In addition to the multiple discs Kunkel cut with Taylor, King, Jackson Browne, Dan Fogelberg, Warren Zevon, Carly Simon, Linda Ronstadt, Bob Seger, and Jimmy Buffett, his mammoth discography includes titles by Bob Dylan, Crosby Stills & Nash, B.B. King, Harry Chapin, Bonnie Raitt, Neil Diamond, Stevie Nicks, Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, the Bee Gees, Emmylou Harris, Glenn Frey, Aaron Neville, Joe Walsh, Roger McGuinn, and many others.
Today Kunkel continues his session work and enjoys a sixteen-year association with Lyle Lovett. He recently reunited with several alumni of the Section to record an instrumental disc slated for release in Japan, followed by touring. “We did it in two days,” Russ says, “just the way we always did: Put everybody in a room and record it.” Here the drummer recalls the vibrant scene of 1978.
MD: Among the more than a dozen 1978 releases you played on were several monsters, including Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy and Linda Ronstadt’s Living in the USA. Also in that year, Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty hit number three and stayed on the charts for a whopping sixty-five weeks. It’s considered one of the great live rock albums, and I understand that you sparked the concept?
Russ: We had recorded lots of material from the shows on that tour, including songs from Jackson’s whole repertoire. When he was starting to work on mixes in the studio, I mentioned, “Wouldn’t it be a great idea to have this album be a live recording of all new material?” He liked the idea; it made sense to him for that particular body of work—just using the new songs. It worked, and the rest is history.
At the January NAMM Show, the Section was inducted into the TEC Awards Hall of Fame. We performed, and Jackson Browne joined us for two songs. Before that, there was a panel discussion on Running on Empty.
MD: On the Section’s tracks, there’s a tremendous sense of groove that’s felt but never forced.
Russ: I think that’s just the familiarity of playing together. I was never doing anything consciously; it was pretty much un-conscious. Regarding the word forced, we never really did that; we were just trying to get a take. [laughs] It’s not about who can play the most licks. It’s “Let’s make the artist happy so we can get called back again.” That was certainly my point of view doing sessions. And I was fortunate to play with lots and lots of great musicians when I was coming up. Everyone influenced me. I got to play with [bassists] Joe Osborn and Larry Knechtel…a lot of people that came in the era before me. I would sneak around the studios and put my ear on the door and listen to Hal Blaine play—just look at his drumkits in the hallway at Capitol and go, Ooh!
MD: Speaking of Blaine, the Section was, in a way, the successor to the Wrecking Crew’s mantle.
Russ: That’s probably a fair assessment. But those are very, very large shoes to fill.
MD: One ’78 disc was a bit different: Bill Withers’ ’Bout Love.
Russ: That was one of the big things in my life. By all rights, James Gadson—who I adore—should have played on every one of those albums. But I got to play on that, in an R&B style, which I love doing. But with all the singer-songwriter stuff, I was never called upon to do that. “Lovely Day” [from Withers’ Menagerie, released December 1977] is one of my favorite tracks that I’ve ever played on. I just love the way that song feels, and it’s a little bit out of my comfort zone of what people knew me for.
MD: In addition to your intense studio schedule, you toured frequently.
Russ: [Producer] Peter Asher was a real proponent. He wanted the bands that played on the records to also tour. He was real serious about that. He would change touring dates around our availability—book James’ tour early in the summer and Linda’s later so those of us who were doing both could do both. That was unheard of at that time. I remember in 1978 playing with James, Linda, and Jackson Browne through the course of spring to the late fall.
MD: What was your usual tuning back then?
Russ: With the toms, I tuned the bottom heads as low as they would possibly go without any wrinkles and then tuned the top heads identically so they had the same exact pitch. I would do that all the way down the kit, with a natural gradation.
For the snare, it would depend. On all the records back in 1978, that’s a Ludwig Black Beauty tuned pretty low. It was that fat snare sound that Hal and everybody had. But snare drum sounds changed and got real cracking and open. I love that too. When I went into the studio, people liked that there was a uniform sound to my kit.
MD: Since then, the recording process has changed vastly. That year also represents another cusp: Within a short time, drum machines would ascend.
Russ: In the ’80s I reinvested myself a bit. I knew that I had to be more than just a drummer. I’ve always had a studio in my house. So I started writing. I had three different deals with major publishers, and I produced a lot of albums. I embraced the technology. I saw it as a tool. When lots of drummers were complaining about drum machines, I went out and bought one.
“I embraced the technology. I saw it as a tool. When lots of drummers were complaining about drum machines, I went out and bought one.”
I embraced technology through every phase. But I think we’re on the verge of a reverse renaissance; we’ve almost come full circle. There are a lot of indicators, including the resurgence of vinyl. And there’s no plug-in you can buy that duplicates four people in a room playing live together. You can’t simulate that.
MD: What was the key factor you provided that led you to be called back for countless sessions?
Russ: I’m not really sure. I guess I try to get along with people. I remember my mom and dad teaching me to be seen and not heard. I try not to be a squeaky wheel. And I think that transfers to the music somehow. It starts there; if you have that, there’s no tension and art can happen. Try to create a space where the musical conversation can take place. That may be the reason why people will take me on the road and have me in the studio as well. I would like to think that.
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Tools of the Trade
“I’m now playing a new DW custom series called Contemporary Classic,” Kunkel says. “It’s a more versatile version of the DW Classic shells that sound like older vintage kits. John Good and his DW team developed this for me to play, and I’m loving it!” Russ also endorses Paiste Formula 602 Classic cymbals, Promark sticks, and Evans heads.