Country Music’s Big Backbeat
Luke Bryan and his band headline amphitheaters, arenas, and stadiums year after year. On a recent tour, the singer entertained a sold-out crowd at Dodger Stadium as the first country act to ever play the venue. The driving force behind this musical juggernaut for the last eleven and a half years is Kent Slucher.
Slucher was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on October 19, 1976, into a musical family. He picked up his first pair of sticks at the age of three, and he hasn’t stopped since. When school band and aspirations of playing baseball didn’t work out, Slucher turned his focus to honing his craft behind the drumkit. At the age of nineteen, he became the drummer of his dad’s band and played his first paying gig.
Unlikely as it may be for a kid to make his way from playing bars and clubs in Kentucky to performing with a Nashville country superstar, in the process surviving a catastrophic injury, Slucher has truly beaten the odds. His huge backbeat is unmistakable. Managing a delicate balance between pure power and tight dynamic control, Kent provides the beat that moves tens of thousands at every concert. Grateful for every moment, he’s having the time of his life, and there’s no slowing down in sight.
MD: Kent, you play to sold-out crowds in amphitheaters, arenas, and stadiums night after night. Describe that experience.
Kent: You dream of it as a child. It’s something that you’ve always wanted to do, something you pray for. And, lo and behold, I’m living my dream. It’s still surreal every time I walk onstage. The energy that I get from the crowd and from the whole thing is pretty overwhelming. I love it as much today as I did the day I started.
MD: You grew up in a musical family.
Kent: Yes. My dad is a very accomplished guitar player and singer. My mom is a great singer. My cousin, who lived right next door to us, played bass in a rock band. My aunt and uncle sang in church. My grandfather was a great musician. He could play anything with strings on it. So it’s kind of in my blood.
I took to the drums at a very early age. My dad groomed me to be the best musician I could be. I think he kind of knew something that I didn’t at the time. Maybe he knew that I had the goods and the drive to become a road musician. He encouraged me. He bought my first metronome, and he said that if I was going to play in Nashville, I’d need it. He told me I’d need to work on my time. I was kind of offended, as most young players would be. But it’s the best thing that happened to me, because 95 percent of what you’re seeing and hearing today is played with a click or tracks. So, like I said, maybe he knew something that I didn’t at the time.
When I graduated high school, I had dreams of becoming a baseball player. After that didn’t work out, my dad’s drummer of many years retired. Dad asked me to be his drummer. Rather, he pretty much told me, “You’re playing the drums in the band.” He called me up and said, “We need to go buy you a drumset.” I financed one through the local music store there, and I started playing Top-40 music with my dad. I was probably nineteen at the time. That led me to where we’re sitting right now, on this bus.
MD: What would you consider to be your first “big break”?
Kent: My first big break was with an artist named Anthony Smith. He’s an amazing singer/songwriter. I was working at a music store at the time.
A local DJ in Kentucky, a gentleman named Karl Shannon, used to come and watch me play at this club. I was with a different band at the time. Karl went to CRS (Country Radio Seminar), which is held in Nashville, and he saw Anthony and thought he was going to be really great. Karl gave my name to Anthony, saying, “There’s this kid in Kentucky who’s really hungry. He wants to get on the road, and I think he could pull it off.”
So I owe a lot to Karl Shannon for doing that. I owe even more to Anthony for taking a chance on some drummer kid from Kentucky who nobody in Nashville had ever heard of. He tells me now that he just had this feeling in his stomach to give me a try. I went to Nashville and tried out for him. Later that night after the rehearsals/ audition, I was playing his record release party with some of the best musicians in Nashville. It gave me confidence to know that I could play with these guys. I was still very green, but I knew that I had the ability to do it. I just kind of had to refine it. And I got hired to play with Anthony. So the reason I’m sitting here, besides my father and my mom, is because of Karl Shannon and Anthony Smith.
MD: After Anthony, you were with country legend Pam Tillis for five years, and that led to Luke Bryan. How did that happen?
Kent: Word of mouth. The bass player that I played with in Anthony Smith’s band dropped my name to the bandleader, management, and Luke. They were going to make a change at the drum position, and the bass player called me and asked if I’d be interested in playing with a new artist named Luke Bryan. I said “absolutely,” because we had to take about a year off with Pam. I went and auditioned, hung out, and jammed, and here we are. It came in right when I needed it most, mentally and physically. The timing was great on this gig.
MD: Since you don’t record with Luke, describe the process of adapting the recording to the live setting.
Kent: I do my own thing and make it mine. Obviously live it’s gonna be more powerful and just bigger. I play pretty aggressively on this gig. Backbeat-wise I play pretty hard. But if there’s a signature drum part, like the fill in the song “Light It Up,” I try to keep close to what Greg [Morrow] did. He really went out on that one. It’s a tricky drum fill. It was the first time in a while when I had to sit down and dissect a drum fill and try to do it correctly, while at the same time making it my own. How would I have played that lick if I had been in there?
So if it’s a signature drum part, I keep it true to what it is. Obviously, over time the songs morph into something different live. We kind of do our own thing to it— segue-wise or ending-wise, it’s going to be different. We try to change it up from tour to tour and make it fresh as far as intros and outros go.
Luke definitely lets me be me, which is great. But like I said, I want to do it justice like the record. The songs were written or tracked like that for a reason. So if it was good enough to get by the producers and go to final mixing and mastering like that, then there’s a reason for that, and I should play it as close as possible.
MD: Do you play with a click?
Kent: Yes, we play to a click, loops, and tracks. So there’ll be a shaker, a tambourine, strings, or something like that going on. Obviously we don’t have an orchestra behind us, so that stuff will be on tracks. It’s also automated to the lights and the video, so it’s all time-coded with all of that stuff.
The click is generated through Ableton. We have two Apple computers—two iMacs, so if one goes down we have a B-rig. It’s nice to have a backup, because you never know. The click is triggered from a Roland Octapad. We’ve got about four banks full of stuff that we can scroll through and pull out at any time. It’s ever-changing, but once we get the tour up and rolling, it’s usually the same every night because of the size of the production.
MD: Has the perception of country drummers changed?
Kent: I think it’s changed, because people take Nashville drummers more seriously now. I think they know that there are some amazing players in Nashville that have been long overlooked. There’s Pat McDonald. You’re not going to find a much better player than Pat McDonald. There’s Kevin Murphy, Jim Riley, Keio Stroud, Seth Rausch, Hubert Payne—I could list drummers for a full day. Those are guys that I respect. I think we’re taken more seriously, and people know that we’re not just country drummers.
MD: Your tech, Tony Adams, says that one thing that sets you apart from other drummers is your powerhouse style of playing. Describe this energy.
Kent: I think a lot of the energy comes from the venue size. I want Luke to feel where 2 and 4 are at. Because at a lot of these venues, like stadiums, he’s fifty yards out from where we’re at. I want the band to be comfortable with the pocket and to know without question where the beat is. So I play pretty aggressively on the snare and the kick.
My backbeats are pretty strong on this gig, because I want them to have no question where the time is. Obviously I play to the room. If we play a smaller venue, I’m not going to play as loud. I rimshot everything, so that gives the illusion that I’m playing a lot louder than I am. With the Pam gig it was a much more dynamic thing. But this gig is basically an ’80s arena-rock show with country lyrics. It has its big moments that need to be big and bombastic. There are lasers, fi re, and a lot of lights. And I think the style of playing that I bring to this gig fits what Luke’s doing right now. I want people to dance; I want people to bob their heads—and that includes Luke. I want him to feel comfortable. That’s what I try to bring to the table every night. I think what sets me apart more than anything is my heart—my love for what I do after going through what I went through medically. I loved it before, but I really love it now.
MD: So, you’re referring to seven years ago, when you suffered an accident onstage during a tour-prep day. What happened?
Kent: Without getting into too much detail, I’ll put it like this: it’s something that we, as drummers, have thought about and feared. Well, it actually happened to me. I suffered a freak accident at rehearsals behind my kit. It was a catastrophic event that was just a split second in time. I had to have emergency surgery. Later, I became septic and almost died. It caused a lot of problems, but I came out on top. Needless to say, it really changed my outlook on life.
MD: How so?
Kent: Just in general. You should never take life for granted. Life is precious. It makes me appreciate each day differently, because I know for a fact how quickly it can change. You can go from laughing, smiling, and cutting up with your buddies to being in an emergency room within minutes. It makes me love people. I’m a people person anyway, but I try to stop and smell the roses. And after the injury, I didn’t even know if I could have kids. Now I have two beautiful children. So, that makes me appreciate the smaller things in life. Life is good.
MD: You and the bass player from Luke’s band, James Cook, also conduct clinics. What kind of material do you cover in those?
Kent: A lot of what we cover is attitude, how to play a song, how to play with a click, how to play with other musicians, how to get along with people, and how to play with loops. We talk about our gear and things like our day-to-day process. When we take questions, we get things from what do we eat for breakfast to how do you hold onto a gig. We try to make our clinics to where you can take what you learned and apply it anywhere from the local V.F.W. or church to Madison Square Garden. It’s all encompassing. It covers any gig that you’re doing. It’s our way of giving back to the local musicians in that area.
MD: Any parting advice?
Kent: Play each gig, no matter where you’re playing, as if somebody’s watching you, because you never know who’s out there in that audience. It could be a producer, manager, or artist. It could be the next big thing, so don’t mail it in. Play as if it’s the last time you’re going to play a gig. Go out there and own it, no matter where you’re playing. In my case, that’s how it happened. Never say never. Follow your dream. Put in the work, put in the time, have a good attitude, and just do the best you can. Attitude is gratitude.
Drums: Ludwig Classic Maple In Butcher Block finish
A. 6.5×14 Black Beauty snare
B. 6.5×14 Supralite Steel snare
C. 9×13 tom
D. 14×16 floor tom
E. 16×18 floor tom
F. 12″ LP djembe
G. 14×24 bass drum
H. Roland Octapad
1. 17″ A Mastersound hi-hats
2. 20″ A Medium Thin cash
3. 20″ A Medium Thin crash
4. 24″ A Medium ride (custom tattoo logo by Chris Achzet)
5. 21″ K Custom crash-ride
6. 20″ K Dark Thin crash
Heads: Remo, including Emperor X snare batter and Ambassador Hazy snare side, Emperor Coated tom batters and Ambassador Clear resonants, and Powerstroke P3 Coated bass drum batter and Custom Graphic front (Woodshed Stage Art)
Sticks: Vic Firth Custom 5B black sticks, Adam Argullin mallets
Accessories: Clear Tune in-ear monitors, Tama Rhythm Watch metronome, Cympad cymbal washers, Drumtacs, QwikStix stick and beverage holders, Big Fat Snare Drum dampeners, Danmar beaters, Gator cases, Kelly SHU mic mounts, Rockwell Time wristwatches
Hardware:Gibraltar Rack with custom bar by Chris Achzet, Gretsch G3 legless hi-hat stand and G3 double bass drum pedal, Carmichael throne