Joe Smyth

When a person decides to make music a “career, ” it can be interesting to see how many different directions that career can go in. Take Joe Smyth: He started out with a desire to be a great jazz drummer. Then, he found himself in a situation where he discovered a love for legit percussion. He pursued that avenue and became an accomplished percussionist. After being a composition major at the Berklee College Of Music and then receiving his master’s in applied percussion from the University Of Miami, he decided to pursue a career as a university instructor, and was getting offers to do so. But another change happened in this talented musician’s career. Through talent, fate, or whatever, he’s now playing drums with one of the most popular country/rock bands performing today, Sawyer Brown.

After a year and a half of constant touring (with over 300 dates in one year) playing the club circuit throughout the South and Midwest, Sawyer Brown got a break that many performers only dream of. They were chosen to compete on a new television show in 1984: Star Search. Thanks to all of that dues paying the band did, they were ready. The band won the vocal group category for a total of 12 weeks, with the group eventually taking the finals. That national exposure gave them the break they needed. From there, Sawyer Brown signed a record deal with Capitol Records, which has led to three successful albums: Sawyer Brown, Shakin’, and their current release, Out Goin’ Cattin”. Sawyer Brown’s combination of country, pop, and rock continues to bring in new fans, and Joe Smyth is enjoying the challenge of combining these styles in his approach to the drums. Joe’s career has certainly been varied!

WFM: You’re originally from Portland, Maine?

JS: Yeah, Westbrook, right next door to Portland, which is about two hours north of Boston. Our music program in the town I grew up in was really head and shoulders above most music programs. It began in the fifth and sixth grades, and the person who ran the music program in the elementary grades was a trombonist. Don Doane is his name. In the 60s, he had been out on the road with Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, and Maynard Ferguson. He lived in New York awhile and said, “I want to move back to Maine and get out of it.” So he’s created a whole music community in Portland of players in big bands and small groups, and just evolved all that around himself.

So in fifth and sixth grade, I played on a parade drum and a drumpad. Don had a jazz club at the time. The first time I ever played behind a kit of drums was when he took me to the jazz club one afternoon and had me play on his drummer’s kit. They had a Sunday afternoon jam session. He was slowly schooling me to be able to sit in at the club. So it was a great, great thing.

WFM: He must have seen something in you to take such an interest.

JS: Well, he lived for the kids anyway, but I think he had kind of a special interest in me. He was able to see things in different kids. In high school, we always had the top jazz band and the top marching band. We were also one of the first high schools to go to corps style marching, and we won a national field band competition in high school. I was lucky to have such a good early education in music. I also had excellent training in music theory. The high school band director had been in the first year of graduating comp majors at Berklee, so he had the Berklee system down. In a year, while I was still in high school, he gave me about the first two years of Berklee on paper. When I ended up going to Berklee the next year, I had a jump on what was happening.

WFM: When you entered Berklee, did you have any background in percussion, or were you primarily a drumset player?

JS: Drumset was all I really played. In high school, the band director was knowledgeable enough to try to get me to study with the timpanist in the Portland Symphony. So I had a few mallet lessons and figured out the rest on my own. I was working on the other instruments then, but certainly not heavily. I could play a little tambourine or play a little timpani. It was all wrong, but I didn’t know that at the time, [laughs] It was good, because even in the last couple of years of high school, I was able to do a little subbing with the local orchestra. So it was kind of neat to get to play alongside some legit players.

When I went to Berklee, it seemed like every year priorities changed. During my first year, all I wanted to be was the best jazz drummer in the world, so I’d bring my drumkit into the practice room every night and practice until the practice rooms closed. That was the first year. Then the second year, I got involved in studying with Dean Anderson, who’s now the head of the department up there. He’s probably the top free-lance, legit percussionist in Boston. When Vic Firth is sick for a recording session with the BSO, Dean does the timpani stuff and plays with the Pops. So I started studying legit mallets and timpani with him, and that’s when I just wanted to be the best free-lancer in the world.

WFM: Was legit percussion required, or was it just something you found interesting?

JS: At Berklee I was a comp major, so I literally could have just done my weekly lesson and forgotten about it, but at the time, they only had three majors. They had applied, where you basically did nothing else but work on your instrument. There was music ed., and that was definitely out, because they weren’t teaching you anything about music. But in the comp program, you learned the most just about the  nuts and bolts of music. I was a comp major, but I really kept my playing up.

WFM: What turned you away from drumset?

JS: Well, actually the percussion and mallet end was just a new thing for me. I think it was a new challenge, and I’d been playing drumset for what seemed like forever. All the time I was at Berklee, I was working every weekend and teaching drumset three days a week back home. I guess that, if I had gotten into a real jazz situation or some kind of progressive drumset situation where I could have continued to really be challenged, I might have still stayed interested in it. During my first years at Berklee, in addition to my lessons at school, I was studying with Alan Dawson at his home, and certainly that was challenging. I learned a lot with him.

In my second year, I had lessons with Dean on legit mallets and timpani, and a lesson with Dawson on drumset. So trying to prepare was really nuts. I’d practice until midnight or 1:00 in the morning, and then go home and start doing my homework. It was a pretty crazy year, but I think the percussion stuff was just more challenging. It was like a new instrument to learn. I continued to play drumset on the weekends. I played in bands and worked casuals.

WFM: It wasn’t like you were cutting it out. You were just adding something new.

JS: Right. It was something to continue to concentrate on. The drumset became a means of paying the bills, which it did very well, and not so much an instrument that I practiced. When I got out of Berklee, I decided to continue my studies at the University Of Miami. I was told that there was a lot of work in Miami. I could study and get practical experience. When I moved to Miami, I actually did fill in and sub for Fred Wickstrom [head of the U. Of M. percussion department], and I played timps with the Pops. I got to play some good bell excerpts, and I played “Nutcracker” on the tambourine and all the things you practice but never get a chance to do. So it was great to actually do that. I looked at Miami more as a degree and a chance to play.

At one point, I tried to be the best jazz drummer in the world, then I tried to be the best free-lancer in the world, and then I learned enough about marimba to say, “Yeah, I want to be a marimba recitalist. That’s what I want—just to play marimba. That’s it.” Then towards the end of the second year of Miami, I thought, “I want to be a college instructor. I want to play, but I want to be a college percussion instructor.”

WFM: How did you go from wanting to be a college percussion instructor to playing drums in Nashville?

JS: I had a cousin up there, who was living just south of Nashville and working as Marty Robbins’ bandleader. He played piano and trumpet with him, and was a very good musician and songwriter. He had a recording studio in his home. So I went up to visit him, and it was beautiful there. I thought, “It would be great if I could work up here—get some gigs happening.” So I went back to Miami. This was like Thanksgiving weekend—the last year I was in Miami—1980. In ’81 during spring break, I took my wife up to Nash ville for a week. She liked it, so we decided to move. So I kind of dusted off my drumset,  [laughs] It was kind of a revelation, because I hadn’t been playing it for two years. I was doing gigs on xylophone, triangle, and crash cymbals. I took a few casuals and did some bar mitzvahs in Miami Beach to get back playing, and moved to Nashville. I was staying at my cousin’s place, and I had gone to the union to transfer membership. I put my name on a list of new people in town. I came home the second day, and my cousin said, “You’re not going to believe this, but you got a call.” It was from a guy named Don King, who was a young singer—kind of country rock—who was on CBS Epic records. So I ended up working the end of that first summer that we were in Nashville with Don. It turned out that the guys that I’m working with now in Sawyer Brown were all the rest of his band. So that was the connection.

It was a weird thing, because when I got out of Miami, I still was thinking about teaching percussion on the college level. I had sent out a few resumes, but nothing had come back yet. After moving to Nashville, I found out that four colleges were considering me for a teaching position. It was a real hard decision, because I knew how few openings there were to teach percussion at a college level. Finally, one of them called and said, “You’re one of the three people we want to interview. We want you to come down next weekend, and meet the president of the university and the president of the music school.” I moved to Nashville and really wanted to pursue the playing scene there. I can still remember the conversation I had with the university people. After all this stuff of submitting and resubmitting tapes and talking to these people, it was like, “I’ve reconsidered. I don’t think I want the job. Thanks. Bye.” [laughs] I hung up and I thought, “Gosh, what am I doing? This last year of my life I’ve been preparing myself to be a university professor, and I’ve just turned down a job. There are hundreds of people getting out of colleges who would give their eye teeth for an opportunity to teach at any university, and I just turned it down.”

Joe Smyth

WFM: So what happened to your gig with Don King?

JS: Well, it’s funny, because after the summer was over, I left the group. We basically all split up. His career wasn’t going real well with CBS or playing live. As his jobs got fewer and thinner, everybody kind of left his employ. I spent four months doing absolutely nothing in Nashville. My wife was a nurse, so she was making enough money for us to live on.

Then in April of the next year, the five of us who had worked as Don’s backup group said, “Hey, we work well together. Let’s put this thing back together on our own without Don.” There was nowhere to play in Nashville, so we immediately had to take it out on the road, and that’s how Sawyer Brown got started.

WFM: What kind of material were you doing?

JS: Basically Top 40 country—what was on the charts country-wise, and even from the very beginning a few originals. Mark, our lead singer, moved to Nashville to be a songwriter, and so we were doing some of his songs from the beginning. I’d never played country music. Where I’m from in New England, country musicians were into another circuit where you never met them. So I felt like I wasn’t on familiar turf musically. I didn’t listen to country radio. So if the song felt like this was the way it was supposed to go, that’s the way I played it. Nobody in the group really has a strong country background. Bobby, our guitarist, is probably from the most traditional background of playing country, and the bass player was a jazz and rock ‘n’ roll bass player. The way our sound is today is because none of us came from a Merle Haggard/George Jones school of traditional country.

As it progressed, our style kind of emerged more. So if whatever was number one on the country charts that week didn’t fit the style of what we were doing, we just didn’t do the song. We kind of picked and chose those songs that fit in with what we were doing. At the time, I don’t think there was any super-conscious thought behind a certain style of music. It just was kind of happening. We played in the clubs for a year and a half before getting on Star Search, so we really were in front of a lot of people. We played 300 nights that first year. We’d go out of Nashville, play for seven weeks, and not see our families. It was Holiday Inns and Ramada Inns five sets a night, six nights a week, two weeks in a town, and we’d go nuts.

WFM: And you’re still married?

JS: Yes, it’s amazing. Our wives would come out for a week on the road here or there. But we got in front of audiences to see what would work and what didn’t work. So we had all that growing time. We were able to grow as a group, and find out what worked and didn’t work for us.

WFM: Isn’t it hard to stay motivated playing five hours a night and 300 dates a year? I would imagine the money isn’t good.

JS: No, at that level when you’re doing that kind of hotel nightclub, the money is very bad. At the end of the year doing that, you say to yourself, If something doesn’t happen, I will not live out of a suitcase playing Holiday Inns for the rest of my life.” All of us pretty much agreed that either we would move up the next step of the pyramid or eventually we would disband. There’s no sense beating your head against the wall. You’d make more money working in a 7-11 and living at home, but we really felt there was something special, and after a year, we started doing showcases in Nashville for the record labels RCA, CBS, Capitol, and people like that.

We started to build up a reputation as a good club act. We moved up the club scale to where we were playing some clubs that were like 1,200-seat clubs, and the money got up to as far as it was going to get in a club. So that next jump in the pyramid had to be something to do with recording. That’s luckily where Star Search happened.

WFM: How did that whole thing come about?

JS: It was a very casual thing. We were in Nashville for a day, and we thought we were going to shoot a promotional video. Our booking agent said, “You’ve got to be at this studio at a certain time. They’re going to film you.” We thought this was going to be just a cassette that they would be able to send to club owners, because video was starting to happen and it would get us more jobs. Actually, it was an agency call where Star Search came to town, called up agencies, and said, “Do you have talent? Send it down.” We thought, ‘Oh no,’ because we had been in Jackson, Mississippi, at a Ramada Inn, and we had seen the pilot for Star Search. We thought, “We’re absolutely not at all what they want.” But Star Search had already taped five or six shows, and the group category had been substandard. They thought it was bad, so they were out looking for new talent, especially to beef up that group category. We said, “Oh man, this is the worst – another disappointment – being jerked around on a chain.” So they had a hand-held black-and-white video camera. We lip synched to a tape of one of our songs and literally just goofed off – jumped up on the amplifiers and fooled around behind the drums. They said, “This is September 30. You may very well hear from us by Christmas.” They called three days later and said, “Can you be in L.A. Monday?” We got a free trip to LA.. They were giving us a per diem. We just went out and thought, “Hey, this is a chance to get a free trip to L.A., and make a little money.” We never considered winning. We just thought, “This is great.” So we canceled the next week’s work and flew out to L.A.

WFM: Did you take your equipment?

JS: No, they had equipment there and everything. All we had to do was have a song edited to that two minutes or whatever the time limit was. We had been doing some recording – basically good demos to pitch to the labels at Nashville — so we had some stuff. So we had the audio package and went out there. In the first show, we went against a group that had won one or two shows. We found out later that the lead singer had been one of the Village People. They did a soft song, and we did an uptempo song and won. We were flabbergasted. They used to tape two shows a week: If you won Wednesday, they’d tape Thursday night. So you had to have two songs ready every time you went on. Then there was a week off, and then they taped another week with rehearsals. And we won again. We thought, “This is incredible.” We didn’t expect to do that. So we saw what worked with the show — energy, smiling, uptempo stuff — for the vocal group category. The singers were all doing Barry Manilow ballads the bigger the better. So we were on there with Sam Harris, and ended up winning like eight or nine weeks on the show.

WFM: What was the band doing between the show tapings?

JS: Star Search would fly us back to Nashville. The first year, they were very generous. We were getting scale, a per diem, and a bonus for every show we won. They’d also fly us back and forth. We’d go into the studio and either cut something else that we were doing normally in the clubs anyway — it was all our own stuff basically — or we’d edit something that we already recorded down to the correct length.

WFM: Did the band work on your stage act for the show?

JS: No we didn’t. That was interesting. Basically what you saw on Star Search was what we did in the clubs, just without people. A lot of people took it as being so polished or so up that they were saying, “Who put you together? Come on, tell us. Who masterminded this whole thing?” And we said, “Hey, a week ago we were in a Ramada Inn” And people still think to an extent that that was all put together. We said, “Hey, we’re doing what we do, and it seems to be working. When it doesn’t work, we’ll know.”

We got out to L.A., and the people on the show were saying, “Why don’t you have a record deal?” We said, “Hey, it’s not that easy getting signed.” Nashville, bless its heart, is a very negative place. The labels turn down everything, and at the end of the month, if there’s something they haven’t turned down, well, maybe they’ll sign. If Boy George had been in Nashville, he’d still be a waiter, because nobody goes out on the line. Nobody sticks his neck out for anything new. It’s a very, very conservative town.

The L.A. divisions of the labels were calling the Nashville divisions saying, “Why didn’t you tell us about these guys?” All of a sudden, it became an embarrassment to a few of the labels in Nashville who had turned us down. The week of the finals was hysterical. Motown called. RCA and CBS were calling saying, “Don’t sign anything. Come back and talk with us.” A couple of years before, Capitol had flown their vice president in Nashville to Cincinnati to see us in a club. They had always said, “We’re going to keep a relationship. We’re always going to talk.” And Curb records in L.A., who have a variety of people in country and rock ‘n’ roll, were very interested in us. We ended up signing a dual deal with Capitol and Curb. It took almost a year to sign that after Star Search,  but it was good because Star Search put us up that next step in the pyramid.

WFM: Did you ever think of the fact that you were performing in front of millions of people? Did that affect you?

JS: Oh yeah. It was an artificial situation, because it was a competition. We realized that we were being judged by four people in the industry and that we were going against another group. It was a head-on competition, and it all gave us ulcers; I mean everybody. It was a drag because there’s enough competition in the music business without making it a “competition.” So that was a little bit of a put-off.

WFM: When Star Search ended, you weren’t signed immediately.

JS: No, things moved more slowly than we would have liked. We signed management, but I don’t think people knew how to capitalize on it at the time. We’d say, “Forty million people saw us on the finals of Star Search, and we can’t get us a job for Saturday night. Come on. What’s the deal?”

WFM: Back to the Holiday Inns.

JS: Yes, but after Star Search, we went to playing a single night in a club and being kind of like the featured act. We’d come in and it was still a honky-tonk or club, but a local group would open the show and we’d play two shows. That was better, and all the time, we were working on signing management and signing the record deal up. So it took a while, but we did a few appearances. The first appearance we did after Star Search was a fair in West Palm Beach, and there were something like three thousand people there. All of a sudden, we realized how powerful the show had been. Eventually, we acquired management, and the record label worked out.

WFM: On Star Search, you won for nine weeks.

JS: We were on nine weeks. Then we did a recap show, then the semifinals, and then the finals. So we were on 12 weeks, which with reruns was 24 weeks of basically national TV. It was syndicated, but it was the number-two syndicated show after Solid Gold.

WFM: After being signed, you started work on Sawyer Brown’s first album. Was that a new experience for you?

JS: Yeah, I think it was. We had done a certain amount of recording on our own and with a couple of producers in Nashville, just when we were in the demo stages of putting together some things to shop around to labels. The first album was tough. Recording is not easy. I don’t think I would like to be a studio player. I prefer playing live. We all pull tight in the studio together, but it’s not something that I think any one of us in the band would like to do. For a while, I thought, when I moved to Nashville, “Yeah, it would be neat to do just studio work.” You only see the glamorous side of it, but then I got to see the other side of it. For a variety of reasons, I’m not sure that I like being behind the eight ball in that way all the time.

WFM: Is there a lot of pressure on you?

JS: Yeah, I think there’s pressure to produce in the studio, and there’s pressure if you’re just a studio player to do just what this producer wants or this jingle arranger wants. Some people are real good at that, and that’s why they’re there. I admire what they do. I think what our band is all about is performing live. Sometimes the stage show gets to the point where musically things do suffer, but you’re not playing for musicians. There’s going to be five per cent musicians in the audience. They’ll say, “Man, that guy missed that note singing,” or “That guy played a clam,” but when you jump around the stage playing bass guitar or whatever, you’re going to do that. Our strongest point, I think, is the live show, and record sales are our second strongest point. We’ve won a few awards, but I think the proof is in how many people leave their living rooms and take it upon themselves to pay $12 or $17 for a ticket to see you, or pay $8.98 to buy your album. I think those are the two telling points as far as success goes in commercial music. So far, we’ve been very strong in both those areas.

WFM: How many dates are you playing a year now?

JS: I checked last year for my taxes, and I was on the road 238 days. People say, “When is your tour over?” We say, “Probably when we die.” We’ve been on the road steady since we put the band together. We get time off at Christmas two or three weeks. The summer is our busiest time because of the fair circuit. We’re busy anywhere from 14 plus days in January through the winter, and then in the summer it hits up around 25. We’re out for a solid month.

WFM: Do you have a lot of say in the course of the band at this point, other than the drumming and that musical aspect?

JS: It’s a double-edged sword. Now we have a great management team, and we’ve got people working in the offices. The publicity office is in New York. People are working for us there. The booking agency is William Morris in L.A. and Nashville, and those people are working specifically on our careers. There’s the record label in L.A. and Nashville. We’re lucky because a lot of our stuff is done through L.A. They’re really on our side. So we’ve got all these offices that are directly or indirectly working for us, and then out on the road, we’ve got 18 people. That’s a long way from the five of us traveling in a van. It’s not like there’s a guy taking care of towels and a guy taking care of drinks. Still, everybody’s doing multiple jobs, but since we have a good road manager and everything, there are less things that I have to take care of. I don’t have to call and have my laundry done. I do enjoy having a roadie. There are less things for me to bother with.

WFM: You can concentrate more on playing.

JS: Yeah, and just keeping my head together. The hour and 15 minutes that I’m on stage at night is vacation time. People say, “Is it hard playing every night?” That’s the easy part. It’s the other 22 1/2 hours of daily living on the road when you have to work to keep from going insane. We trust our management completely. They call and say, “You can do this. You can do that. Here are your options. What do you want to do?” They take care of a lot of the stuff. There are so many day-today decisions that have to be made: hotels, flights, and moving two buses, a truck, and 18 people around the country on a day-today basis. It’s good not to have to be bothered with these details.

WFM: Tell me about your current drumkit.

JS: The kit I have has evolved as far as it’s going to go for a while. It’s almost a multiple percussion setup with five levels. There are the pedals on the floor whether it’s a double kick pedal or a hi-hat or a remote hi-hat. That’s the pedal level. The next level is the snare drum and floor toms. The next level is the toms, hi-hat, cowbell, and electronic pads. Level four is the cymbals: rides, crashes, other splashes. The fifth level, which I’ve just started since getting the Zildjian endorsement, is two China cymbals. To me, having that organized in those five levels makes sense, and when I sit down, I can feel good about the fact that this thing doesn’t look like a jumble of stuff.

As for the kit itself, I’m using a Pearl all maple set. I’ve got 8″, 10″, 12″, and 13″ rack toms, and 14″ and 16″ floor toms all hanging from a Pearl Rack system. All of the drums are mounted on RIMS,  and the mounted floor toms sound incredible. I tune all of the toms very low, and the RIMS  help center the pitch of the drums. The bass drum is a 22″. I’m using all Zildjian cymbals, and I’m thrilled to endorse Zildjian’s products. I’ve also been using Pearl electronic drums and a Linn MIDIed to a Simmons MTM. I’m becoming involved in the electronics thing. So much is happening, and it’s very exciting. On stage, I’m using a total of eight acoustic drums, five electronic pads, eight cymbals, and a cowbell, all attached to the rack. It’s a big, yet organized, setup.

WFM: Here’s a musical question for you. You were so involved in so many different areas of music, and now you’re doing a totally different thing. Do you see a lot of ways you can tie in your composition background, your percussion background, and your legit music background to what you’re doing now?

JS: I was waiting for this question. What I’m doing now is probably the result of everything that’s happened to me. First off, I really feel like there are two facets to the music. There’s the emotional release of getting behind a set of drums and just grooving, whether it’s in front of 20 people or 20,000 people. That’s a more emotional and physical release to me than playing a great bell solo in The Pines Of Rome with an orchestra. European music or a difficult contemporary piece appeals to me more on an intellectual level than on a physical 4/4 “just knocking it out” level. I enjoy both aspects. Right now, I’m only doing one. Someday, I’d like to get to play extra percussion in a local symphony, but I’m not sure if I could sit back and play snare drum in an orchestra now looking on it as a full-time deal. I’d like to have that emotional release behind a drumkit. That’s part of what I am.