When national artists record in Nashville, they call on world-renowned studio greats like Paul Leim, Eddie Bayers, Lonnie Wilson, Greg Morrow, and Chad Cromwell to put down the ultimate version of a track. But when those artists need a sub to bring their music to life on stage as excitingly and accurately as fans are used to, the players they call are from an often under-recognized but by no means less valued short list—which this drummer is at the top of.

Keio Stroud grew up in Athens, Georgia, in a musical family, and began playing the drums at the age of three. In 2001, discouraged by the college experience, he took a leap of faith and moved to Nashville. It proved to be a remarkably good decision. Tireless networking and sitting-in gigs led Stroud to the realization that there was the need for a reliable and versatile go-to sub, and that there was no reason that he couldn’t be the guy to fill that role. So Stroud set out to build his reputation as the first-call sub for Music City artists. Today the list of top acts that have enjoyed Stroud’s gifts includes Terri Clark, Richard Marx, Jake Owen, Rodney Crowell, Keith Urban, Lee Brice, Jason Aldean, Brian Setzer, Little Big Town, Florida Georgia Line, the Wooten Brothers, and many others.

Stroud took his career up another notch four years ago when he became a full-time band member with the country mega-duo Big & Rich. The skills that made him the most sought-after sub in the business—solid time, dependability, and knowing when to lay back—prepared him well for this dream opportunity. “Experiencing how tuned in he was to the lyrics and vocals,” John Rich says, “as well as the sheer power he hits the drums with, there was no choice for Big & Rich other than Keio Stroud.” In between Big & Rich shows, Keio keeps a full schedule with—you guessed it—sub work and sessions.

MD: Big & Rich shows are often described as being a big party on stage. What’s that like?

Keio: It’s fun. It is a big party. That’s why I like it. Those guys aim to bring good vibes to people, and that’s what I like to do too. It’s about dancing, it’s about feeling, and all of that good stuff. It’s a gig that I’ve wanted to do for years, because I used to watch those guys play when I did tours with bands that opened for them.

MD: You started playing the drums pretty young.

Keio: When I was a kid my dad would have band rehearsals at the house, so I would always go in there and hang out. Back in those days, his drummer didn’t have a front bass drum head, so sometimes I’d just go hop inside the bass drum and cuddle up, like an idiot. But I grew up in Athens, Georgia, and there was music everywhere. I was always soaking it all in. And that’s the way it’s been ever since.

MD: Who were some of your early influences?

Keio: Dennis Chambers was a big one. As a kid I didn’t know who Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks were, but I knew their music because my grandmother would play James Brown all the time. Bernard Purdie was another one; she would play that Aretha Franklin Amazing Grace record daily. So it’s kind of funny—my grandmother was my biggest influence because she had all of the records. Every morning she would wake up and put on a different record, and I would just nerd out and read the liner notes to see who the drummer was. It was either Motown stuff, Clyde and Jabo, or Bernard Purdie.

MD: When did you decide that you wanted to make playing the drums your career?

Keio: When I moved to Nashville in 2001, I was mentored to be a drum tech. I didn’t think I was good enough yet to play drums on this level. My dad told me that he had a buddy here who needed a drummer for his dance band and that I could play drums in it until I could get a job as a tech. But I never got a job as a tech, and I just kept playing. I never really set out to have a career in drumming until I had a career in drumming, if that makes any sense. So then I just had to maintain it. And I obviously wanted to be a better drummer, so I started working on my drumming and I started networking, because I needed to work. I just decided I’d play gigs until there weren’t gigs anymore.

MD: How did you break into the Nashville music scene?

Keio: When I moved to Nashville, I didn’t find it to be competitive. I ended up meeting people that were just super-nice. J.D. Blair and that whole Wooten clan were great guys. All of these great dudes were around, and we hit it off and just became buddies. Dave McAfee, who plays with Toby Keith, got me my first country gig, with Wade Hayes. Dave was super-nice to me and said, “We all moved here, and there are some people who are competitive, but then there are people who aren’t. Surround yourself with people that you want to be around, and it’ll never be competitive. You’ve just got to go out and be visible.” That was before social media, so you had to get out. People knew you because you went out and actually met them, not because they saw you on YouTube or Facebook.

MD: Do you think social media has replaced that face-to-face networking?

Keio: It has. But it hasn’t replaced forming quality relationships. People are informed by whatever you put out there on social media. In person, you could meet somebody and know them for a year before they see you play. But on YouTube and social media, people see you and immediately form an opinion about what you do. Sometimes your drumming or whatever you’re putting out there isn’t ready for people to see. They’ll form an opinion about that, and you may not work.

I always say to be sure that your product is on point before you start trying to sell it. So I think moving to Nashville in those early days and talking to people and seeing other people play and gathering information before throwing myself out there was big. Nowadays people just go for “likes” and stuff. Likes don’t put money in your pocket. You have to go out. Artists like for people to come to their shows. If you want to support somebody, go see them in person.

MD: How did you establish yourself as a first-call sub?

Keio: Rich Redmond and I came up with this thing that I was “the sub monkey.” [laughs] I think it came from just meeting all these people and my ability to learn songs quickly. I can learn an hour set in fifty minutes. Every week I was dealing with somebody different, so I had to be able to really get along with people.

I think personality, talent, and the ability to just be cool and responsible is what people saw in me. And if a drummer was hiring me to sub for him, [he knew that] I wasn’t going to take his gig. So I did the one gig and that guy came back. The cool thing is that every sub gig I did led to another gig, which led to another. For years, that was my gig. Every year I would have forty or fifty 1099s. But I was working, so I did it. Eventually that led to me having this Big & Rich gig.

MD: Did you recognize that you were filling a niche at the time?

Keio: Yeah. Once it started working, I realized it was a service that people needed. What drummer doesn’t want to be able to take a vacation? What band doesn’t want to know that this guy would come in and help them out? Some gigs don’t work enough to employ musicians full-time, but they will have full-time musicians play every gig. So I recognized that and really tried to meet some of the people that were on those gigs, because I knew that they would need subs. I would just throw my name out there and say, “If you ever need somebody, call me.” And they’d call. If you do a good job, they will call you back. Then word just got around. I became the guy that people would call for this thing, because I was dumb enough to learn all of the songs. [laughs]

MD: The subbing side of the industry is one that is often overlooked. How can aspiring drummers focus on being a first-call live drummer?

Keio: The first thing is that being versatile is huge. What people think of as being versatile is learning all the different styles of music. But being versatile is also being able to adapt to any live situation that you’re in. I think that’s where people get lost. They can’t adjust. They can’t just turn off who they are, figure out what the situation is, and then apply who they are to that situation. The subbing gig is fun because it’s always new music. There’s always something to learn. And once you start learning all of these tunes, you learn patterns, and you can start to guess what might be coming next, which helps you learn songs. It also helps you communicate.

MD: Tell us about your Big & Rich audition.

Keio: When I walked into the room, I already knew everybody in the band because of all the subbing I’d done. I’d played with everybody in the band at some point, including Kenny and John [Big and Rich]. I’d never done the Big & Rich gig before, but John Rich had a TV show called Gone Country, and I’d played drums on a couple of episodes of that. Kenny had also hired me for some demo sessions. And six years before my Big & Rich audition we’d toured together in Canada, when I was playing drums for Terri Clark. I subbed that gig for three months, and part of that time was opening for Big & Rich. So we all kind of got to know each other.

One of the things John Rich said he liked about my playing was that I followed the vocal, which came from my years of playing drums with Rodney Crowell, where the vocal was king. You had to support the lyrics. It’s funny that my years of playing in Nashville with that dance band, playing with Rodney, and my love of AC/DC basically helped land me this gig. It’s funny that they kind of wanted a singer-songwriter version of Phil Rudd. If Phil Rudd could play at the Bluebird Cafe, that’s what they wanted.

MD: You didn’t record on the most recent Big & Rich record, but you did the latest Taj Mahal/Keb’ Mo’ album, TajMo. What was the most challenging track on that to play?

Keio: There’s a song called “That’s Who I Am” that’s really just a simple four-on-the-floor thing—it wasn’t necessarily challenging, but I just wasn’t getting what Kevin [Keb’ Mo’] wanted. It’s really cool working with a guy like Kevin, because he knows what he wants, but I think the overthinking process was happening. But that can happen when you’re making something out of nothing. It wasn’t “difficult,” but at some point you have to stop and ask: What does the producer want…what does the song want? At that point, you’ve just got to figure it out. But finally we played what the producer and the song wanted, and there it was.

MD: Being a studio drummer demands a different skill set from being a live drummer.

Keio: The big difference is your personality. When you’re a first-call studio guy, you don’t have to live with everybody that you’re making music with. You get to go home. When you’re on the road subbing for someone, you’re also filling in for them in their bunk on the bus, in hotel rooms, in vans or cars…. I think that’s the big difference. Obviously the skill set of playing drums is what it is. But it’s also the ability to get along with people, to be able to recognize differences, and move on.

Drums: Tama Starclassic in chrome finish with Stellar wood hoops
A. 5×12 maple snare
B. 5×14 SLP bronze snare
C. 8×12 birch/bubinga tom
D. 12×14 birch/bubinga floor tom
E. 12×18 birch/bubinga gong drum (with legs)
F. 13×22 maple bass drum

All drum hoops painted and inlay-installed by Stroud

Cymbals: Sabian
1. 18″ AAX hi-hats
2. 22″ Paragon crash
3. 14″/16″ XSR stack (14″ on top)
4. 22″ HHX legacy heavy ride
5. 20″ AAX O-Zone crash

Heads: Evans Hybrid snare batter and Hazy 300 snare-side, red Hydraulic tom batters and G1 Clear resonants, and EQ4 bass drum batter and custom graphic front head

Sticks: Vater Keio Stroud custom MV10 model

Hardware: Tama Roadpro boom stands and Iron Cobra hi-hat stand and single bass drum pedal, DW rack

Accessories: Audiofly in-ear monitors, Tama Rhythm Watch metronome, SKB cases, Big Fat Snare Drum dampeners, Danmar Zoro beater, Drumtacs, Kelly SHU 91 and 52 mic mounts, Cymbolts