From time to time, readers ask us to spotlight qualified drummers who aren’t in the public eye as much as some others. Several months ago, I was on the phone with Roger Hawkins. In the course of our conversation, Roger mentioned Owen Hale as a new studio drummer in Muscle Shoals who deserved some attention. When Roger Hawkins puts his stamp of approval on a drummer, it’s a good idea to pay attention.
What follows is the result of a phone interview with Owen. He is indeed a relative newcomer to the studio world, but many readers will recognize the names of the hits he’s played on. This is a classic story. A trumpet player for fifteen years, Owen didn’t start playing drums until he was about twenty years old. Too many drummers would consider that an excuse for failure, but on top of that, Owen plays his drumset backwards! An interesting interview with a great person, designed to blow away all the excuses.
SF: How did you first get into studio drumming?
OH: I was in Jackson, Mississippi working in clubs, doing a little bit of studio work, trying to break into this little studio down there called North American Recording. Mike Daniels owned it and leased it. One night Rick Hall, who owns Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, called and talked to Mike in his office for about an hour. We were wondering what was going on. Mike comes back out and says, “Well, do you guys want to move to Muscle Shoals?” I said, “Sure!” Rick was looking for another rhythm section to cut his demos. It was a good start so we came up. Rick wanted somebody he could rely on and he knew we were young, fresh, and really wanting to do it. I walked in here as green as hell, and felt very fortunate to learn in Muscle Shoals.
I played trumpet for fifteen years, so I can read real well. But, when I got to college I started messing around with drums and got real interested in them. I wanted to buy a drumset. I taught myself how to play, really got into it—and forgot about my trumpet! I just went 100% on the drums. This job is the result. I’ve had no lessons at all. I’ve got the thirteen basic rudiments down and I learned the paradiddles and different things from friends. I’ve had four years of college as a music major, but I didn’t start playing drums until I was twenty or twenty-one. I’m thirty now.
SF: What was the first recording date you did at Muscle Shoals?
OH: The first master date was probably a Janie Fricke album. Then I did Tammy Wynette and a couple of David Allen Coe albums.
SF: What’s the procedure inside a studio on a master session?
OH: The musicians would go in and we’d do a drum check first. Then we get the charts and run down the songs until it’s right. I was nervous at first. I had the “red light” syndrome, but that eased away little by little. It takes a while to get rid of that. Now I’m getting to where I’m real comfortable. In Muscle Shoals they basically want a good solid track. I feel fortunate that I have good enough ears to hear parts. I think that’s because I played trumpet for so many years. Playing drums is like a natural thing for me. I wish I knew more about it, but I’m learning. I’m not going to stop here. I learn more by listening to other people and studying. I’m just really getting started. The sky is the limit.
SF: Did you plan on becoming a studio drummer?
OH: When I first started playing drums I had no idea this would happen. I was in different rock and roll bands and played all around the Southeast in clubs. I’m originally from a little town called Lumberton, Mississippi, way down in the southern part of the state. I moved to Jackson in 1973 and played there for about a year. I was thinking, “Am I going to be doing this for the rest of my life?” I decided to go into the Air Force. It was the wrong decision and I got my ass right back out!
I moved back to Jackson in 1975 and started playing clubs again with my cousins and friends. At the same time, I was going over the North American Recording studio a lot, really bugging Mike Daniels. I’d say, “Look man, give me a break. I want to learn. I want to get in the studio.” He’d say, “Well, I’ll give you a call sometime.” I just kept on. I was very persistent because I knew I wanted to learn studio drumming.
James Stroud and Roger Hawkins were big influences on me. James was playing in Jackson and I’d always go hear him play. I knew he was at Malaco Studios as a studio drummer and that’s about when I got interested in it too.
I finally got in with Mike Daniels. He gave me a call and I went over and worked on a Marissa DeFranco session for Elektra records. That was the first thing I did. I heard that other people suggested Mike give me a call; people who thought I was fairly good and thought that he ought to give me a try. Those people really helped by backing me up and believing in me. From then on, Mike started using me a lot. I was learning more and just loved it.
SF: Do you have much control over how your drums are going to sound in the studio?
OH: I care very much about the drum sound. I’ve gotten some new Pearl drums. I’ve got 10″, 12″, 13″, and 14″ mounted toms with the extra length on them. They’re doubleheaded. They’ve been sounding real good. I try to get a good drum sound all the time. Engineers are all different. You get different drum sounds everywhere. Now that I’m putting together a good drumset, I want to go for a drum sound of my own and get it down and try to keep it in relation to every studio. No matter how long it takes, I want to get that certain sound.
Besides the four mounted toms I’ve got a 16″ floor tom, a 22 x 16 bass drum, and an 8 X 14 snare. All of the drums are wood.
SF: Do you use a variety of drumheads in the studio?
OH: Doubleheaded drums give me an option. If I’m on a date and they don’t want a lot of tone, but more “thoomp” without the bigness, I’ll take the bottom heads off, tune them up real quick, pad them a little and I’m set. But I prefer using both heads; Pinstripes on top and Diplomat clear on the bottom. I use an Ambassador on my snare. Roger Hawkins gave me an old ’62 Ludwig 8 x 15 snare drum that’s deadly. It’s going to be a killer for ballads and r&b. It’s got that big fat sound.
SF: Do you have any practice routines to keep your studio skills up?
OH: I’ve got practice pads that I work with, and books that I read to keep up with phrases and patterns. I learn real quick. When I played trumpet, I always memorized things, and I didn’t mean to. I memorized or remembered how the songs went and what the parts were. I think I’ve been gifted with being able to remember things. When I go do a date, we’ll run the song down a couple of times and I’ll know it.
SF: Is that a quality most studio drummers have or acquire?
OH: Sometimes. It’s good to have that quickness and speed and still be able to have a good feel. If my drums are recorded in the first take or two—that’s my best takes in most cases.
SF: Are most of your sessions done live or with overdubbing?
OH: Billy Sherril was producing Tammy Wynette’s albums, and he always went for takes using all the instruments and Tammy’s singing. Other times the artists will come in and then come back again after the rhythm tracks have been recorded to do their vocal over. It doesn’t matter to me as long as the singer is there while we’re cutting it. I listen to the singer real close when I’m cutting in order to get the feel of the song, and I try to surround the vocals and make it fit. Usually we’ll work with a “pilot” vocal. They don’t keep the “pilot” vocal track. It’s just used as a point of reference.
Sometimes when we do Walt Aldridge’s songs over at Fame Studios, me and him will go in by ourselves. Walt’s a songwriter for Rick Hall at Fame Studios. I’ll get on the kit and he’ll be in the control room at the machine, plus have his guitar running direct. He’ll hand me a chart and we’ll do his song. Walt will come back and stack all the parts: vocal, bass, keyboards, and whatever’s needed. I love it! Especially with Walt because he writes different. He’s a very versatile writer. He can go from basic country to new wave. I love working with him in that respect because I know his ideas and I like to play them. They’re fun. He writes all the parts out—note values and everything. When it’s sitting in front of you you’ll do it in one or two takes if you’re a good reader and a quick learner. That’s when it’s real fresh and feels the best. Walt has really been an inspiration.
SF: Are there specific drum books or exercises you use to keep sharp?
OH: I don’t really use those drum books much. I read trumpet melodies and try to keep up with melodic figures. Down here in the Muscle Shoals, Nashville, Atlanta area, the reading is not as much of a requirement as in Los Angeles or New York. That’s not to say I don’t like to read the books at all. I’m trying to learn new things all the time. But it’s not as much of a requirement down here.
SF: What would happen if you were called to play a session in New York or Los Angeles?
OH: I’d love it. I love challenges. That’s the only way to keep learning! Sightreading is one of my strong points. I always did really good in sightreading when I tried out for All State Band in high school. They’d whip a thirty-two bar piece in front of you and say, “Alright. You’ve got a minute to look at it.” You had to whip out the melody, phrasing, and everything—forte’s, pianissimo’s—all the stuff. You had to be real aware of it.
SF: How did you learn to phrase on a drumset?
OH: Through listening. I could read and I knew the note values. I knew what to play because I played trumpet for so long. I don’t do a lot of written dates. I would love to do more with big orchestras, where everybody has their part written out, and it’s count it off and go! I really haven’t done any of those but I want to.
SF: When you’re reading a chart, how do you determine if you’re going to execute a phrase on the snare, bass drum, toms, or cymbals?
OH: It varies. If you wanted a real short note you’d probably play it on a snare. If the note was tied over and you wanted it to last, you’d probably hit it on the cymbal. It’s according to how the producer wants it. There’s not really any set rules. I’d first play it the way I felt it.
SF: For drummers who are aspiring to be studio drummers, how would you advise them on developing a balance between being good sightreaders and being good listeners?
OH: I wish I would’ve taken drums in high school. It’s not really hurting me, but I could’ve learned a lot back then. But, maybe I wouldn’t play like I do now, which is comfortable for me. Get your reading chops down for sure. A lot of the charts down here are numbered chord charts. They’ll have I, IV, V, for instance, for the tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords on the chart. If you can count to four you can do that! If they want a little pattern to be played they’ll write out the notes or the rhythm pattern. Maybe you just add the right feel.
SF: When you’re home do you listen to many different styles of music?
OH: Oh yeah! I try to keep up with all the new stuff. I’m really into The Police. They’re great. Al Jarreau’s new album just knocks me out. Steve Gadd and Jeff Porcaro are two of my favorites—definitely Jeff. He was probably my biggest influence because I loved the way he played drums; his feel, his parts. I love how he plays the songs. It seems to me that Jeff sings with the song. He doesn’t play too much or too little. He knocked me out on Larry Carlton’s Mr. 335 album, Les Dudek’s records, all of Boz Scaggs’ stuff, Toto and of course, Steely Dan! Whatever artist Jeff’s with he puts it down for them the way they want it.
SF: Has Roger Hawkins helped you out a lot?
OH: Roger’s been great. All the guys at Muscle Shoals Sound are. If he needed another drummer over there or anything—he’d call me. He lets me use his equipment sometimes, or I’ll go over and we’ll talk drum talk. Roger’s a legend. He’s one of the few drummers that has a style that I really love. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s real sensitive when he plays, and he plays incredible grooves.
SF: I got a letter from an MD reader who wanted to know if he could make enough money as a studio drummer to consider it a “steady job.”
OH: I worried about it for a while, but it’s getting better all the time. From being in there playing drums I’m also learning production, publishing…a lot of it. I don’t want to just rely on being a studio drummer all my life. I want to learn all aspects of the whole business. Even though I’m comfortable making a pretty good living playing drums, I’m still learning. Maybe later on down the road I’ll still play drums but just branch out. It takes a lot of determination, drive and luck.
SF: I think the reader may have been referring to “job security.”
OH: Security? That used to scare the hell out of me. But, I had the determination and thought I was good enough, and had good enough ears to make it. It was just from sheer determination that I’m here right now. But, for the guy that was asking: Being a studio drummer is scary and very challenging. There’s a lot of competition out there and you have to keep on your toes. Maybe I won’t get a paycheck for a month, but the next day I’ll get four or five. That’s the way it is; it’s none of this weekly pay thing, until you get up there with the Gadd’s and Porcaro’s who are so busy they can’t breathe! Once you get that momentum going, the dates start coming in and your security will get better. But, you have to work harder. It’s really been great for me. I can’t believe how much I’m working. I feel a lot better about the whole situation. I was twenty-seven when I moved to Muscle Shoals. I said, “Alright Owen. I’m going to give it until you’re thirty. If you don’t see that it’s happening, or you don’t think it will happen for you— that’s it!” But, I’m not going to do that. It’s been real good and it’s getting better.
SF: Is it important to maintain a balance between work and play so that you don’t kill yourself?
OH: Studio drumming is hard work. I’ve seen Larrie Londin up in Nashville just like he was worn out! I just want to work all the time right now. That’s all I think about. I don’t think of it as “Boy, I’m working so much I need a break!” I hope that day comes. But, I don’t think I’ll even take a break then, because I love to play. But, you do have to keep a balance and it’s easy to do in Muscle Shoals because there’s no pressure. It’s very comfortable. I’m really enjoying living here.
SF: When you’re not drumming in the studio do you have any other activities of interest?
OH: I like to play paradiddles on tables and do weird tap dances with my feet and hands. I read trumpet books to refresh my mind with rhythms, and I keep up with the trumpet still. I’d also like to get a good band together. I miss live playing.
SF: Levon Helm is one of the greatest rock and roll drummers. What were the circumstances that led to you playing drums on his latest album?
OH: Levon was in New York, I think. They called me and said, “We’ve got to do these three tracks to finish up Levon’s album.” I said “Great!” Levon came back to do the vocals a month later. I went over and he and I got together and had a great time. I had an offer to go on the road with him. It was a hard decision not to, but my studio work was picking up.
SF: He decided to leave your drum tracks on the album?
OH: Yeah. What really flipped me out was to be able to play with Roger Hawkins. I’ve always looked up to him for so many years. I respect him to the utmost, and it was a thrill to play drums together.
SF: Which album that you’ve played on are you most proud of?
OH: Levon’s album. I’m on the track “Lucretia.” Most of the playing I’ve done is basically for the commercial market. Have you heard Bertie Higgin’s single “Key Largo” or his album? I like the playing I did on that.
SF: Do you use click tracks?
OH: Not really. I have before. It’s not very much fun but sometimes you have to do it. It works good on certain things. Drum loops are happening a lot now. Olivia Newton-John’s single “Physical” is a drum loop. The drummer will record four real steady bars with a good sound, and they loop it on the tape. Then the drummer overdubs his crashes, tom-tom fills and whatever they want. I’m kind of anxious to do that because “Physical” is a steady pulse with a human feel that comes off good.
SF: Have you experimented with the Linn LM-l machine?
OH: Wishbone Recording Studio just got one. We were listening to Jermaine Jackson’s new album which is all Linn drums. It really surprised me. I don’t like the sound of it. It seemed to me that the bass drum was kind of distorted. It wasn’t that thump that I like in a bass drum. It sounded like a machine even though it does sound like drums. The machine’s amazing! It does all the percussion, handclaps, ungodly things…you can program it to do just about anything. But, I don’t think the drummer will ever be replaced—even though these machines are being used—because of the spontaneity and magic things that can only happen on the drumset.
SF: Would you ever consider leaving the studios to go on the road with a band?
OH: If I ever get to the point where I’m doing a lot of sessions and a good band or a certain artist asked me to go on the road with them—if the situation was right—I’d probably do it. I love playing live. It’s like night and day between studio playing and live playing. It’s two different worlds.
SF: You play the drums in an unorthodox manner. Can you tell me about that?
OH: I play on a right-handed kit, but I play my snare with my right hand, and I ride the cymbal or hi-hat with my left hand. That’s the way I learned. I’m getting to where I’m ambidextrous on the drums. I used to bat right and left when I played baseball. When I bought my drums I just started playing and I wasn’t aware of how the drums were supposed to be played exactly. I just knew I wanted to play them. I started seeing other drummers and I’d think, “Wait a minute! What is his right hand do ing over there?” But I couldn’t change. It just felt natural to me. It used to hinder me when I first started in the studios for little things, but my style is working better now. On certain beats that need to have a certain touch on the hi-hat, I can play it better with my right hand crossed over. I have more freedom with my right hand this way to play tom-tom things and still keep a cymbal going. I love Billy Cobham’s playing. I practice his licks all the time because my ambidexterity gets better. When a drummer is able to use four limbs independently—he’s going to kill! Steve Smith is a good example. He’s a real powerful drummer. There are so many good drummers with different tastes. If everybody was the same it’d be boring. I like to hear a fine technical drummer, and I like to hear a Russ Kunkel who just lays it back and kills with the feel.
SF: Unfortunately, many people feel that country drummers are basically “backbeat” drummers who can’t really play.
OH: That’s not altogether true. I work a lot in Nashville, too. A lot of drummers that get into that bag—this “boom-chik, boom-chik” syndrome—they tend to get lazy. They tend to get into the thinking of, “Well, this is what I do for a living and that’s it.” I’m not like that. I want to learn. I love to play all kinds of music and there’s no way I would play just “boomchik, boom-chik” all the time. I just couldn’t do it. I think it would get very stale. I don’t ever want to get into thinking, “Well, I’m going to play this beat and get by.” I like to try to create things when I can. There are always those moments of spontaneity which are really great. If I ever quit learning…I’d rather sell shoes. Music is constantly changing and you have to change with it. If I ever get to the point where I say, “Well, I’m good enough. I’m going to play the basic groove and get by”—I’ll quit.