When I was young it was always a dream of mine to play music professionally. To make a living making music and playing in bands was too much fun to be work. It's been a long road that continues to evolve.
My first musical experience was around 1963 when I started playing trumpet in elementary school. These valuable lessons taught me how to read music, play in an ensemble, play harmony parts with others, etc. I grew up listening to the rock music of the day like The Beatles and Rolling Stones. I got my first guitar in 1966 at age 11 and started taking lessons from an older jazz musician named John DeFaio. He used to say to me "I'm going to teach you chord structure, voicings, theory, improve your site reading. You can learn all that rock stuff on your own." The things he taught me proved invaluable later on.
By the time I was in high school we had a pretty good band with myself on electric lead guitar, with bass, drums, and rhythm guitar/lead singer. I had a Hagstrom guitar, a Vox 12 string and a Fender Dual Showman amp. My first taste of gigging was playing at the school functions and parties. I guess part of the appeal was that playing music was a very cool thing.
In 1972 I graduated High School and moved to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to work in my uncle's bike shop. I started jamming around and playing in a few bands. The "acoustic" bug bit me when I bought a Gibson J-50 and then a Martin D-18 guitar. Soon after that I caught the "bluegrass" bug and bought a Vega Earl Scruggs model banjo. I has hooked. To take banjo lessons I went to the Guitar and Banjo Shop in Hollywood, Florida. After a month and a half of lessons from Lee Elliot, he said "Now you know everything I know. Take over my students." Wow, so then I became a full time banjo instructor.
I started jamming at the big bluegrass monthly event at the police pistol range in Homestead and picked with all of the local bluegrass players. In 1973 I received my first mandolin as a gift. Soon afterwards I purchased a Gibson 1929 style A mandolin at the Guitar and Banjo Shop. In 1974 several friends and I formed Salt Creek and started playing clubs all over south Florida. We were fairly successful and I became a full time professional musician. During this time I purchased my first Dobro, a 1937 Regal, practiced for a week, and played a few tunes at the gig. Not bad.
We were always chasing the next gig and in 1975 we moved the entire group to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which was the home town of our guitar player. Here I got my first taste of south Louisiana culture and music. Bluegrass festivals there had a Cajun influence. Salt Creek played clubs in Baton Rouge and toured all over Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. It was during this period that we first played in a Bourbon Street club called Judah P's.
We were convinced in 1976 to move to Atlanta, Georgia and played just about every club in the city. During this time I came in first place in the Stone Mountain festival and became the Georgia State mandolin champion. Always chasing the next gig, we decided that the group needed to expand it's musical style, add drums, and I was elected to lean steel guitar. So I got a Sho-Bud Pro single neck, practiced for a year, took it to the gig and "sucked". After many hours of practice and experience I finally got it together.
In 1977 we were offered a "house" gig back at Judah P's on Bourbon Street so we moved back to Louisiana, this time to New Orleans. I didn't want to leave Atlanta. I loved the city and music scene but signed a contract to make great steady money in New Orleans. By this time the group was playing less and less bluegrass and more commercial country, rock and Cajun music. I missed the bluegrass but the involvement in different musical styles was beneficial. I still jammed and played with different bluegrass groups on the side.
The time we spent in New Orleans were special for me. They were exciting times, being young, playing music full time, and we became a successful local band. I remember sleeping until 12:00 noon, the gig started at 10:00pm and we got off work at 2:00am. Eventually we recorded an album and became local celebrities. Bourbon Street was fun and anybody who was anybody that came to New Orleans ended up on Bourbon Street. A lot of music types came into our club to see us perform. We ended up getting some on stage to perform with us including John McEuen, John Belushi, Jerry Jeff Walker, Pete Townsend and others.
We played the New Orleans Jazz Festival every year, which was an honor. Once we opened for the new group Alabama, at a big concert in Mississippi. When the "Urban Cowboy" craze hit we worked at a club called Bronco's. It was the height of our success and I was picking 5 nights a week with Salt Creek and the other 2 nights with the Monday/Tuesday band. Times were great.
I had been corresponding with Joe Carr of Country Gazette in 1978. They invited me to fly to New York and play with them on a special gig that included Slim Richey. What a treat for me. This was a musical milestone for me to play steel guitar and Dobro with Alan Munde and Roland White. Roland continues to be a close friend here in Nashville.
By 1981 I was getting tired of playing the same old material, playing mostly bars and thought about moving to Nashville. I wanted to do something with my career that could be the next step for moving forward. I had a lot of great times and experiences playing in Salt Creek. I made lots of life long friends and gained much valuable musical experience. I also appreciated living in the Louisiana culture and lifestyle. Myself and two others were the three original members that lasted the entire life of the band. When I quit the band it was the end of Salt Creek and an era in my life.
I moved to Nashville in 1982 and soon after arriving I landed a gig with Kent Westberry who was a successful song writer and club performer. We played half of the time as house band at the Nashville Palace and the rest doing road gigs. At this time Libby Hatcher was the club manager and Randy Travis worked as a waiter and cook. He would get up to sing a few tunes with us from time to time. Kent was a great entertainer and comedian and I enjoyed the gig but as I looked for better I quit Kent several times but twice went back to work for him.
While I worked for Kent, a picking buddy of mine said "Hey why don't you come work with me in James Monroe's (son of Bill) band. He's gone country and it would be a great opportunity for you to play bluegrass/mandolin and country/steel guitar." So I did it. We did only one "country" gig at Pee Wee's club where I played steel and the rest were all bluegrass festivals. The gig was kinda bad, James was terrible, not many jobs but the experience was memorable. Charlie Cushman played banjo on the bluegrass gigs and Big Mon was always around. My favorite memory is playing Bean Blossom. As always, Bill came out and did a few numbers with us at the end of our set. I have a cassette recording from Bean Blossom with myself playing mandolin and Bill singing. Very Cool ! I quit the gig after about four months and went back to Kent. I heard later that James said that he had fired this entire band. Ha!
I got tired of the road work and took a job in the house band at the Country Playhouse bar on Dickerson Road. Talk about a "dive", you gotta see it to believe it. It's still in existence with live music. For two years, that's what I did most of the time, lean years, trying to get an "artist" gig. At this time I did a short stint with Tom T. Hall.
Jeannie C. Riley
In 1985 I auditioned and landed a job as utility man with Jeannie C Riley. I continued to work at the Country Playhouse for three more years and just "subbed" out the gig when I was out of town. At first the "Jeannie" gig was great, just what I needed. The band was great and I got to shine playing steel guitar, mandolin, Dobro, guitar and vocals. I wonder how many time I kicked off "Harper Valley PTA" on the Dobro? We did mostly road dates, sometimes big state fairs. With Jeannie I played the Grand Ol' Opry and some TV shows like Nashville Now and TNN's New Country.
During this time I got interested in MIDI, sequencing and computers. I purchased a MIDI controller for my steel guitar and started taking it on Jeannie's gig. After a while they let the keyboard player go and I covered many of his parts including piano and string parts. After a few years things started to go downhill, high turn over of musicians and I got tired of doing a full time road gig. I left in 1990 to stay in Nashville and get off the road.
They say the first thing a musician tries to do is when they move to Nashville is get an artist/road gig. Then the next thing is find a way to get off the road. In 1990 I auditioned and got the job playing steel and Dobro in Opryland's Country Music USA. It was a different kind of gig for me and fun for the most part, having a seven piece band and 14 member cast. Besides playing in Opryland Park we did extra gigs in the Opryhouse, Ryman Auditorium, and Opryland Hotel. Many times we were called upon to back different artists that were booked on these extra show. I got a lot of experience backing different national artists. You would get a chart, a tape, one rehearsal and then do the show.
We used to tease the young cast members, "You expect to go from high school, to Opryland, then get a record deal." That's what many attempted. Some did succeed with this and gave inspiration to the others. Chely Wright, Ken Mellons, Rhett Akins, Dean Sams (Lone Star), John Rich (Big and Rich), all performed in the show during my 8 years on the job. During this time I got to back up Roy Acuff during a special anniversary show. I backed up Mandy Barnett in the Patsy Cline show at the Ryman and also played in the Hank Williams show.
A lot of musicians looked down on those who played at theme parks. But this was highly competitive Nashville. Opryland got me off the road, out of bars (not completely) and we could "sub" the gig out anytime we got something better. It all came to a sudden end in 1997 when Gaylord tore down the park and replaced it with Opry Mills Mall.
In August of 1993, while I was working at Opryland, a picking buddy asked me to audition for a new Mercury artist, Shania Twain. I had never heard of her before, she had one chart record that was not really doing that well. I got the job and played steel guitar and Dobro with her for five months, through December. We did a lot of "fly" dates, especially in Canada. We performed at the Canadian Country Music Awards TV show. Shania was nice to work for, and at the time she and Mutt Lang were just dating. Mutt came along on a lot of our gigs and hung out with us. Everyone asks me "Why did you quit?" I didn't. In December she just shut her band down and got married. At this time Mutt and Shania were planning the next phase of her career.
The Nashville Mandolin Ensemble
While I was working at Opryland I helped start up a new group, The Nashville Mandolin Ensemble in 1990. This was a new band situation for me, to sit and play in a orchestra setting and read music. It was different and quite challenging for me. The first few incarnations of the group were "rough" to say the least. After a lot of practices and some new members, the group started to sound professional and take shape. I remember some of our first gigs were at the Dark Horse Theatre.
I recorded our first demo and after a while we were getting noticed. The gigs got better and better. It was always a part-time gig but we practiced every Monday and I was working full time at Opryland the whole time. In 1995 we recorded our first album, Plectrasonics, and it was critically acclaimed.
John Carlini flew to Nashville for the project, helped with some of the arrangements, conducted, and played guitar on a few numbers. The album was produced by Richard Bennett. "The Nashville Mandolin Ensemble is a fabulous listening experience. The beauty of collective sound shimmers as it seemingly rains down upon you. Nashville is richer for having established them" - Mark O'Conner
By this time we had made appearances on TNN's Country Music News, PBS production "Tennessee Crossroads", Riders In The Sky Radio Theatre and the Nashville Symphony Holiday Pops concert.
In 1996 Paul Zonn was convinced to join the group full time. Before Paul had moved to Nashville he had been a professor of composition at the University of Illinois and was actually the chairman of the composition division. Paul was also a gifted conductor and clarinetist and helped The NME go to the next musical level. He was our main driving musical force.
In 1996 The NME recorded a Christmas album for Sony/Columbia called Gifts. I've heard some pickers say that this album is the finest Christmas album ever recorded. It was a major milestone for us to have a CD released on a major label. Some of us flew to New York to play some promotional performances and we appeared on several local TV stations.
When we recorded All the Rage in 1998, the group had grown to 14 members. This album was a tribute to the mandolin orchestras of the turn of the century. Besides playing on all three albums, I was heavily involved in CD production, creating scores and charts for the group, and was one of the last few original members.
We opened the first Nashville Music Awards show at the Ryman and in 1999 won their award for best classical recording with All the Rage.
Being a member of The Nashville Mandolin Ensemble was a fantastic experience for me, and I created long-term friendships that remain to this day. Some of my favorite memories was when the group opened a show for David Grisman, performed with Mike Marshall and Vassar Clements, and recording three cuts on the Patty Lovelace's album, Bluegrass & White Snow: A Mountain Christmas.
I forget when it started but at some point we played every year for the annual Country Music Hall of Fame Christmas party. All of the invited guests were artists, usually ones that were members of the Hall of Fame. Bill Monroe got up and picked a few tunes with us every year. After Big Mon passed away, it was Ricky Skaggs that played a few tunes with us.
Paul Zonn and I lived in the same section of town, and we usually car-pooled to rehearsal and gigs. It didn't take long for Paul to become one of my best friends. In 1999 Paul had a series of health problems including Guillain-Barre Syndrome which is a disorder which can lead to loss of motor skills and paralysis. Paul seemed to get worse, then better, then worst. I visited him every chance I could get in the hospital. At one point Paul was making an excellent recovery and I remember having a glass of wine with he and his wife at their home to celebrate. So it was tragic when Paul's illness took a turn for the worst and he passed away in 2000.
After Paul left the group in 1999 it seemed The NME lost it's musical direction. It was never the same and there was no one to take Paul's place. When I left the group in 2002 most of the best players had already quit. I had been a founding member and besides the leader, there was only one other member who lasted that long. But for me being a part of the NME was a great experience and we had a great ten year run.
After Opryland Park closed I had built up my studio business to the point where that's what I did full time. I continued to play with three or four bands part time, and continued to do a variety of music gigs and sessions. This is what I continue to do today and I look forward to the next musical challenge that comes my way.