Musicians: Musician • Singer
Session musicians are hired to create the music that is recorded.
Tammy Rogers says important skills are, “Having a lot of experience improvising and being able to play by ear; to hear things once and turn around and play them back. Being very technically proficient on your instrument. For me, also being able to play mandolin has helped. Being able to bring a couple of different things [instruments] to the table has been a definite asset. I think having a particular style helps. I also think it helps to have a pretty easygoing personality that doesn't make people uptight or worried. When I show up, they know I'm going to be able to cover my part.”
A DAY IN THE LIFE
“Most sessions are booked 10 to 1, 2 to 5, or 6 to 9,” explains Tammy Rogers. “If you're booked for a 10, you show up before 10 and get your gear set up. Recording demos, people are trying to squeeze five tracks in three hours. On master sessions, people usually take a lot more time getting the sounds exactly right. The engineers are making sure everything is going to tape exactly right and that the sound quality is the best you can get. The producer is making sure the arrangement works and the tempo is right. Time is spent figuring out parts for different instruments. It can be a real creative time. It's not unusual for a musician to have some input. It depends on the tone that the producer and the artist set in the studio; if they're open to getting the input from the players, or if they say, ‘Here is what we're going for; this is what we want.’ Most of the time it's a pretty relaxed atmosphere.”
“Demos can be a lot of fun. It's not as stressful as making records, but you have to work really quickly. That seems to amaze people when they come to Nashville and realize that musicians are used to walking in, hearing a song, and immediately playing it. We use the Nashville Numbers System so there is nothing notated except the chord changes and time fills. The parts are not mapped out. Occasionally a lick will be written out, but not very often. You have to be lightning fast, otherwise you slow down the whole session and that costs the songwriter a lot of money. Then the publisher is screaming at them that their demos cost $1200 apiece. You won't be hired again.”
“Commit yourself to being the best and then stand in line and wait your turn. If your skills are far enough along when your time comes, then you'll move on to the next step, but you have to be ready.”—HS
Practice, practice, practice your instrument. Learn to play more than one instrument and/or become good at vocal harmony. Take every opportunity you can find to play with other musicians, whether in clubs or just jamming at someone's house. It teaches you how to work with a lot of different personalities and skills levels.
When tracking, Harry Stinson arrives a half hour before the session is scheduled to start. “Drums require the most mikes and are the first instrument checked, so I'm there a little earlier than the other players. I go in and make sure I'm comfortable and clear with the engineer as to what I need. If I need a line for a quick drag or whatever, then we'll bang through the drums and make sure everything sounds good. When the session starts, you listen to the song and play them down. You go back and do them again if you have to. Yesterday, for instance, I did a demo session at 10 a.m. We did five songs in three hours and then I went over to another studio where we're recording a Del Beatles album. I went in and did vocals and then some tambourine work. I had a bite to eat and then I went back to the studio where I played on the demos and sang background vocals on the five tunes. I left my house around 9 in the morning and got home around 10 that night.”
POINTERS FOR THE JOB SEARCH
“I think you are called to be a musician; it's not something you just decide to do. There is a burning desire that's down inside and you have to feed it. If you have that, then surround yourself with the best musicians and learn as much as you can.”—HS
HARRY STINSON, MUSICIAN, SINGER, MUSICAL DIRECTOR, CO-OWNER, DEAD RECKONING RECORDS
“I wanted to be a drummer from the time I was in fourth grade,” says Harry Stinson. “My parents started me on piano, but drums were my passion.” Growing up in Music City, he played in bands during grammar school and continued through high school, eventually ending up in a band with the eldest son of country singer Dottie West. Since none of the other members could sing, he was chosen by default. “It was the best training I ever got because being a singing drummer has been my greatest asset. It's the core of my success over the years.”
THE LEAST FAVORITE THING ABOUT THIS JOB:
“When you're the session leader you have the responsibility of making sure that everybody is there and everything is lined up. That wears me out because I have to be on the phone so much.”—HS
THE BEST THING ABOUT THIS JOB:
“I love the creative process. That is what keeps me going. The money is great, but I love making music.”—HS
“Seeing a song take shape, then it's preserved on record or CD, and knowing that I was a part of it; that I put my stamp on it and helped be a part of what the person wanted. I'm proud when I get hired to do something and they hire me over someone else because they want what I have. That is the thing that attracts me to recording.”—Billy Thomas
Stinson's first professional gig was not as a drummer, but as a rhythm guitar player on a tour with Dottie West during the summer after he graduated high school. He attended college in Nashville for several years, but was an indifferent student, preferring to play in local bands. He left school in 1973 to tour the Southeast with a lounge band, but ended up back in Nashville a year later not knowing what to do next. In the right place at the right time, he got an emergency call to replace a drummer who had broken his hand and could not complete his tour with America. Stinson scrambled to find the band's albums, tried to learn their music, and met up with them in Muscle Shoals, Alabama the next day. “We did a two and a half hour sound check where I played the whole show, and then I went back to the hotel and listened to a tape of the live show they had made a couple of nights earlier. I was able to hear their arrangements and I studied that tape all the way up until show time. I went out on stage and played the show with the bass player yelling cues in my ear and the drummer with his hand in a cast, holding a flashlight on my charts. They were so happy by the time we got to the encore, they were just giggling on stage.” After a month on the road, he returned home and wondered what to do next.
The next move was to join a band in Buffalo, New York, playing in the city's showrooms. A year later, Stinson got a call from America's manager to go out to Los Angeles to work with another band. When the gig fell apart after four months, he fell in with another group that toured as the opening act for the Beach Boys and the Doobie Brothers. Beginning in 1978, Stinson landed a series of extended tours as a sideman with Al Stewart, Jay Ferguson, and Etta James, before recording with Peter Frampton and going on tour with him. When Stinson finally returned to Los Angeles in 1983, the music scene had changed to the point that he felt like he no longer fit in. The final blow came the following year with the introduction of the drum machine. Suddenly all the session work that he counted on between tours dried up. He turned to his singing skills and recorded with Juice Newton and also began to write songs.
On a weekend trip to Nashville to visit industry friends, Stinson decided it was time to move back. That weekend, he landed session gigs to record as a backup singer to Jimmy Buffet and Pam Tillis that more than paid for the trip. After making the move, he worked as a drummer on tour with Nicolette Larson and recorded with Steve Earle, then joined his band. Two years on the road convinced Stinson it was time to settle down. He recorded with Lyle Lovett, did a lot of session work, and landed a publishing contract that got a couple of his songs recorded by Patty Loveless and Steve Earle. After a few tour dates with Rodney Crowell, he quit road trips for good.
The next phase of Stinson's career began when he got a call to put together a band for American Music Shop. During the second of four years that the series aired, he was hired as musical director for Live at the Roundup with Ricky Scaggs, which lasted two seasons. He went on to act as musical director of a number of programs, including The Dove Awards, Music City News Awards show, Trisha Yearwood's CBS pilot XXX's and OOO's, and two of Kathie Lee Gifford's Christmas specials. Over the years, Stinson has recorded with some of the most successful artists, including Brooks & Dunn, Jimmy Buffett, George Jones, Vince Gill, Faith Hill, Lyle Lovett, Reba McEntire, Bette Midler, and Johnny Cash. He co-produced the 2007 Grammy-nominated album Live at the Ryman by Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives. Stinson is also co-founder of Dead Reckoning Records. www.myspace.com/harrystinson
SESSION SINGER • SINGER • VOCALIST
A session singer is hired to sing the lyric melody, harmony, or both.
“The two things that have served me best are having a good ear and a versatile instrument,” says Gene Miller. “I'm able to sing a lot of different styles. Another thing for me is my range, which is three and a half octaves, and I have a first tenor voice. If you can sing extremely high or extremely low, where most people can't sing, it helps.”
A DAY IN THE LIFE
“On the way to the session I vocalize and get my instrument warmed up,” says Miller. “I'm not like a guitar player where you can plug in and play. A lot of times I have to sing pretty high, so if I go in with a cold voice it's the equivalent of a sprinter walking up to the starting blocks and running without stretching his legs first. You're going to end up hurting yourself. You need to come out of the block strong. I generally get the material beforehand, if I'm singing a demo in Nashville. In Los Angeles, you walk in cold and learn the song in fifteen or twenty minutes and sing. That is kind of a neat challenge to learn it that quickly and then sing it like you've known it all your life.”
“Singing is like acting. When you're singing, you're playing a role. The greatest singers to me are people who can really come from the heart and make you believe the story they are telling you. It comes from way deep inside of you. Anybody can learn the mechanics of how to sing, but unless you have heart, the ability to draw up from the center of who you are, people are going to hear a mechanical performance.”—GM
“I spent a lot of time in my bedroom when I was a kid learning how to play [guitar] and singing; emulating people and listening to harmony.”—GM
“Musicians work in three-hour blocks, tens, twos, and sixes, with one hour breaks between,” explains Harry Stinson. “If you're the singer, you can be called in at any time. You might go in at 11 a.m. or 12:30 p.m., whatever works for the producer. They might bring in two or three other co-singers for different sounds. We usually work for about an hour and a half to two hours on one song, getting the parts right and making sure the intonation is good. When you're the singer, you're in the studio working throughout the session. You get your water, hit the bathroom, and work some more. I've sung all day many times.”
POINTERS FOR THE JOB SEARCH
“When you get involved in the arts, music, painting or whatever, I think it chooses you; you don't choose it. I think you need to have a sense of the business and then have a real frank conversation with yourself. For someone starting out I would advise, ‘preparation, preparation, preparation.’ You've got to have a good ear and be able to sight-read music. Most session singers are good enough that when someone tells you to take the bottom or top part, you just know what to sing. You can listen to the melody and you just know how to harmonize. You've got to develop those abilities. Session work is very competitive. There are thousands of people that want the same job that you want. The more you're prepared and the more you have developed your craft and artistry, the better your chances of getting a job.”—GM
GENE MILLER, SINGER
THE LEAST FAVORITE THING ABOUT THIS JOB:
“Certain producers expect you to be a chameleon. Sometimes their interpretation doesn't feel right. Most people I work with allow me to be not just a singer, but an artist. They allow me to bring in my own heart and my own interpretation to the session.”—GM
THE BEST THING ABOUT THIS JOB:
“The diversity of things that I get to do. The part I like about being in the studio is that you're not tied down to one specific style of music. If I had been an artist making records, I would have to do a specific style. Instead, I've gotten to do a broad range of things and I really love that.”—GM
Shy about his voice, Nashville native Gene Miller had never performed publicly until a friend coerced him into singing at a high school function. “I performed about ten songs, just my guitar and me, for about 300 people. I was hooked from that moment on.” He sang and played guitar in bands and got involved in high school theater productions. Following graduation, he landed a gig performing in a musical revue at Opryland theme park. Miller progressed from job to job until he was hired as a backup singer for Barbara Mandrell on her tours and television show. In between, he learned studio technique by singing jingles and doing sound-alike vocals for an advertising agency.
In the mid-1980s, Miller moved to Los Angeles to tour with Donna Summer and break into West Coast studio work. “L.A. was a harder nut to crack. People have work wrapped up and you have to really network.” It took some time to build up a reputation through word of mouth, but eventually he had steady session work. “I sang everything: sound tracks for film, television commercials, cartoon scenes, records, song demos, and live television performances.” When he moved back to Nashville in the mid-1990s, he quickly established himself as a session singer with artists like Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Phil Collins, Jewel, and Martina McBride. In addition to song demos and his session work in Nashville, Miller also continues to do periodic work in Los Angeles and New York. He added “actor” to his credits, when he performed on Broadway in the musical The Civil War, and sang on the album sound track.
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