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{Off The Cuff} Nashville Undercover

by: Donovan Dodd

When cruising around the southwest side of downtown Nashville in the area known as Music Row it’s hard not to wonder where all the corporate billboards, skyscrapers and businessmen are. In this age of sponsorships, skinny jeans, conformity, Taylor Swift and the search for the next big thing it’s really easy to think that everyone in this town is a follower, or at the very least a vendor of some sort of assembly line style of music.

In actuality the musicians are soulful, uber creative & nothing short of amazing, while Music Row is nothing more than rows of two story houses on each side of the road for a bunch of blocks in an area that could easily be mistaken for a residential neighborhood in any city. Within these houses there are Publishing Houses, Record Labels, studios, and everything else associated with “The Man.” But within those Publishing Houses are great talents that write unbelievable songs we’ll never hear, within the Labels are artists who in many cases have given up much by way of career and family to pursue dreams, and everyday within those studios are musicians who during the course of any day can play on several songs that eventually will be played on radio stations across the nation.

When I walked into Ronnie’s Place studio with my friend Bobby Duncan to finish his EP this September I truly didn’t know what to expect.


Ronnie’s Place was built in 1967 by Roy Orbison but was sold to Ronnie Milsap and was his personal studio that he owned for over 20 years. It’s where his piano that was used on all of his classic songs is still kept and put to use every day. But I digress. The last project I was present for was Bobby’s Faith, Hope & Everything Else at The Zone studio in Austin with Walt Wilkins producing and his Mystiquero band along with some other talented players like Michael Tarrabay, Brady Black and Corby Schaub.

Over time these guys have become friends not only with Bobby and other musicians whose work they have played on, but with each other as well. We were among friends, so there was an ease around the studio. We didn’t have to guess if the intentions were good because we just knew. But we weren’t in our precious Texas anymore. This was the foreign country of Nashville where the bloodsuckers abound right? Where they take great songs and turn them all into Rascall Flatts or something about a tractor.

The producer for this project is Justin Tockett. He plays bass for Radney Foster’s band, but is also known for engineering most of the projects that Radney produces. Justin has also produced records for Louisiana soul singer Marc Broussard and last year’s well received Expectations & Parking Lots from Brison Bursey. People often wonder what a producer’s role is in the recording process is.

A producer is much like a head coach and offensive coordinator for a football team. In this case, Justin had acoustic recordings of a bunch of songs for months. So by the time recording day came, the number of songs had to be chosen, which songs, have them charted for the musicians, develop some basic ideas for instrumentation, book a studio and hire specific musicians who would mesh well stylistically. That’s not a small task in the least.

The musicians we had for our session were a mish mash of A-list guys and lesser known but equally as talented session musicians. Leading the group was Adam Shoenfeld, whose list of credits include: guitar player and writer for Big & Rich  since day 1, guitar player on Jason Aldean’s records, Songwriter of the Year for Faith Hill’s “Mississippi Girl” and luckily  for us, childhood friend and former bandmate of our producer. We also  had David LaBruyere on bass. He spent many years touring with John Mayer and recorded on Mayer’s Room For Squares and Heavier Things.

To say these guys know what they’re doing on a musical level is like saying Michael Jordan can play a little ball or that Bill Gates guy was onto something. Quite simply, it was breathtaking to watch.

We all sat in a room and played an iPhone version of the songs with only guitar and vocals and watched a drummer, two guitar players, a bass player and a keyboard player map out the entire thing with one listen.

Now let me tell you, I’m a relatively serviceable musician with a better than rudimentary knowledge of chords, time and rhythm…but watching these guys was like Will Hunting entering a short division contest. It just wasn’t fair.

There were ideas that had been thought of previously by the producer, but it happened organically for the most part. That’s the only way. I think you just have to let talented people do their thing.

More than anything for me, seeing session musicians who don’t have to care at all about what they are playing that day genuinely interested in the outcome of songs they have literally no investment in felt really good. Bobby and I randomly ran into one of the guitar players at a bar the second night we were there and he asked about how our day that day had been no different  than if one of your best friends was asking about your kids. Real. Genuine. It was about the project and not just the paycheck. He was excited to hear the outcome and truly thankful to be involved.

Humility comes from within. We all know artists who are just good people like (in my opinion) Wade, Randy, Walt and many others…of course we all have our stories. But we also know the other kind. Those that must not be named of course. They are everywhere. It’s not relegated to a certain town or state. We all have our idiots. Be it Nashville or Austin my friends…nobody is right all the time…sorry.

I’ll tell you this. I was amazed being in Tennessee. We in our bullshit “SCENE” in Texas think we have a monopoly on brotherhood among musicians, a break from the monotony of Nashville-type music and a legitimate care for the craft of the song. Maybe it used to be that way my friends, but now on any given night in Texas you can find one artist hating on another, the same formulaic songs on the carefully formatted radio station in your town and any random dude who learned three chords last week throwing together 2 verses and a chorus trying to get laid.

Quite simply, music is music no matter where it may come from. Some of it is solid. Most of it isn’t. It’s our job as a listener to actively seek and find it.

Just because you didn’t see a good movie last year doesn’t mean one didn’t come out. If you’re not trying to find something new like Jason Eady or Will Hoge or whatever else might tickle your fancy then quite frankly you’re just not trying hard enough. You are shirking your responsibilities as a listener in my mind. Just because a song is on the radio doesn’t make it good, and by the same token just because no one has heard it doesn’t make it some undiscovered gem. Do your job. Get out there and listen.

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