FROM DRUM! MAGAZINE’S MARCH 2018 ISSUE | BY BOB DOERSCHUK
It’s 2007, just after the release of Porter Wagoner’s last album, Wagonmaster, and only a few months before the country music legend would succumb to cancer. The interview was over, the recorder was switched off, and a more informal conversation began.
For more than half a century Wagoner had embodied the best of traditional country. He had known Hank Williams and made a very young Dolly Parton his duet partner before she achieved superstardom on her own. A living institution at The Grand Ole Opry, he had seen the scene shift from Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline, and Kitty Wells to a new generation whose work showed no fear of rock and roll.
So when asked for his opinion about the younger artists who had clearly taken the rudder of this ship from older hands, he could speak with authority as well as conviction.
“Well,” Wagoner began, “a lot of these folks are really talented, no doubt about it. They’ll be around for a long, long time, that’s for sure.”
And here he leaned forward, his voice taking on an unexpected intensity. “But,” he said, jabbing the coffee table for emphasis, “those drums! Those loud, loud drums! I just can’t stand them!”
Why this conviction? The answer lies, as with so much that might be said about country music, in the past.
A WORLD WITHOUT BACKBEATS
Drums were once as welcome in country music as ants at a picnic. Baby Dodds provided the foundation for early jazz to develop in the ’20s, and Earl Palmer did the same for rock and roll a few decades later. But in backwoods venues throughout the South and onstage at the Grand Ole Opry, drums weren’t just absent — they were considered anathema to what this music was all about.
Much like the blues, country grew from rural soil. Makeshift stringed instruments were often the only available tools. Of course, rhythm was part of the picture, but without any drum retailers in the neighborhood it fell to guitars, banjos, and the like to push things along.
That’s not to say drums were absent from country music entirely. A few performers did add a drum or two to the mix, with caution. In 1929, Jimmie Rodgers featured wood blocks behind a Louis Armstrong trumpet solo on “Any Old Time.” He recorded them again on “Desert Blues,” which also has brushes whisking across a snare now and then. But these records were anomalies, with the drums playing only intermittently.
More successful integrations of drums into this world would follow. These were made easier by a growing sophistication in jazz in the ’30s. As exemplified by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and their peers in big-city markets, it was an ideal sound for dancing, a point not missed by those who catered to more rural listeners out West.
Drums were absent from some of the earliest recordings of what we now call Western Swing. The pioneering ensemble Milton Brown And His Musical Brownies built their drive in 1930s releases mainly from Wanna Coffman’s slap bass on the beat, and guitar chunks on the ands by Derwood Brown, Milton’s younger brother. But before his death in a car accident in 1936, Milton had begun adding drums for some gigs in larger venues where he felt they were necessary to fill the dance floor.
It was Bob Wills who would be credited with breaking some significant barriers to bringing drums fully into country music, through the Western Swing sound that Brown had defined and begun to popularize. The Brownies had already recorded 102 songs by 1935 when Wills and his band, The Texas Playboys, cut their first tracks.
From the beginning, Wills saw drums as integral to his vision. The first to play them in his group was William “Smokey” Dacus, whom Wills had heard performing at a hotel in Tulsa. In a 1981 interview conducted by music journalist Scott K. Fish, published in its entirety in 2015 on scottkfish.com, Dacus recalled his initial reaction when he was invited to join the band.
“At that time, his type of music had two names,” he told Fish. “It was either a fiddle band or a string band. That’s the only way you referred to them. And they did not use drums! . . . [So] I said, ‘What in the hell do you want with a drummer in a fiddle band?’ I thought he’d lost his mind! And he said, ‘I want to take your kind of music and my kind of music and put them together and make it swing.’”
Dacus spent the next six years with The Texas Playboys, leaving in 1941 when they decided to move their home base to California. By this time drums had become familiar components of Western Swing bands, including Ole Rasmussen And His Nebraska Cornhuskers, Adolph Hofner’s San Antonians, and Paul Franklin And The Arkansas Cotton Pickers, who briefly employed a very young Joe Morello. But these bands had yet to make their presence felt outside of their territory and closer to the heart of country music in Nashville and on The Grand Ole Opry.
Launched in 1925 by radio announcer-turned-producer George D. Hay, the Opry was by far the best known and most influential country music program. Hay, known on the air as “The Solemn Old Judge,” stayed in charge through the 1940s. By that time, he had assumed responsibility not just for the show’s success but also for preserving its connection to the culture it represented. This involved presenting artists as caricatures, dressing in overalls and straw hats. More critically, he stayed faithful to the drum-free fiddle-and-string-band format that was core to his concept of country music.
Many sources believe that the drums were first allowed on the Opry sometime in the mid-1940s, when Pee Wee King played several times with a band that included drummer Harold “Sticks” McDonald. However, King wasn’t allowed to mention the instrument on the air — and eventually Hay told King to leave the kit at home.
But most historians remember Bob Wills’ debut with the show in December 1944 as the pivotal event in breaking down the ban on drums. When The Playboys arrived and began setting up their equipment, alarmed Opry staffers instructed them to play without their drummer, Monte Mountjoy. After some heated discussion, Wills agreed to the drums being set up behind a curtain, out of the audience’s sight.
Then, when it came time to play their live set, Wills shouted, “Move those things out onstage!” Mountjoy’s kit was duly pulled into sight in time for them to hit their opening number. Not surprisingly, that was their last as well as their first appearance on the Opry. But what really mattered that night was that drums had been played on the Opry stage, in the heart of country music. And things were never quite the same after that.
SLOWLY BUT SURELY
It began not as a torrent but more of a trickle, as Nashville-based country stars began adding kits to their bands or to studio dates. Owen Bradley, a vital architect in mainstream country music as producer and pianist, welcomed drummer Farris Coursey into his dance band in the early 1950s. A few years later, Ray Price used Tommy Cutrer to lay down the shuffle pattern on his massive hit “Crazy Arms.”
But traditionalists remained skeptical about drums, which had come to symbolize the threat they sensed from early rock and roll. “It was mostly the older Opry members,” says Glen Davis, who drummed with the Opry house band for 39 years, beginning in 1959. “They were afraid that country music would turn into rock and roll. That’s probably why it was so hard to haul the kit in there.”
There were some drums allowed into the Opry during this period. Floyd “Lightnin’” Chance won attention by playing string bass with one hand while bopping a tambourine with the other. But outside of this novelty act, artists were initially cleared to use only snare drums. When Carl Smith brought drummer Buddy Harman onto the show in 1954, management insisted that he play behind that notorious Opry curtain on snare only.
Later, a member of the Opry staff, Harold Weakley, was made available to guest artists as a snare drummer. When not undertaking other duties that included preparing chord charts, completing paperwork for the Musicians Union, filing payroll, and doing occasional announcing during commercials for longtime sponsor Goo-Goo Cluster, Weakley could frequently be heard playing brushes or light backbeats, but was not seen as he remained behind that same curtain Bob Wills had confronted.
Then, in 1962, the trickle got a little stronger.
NOT JUST A FLUKE
If you ask WS “Fluke” Holland, he’ll tell you he was the first drummer to bring a full kit into the Opry. He was a latecomer to the instrument. In fact, he remembers, “back then I never thought I’d ever have anything to do with music. I was more mechanically inclined. I had a good job working with an air conditioning company, which let me drive their Cadillac car.”
He’d gotten to know Carl Perkins and his band as a fan. Most Saturday nights he caught their act at local clubs around Jackson, Tennessee. For some reason he’d gotten into the habit of standing next to his buddy Clayton, Carl’s brother, and tapping along with the beat on his string bass.
Then one night after the show, Carl motioned him over. “He said, ‘WS, we’ve got an appointment with Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis. Borrow some drums and come with me.’ I said, ‘Wait, what do you mean? I can’t play drums. I’ve never even thought about playing drums.’ But the next day I met with a guy named Slick Glisson and asked if I could borrow his drums. He said, ‘For what?’ I told him, ‘I’m going with Carl to Memphis on Thursday to try and get a record contract.’ He said, ‘Well, WS, you can’t play!’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s true. But if you let me have your drums I’ll be playing by Thursday.’”
Taking Slick’s drums home, without having the vaguest idea of how to assemble them, Holland reasoned that the hi-hat would go on the right side, since it didn’t make much sense to keep crossing your right hand over your left to play it. With that configuration, which he uses to this day, he practiced at his mother’s house for several nights. Then on Thursday morning he picked up the band, loaded them and their gear into his company Cadillac, and headed west.
Long story short, they started recording with Phillips and Holland began his career as a drummer. Eventually Johnny Cash hired him and they worked together all the way up through Cash’s last concerts.
It wasn’t until years later that Holland thought to ask Perkins about why he had hired him to play the Sun audition when he’d never even held a pair of sticks in his hands. “He said, ‘I’ll tell you why: I wanted to pull up in front of Sun Studios in a Cadillac car and you were the only person I know who had one.’”
Much like Bob Wills, Cash was riding a rocket to stardom that even the Opry couldn’t ignore. So when he called Holland to inform him they’d been booked for the first time at the Opry, Cash was specific about he what he wanted. “He said, ‘Bring your full drum set and them funny little things that go clang-clang-clang.’ He was talking about the cymbals.
“So we get up there and I’m laying my drums out on the stage,” Holland continues. “The boy who was running the show that night was Bud Wendell; he later became the manager of the Opry in the 1970s. He came up and said, ‘WS, are you setting up this whole set of drums?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘WS, we don’t allow full drum sets here.’ I said, ‘Well, I know that. John knows that. But tonight, he told me to bring the whole kit, so that’s what I did because he pays me.’”
Holland chuckles. “Bud was such a nice guy,” he continues. “He said, ‘Oh, me. Look, I’m going to my office and lock the door. If anybody asks where I am, tell them I’ve gone home.’ So I set up the drums and played them that night.”
That did it. Before too long even the patriarch of old-school country music, Roy Acuff, had added a drummer to his band. And Carl Smith’s former bandmember Buddy Harman had been installed as the first official drummer in the Opry house band.
TAKE THE ‘A’ TEAM
Born in Nashville, inspired by Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, Harman began playing drums at 14. His arrival at the Opry was symbolically important, but his greatest contribution would be to essentially define the role of the drummer in modern country music. He did this mainly through the thousands of sessions he would play as a member of the legendary “A-Team.” Along with bassist Bob Moore, pianists Floyd Cramer and Harold “Pig” Robbins, guitarists Chet Atkins and Harold Bradley, and other studio aces, he helped define how a rhythm section would work in a genre without any such precedent.
This meant finding a place in the song to insert the groove, rather than establishing the groove for the rest of the band to follow. “Buddy was always known for not playing the kick drum until the chorus,” says studio legend Eddie Bayers Jr. “So all the verses are just top-end. But he was also innovative at finding ways to enhance the track when people started doing overdubs. I once asked him, ‘What’s the most outside thing you ever put onto a record?’ He said, ‘A spare tire.’ That’s the way his mind worked: He would always find a way to put some little thing into a record that enhanced the whole rhythmic aspect.”
In his interview with the A-Team players, published in 1999 in The Journal Of Country Music, Country Music Hall Of Fame senior historian John Rumble asked Harman to comment on the challenge of finding parts to play in a genre where drums were still a novelty. Recalling a session with George Morgan, Harman remembered, “Instead of playing drums, they had a mike in front of my face. I was going chhh, chhh, chhh.
The Anita Kerrs [backup singers] were breaking me up. I had to stop one of the records ’cause I got so tickled at laughing at them I couldn’t keep chhh-ing.”
Eventually producers started letting drums onto their country sessions. At first they restricted Harman and other drummers to playing only a snare with brushes. Then they approved the use of sticks for occasional rim shots. The next element to make the cut was the hi-hat. Finally, entire kits became common in Nashville sessions. Even then, though, it took a while for the country establishment to get over their apprehensions about how this might impact the music they loved.
Glen Davis laughs as he remembers asking Grandpa Jones how he would like the drums to be played as he got ready for his set at the Opry. The banjo virtuoso and beloved entertainer replied, “Very little, if any.”
DRUMS: NEMESIS OR SALVATION?
Maybe they were right to feel a little threatened by drummers. A new generation of edgier performers arrived, each one steeped in country but energized by R&B and early rock and roll. For these artists, drums were the whole point. Remnants of earlier rhythmic conceptions lingered for a while; bassists snapped their strings, guitarists fell back on the tick-tack patterns that were foreshadowed as far back as the Jimmie Rodgers era.
But things were changing fast. In his interview for the Country Music Hall Of Fame And Museum’s Oral History Project, DJ Fontana reflected on why the rockabilly sound took off so quickly. Looking back on when guitarist Scotty Moore invited him to join Elvis Presley’s band back around 1954, he told Tracey Laird, “They liked drums, see? They wasn’t the Western hillbillies. They wanted drums. . . . The secret was to not get in the way. Let them do what they do well. I just played the brushes real quiet and easy. . . . Maybe that’s why I got the job — simplicity, you know?”
This was the first step toward the feel of today’s country music. In 1998 the Opry even dismissed Harman and several other more traditional players from its house band. Many were stung by this decision, but one of the program’s younger stars acknowledged the inevitability of rock reshaping country music. “Buddy Harman can play circles around most drummers,” Vince Gill told Nashville’s daily newspaper The Tennessean. “[But] the real crux of the problem for me is in Garth [Brooks] and in Reba [McEntire] and in Alan [Jackson] and in Clint [Black] and on and on, to so-called big stars of today. . . . That’s just a cold hard fact. That’s what it needs.”
“It’s a natural evolution,” agrees Lonnie Wilson, a prominent session drummer in Nashville for more than 27 years. And these changes are coming faster than ever. “Younger writers and producers grew up on hip-hop, Justin Timberlake, Nelly, and, of course, Taylor Swift. . . . [but] As far back as when I did Tim McGraw’s ‘Please Remember Me’ around ’96, and Rascal Flatts’ early records, I had a loop rig that started off as a couple of drum machines that evolved into a huge Pro Tools rack by the late ’90s. Now it’s a big part of country music. Just turn on the radio and you’ll hear a lot of it going on.”
So is this even country music at all?
For Eddie Bayers Jr., it doesn’t matter. “You’ve got to wipe genre out of your mind,” he says. “I mean, study it, sure. Study why country music was so great back in that time. You want to learn from people like Buddy Harman and Larrie Londin, who played on all those records. Remember, Buddy played on ‘Crazy’ with Patsy Cline and also on ‘Pretty Woman’ with Roy Orbison. That’s the lesson: You can’t stereotype music. When you get called to do a session, you give them what they want. We’re a service industry, no matter what you call the music we play.”