Brent Rowan

The Right Tool for Every Studio Job
The Right Tool for Every Studio Job

“Nashville Cats play clean as country water” according to John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful. He might as well have been referring to Brent Rowan.

One of a select few on the “A list” of studio musicians in Nashville, take a look at a major country CD produced in the last five years, and there’s a 50/50 chance Rowan’s credits are on it.

Vintage Guitar: How did you end up being a session guitarist?
Brent Rowan: When I was on the road with a gospel group out of Chattanooga, they were on a major label based in Nashville, so they’d cut the records, and I would always watch the situation go down. I went, “Now wait a minute. These guys don’t travel, they sleep in the same bed every night, and instead of playing an hour show every day, they can play two or three or four sessions. They’re the closest thing to being normal, and they’re still musicians.” That was really appealing. I had no idea if they made more or less money. It didn’t matter.

I had just never been really into being onstage, you know? I’ve never been a spotlight person. It was much more about being involved in great music.

So that was my first exposure. I’d been on the road almost three years, and I figured I’d just try it. Sometimes ignorance is a cool thing. I didn’t know that Nashville didn’t need another guitar player. If I would have done any sort of research I may not have tried it, but it worked out. Like I said, sometimes if you don’t know you can’t do something, you go ahead and do it.

The session you did with John Conlee on “Friday Night Blues,” with Bud Logan, seems like your breakthrough session. Can one session really make your career?
Well, I worked on some more obscure things with the engineer who did all of Bud’s work. Bud was wanting to make a change, and said, “Do you know any young up-and-coming guys that just play different? I want something different.” And this engineer said, “Hey, you ought to give this guy a shot.” So from a commercial perspective, somebody endorsing what I did made a difference, because it was a big record. John Conlee was a big artist at that time and it was sort of a situation where people heard him and said, “Man, that’s different. Who’s playin’ on that.” And that was the genesis of my being taken seriously in a professional situation.

So is it a grapevine sort of thing? How does one gig lead to a bunch of others?
It sort of is like that. If a record sounds different, and the other producers and artists love the way something sounds, they may go, “Who’s that? Is that someone different playing the fiddle? Is that somebody different playing the steel?” Particularly if you’re one of the solo-type instruments, as the guitar obviously is here. And so other artists and other producers started trying to find out who that was, and it is very much, like you say, a grapevine where somebody hears something and they like it, then they’ll try it.

How do you get gigs now? Do you have a manager, or somebody who handles your booking?
People just call me direct. It’s the one good thing about Nashville being a sort of small town. I prefer talking to the artist, the producers, the A&R people, or the production assistants, because it’s more of a personal situation. They may call, and if it was just cut-and-dry, and having a third person say, “No, he’s not available then,” they’ll go, “Okay, thank you very much.”

But sometimes, say somebody wants three days and I can’t do the first day, I may say, “But you know, if you slid the whole thing to the right one day, I could do that.” And they may go, “Let’s try that.” So it’s much more of a close community.

How do you choose your gigs?
It’s down to where I generally just do the sessions where I either know the people, and have a rapport with them, or have a past with them. If I don’t know somebody, then I try to find out how they are recommended. I try to not do everything, because if you stretch yourself too thin you may be succeeding musically, but if your home life falls apart… That’s not of interest to me at all. It’s to the point where pretty much all the people who call are those I’ve worked with before. Sometimes a producer has a new artist they want to try out or try to get a deal with, then I’ll do that.

I’ve never even thought about how I pick and choose jobs. I guess it’s a “feel” thing. If somebody’s a total jive artist or they have a bad reputation, I generally won’t do that job.

You’ve done a lot of work with Jimmy Bowen, who was one of the best producers out there.
Oh, yeah. He’s retired now, but I did a lot with him. Nowadays I do a lot of work with Barry Beckett, Mark Wright, and Doug Johnson. Session players are kind of like roofers – you put a great roof on for someone and they have another house to do, you do that as well, it’s much like that.

Session Work
What do you try to bring to a session?
Somebody who is very lyric-savvy and lyric-conscious. In my opinion, this is not my record, but I’d hope they call me because I pay attention to the lyrics. I try to put something on that record that in 50 years, if they pull the vocal off, you would still know what that record is about because of the guitar part.

Do you get copies of what you are going to record before you go into the studio?
No, not at all. I usually first hear it in the studio.

What do you bring in the way of equipment, if you don’t know in advance what you’re going to be doing?
I have trunks with guitars and amps, and I bring it all. For the people who still love the rack scene, I’ve got that. And I’ve got all of the “organic” sort of amps; all the old Fenders and Voxes and Marshalls. So I choose equipment based on the vibe the producer and the artist are trying to go for.

Is that from meetings beforehand?
No, just by sizing up the type of song once when I get there. I generally know which producers are going to go more retro, and which are going to go more rack-oriented, just from working with them before. But I may be surprised. Sometimes it’s somebody who always prefers the guitar through an amp may want sort of a stereo-chorused wash thing, and vice-versa. My goal, at the end of the day, however long that day is, is for them to feel like, “You know, this guy played everything and his attitude was such that he really wanted to be here and he gave 1,000 percent to make this record the best it could possibly be.” If that happens, and it’s a commercial success, then everybody gets to do it again.

What guitars make up your standard gear?
I’ve got some old Fenders – a ’60 slab-board, rosewood-neck Strat, a ’60 slab-board Tele, an early-’60s Gibson dot-neck 335, a ’63 Jazzmaster, a ’56 Strat, and an old single-cutaway Gretch 6120. I’ve also got a couple of Jerry Jones’ – a baritone and a six-string bass. I’ve got a Rickenbacker 12-string and a six-string. I’ve got one of those Danelectro “disposable” guitars – the U2. I’ve got a Gibson Super V, which is a cross between an L5 and a Super 400.

One made in the ’70s, or a new one?
From the ’70s. I’ve also got several models of James Tyler guitars, which are the single/single/double pickup, and several Tom Anderson and PRS guitars.

And all of these guitars go to every session?
Right. And I’ve got an acoustic trunk with a Martin D-41, a Gibson J-45, a Guild 12-string – one of five 12-strings – a Vega Bantar, which is a banjo resonator with a guitar neck. Have you seen those, made in the ’30s?

…uh, no. I’ve seen some of the recent incarnations, a Deering.
…right. And a mandolin, a Chet Atkins model Gibson Electric, and then a Mathis acoustic, and a Madiera dreadnought I tune up.

A Guild?
Right, with a high string, it’s basically the little string of a 12-string set.

What year is your J-45?

What kind of mandolin?
A Kentucky. It’s an F-style body. David Grisman helped me pick it out. He did the “American Music Shop” show one time when I was playing on it, and he was one of the artists.

Sounds like you keep your cartage company pretty busy. We’re talking a couple large cases? One for electric guitar, one for acoustics?
Actually, I’ve got two large coffins for electrics, because they ride upright, then I’ve got one large one for acoustics. Total, there’s between 20 and 25 pieces. I have a vintage 4×12 cabinet and two Marshall heads – a plexi and a JMP- two Bogner heads, an Ecstasy, a Caveman, a Dr. Z, an Egnater, and different speaker configurations. I have single 12″ Pacifics and a couple vintage tweed Fenders, and two Victorias I always take with me that I really love. A Vox AC-30, and an amp trunk that’s got like a Super Reverb, a Vibrolux, a couple Echoplexes, and one trunk with just all old pedals.

There are 25 trunks?!?
Yeah, 25 anvil-type cases, I wouldn’t put them all in the classification of “trunks,” but eight of those you would think are trunks, yeah.

How long does this take to load all this stuff into a studio?
If the movers hustle, it’ll take 30 minutes to get everything set up.

But they’ll usually try to do it the night before, or if we don’t start until 2 p.m. they’ll do it that morning.

Do you use a guitar tech?
I’ve got a guy I use sometimes, Derek Phelps. But for the most part I do it all. Right now he’s out with the Black Crowes. He’s a good friend. He takes care of things when he’s in town, which hasn’t been very much in the last year and a half. But I’m pretty particular about the way I like guitars to be strung.

Do you keep any guitars at home?
Yeah. I’ve got a couple of late-’50s J200s I really love. A Martin HD-28 – one of the late-’70s ones – a D-18, a late-’40s 000-28. And then some Tylers, PRSs, and Andersons. I kind of rotate guitars. What happens is I’ll leave at the house what I won’t play for a while, and then I’ll get it out and start practicing on it and it’ll sound really good, so I’ll take it to the studio, then replace one and keep them rotating. When I play a lot, it’s important to reinvent myself all the time. If you get real busy and you’re playing the same way, it’s really not fair to the artist or producer. Or ultimately to yourself. If records start sounding the same, everybody loses.

How do keep your playing fresh?
I listen a lot. My goal is if someone asks for what the new Third Eye Blind single sounds like, I know. I want to always know what’s happening musically. I listen a lot, and try to create a certain style for each artist and then try to not play that way for another artist. For instance, Gary Allan, who is sort of a West Coast/Bakersfield kind of guy; I use a 6120 through a Vox AC-30, and he loves that. That’s sort of his sound.

So while I might use the 6120 on somebody else, I won’t use that combination for another artist. Part of it, to me, is if you use different guitars and amps, you’re finding different voices all the time. That seems like, ultimately, that would be more fresh to me than just relying on a Tele through a Deluxe every single time.

Are certain instruments your personal favorites?
I find that I play some a little more than others. But when I get too comfortable with something, I’ll change automatically. I’ll go back to something I played before, or played five years before, just so I won’t get too comfortable. Because if something is too comfortable I think you rely on it too much.

Solo Album
What brought about your solo album, Bare Essentials?
I became a dad for the first time at 40. I waited until I was 37 to get married because I was trying to make sense out of all this music business.

Then I figured out that it’s never going to make sense, so carry on with your life. But when our son was still in the womb, and when he was first born, I’d play little minuets about him and about places we went. Part of the joy of music is trying to let somebody hear something from you that they have never heard before. I rarely play acoustic, and nobody has ever heard that part of what I do, and I wanted to leave our son something instead of a list of my 20 favorite solos that I played on other people’s records. I wanted to leave him something personalized. What would I want to send to a generation that I may or may not see. What message would I want to send?
In a lot of situations, I find – and especially in music I’m involved in day-to-day – is about more and more and more and louder and louder and faster and more information. There’s less space in music. I think we’re all missing the boat because to me the best music has a lot of space in it. This album is just to encourage everybody to slow down a little bit, take a deep breath, and enjoy what’s around you because you don’t know how long either you or the stuff that’s around you will be here.

When I first heard the CD, Wyndham Hill and Narada came to mind; therapeutic use of sound. Kind of “new age,” but I guess that’s a dirty word…
Oh, not to me. One person who reviewed it said it was like sonic valium. I love that, because it really is. The people who’ve heard it are getting it. I was prepared for people not to, because it’s not what they think, because most musicians make albums for other musicians. This is not a “check me out” record. This is not a “listen to me play and blow as fast as I can” record. This is much more about, in my opinion, a deeper place that is sort of like what true wealth is; it’s having enough money to have whatever you want and choosing not to buy it. If you can play whatever you want, and you choose not to, I think it comes from a much deeper place than, “Hey, check me out, check me out!”

You put your CD out on your own label?
Yeah, we did, and we’re marketing it on the internet. I talked to some friends in major distribution companies, and they loved the CD, but they were my friends enough to tell me that every time Faith Hill comes down the pike, they’ve got a ton of money in it, and each marketing dollar…I wouldn’t probably get much. They loved it but, if the roles were reversed, they said they’d put it out themselves, and that way be more in control of how and when and what happens with it.

The “star factory” is not conducive to personal music…
Right. This is, by design, not a radio record. So if you’re going to compete in that market, that’s fine, I understand it. But we, by choice, are not doing it that way. We’re doing everything different.

Speaking of different, how did you come up with the packaging, that kind of open booklet, multi-page layout?
I’ve seen everything that comes through in jewel packs and typical commercial CDs, I looked at the more organic designs that fold out, and then I ran across one that was sort of like this, and then we just took it to the next level. I said, “I spent so much time and energy on the music, even though this design is going to cost three-and-a-half times what a normal CD costs to manufacture, I’m going to do this because I want somebody to look at it and go, ‘I need to check this out because whoever did it is committed to excellence in terms of the packaging, so the odds of the music being just slug music in a package like this are pretty low.'”

I wanted it to be something that somebody might leave on their coffee table with a picture book. Yeah, it’s more expensive, but every bit of that additional expense they are holding in their hands.

It’s also a great-sounding CD. For your recording process, you went back to a very simple direct chain. No equalization – all analog except when it went to the 1630, right?

Was this a reaction to the fact that a lot of the things that you do in Nashville are the ultra-clean, ultra-digital, heavily-gated multitrack sort of thing?
Yeah, it probably is. When I knew where I was headed, I listened to some other acoustic solo projects, and most of them just sound real digital, and that’s just not what a real guitar sounds like.

I don’t know what all they were doing, but what I wanted to do this so if you closed your eyes, not only could the music take you on a journey, but hopefully it sounds like you’re sitting right there with the guy playing. My favorite records are analog, for the most part, because of the way I grew up listening. The warmth of wood and the warmth of tape makes more sense to me than a bunch of high-resolution tracks. I really don’t care about the specs; if something doesn’t move me, I learned at an early age, you can talk to somebody’s heart or you can talk to their mind, and I’ll try to talk to their heart every time.

So what are your future plans?
I’d like to play out more, and it looks like that’s going to happen. I’d like to do some more live things to support the record because I’ve never seen immediate audience response to what I do in the studio. Playing on records is great, but you may play the solo of your life, and the producer may be on the phone and say, “Try something else.” But if you’re onstage and people like what you do, they let you know. And it’s something I’ve never seen or been a part of, because any time I’ve been onstage it’s been about somebody else.

Photo: Rusty Russell.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.