“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.
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.
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