Growing up in the tropical air of West Palm Beach, it’s little wonder that Chris Leuzinger’s first musical revelations had a Latin sway.
“We had a big console record player and my mom loved listening to Harry Belafonte, Latin instrumental records and, of course, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett,” he said. “The instrumental albums especially hit home with me – I remember one called Taboo and one called Bongos, Flutes and Guitars. I was so young that of course I didn’t know what ‘groove’ was, but I was fascinated by the percussion and the way the music flowed.”
Its minor role in that music may have kept Chris from hearing the guitar at first, but that changed when, at age six, he saw Elvis Presley on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
“When I was nine, I asked my dad for a guitar, and he said the fatherly thing: ‘If you get good grades this semester, I’ll buy one for you.’ So I worked hard, and he bought Harmony archtops for my brother and I. Mine was too big for my hands, so I ended up with a Stella.”
Big things came from that small guitar, and 2022 will keep Leuzinger on his toes, as he’ll release his first solo album and hit the road backing longtime friend Garth Brooks when the superstar’s Stadium Tour resumes in March. “We’ll be out through September, 33 years after our first recording session.”
Did learning to play guitar as a kid change the music you listened to?
What changed for me was seeing Elvis and then my brother, Rudy, being six years older, listening to more-rocking pop music. His friends had blues records like Jimmy Reed and Howlin’ Wolf. We were learning from a guitar teacher and the Mel Bay book; the first cool lick I could play was the intro to Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” and after that, the Ventures’ “Walk Don’t Run” and The Chantays’ “Pipeline” had me working up the neck a little bit.
What kind of amp did you have?
Our teacher was a cool guy, and he steered us toward the right stuff, so the amp we started out with was a brown Fender Super. He also steered us toward Gibson guitars, and the first nice guitar we had was an ES-330T that we bought together.
When did you first get together with friends to jam?
I was 11 or 12. A friend had a snare drum, and we’d try to play “Wipe Out” and “Walk Don’t Run.” In junior high, I met some guys and formed a band called The Shantells. We learned pop songs and played school dances and a National Guard armory in West Palm Beach. In Lake Worth, just south, was an American Legion hall where they’d throw dances, and in Riviera Beach was a teen club called Music Casters, which was run by a great guy who brought in a lot of big groups – The Young Rascals, The Knickerbockers, Mitch Ryder, Neil Diamond. We backed Neil because he didn’t have a band at the time.
I played with The Shantells until a group of older guys called the Brom Beaus invited me to join them. They were one of the bigger bands in the area, and I was with them until they started going to Fort Lauderdale and Miami to play clubs. I was still too young to do that, so I went back with The Shantells, then moved through different bands until I ended up with friends in another popular South Florida group, Peace and Quiet, which was doing its own songs. That’s when I started developing a passion for coming up with my own guitar parts.
What was your guitar by then?
I was moving through thinline Gibsons – I had a 335, 345, and 355.
All at the same time?
I’d trade one for the next, though for while I had the 355 and 330. With all of them, my Super Reverb would really sing. That’s why I liked them so much.
What was your next career move?
In 1969, I joined a blues band called The Monopoly, which moved from Florida to New York City. By that time I’d gotten turned on to Freddie King and British blues – Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, and my favorite, Peter Green, through John Mayall records. Because of those guys and Bloomfield, blues players started gravitating to Les Pauls. I wanted one mostly because of Clapton and Green.
One day, I ran into a guy on the street who had one, and I traded him my 355 and 330 for it. Being 19 and hasty, I failed to realize it had P-90s. At the time, Dan Armstrong’s shop had Les Paul Standards hanging on the wall. Had I known better, I probably could’ve gone in and traded for one of those. But I grabbed the first one I ran into (laughs).
I was in New York a year and a half, then the band broke up and I moved back to Florida, where I re-joined Peace and Quiet until it broke up in ’71. When I was 21, the drummer and I jumped in the van and moved to Nashville to join some friends in their band, Corduroy Orioles.
What kind of music did they play?
Mostly, blues; I hadn’t played one country lick at the time (laughs).
What was the scene like at the time for a blues player from New York by way of Florida?
In the early ’70s, Nashville was super-creative, with a lot of classic songwriters and great music. One of the places we played was the Exit/In, an amazing venue that was bringing in all types of local and national acts. You might catch John Prine, Johnny Cash, The Police, or Buddy Rich’s big band. A music publisher named Juan Contreras heard our band and introduced us to Norbert Putnam, who owned Quadraphonic Studios. They’d just finished recording Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” and needed a band to tour with him. We got the gig just as “Drift Away” was becoming a hit.
What stands out in your memory about backing Gray?
It was my first big road gig – a big adventure. But, with the success of “Drift Away,” we should have been doing concerts and opening for big acts, but we were playing clubs and small venues. It was fun and Dobie was a fantastic guy, but for me, the best thing about that gig was that Reggie Young, one of the greatest session players ever, had played most of the guitar on Dobie’s records, and I had to learn every lick he played because they wanted us to sound just like the record. Reggie was all about tone, feel, taste, where to play, where not to play, and he came up with great parts.
That was a musical education that helped me transition from just a live blues player to one who could approach a song and come up with meaningful parts.
Were you still using the Les Paul?
I was, and my good friend, Danny Flowers, used his Tele.
Which amps were you using?
I was playing through Fenders – a Twin or a Pro.
How long did the tour last?
About a year. Dobie lived in California, and after our tour was finished, he started hiring guys from there.
What came next for you?
Norbert had been producing the folk artist Buffy Sainte-Marie, and they needed a band to tour with her. By that time, some of the guys from Peace and Quiet had moved to Nashville and were putting that band back together. I joined them, and we got the gig with Buffy, touring Australia and other places. She also took us to L.A. to record, which was a big deal, working with producer Henry Lewy. We were green, but he was very nice and patient, and we ended up on half of her record. For the other half, he used John Guerin, Larry Carlton, and guys he’d used on Joni Mitchell’s records.
On those sessions, I met guitarist Ben Benay, who turned me on to repairman John Carruthers, who worked on guitars for Carlton, Jay Graydon, and a lot of others. I met Paul Rivera, too, who was modding Deluxe amps, and I ended up with one of them.
After Buffy, did you go back in Nashville?
Yes, I started getting more calls for studio work, and was playing more acoustic guitar so if I didn’t get a session as an electric player I could get hired to play acoustic. One of the guys I met was Allen Reynolds, who was producing Crystal Gayle. In 1977, he started using me on those sessions. It turned out Crystal also needed a band to go on the road. Allen recommended our band, and she hired us. Allen was my main mentor, and I worked in the studio with him for 30-plus years, until he retired.
Another producer, David Malloy, also started using me on records for Eddie Rabbitt. I played electric on those – the Les Paul on some, but by that time I also had a Tele and a Strat.
How polished were you as a studio player by then? I was kind of green on the early Eddie records, but being in the room with guys like Joe Osborn and Bobby Thompson, you learn quick. I was learning how to come up with parts and get my studio sounds together – realizing what a session player was.
It wasn’t quite like playing New York blues clubs…
Right! Being a studio musician is all about playing the perfect part that fits the emotion of a song and complements the singer. It’s learning to fit in, listening, and coming up with a good hook or solo. Sometimes it means getting out of the way. One reason any producer hires a new player is because they’re doing something fresh. And if you fit in with the other musicians on the session, you have a good chance of being called back.
Are there fills, licks, or solos you especially remember playing?
Well, with Eddie, my parts were not really featured. But with Crystal, I played all the acoustic and electric parts on “Don’t Take Me Half the Way,” and on “Our Love Was On the Fault Line,” I stacked a three-part harmony solo in the middle and end. On “Why Have You Left the One You Left Before,” I played some slide.
From the producer’s standpoint, what do you think stood out with your playing?
It was probably my tones and style, because I came up through blues, not country. I had a different sound and took some chances. I don’t know if “aggressive” is the right word, but back then, country guitarists played really clean, and I had a little more bite, a little more crunch to my sound.
I remember the first time I showed up with two amps and told the engineer I wanted to run stereo with a Boss chorus pedal. He said, “You wanna do what?” (laughs)
I had a couple of those big, gray Boss pedals that sounded great. And when MXR’s Dyna Comp and Phase 90 came along, I used them, too.
In Crystal’s music, was there room for you to flex?
Well, her music in the beginning was very traditional, but as she had more hits it became a lot of different styles; she’d do anything from Billie Holiday to a full-blown pop ballad or a B.B. King song. It was a great gig; we went all over the world and did lot of live TV, did “The Midnight Special” a couple of times, Johnny Carson three times. Crystal and her husband and manager, Bill, took great care of us.
“Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” was huge on the pop charts.
It was, and that hit right when we were hired to tour with her. I didn’t play on that record, but we went from working small clubs and county fairs to headlining huge shows within a few months. It took off like a rocket. It was very cool and she gracefully transitioned into it, and brought it at every show. She’s a truly great artist.
Being Loretta Lynn’s sister, there’s some talent in the blood.
Very much. And, Allen Reynolds was very influential with her. If you listen closely to those records, they have a very intimate sound, with her voice just out front. Allen really helped her develop her vocal style, and one of his main things was making her different than Loretta.
Was the Crystal gig year-round?
Yes, but another thing that was cool about it was she wasn’t touring all the time, so I could maintain sessions in town. I had to miss some stuff, but was still getting more studio work than ever. The biggest session I missed was with David Malloy, who was going to Caribou Ranch to produce Eddie Rabbitt’s Horizon album in 1980, which had “Drivin’ My Life Away” and “I Love a Rainy Night.” It was a bummer for me to miss that one, but Billy Joe Walker and Larry Byrom ended up playing guitars, so it worked out okay for them (laughs).
In the recording world, if you’re not there, somebody else comes in. If they do a great job, they’ll get called next time. Losing those sessions made me think twice, and while working on Kathy Mattea records with Allen, I thought, “I need to make a decision.” In 1988, after 11 years with Crystal, I decided to get off the road.
Was Allen pushing you to make the move?
He wasn’t, but another great session player, Jim Colvard, who was Allen’s main guy before I started, was always telling me, “You gotta get into the studio.” He hired me to play on one of my first master sessions, with Johnny Paycheck, and he’d tell me, “On the road, as long as your artist is doing okay, you’re good. But you can build your own career in the studio.”
Was the money better in the studio?
Well, it could be if you were working a lot. We were making really good money with Crystal, and it was guaranteed, whereas studio work was up and down. Right after I left Crystal’s gig I went through a summer with not much going on, which made me question my choice. But, that fall, it started picking up, and the timing ended up being great because that’s when Allen called about doing sessions with a new guy from Oklahoma named Garth Brooks. Had I missed those sessions, that would’ve been something to really be upset about (laughs).
Do you remember how he described Garth to you?
He didn’t say much, just that we were going to record four songs and see if he and Garth could work well together. By that time, I’d done a ton of work with Allen, so it just felt like a regular session.
What was your first impression of Garth?
Right away, we knew he was a good singer, and the songs were cool. The first one we recorded was “Not Counting You,” and we also cut “Much Too Young.” I can’t remember the other two, but the first time we cut “Not Counting You,” we did it as a standard Nashville shuffle. We went into the control room to listen, and Garth, being the new guy, may have been a little intimidated by the players, but he was confident enough to say, “I wonder if we can make this sound a little more live and a little more rocking…” So we went back in and came up with some pushes, rocked it harder, and he got everybody heading in the right direction. He wanted it to not to be everyday, normal stuff, and wanted us to stretch out. We got that message right from the start.
Is that your acoustic intro on “Much Too Young?”
No, that’s Mark Casstevens. I played electric.
Safe to say you were onboard with Garth pushing country songs toward rock and roll?
Yes, and of course, me being a blues, more-rock-type player, that fit my style better. I was able to stretch more.
Did you get to back him live?
He had already hired Dave Gant, who’s been his band leader since the very beginning, and booked a couple gigs before he was able to get a touring band together. So, the guys who did the sessions – drummer Milton Sledge, bass player Mike Chapman, and myself – played those gigs. We opened for the New Grass Revival in Johnson City, Tennessee, and Garth drove the van over and back.
He was something special to see live – the energy and the way he connected with the audience. At that time, most country singers would just stand at the mic, but Garth was very influenced by rock acts, so he was much more animated, which got his crowds excited.
What was Capitol Records’ reaction to those first four songs?
Well, they liked them enough to have Allen complete an album. At the beginning, though, Garth was not a priority for the label, so he and his manager, Bob Doyle, did a lot of their own promotion. After the first couple singles did well, then the label started realizing Garth was special. And once Jimmy Bowen at Capitol saw him live, he said, “We need to make this guy the priority,” and things really got off the ground.
Which guitars and amps did you use at the time?
Mostly just the Les Paul, 345, the Tele, and Strat. I had a ’70s Deluxe Reverb and a Music Man 210-HD. But by the time we started recording with Garth, we’d moved into the big-rack days. I had a 20-something-space rack and a Boogie power amp.
Is that your solo on “Friends In Low Places”?
Yes, that was me with the Les Paul sneaking in a little of the rock influence. Other producers were commenting at that time about how we were starting to get the first crunchy guitar tones. If you compare it to today’s country, it’s pretty tame, but back then it was kind of groundbreaking. The big guitar crunchy rhythm parts on “The Thunder Rolls” were also that guitar.
You were called for all 16 of Garth’s studio albums – except, ironically, the 1999 Chris Gaines bit – which means in the ’90s you were one of the most-heard guitarists in the world given that nine of the albums made it #1 on Billboard’s country-albums chart and 19 of his singles were #1 country hits.
Garth is the most loyal artist ever, and although from time to time he’d bring in other players, it was the same seven guys – the G-Men – on all those records. Once his career started blowing up, it was very exciting. It’s fun to hear your parts on the radio, but the most rewarding thing is that people still love his music 30-some years later. He still fills stadiums with people young and old who sing along to every song. I’m grateful to have been able to participate.
What were some of your major sessions other than for Garth?
I recorded with Hal Ketchum, Kathy Mattea, Emmylou Harris, George Jones, George Strait, Alabama, Montgomery Gentry, and Julio Iglesias, to name a few. Mark Casstevens dropped my name to producer Kyle Lehning when he was working with Randy Travis and Dan Seals. I played acoustic, mostly, on records for both guys, and they were really fun. In those days, there was a lot of sessions with two acoustics, and Mark and I would come up with parts that complemented each other, usually with different capo positions.
Dan Seals’ In a Quiet Room records were under the radar; we re-cut a bunch of his songs with just Mark and myself and Viktor Krauss on upright bass, then they overdubbed Dobro and other guitars. Those records show some of our best acoustic playing because they’re totally stripped-down – no piano or drums, nothing to lean on. Some of the pop songs Dan had done in England Dan and John Ford Coley were challenging, with interesting changes. We had to play through them with great feel and no errors or squeaks.
What are some of your more-recent sessions?
I just did a session with Reba McEntire and The Isaacs. It was the first time I’d worked with Reba and she was really nice; her singing with the Isaacs was heavenly. The last couple records we’ve done with Garth have been really enjoyable.
A lot of my work these days is custom records, where people come from different areas to record in Nashville. I really enjoy those because those folks really appreciate what you do. It’s their dream to make a record here and they’re thrilled to have you play on it.
Are there a lot of players in Nashville who work those projects?
There are now. In the ’90s and the early 2000s, things were so busy you couldn’t have gotten any of the main players to do something like that. But that’s not the case anymore. You can come to Nashville and get Brent Mason on your record. You can hire Lonnie Wilson to play drums and Mike Rojas to play keys. There’s also a lot of virtual stuff; I do a lot of that and I’m grateful it was available during the pandemic. Sessions all but stopped for a while.
In the infamous Nashville flood of 2010, several of your guitars were in a storage facility that was underwater for three days.
Yeah, luckily, I had my Fenders and all of my acoustic instruments at home. But in storage I had two guitar trunks and a bunch of amps and cabinets. I was praying my trunks were waterproof, but unfortunately they were not. It was astounding seeing the number of players who had stuff there – Brent Rowan, Brent Mason, Michael Spriggs, Jerry McPherson…
What do you recall about first going there after the water receded?
When we were finally allowed down there, of course there were a lot of people showing up at the same time. It was depressing, pulling out all these ruined instruments. Joe Glaser was there, and I showed him my Les Paul, all green with gunk, just terrible-looking. I said, “Can you fix this?” and he said, “Yeah, don’t worry about it.” Later, he told me, “I didn’t really know if I could fix it, but standing there that day, I wasn’t going to tell you I couldn’t.” (laughs)
Which other guitars were there?
I had my ’67 ES-345, my ’60s Jazzmaster, a Sadowsky gut-string, and an Anderson Cobra – those two were hardly damaged except for electronics, being more-modern with thicker finishes. There was also two vintage Danelectros, one a Guitarlin, which is a rare instrument. It’s still playable. There were three Jerry Jones guitars – a baritone, a six-string bass, and a 12-string. My Gretsch Double Anniversary was in there. They all had to be at Joe’s for quite a while. They had to dry slowly so they’d warp as little as possible, and obviously, he had a lot to do. Joe is a miracle worker; my Gretsch and the 345 both had to have neck re-sets, binding repaired, and he saved some of the pickups by repairing the winding. They sound great. The Les Paul’s finish was damaged, but we decided to redo only the back of the neck because it had pitted really bad. We left the rest alone because, like Joe said, it’s part of the history of the guitar.
In 2019, you were asked to go on Garth’s ongoing Stadium Tour. What’s it like?
The shows are incredible and the audience energy and participation is off the charts; the last show we played in 2020 was to 91,000 fans. And just like Garth has been loyal to the G-Men, he’s been loyal to his touring band, singers, and crew, and many of them have been with him since the beginning.
When I’m out with them, it’s a blast doing the two-electric thing with Gordon Kennedy. At first it was a challenge, getting my sound together for stadiums, but the crew has been very helpful. Guitar techs Scott Fowler and John Kinsch are absolutely great. It’s truly a dream come true and I’m so grateful Garth asked me to join.
What can we expect from your solo album?
It’s all original instrumentals inspired by my musical influences through the years – a mix of R&B, reggae, Latin, old-school rock, pop, and vibe/mood music. I’m playing all the guitars, joined by a varied cast of my session-player friends for each song. It should be released sometime early this year and I really hope people enjoy it.
This article originally appeared in VG’s March 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.