Nine top shelf Nashville session musicians recently stepped from behind-the-scenes obscurity to form PLAYERS and deliver a stunning debut album. Jan Willem Vink reports.
A familiar question popping up in many interviews is: If you were able to form your dream band, who would be in it? For many Christian artists, the Players would be their wish list. It was producer Bobby Blazier who got the green light from Warner Alliance to record an instrumental album with a credit line similar to a who's who in Christian session work.
Bobby Blazier 'The Players' producer had previously made himself a name as a drummer and producer both in and outside of Christian music. I asked him about his background. "Really, I grew up listening to all kinds of music. My father pastored a church here in Southern Tennessee and I grew up listening to a lot of Southern gospel and black gospel. Andrae Crouch was a big influence on my life. At a younger age, I got into Eagles and James Taylor, even a lot of jazz, Gino Vanelli, which kind of filters into my production stuff right now. I'm working on a country act and then the Players, which is more of a jazz thing. I also produced the first Pray For Rain album with Jimmy Lee Sloas, which is more of an alternative, Beatlish kind of thing."
As a producer, Blazier is very much influenced by some producers from the '70s. "Phil Ramone and Peter Ash were a big influence on my life," continued Bobby. "These are all secular guys that I really admire for their work. Also Brown Bannister. I think he's brilliant. That's where I really try to take my influence from, people who are into the music and try to take it to a new place. You just try to get really good songs. I try to hear where the song ought to be and try to take it there."
The concept for the Players was Blazier's idea. "At the time I was working for Brown Bannister and we had a label called Vireo with Lisa Bevill and Pray For Rain. I was working with Chris Rodriguez and Tommy Sims and I thought, 'These people are just backing other people and are so talented. People just need to hear what they are all about.' I started calling friends, Dann Huff, Shane Keister, Tom Hemby and Eric Darken whom I've known for a few years. I didn't get a no from anybody.
"I left it on the back burner after Vireo fell apart. I kind of forgot about it for a while. I was working with Michael Omartian on Steve Camp's last album and Michael and I were sitting apart and talking. I said, 'Hey, would you be interested in something like this?' He said, 'Sure,' and started my mind thinking again."
Selecting for the Players was no easy job. I asked Bobby what sort of people he had in mind to be part of this project. Said Bobby, "I wanted people who were gifted and semi-familiar in their field. I didn't want to make the statement, 'These are the best known guys in town.' I just thought these fit the format a little better. There are amazingly gifted people in this town, people like Gordon Kennedy and Blair Masters and George Cochini."
Did Bobby get any calls from people who were offended at not being a part of this project? "I did. We had to go in another direction and I felt really bad. The other element for these nine guys was that I wanted Christian guys on it. Guys who have been around the block, who know how tough it can be out there, are believers and their faith really shines through their music. I think that comes across."
According to Bobby, music is neutral. He thinks the witness shines through in the lives of the Players. "I just think about how the guys conduct their lives. To me music is music. It is all about how we conduct our lives in a way that reflects our faith. Music breaks down a lot of barriers. From there the way people perceive us is based on the way we live our lives. Good music is good music. I think there are a lot of Christians out there who make great music but are not in Christian music. I think it's time to break that barrier down and say go to people like Michael and Amy and Jars Of Clay and DC Talk, and find out how they conduct their lives. That will mean something to people."
With so many great musicians on the sessions who were producers in their own right, didn't Bobby feel intimidated? "I didn't feel intimidated by them. But I am still in awe of the Players. I work with some of these guys on a daily basis and I am still in awe of them. I was a big liner note reader. I would buy a record just to read who was playing on it. I followed his career for years and years and years. It was more of a privilege just to be in the room with them. I wasn't intimidated. It was a very easy thing to get done, especially when you've got someone like Terry McMillan, who's played on millions and millions of records and he's saying to you, 'Hey, what do you want me to do?'"
Every 'player' got to record his own track on the album, where he is featured as a soloist. The 10th track is a collaboration of all the musicians. Blazier said it was the highlight of his musical career: "We came into that session - we didn't have a song. In an hour and a half these guys had written it and had it down. That's what I wanted. That spontaneity. I knew these guys could do it. It was a magical moment. There were a lot of people there. Everybody had their hair standing up on their arms. It was a blast. This record was probably the easiest I have done in my life."
So who are the actual Players? They consist of Michael Omartian, Chris Rodriguez, Tommy Sims, Eric Darken, Mark Douthit, Dan Huff, Shane Keister, Tom Hemby and Terry McMillan. Some of these names like Omartian and Huff will be known to every CCM buff. Others like Douthit and Rodriguez will only be familiar to the more attentive CD credit scanners of this parish. Chris Rodriguez has made most of his professional living as a vocalist, in the studio and out on the road with artists such as Amy Grant, Kenny Loggins and Michael W Smith.
But Rodriguez spent five years at Nashville's Belmont College studying guitar and songwriting, skills he doesn't get to ply much in the studio. "I make 85 per cent of my living singing in the studios. I play guitar live, but it was nice to have an avenue for this piece of music that I have, which would probably not have come out had it not been for a project like this," Rodriguez said. His contribution, "The Valley", was a theme he had running around in his brain, and fingers, for several years. "This is something I actually started messing with at sound checks when I was on the road with Amy on the 'Lead Me On' tour. It was one of those things where the sound check was over, but I wasn't quite finished messing around with my guitar sound, so I would stay up on stage and play this piece of music."
Not everyone came to the party with their compositions intact. Some, Like Michael Omartian, didn't know what they were going to do even when they were in the studio. "I had no idea what we were going to do when we walked into the studio," commented Omartian. "We kind of did a head thing right on the spot, which took about four hours. (The song 'D-nile') was very spontaneous and I like the way it turned out. It's more of a traditional, be-bop kind of tune, with the traditional piano/bass/drum complement, with a few things added in there."
Omartian had to tap into his spontaneous creativity again when Blazier assembled all of the Players to cut the album's lead track, "10-Q". "I was a little scared. I thought it was going to take a long time, and we didn't have a song," Blazier said. Omartian remembered it this way, "It was funny because there were 10 guys in the studio and Bobby looked at us and said, 'Okay, what are we gonna do?' I said, 'We don't have anything to do?' and he said, 'No, I'd hoped you guys would come up with something.'"
Blazier continued, "Tommy came in with a partial idea, Omartian took it, 30 minutes later he came back in with a chart. Everybody got in there, started messing with ideas and man, they put it together in two passes. It was done in, like, an hour and a half, and that just doesn't happen. If we had planned this a year in advance, it couldn't have come off any better than what we did in one day."
The finished track showcases all the Players equally, letting a bunch of different instruments and styles shine through without overwhelming each other. Getting the opportunity to showcase their creative chops, as opposed to just being a hired gun, was a real plus for those involved, said saxophone player Mark Douthit. "It's a very interesting way of making a living because you're just a total chameleon. You go into one situation and do one thing, then you go to the next thing and they want something completely different, and you have to wipe what you just did out of your head," Douthit commented.
"As far as where I make a living, you come in and you get an instrumental break in a song where it's your time to shine. I guess I wanted to create an overall feeling rather than a showcase for myself," Mark Douthit said about his song "Nuff Said". "This is really a showcase of our writing styles. I don't think anybody did their song like, 'Here's everything I know and can do and say in under five minutes,' although there is some really flash playing on it."
Some of the Players, like Dann Huff (with the band Giant) and Terry McMillan, have or have had artist deals and wanted to explore a different style of music. Others, like Tom Hemby, have copious studio experience, but haven't really had the opportunity to be in charge of a musical statement of their own.
"I've got some things at home that I just cut for myself, bits and pieces of ideas," said Hemby. "Obviously you get caught up with what you've got to do at the time, but sometimes you've got to just put those dreams aside until the right time comes along."
McMillan, the charismatic harmonica player whose debut album for Giant Records will soon be released, relishes the opportunity this project provides for him and his fellow studio cats. "I remember when I first started doing studio work and somebody said, 'You'll do this 10, maybe 15 years, and then you'll burn out.' This is my 22nd year and it's just getting better and better. The Players thing is just kind of paving the way for me to follow in behind and it's a wonderful thing," McMillan said.
This is not to say the Players haven't had their share of experiences that have made them question their chosen line of work. "I did a session one time for a producer," explained Douthit, "who shall remain nameless, who said, and I quote, 'I don't know what, but I'll know it when I hear it.' I did a session one time for a record, I was doing a solo overdub on one song and I was there for 17 hours. They were trying to come up with a really alternative sound on the sax and process it in pretty bizarre ways. And after everything was said and done, they came back to just the original sound. The end result was pretty good, but if people only knew the blood that was sweated to get that..."
With the continued growth of both country and Christian music, Nashville's session scene is thriving like never before and a lot of that is attributable to the level of musicianship players from all over the city bring to projects. "I definitely think the level of proficiency is at 100 per cent here, just like it is in LA. You've got phenomenal players here. Whether they play pop or country or Christian here, it doesn't make any difference," Omartian said.
Percussionist Eric Darken, who moved to Nashville in 1987, sees the influx of players as cyclical, with new blood coming in all the time. "I think there's a season for new players and older players. I think you'll see a time when we'll all move on, and you'll see a new set of guys come in. But there's always been a really strong base to choose from," Darken said. "If nothing more, I think there are better songs being written, better artists being developed. I think the material's better and I think there's a higher criterion now."
Blazier said his only instruction to the Players was to do a song that represented where they were as musicians right now, not what people expected to hear from them. Case in point: Dann Huff, known for his explosive electric guitar work, had a bit of a quieter idea in mind, one that Bobby encouraged him to follow. "We were recording Chris' track and Dann called me and said, 'Hey, I just wrote my thing. You gotta come over.' So I went over to his house. He had this little drum loop going and he started playing this gut-string guitar, and it was just breathtaking. I knew it was just what we were going to need," Blazier said. "Good players know how to take advice and not be intimidated, and they know when and how to make things right. That's what was great about working with these guys, there wasn't an attitude during the whole thing and that's really professionalism to me."
Bobby said he's already got the idea in mind for a second Players album, taking the same core musicians out of town to have them all work on crafting a complete record. Should he actually accomplish this logistical nightmare, fans won't even need to pull out their liner notes to know they've got another winning score.
The Hit Parade
So just how good are the Players? Well, the proof's in the pudding...or at least in the long list of artists upon whose projects/tours they've contributed their talents. (Oh, and by the way, this is far from a complete list.)
Worked with: Steely Dan, Christopher Cross, Donna Summer, Amy Grant, Rod Stewart, Trisha Yearwood, Peter Cetera, Patty Loveless
Worked with: Amy Grant, BJ Thomas, BeBe & CeCe Winans, Carman, Twila Paris, Paul Overstreet, Glen Campbell
Worked with: BeBe & CeCe Winans, Vanesa Williams, Amy Grant, Aaron Neville, Elton John, Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston
Worked with: Mariah Carey, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Reba Mclntire, Wynonna, Michael W Smith, DC Talk, Whitesnake, Shania Twain
Worked with: Garth Brooks, Ray Charles, Neil Young, Dolly Parton, Michael McDonald, Bruce Hornsby, Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins, Elvis
Worked with: Tammy Wynette, Elvis, Conway Twitty, George Jones, Ronnie Milsap, Sandi Patty, Steve Green
Worked with: Alan Jackson, Amy Grant, Kathy Mattea, Point Of Grace, PFR, 4Him, Take 6, Charlie Peacock, Out Of The Grey
Worked with: Kenny Loggins, Amy Grant, Michael W Smith, Twila Paris, Steven Curtis Chapman, Carolyn Arends
Worked with: Amy Grant, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Champion, Lisa Bevill, Michael English, Judson Spence, Carman