Updated: Sep 15, 2020
They say Nashville is a "five year" town. I thought I could shave a couple years off by being experienced and coming in with a few contacts but now I'm not so sure. Being a seasoned drummer doesn't help like it did in the Bay Area. In Nashville you're expected to be seasoned. People don't get too wide eyed when you sound good. Drummers here show up at the audition and play the songs well, with good time, and on great equipment. Come in with less and you'll likely be forgotten before you get back to your car. (Unless you show up at another audition, in which case you'll be remembered in perfect clarity.) Try to break into Nashville without being solid and groovy, and you might as well go down to LP field and ask the Titans if they need any extra players.
I've discovered that with so much talent around, relationships are just as important as musicianship. Familiarity is the key because band leaders would naturally rather hire musicians they know. I have lots of experience and a pretty good track record, but relationships are one thing I came to town short on. So I had to get serious about letting people know I was here and available. I had to learn to Network.
An artist with a good gig can meet three or four of drummers every day, and any person who isn't a drummer can give you the name of one. So it's important to be on people's radar when a gig comes up. Some drummers are great at networking. I'm not. It goes against my grain to tout myself to others. But no matter who's best for the gig, the drummer who's making introductions, high-fiving the room, and passing out cards like a Vegas dealer, will get more work than the drummer who sits in the corner waiting for a conversation to develop. In Nashville if you don't get out and convince people you're the one they need they'll hire someone else.
I'd been meeting people for lunch and coffee and going to shows every night but I had to get more creative. So I got a book on industry contacts, put a promo pack together (bio, discography, picture, CD, and some press), and sent out over 70 emails to managers, labels, lawyers, and booking agents who represented bands or music styles I liked. In each email I described myself and asked if I could send them a promo pack. I got 10 responses back. No auditions or job offers, but all said they'd keep my information on file in case something came up, so I mailed the packs out with personal cover letters and tried to think of other options.
Next I tracked down the phone numbers of some of the busiest drummers in town and called them up cold. I imagine these players get lots of calls from industrious hustlers new to Nashville and I wasn't sure what I'd say if I got one of them on the phone. "Hi. I just got to town. Can I ride your coat tails?" Or "Do your sub drummers' subs ever need subs?" But I haven't had to figure out an approach yet because none of them answered and so far none has called back.
After a couple months I got tired of just watching music happen and started taking free gigs so I could play. I got a call to back up a singer at a songwriter's showcase. There was no money but it was a quick set, the drums were provided, and I was dying to play some music. The drums are provided in many clubs in Nashville in order to switch bands out faster. Often times you just bring cymbals and a snare drum. The kit that night was a DW four piece. The heads were destroyed and I would have rather played my drums, but not having to load in and out was nice and everything worked fine.
The singer called to book another gig the next week and I snapped it up. Another freebie, but at least I was getting on stage. This time the drum situation was different. There was a bass drum, rack tom and floor tom but no hardware - not even a throne or kick pedal. I grabbed a folding chair, gripped the snare drum between my thighs and rode the rack tom rim with my right hand while playing the snare and bass drum (on the floor tom) with my left. I made it through the set but my legs were cramping by the first chorus and it was hard to walk the next day.
I was starting to play out now but still wasn't making any money. I'd graduated from playing for free to playing for dinner though, and it felt like progress. Then, just as it was beginning to wear on me, I heard about an amazing opportunity. I was having coffee with a well connected friend and he told me Ben Folds' long time drummer had just left the band and they were looking for a replacement. I couldn't believe it. Ben Folds is one of the reasons I came to Nashville in the first place. Not because I imagined he might need someone, but just because I figured if he was in Nashville there could be others like him there, too. Now the position was open, my style is perfect for his songs, and I was right there to audition for it. I even had a friend that could put us in touch! All of a sudden the whole crazy move started to make sense and I began to think I'd unknowingly come to Nashville to be here when this job came up. The next day, though, as I was imagining what the audition would be like, my friend called to tell me they'd already found someone. Apparently some kid who knows all the songs, sings like a bird, and plays his ass off, had been hired before I'd even known there was a change going down. In the 24 hours I'd thought the gig was available I'd let my imagination run wild, pondering destiny and timing and fate as if they were on my side. In the end, however, they were trumped by the unflinching patience of the same reality I thought I'd beat. I felt like a Salmon who had awoken from a spawning dream to realize he was still in the ocean.
In my first three months in Nashville I've made more friends than money. The good news is I've made some really great friends. Musicians who've been here a while already have their social circles and so new people tend to gravitate together and create their own cliques. The other newbies and I look out for each other because when it comes to getting work we're all in the same boat.
One of the friends I've made is a newbie named Glenn. He was the drummer for Eddie Money for years. I used to watch him in on Mtv when I was growing up. Now he's in Nashville plugging away like I am, hoping to bring his family out when things get better. Glenn and I try to keep our heads up with self deprecating humor. A typical conversation might go something like:
1: "I was wondering if you could squeeze me in for lunch next week. What's your schedule look like?"
2: "Oh. Let me check. Ya, my schedule next week looks like... ah... looks like a snowdrift! How about yours?"
1: "Well, let's see. The only thing on my calendar are two concerned eyes. Oh wait. That's my reflection."
2: "Perfect. I can do Monday or Tuesday, or anytime Wednesday through Friday, or we could wait until the week end, which is free as well."
1: "Let's do Monday. I'll call if I get a master session or something."
2: "Ok. I'll call if I get the Keith Urban gig."
The other day, after having exhausted the stores of humor we use to protect ourselves, we were standing around, arms crossed, staring at the floor. I said "Glenn, I've made $62 since I've been here." He said "Ya, buddy. I've made $75." We didn't talk for a while and then I said "Man I wish I pulled down your kind of bread." And we started laughing again. And then we laughed until tears came out, like it was the funniest thing we'd ever heard.