Music City Keys

February 17, 2016

Keyboards and country music—they go together like steel guitars and Dream Theater, right? Actually, keys have become essential. Like rhinestone suits and billowy blonde bouffants, pedal steel, fiddle, and banjo are no longer mandatory in modern country. They’re still front-and-center at the venerable Grand Ole Opry and in display cases at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. But if you’re a young country star on the rise, you’d better have someone rockin’ organ and piano in your band.

True, they’re not hogging the spotlight. Just as in rock ‘n’ roll, the guitar players get to mince around in the spotlight while the keyboard guy labors in the background. Still, if you’re looking for opportunities to tour with some of the top acts in music today, you might want to consider checking out Nashville. After all, Rolling Stone did anoint it a few years ago as the most happening music scene in America.

All it takes is talent, a willingness to travel, a little luck, a knack for networking, a relatively simple setup, and hopefully some decent skills on other instruments and backup vocals. It doesn’t hurt if you look good with a baseball cap spun backwards on your head, too.

That’s more or less how these four road warriors—Andy Sheridan, Reggie Smith, Jeffrey Harper, and Lee Turner—made their break. Their stories could be yours, too, by the time the next CMA Music Festival kicks off in Music City.

ANDY SHERIDAN

Most auditions in Nashville take place in rehearsal rooms. When Hunter Hayes invited Andy Sheridan to try out for his band, he had something a little bigger in mind.

Andy Sheridan plays keyboards with Hunter Hayes.
“My audition involved playing with Hunter and Stevie Wonder live on the ACM [Academy of Country Music] Awards, in front of millions watching on TV,” Sheridan recalls. “In other words … no pressure!”

That wasn’t the only intimidating factor. Hayes is known in country music as a wizardly multi-instrumentalist. “That was part of Hunter’s initial claim to fame: He played everything on his [2011 eponymous] debut record,” Sheridan says. “But on the other hand, during that first year when we were playing off of that record, if I had any questions I could just ask the guy that played everything on it. That definitely helped me.”

Sheridan had some advantages of his own when he moved from Washington Courthouse—“a little cornfield town in southern Ohio,” he calls it—to begin his studies at Nashville’s Belmont University, a wellspring of both musical and executive talent for the country music industry. First of all, he was fully equipped as a player: His father was a classical organist and his mother taught piano. She gave him his first lesson shortly after he turned 3. Then, while he was still at Belmont, Phil Vassar recruited him for his band. Vassar is that rarest of rare birds in Music City—a celebrated singer, songwriter, and entertainer who also happens to play tons of piano, on record and onstage. “Other than playing around at Belmont and a little bit in town, I’d had no experience with country/pop playing,” Sheridan recalls. “But Phil threw me right into that mix. He’s a monster player and I learned a lot from him.”

As much as he picked up from Vassar, the Hayes gig equally values his ability to double on guitar and to sing harmony parts—in local parlance, to function as a “utility player.” “I guess that’s really how I got my position,” says Sheridan, who serves as Hayes’ music director. “Every keyboard guy I know in the country world plays at least one other instrument or sings. A friend told me when I moved here to stick all my irons into the fire. Whichever ones get hot first, pull them out and run with them. It was actually cool to not have to become the best keyboard player or B-3 player but to be as well-rounded and versatile as possible. The more you know here, the more opportunities will present themselves.”

When he does man his Nord C2D, Nord Stage and Korg Kronos, Sheridan remembers that his mission is not to show off but to make each song work. “Hunter’s songs have so many electric guitar parts, acoustic parts, mandolin parts. I’m not necessarily trying to cover them exactly, but maybe I can take the same space a chunky rhythm guitar would have and give it a little bounce. Or I’ll double certain parts with a piano, synth or B-3 line. But there are plenty of times in the show where Hunter lets us jam and go for it. As long as the boss is happy with that, so am I!”

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