Matt Rollings never planned on an A-list career in the Nashville music scene, but he was certainly ready when it came calling.
“I’m not from Nashville, but I spent 20 years there from’86 until 2006,” the now Los Angeles-based multi-instrumentalist, composer, and producer says. In his quarter-century plus atop the pop and country music charts, Rollings has produced, toured, and recorded with a veritable hall of fame of musical legends. Artists like Lyle Lovett, Johnny Cash, Kenny Rogers, Billy Joel, Trisha Yearwood, Bob Seger, Randy Travis, Mark Knopfler, Neil Diamond, Tim McGraw, and countless others continue to call on him to inject his singularly sinewy keyboard sound into their live and recorded work.
A CONNECTICUT YANKEE
Long known as a Nashville session ace, Rollings actually hails from the East Coast. His two-decade ride atop the very pinnacle of country music would follow a circuitous and sometimes accidental path.
“I’m from Connecticut and lived there as a kid,” Rollings says. “We moved to Chicago when I was nine, and my parents found a piano teacher in Evanston, Illinois, named Alan Swain, a well-known jazz pianist with a teaching studio. I really lucked out studying there, because his teachers had a philosophy of turning young people on to music. They taught the rudiments — hand position, sight reading, and technique — you had to learn how to play the instrument. But as soon as you did, they introduced you to an entire library of popular music and blues songs.
It was a very jazz-geared philosophy, and within my first year there, I was playing these little blues tunes, and learning how to play walking bass in my left hand. In hindsight, their approach was brilliant — it did indeed turn me on to music.”
Rollings would move with his family to Phoenix, Arizona, in 1979, enrolling in a musically-progressive private high school with a top-tier jazz band.
“Up until that point, there’d been no opportunity for me to participate in music in school,” he recalls. “My past schools basically had just concert and marching bands. But I lucked out going to Phoenix Country Day School, where a guy named Les Felton, Jr. ran the music program. He had a little jazz band, and I ended up bringing my Fender Rhodes from home to play in it. Les was really into teaching and promoting jazz to his students — he took us to all the festivals, where we would play across the country. I also went to a summer camp called ISOMATA [Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts] where I spent two summers immersed in arranging and performing. So by 16 or 17 years old, I knew this was what I was gonna do.”
THE GIG THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING
During the summer of his junior year in high school, Rollings got a gig that set him on his way.
“I had gotten a call from a bass player for a gig in Phoenix,” he said. “It was five nights a week with a house band in a local club called Mr. Lucky’s. But what he neglected to tell me was that the club was the biggest honky-tonk in Phoenix, and the band was a rocking, country band. It was a massive complex with two huge rock and country clubs in it. I had never played country music in my life! I went down to the audition looking like a preppy kid from private school, wearing jeans and Docksiders!” [Laughs.]
“The band was called J. David Sloan and the Rogues, and they’d lost their piano player,” Rollings continues. “I auditioned for them and got the gig. That was the beginning of this whole chapter for me. It was an incredible band, where we’d learn two songs a week of whatever was hot on the country charts. How we’d learn these songs was that we’d sit down and listen to them, and write number charts.” Rollings is referring to the vaunted Nashville numbering system, where chords are called out by their scale degree instead of their lettered names — for example, if a song is in C and the verse progression is C, Am, F, G, the chart reads “1, 6-, 4, 5.” The same chart can thus apply to any key, which is useful when working with different singers. “That’s how sessions are run in Nashville, and I spent two years doing just that.”
LUXEMBOURG AND LOVETT
“In the middle of my run with the band, we got called to do a whacky gig in the country of Luxembourg for a summer music festival,” Rollings says. “So we went there for a month as one of three acts on the bill.
One of the other acts along with us was a guy from Texas who was just playing solo. It was Lyle Lovett. He was just out of journalism school at Texas A&M, and was over there playing solo between us and another loud, electric band. So to compensate for the sheer drop in decibel levels when he went onstage, he approached us about a week into the run and asked if we’d accompany him on a handful of his songs. We learned a bunch of them — songs that eventually wound up on his first album. When the gig ended, Lyle actually came to Phoenix with us and recorded 18 tracks with the band, paying for the sessions out of his own pocket.”
“Later that year, I moved to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music,” Rollings continues. “I was convinced I was going to be a jazzer. A year into my studies there, I got a call from Lyle, telling me that he got a publishing and record deal, and that they were going to use some of the original sessions we had recorded for the album. Lyle wanted me to play real piano on some of the tracks I’d played Fender Rhodes on. So I went to Nashville, and met Tony Brown, who was co-producing the record along with Billy Williams. Meeting Tony, who is arguably the most successful producer in country music for the last 20 years, changed the whole game for me. He’s a champion of musicians, and heard something in my playing that he liked. He started calling me to do development demos for him. And that’s the point when I realized that being a session player in Nashville was something I needed to do. So I moved there in ’86, and it’s been an amazing ride ever since.”
THE BOOM YEARS
Rollings’ reign supreme as one of Nashville’s most in-demand session players began almost immediately after he arrived in the storied city.
“It took about a year,” he recounts, “but I showed up right at the beginning of the boom years. The end of the ’80s and all through the ’90s were the absolute gold rush of Nashville session work. My timing couldn’t have been better. I started working for a guy named Jimmy Bowen, who at the time was president of MCA Records. Jimmy had at one time been in Los Angeles, and had produced Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. He was the first guy that said, ‘Matt, I’m gonna start paying you double scale.’ So from that point forward, I was not only working constantly, but I had that kind of seal of approval as someone paid above the normal scale for the work they did. For that period of time, I had more work than two of me could do! Periodically I would go on tour with Lyle, or Larry Carlton, or later [famed Dire Straits guitarist] Mark Knopfler. But I made a conscious decision to not just take any gig that came my way. I can’t play the same thing every night, or I’ll start turning into a typist. So I chose my touring projects carefully. But as far as records go, I think I’ve played on 600 of them — maybe even more.”
PROTÉGÉ AS PRODUCER
Rollings, now based in Los Angeles, is busy as ever these days, playing, producing, and composing for films. After decades entrenched in the Nashville scene, Rollings is making a name for himself out West.
“One of the things I started doing in the late ’90s was producing records,” he says. “I had a bit of success, co-producing [with Kenny Greenberg] Edwin McCain’s Misguided Roses, with the hit “I’ll Be” on it. I also produced Keith Urban’s first album as well. But it was difficult to break out of my role as a Nashville session player. At the same time, I got the spark to compose for films, so it was a natural progression to move to Los Angeles, where all this work is really done. I realized that the two things that were keeping me in Nashville were comfort and fear. And so within 48 hours of thinking about the idea of moving, I had made up my mind to do it.”
Rollings waxes practical when asked for advice for the next generation of aspiring musical greats:
“When I came up, the way that you got into a career in music was that you learned how to play music. A huge part of my education was playing with people who were older and better than me. So any chance you can get to play music where you’re terrified, and you’re the worst guy in the room — take it! You have to look for those situations. Because nobody gets better sitting in their room, recording themselves for YouTube. You have to learn how to play with other people.”
For his tours with Mark Knopfler, Matt Rollings uses a Yamaha acoustic grand piano and a Motif ES8, along with a Hammond B-3 organ and a Baldoni Combo I Accordion. His Los Angeles, California, recording studio is based around the following.
· Main controller: Yamaha Motif XS8.
· DAW 1: Apple Logic Pro 9 on eight-core Mac Pro.
· DAW 2: Digidesign Pro Tools 8 on quad-core Mac Pro.
· PC: GigaStudio 4 on two custom PCs.
· Soft synths: Spectrasonics Stylus RMX and Omnisphere, Quantum Leap Stormdrum and Gypsy, NI Kontakt 4 and Komplete 6, ProjectSAM TrueStrike and Symphobia, Synthogy Ivory, Sonic Implants Orchestra, Vienna Symphonic Library, Garritan Orchestra, Gforce MTron, Ilio Origins.
· Keyboards: Kawai RX7 grand piano, Hammond B-3, Fender Rhodes Suitcase 73, Wurlitzer 200A, Minimoog, Roland Juno-60, Sequential Circuits Prophet-T8, Harmonium, Farfisa Mini Compact organ, Vox Continental organ, Hohner Melodica.