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.
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!”
Alabama native Reggie Smith more or less ambled into his gig with popular singer/songwriter Lee Brice. In fact, their first encounter was so low-key that Smith didn’t even know who Brice was when they met.
Reggie Smith performs with Lee Brice. “I’d gotten this call to play with Lee in Fort Wayne, Indiana, opening up for Luke Bryan in a park for maybe 2,000 people,” he remembers. “I was feeling very out of place, standing next to this little RV trailer that they’d provided. Then this guy comes up with his hat down low and his sunglasses on, with a bottle of Jack Daniels. He looked a little lost too. We were just standing there until I put two and two together and said, ‘Are you Lee?’ He said, ‘Yeah, man!’ I said, ‘Hey, I’m Reg. I’m playing keys with you today.’ And he said, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool! Come on, let’s do a shot!’”
More than eight years and many rounds of Jack have passed since that day that Smith became a member of Lee Brice and the Love Cannons. Much time had already elapsed since he had moved up to Nashville from Birmingham, where he’d been playing country music since age 13. He started off backing aspiring young artists on showcases. “They had limited cash, which I was happy to take,” Smith recalls. “I didn’t know much about pop country until then because I’d mainly been listening to Roger Miller or the Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson). To me, the Band—Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson—was pretty country. The pop stuff wasn’t on my radar until my early 20s.”
With Brice, Smith combines elements of what he calls “pop country” and the singer/songwriter focus of the more outside country he grew up with. “There was a little more democracy with rock bands,” he points out. “With Lee, his name is up there and we are at the service of his songs—and that’s fine. My favorite keyboard players serve the song. And I love being a texture player. I love really good songs. I love being dynamic and subtle in a way that maybe nobody notices unless you’re suddenly not in the mix.”
From behind his vintage B-3 and Yamaha S90, Smith pursues that same mission by watching Brice closely during each show. “I’m dead-even downstage with Lee,” he notes. “He’s in my line of sight at all times; he has to be because he can go off the chart a little bit. There are several points in ‘I Drive Your Truck’ where I can tell when he’s got that adrenalin pumping and he’s going to go up that ladder. That affects the way I play because even in a split second he’ll do this vocal thing that I have to follow.
“You’ve got to pay attention,” he sums up. “Pay attention to your drawbars. Always think texturally. Think dynamically. Listen to the players around you; that’s especially important for keyboard players. The guitar player is always going to be …” Smith strikes a heroic guitar-hero stance, then lets it go and laughs. “But that’s how rock music is built. And pop country is built that way, too, these days. What can you do? That’s just the way it is.”
Like Reggie Smith, Jeffrey Harper hails from Birmingham, Alabama. The difference between them was that Harper was pretty much oblivious to country music as he was growing up.
Scotty McCreery's keyboardist and bandleader is Jeffrey Harper. “My parents raised me on the Beatles,” he says. “But for years all I played was classical piano; Chopin for the romantic, Beethoven obviously for the classical and my favorite of all time is probably Debussy. When I sit down at my grand piano at home, that’s still mainly what I play.”
Yes, but one cannot move to Nashville without at least getting one’s feet wet in the country current. Harper was a quick learner: He enrolled at Belmont as a piano major, then switched to commercial guitar shortly after that. (In Belmont-speak, “commercial guitar” means primarily jazz with a bit of rock and country. Sheridan’s Belmont degree is in “commercial music.”)
As a utility player and adept networker, Harper developed connections through playing wedding gigs throughout college and at Tootsies Orchid Lounge, Legends Corner and all the fabled honkytonks of Nashville’s Lower Broadway. Many of country’s best musicians and performers learned the ropes on late-night gigs there—as vital a curriculum as Belmont’s “commercial” courses.
“I can’t say enough about playing on Lower Broad,” Harper says. “It keeps your chops up when you’re playing four hours a night. Someone will get up onstage and you have to go off what you hear, listening to the changes. They’ll start a song and I’ll say, ‘What key? Are we doing the Broadway ending?’ Like if you’re doing ‘Don’t Stop Believing,’ you have the a cappella vocal at the end and a V-I.”
People there steered him into gigs on keyboards and guitar with Love and Theft, Katie Armiger, and Justin Moore, each one a hot up-and-coming act. His big score came through his best friend at Belmont, Matt Reviere, who had just been hired to play drums and lead the band with American Idol winner Scotty McCreery. After a while, Reviere left to work with The Band Perry and Harper got the nod to take over as bandleader.
“With Scotty I play organ on a couple of songs but for the most part it’s just piano,” Harper says, who finds the bright edge of his Yamaha S90 piano sound ideal for country and his Yamaha MOTIF perfect for organ parts. “I might have an occasional synth pad underneath, but with just some good old bright piano, you can’t go wrong as long as you keep it simple. You can’t go wrong playing exactly what’s on the record. I listen constantly to what the other guys are playing to make sure I stay out of their range. If the bass is walking real low, I’m not going to do low stuff on the keys.”
Unlike many young country artists, McCreery pays tribute to his forebears by including a medley of classic tunes in his set: Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and Alabama’s “Mountain Music.” For these tunes, Harper honors McCreery’s intentions by altering his approach. “With the classic stuff, there are more open fifths,” he explains. “They weren’t afraid to land on a triad, whereas on the pop stuff there are more extensions; lots of ninths. So I’ll go back a little more to the roots.”
Milwaukee-born Lee Turner came to Nashville 19 years ago. Less than three weeks after his arrival, through hanging out at CD release parties, he met and was hired to play with Asylum Records artist Kevin Sharp. That led to stints with Jennifer Hanson, Ty Herndon, Wade Hayes, and The Kinleys, followed by a five-year run in the house band for Nashville Star on the USA and NBC networks, which in turn paved the way to working with Big & Rich, Cowboy Troy, Jewel, Alabama’s Randy Owen, Hank Williams Jr., Wynonna …
Lee Turner onstage with Darius Rucker. “I just networked,” he explains, matter-of-factly. But there was more to it than that. Research was a critical factor in preparing to leave Milwaukee. “I grew up reading Keyboard. I was huge into Howard Jones and Richard Marx and Paul Shaffer. There was a lot of synth stuff going on back then. But as I started looking into country music, I realized it’s organ and piano, at least for playing live, with a little bit of Wurlitzer and maybe a string pad. That’s all you need to cover your bases. It’s all about organic sound.”
So Turner chiseled his approach down to the basics in part by sitting in at blues jams that were happening at the time around town. Picking up work with big-time artists, he kept his focus tight, eventually putting together a rig that centered on a Yamaha MOTIF and a Nord Stage 2 for piano, Wurlitzer and string sounds. This was the heart of his arsenal when a friend who was organizing auditions for Darius Rucker’s band tipped Turner off.
Here, for once, the value of knowing and networking with people didn’t cut any ice for Turner. “Management was there and they didn’t know who I was,” he says. “They didn’t care who I was. It was only, ‘How does this guy play? How does he fit in?’”
Not only did he get the gig, but Turner was also offered an unexpected perk. “Jason Parkin, who we call ‘db,’ Darius’s production manager, asked if I would mind using Hootie’s B-3 and Leslie. Would I mind?” he answered rhetorically, with a laugh. “I have a B-3 at home but I wouldn’t take it on the road because it’s so valuable and I didn’t want to scratch it up. So this was amazing.”
More bounty followed. “A year ago, db says to me, ‘What can we do to make your keyboard rig bigger?’ That’s the rock ’n’ roll mentality: It’s going to make the show better, so if it costs a couple more bucks, that’s fine. So we went to Murph Wanca, who owns Nashville Pro Hammond, and asked him to put a Wurlitzer together for the road. Now I travel with a B-3, a Wurlitzer, and the Nord Stage 2. The Nord Wurlitzer sound is great, but the real Wurlitzer sound is better, plus there’s a great feel to the keyboard. One of Darius’s big singles, ‘It Won’t Be Like This for Long,’ has a lot of Wurlitzer, so having the real thing is so much fun. Fun is important. The first time we went out, Darius said, ‘Enjoy your job. If you’re not happy out here, you can go home.’ And I haven’t gone home yet.”