Changing the Guard on Music Row
Douglas McPherson meets one of the new breed of Nashville session cat who returns to the UK this month.
Pat Buchanan has played guitar on records by Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, The Dixie Chicks, Travis Tritt, Mary Chapin Carpenter… the list of top recording artists goes on. But it took a meeting with Paul McCartney to make this likeable session cat go all starstruck.
“I came over (to the UK) with Kevin Montgomery and the rhythm section from The Mavericks”, gushes the dedicated anglophile and curry fiend. “Kevin’s father (Bob Montgomery) wrote songs and grew up with Buddy Holly, and Paul McCartney has Buddy’s publishing, so we got to go to the Buddy Holly party and I played Not Fade Away for Sir Paul.
“It was wild. I looked up from the first solo and I got eye contact and thumbs in the air. I read his lips and he was like, ‘Right on!’. Afterwards, he was congratulating everyone in the band. I was kinda last to walk up. He grabbed me by the cheeks and said, ‘You, mate, are a f***ing genius!’”
Pat shakes his head at the memory. “It’s always great when you meet one of your idols but that’s pretty much top of the list. Seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show was the reason I became a musician.”
Not listening to Hank Williams, Buck Owens or George Jones, you’ll note. Times are changing in Nashville and Buchanan is a fully paid-up member of the New Order. If you’re looking for the source of the pop influence in modern country music, you only have to look at the CVs of people like Pat.
Back in 1986 you might have seen Pat on Top Of The Pops when his band of the time, Cameo, was at #13 in the UK charts with Word Up. After Cameo, Buchanan toured the world playing guitar with pop acts Hall & Oates and Cyndi Lauper before eventually putting his roots down in Nashville. And while he spends his days putting licks on country records, Buchanan is also a major player on Nashville’s power pop scene. He has played on albums by Marshall Crenshaw and Swan Dive (whom he describes as “equal parts Beatles and Burt Bacharach”) and it was during a UK tour with his own Beatles-influenced guitar band Idle Jets and CMP caught up with him.
Some would suggest that people like Buchanan and fellow Idle Jet Greg Morrow – who had to miss the tour to play on a Billy Gilman session – don’t leave their pop sensibilities at the door when they turn up to play on a country record. Buchanan offers no argument.
“Some of the old formulas are just not holding up anymore. So it’s the new guys who really learned outside the box, if you will, the guys who can play anything, who are the new guard. Country music sometimes seems a bit behind the times. I’ve been in Nashville about six years and I feel I moved there at the right time because it’s coming along to where a guy like me with a kind of rock and funk and r’n’b background can play on that stuff.”
Of today’s Nashville session scene and its connection to the town’s growing pop community, Pat observes, “It’s kinda wild because a lot of people have moved there from LA. The best musicians gravitate to the place where you can make the most money and be paid well for your craft. SO some of the best musicians are in Nashville. But the level of musicianship on any given record you play might not be anywhere near the potential of the musicians playing on it. Consequently, you go out almost any night of the week and hear great musicians playing in clubs and stuff.”
It’s not just the money that attracts musicians like Pat to Music City, however. It’s also the opportunity to interact with other players in a studio environment.
“It’s perhaps one of the last places where musicians are all playing together. A lot of pop records are made in layers. Drum machine, bass, guitars, one at a time. A typical Nashville session is kinda wacky. A lot of people show up and play together, sometimes as many as six or seven. There are a lot of sessions where people will get going and really feed off each other. The human element of that is what really makes great records that stand the test of time.”
Pat also enjoys the community spirit that characterises the Nashville music scene.
“One of the first times I went to Nashville I went to look up a bass player friend and Rodney Crowell was there. Rodney gave me a guitar and said. ‘Play this. This songs got three chords.’ So I sat in. I think that really sums it up. I don’t think there’s anywhere else like it.”
Given the small number of musicians that crop up on so many Nashville albums, you’d be forgiven for wondering how they find time to indulge in outside projects. Pat offers a laugh of agreement.
“When I first got to Nashville it posed the question: how often did God intend me to use this gift? There are three three-hour sessions a day. The joke goes: you play from ten till one, then you eat. You play from two till five, then you eat. You play from six till nine, then you drink! But one hand washes the other. Coming over here (to the UK) and being able to chill with my band helps me to go back and do the sessions. And there’s so much work in Nashville. I can take a break and know it’s not going anywhere!”
Originally from north Florida – what he called “Tom Petty, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers land” – Buchanan grew up in a musical family. His mother is a jazz singer. His dad played bass in a jazz band, and it was a shortage of good jazz drummer and guitarists that led Buchanan Sr to buy the infant Pat and his brother Christmas presents of a guitar and a snare drum.
“I guess I was a musician right out of the box. Music was very much spoken in my house.”
Making his first public appearance in front of his school assembly, the Tallahassie laddie progressed to bar band work before joining the already signed Cameo. His invitation into the somewhat closed shop of Nashville session work came from producer Ed Seay who is known for his work with such artists as Pam Tillis, Collin Raye, David Ball and Sherrie Austin.
“I was very lucky. I was playing in a band in Panama City, Florida. Ed came up to me in about 1980, gave me his card and said, ‘You’re a great player. If you’re ever in Nashville, look me up.’ ‘Course, I did, and I couldn’t get past the secretary on the front desk for about two years. But once I did he was true to his word. I talked to Ed when I was embarking on my touring career. I talked to him about once a year and he’d say ‘You’re gonna move up here one day.’ Finally, one day, he said, ‘You’re gonna move up here now! The time is now, before the line gets too long.’ So I went up and I sat in on, I think it was Pam Tillis’s second album. Suddenly everybody knew my name because Ed Seay had such a great E F Hutton factor. He opened some doors for me.”
How do the session cats get on with the stars?
“Everybody’s pretty cool. There are people who just sing their song while the musicians get their tracks down, who seem a bit detached. But then there’s people like The Dixie Chicks who are totally into calling all the shots. They’ll play on the go down. We’ll all hang out and tell jokes and just get loud together. They’re like rock chicks. They’ve been on the road forever and they know how to have fun – and they know if that gets into the music it’s gonna make it better. They’re band people, just like we are.”
Many of Nashville’s singers, of course, are these days coming from a similar pop background to the new wave of pickers.
“I worked with Mary Chapin Carpenter on her song Almost Home, and I found her to be very astute pop-wise. I was playing this riff and she went ‘Yeah, I like that Pretenders lick.’ And I went ‘oh-oh, she’s onto me!’ Then we started talking about XTC, which is one of my favourite bands, and she knew all about them. We kinda had this cool wavelength. We were talking about records that inspired us, and that inspired my performance on what I was doing on that day.”
With so many pop influences on the format, is there still a cutoff point where Nashville producers will say ‘Keep it country’? Buchanan frowns with distaste at the idea.
“I think the older formulas are kinda dying away. So if you try to keep the giant emergency brake on, it just sounds muzzled and held back. Because really it is. There’s been so much music where people have been performing below their potential. I don’t to that. It’s a strange kind of fear thing. People are afraid of country radio not playing their record. But, sooner or later, that’s all gonna die away. There are some producers who just hire the guys that do that more conservative thing, but I just don’t play that way.”
The only modern trend that Buchanan dislikes is the one towards kiddie country. We share a joke about an artist they call The Singing Sperm. Which brings us neatly to the times top pickers have to work with mundane singers and below par songs.
“That’s probably the hardest occupational hazard. There’s a lot of Zen work required. You just try to make it as good as it can be. You might suggest different arrangements or changes to help them be better if it’s within your jurisdiction. If not, you must hang out with your fellow musicians who know the deal, and you just get through it.”
Inexperienced songwriters can also be a pain.
“All the musicians have been making records for 20 years. But you do demos for songwriters and they think they know how to make records! At the risk of sounding egotistical, you kinda teach them right there on the job. ‘Well, you could try it this way…’ Yeah, there’s a lot of Zen work required!”
It’s at times like those that Pat can comfort himself by looking forward to a guitar thrash with the Idle Jets. On the whole, though, Buchanan is one happy session cat.
“It’s a great gig to be an eternal teenager and get paid for playing with your friends. You can’t beat that.”