A Conversation with Michael Rhodes
Puremusic: I notice that if I don't give myself some kind of a place to report to, a job to do, I just kind of lose my focus. You wake up and you've got sessions to do, half of your days, at least, or a lot of your days. On a regular workday, do you know what to expect?
Michael Rhodes: Well, it's one of those things that one never knows. One knows what the general prescribed scenario is supposed to be, but one doesn't know the details. I don't know what I'm going to face when I go in. I don't know what song I'm going to play -- typically, I don't know. I know who the artist is most of the time, but that's it. So it's an audible at the line of scrimmage. Keeps it fresh.
PM: Just yesterday you said you were with Phil Ramone. It was an AIDS song, you said?
MR: As I understand it, it's a theme song for an AIDS awareness campaign. To put a little muscle behind the campaign.
PM: How did what's become a big and steady career as a session musician begin, and how did it develop?
MR: When I was living in Austin, Texas, back in the 70s, I had a taste of some session work. And the recording environment was intriguing to me. It was more about the music and less about all the trappings of live performance. It was just more principled. All that mattered was the actual music. That's the challenge of it, the microcosmic environment. And it's a good avenue of self-discovery. We kid about this in the studio, but it's a good place to work, it's small. The irony that's contained in that, you know, is that the smaller you get, the bigger everything else gets, the bigger the possible awareness overall. The more egoless I can become in the studio, the greater the reward, ultimately. That's not to say that we don't sign the painting somewhere, but it's not the signature that people are interested in.
PM: Except the artist. The artist is interested.
MR: There's a thing we kid about with one particular producer: we say, "What are we here for today?" "Well..." and we all address the producer and say, "We're here to make you rich." Then we look at the artist, "We're here to make you famous." And then we'll look at ourselves, "We're here to keep working." [laughs] So it's a laughing acknowledgment of the hierarchy for session players.
PM: Yeah, it's multi-tiered. And a lot of days you're seeing the same guys, a lot of days of the week, right?
PM: So those early session experiences in Austin, were those with artists who became significant?
MR: No, they were more self-contained bands. But it was enough. It was like, "Okay, this is fine. I like this recording thing." You know, instead of bleeding out in a bar somewhere. And then I moved to Memphis and got a little bit more involved in similar recording. It was all custom stuff. Nobody noteworthy or to speak of. When I was in Memphis, it was in the mid 70s, and it was kind of dead there. About the only stuff that was being cut were bands. There were some good bands there, but I was doing, you know, custom gospel records and that kind of stuff. It was a very slow, humble beginning.
PM: Did you hang around Memphis long?
MR: No. I was there for about a year and a half. And then I moved back to Austin to be in another original band with some really good players. George Raines was playing drums, and Danny Rhodes followed me back down, we needed a guitar player. And Gary Brown, a sax player from New Orleans, he did a lot of Bee Gees stuff. He came over, too. It was promising, but it didn't pan out.
I had some friends in Nashville, this was in '77. So on a fluke I came up here, with no intention of ever moving here. But serendipitous as it may seem, I hooked up with some guys that I had met in Memphis. Jim Cotton, the engineer, for one. And he introduced me to a couple of people. And then I got involved with doing demos at Tree, which is now Sony/Tree.
It was a very active time. There were songwriters like Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam -- I mean, the really heavy hitters -- Harlan Howard and Sonny Throckmorton. A lot of really vital stuff was being cut at demo level, and the songs were great. So I became very intrigued with the art of the song. Because up to that point, I'd been more jam band oriented.
PM: The art of the band.
MR: Exactly. And so it was very intriguing to me. I've always been a song player, anyway. That was always more where I was at. The people I admire are more compositional than chop oriented. With bass players or music in general, I always listen to songwriters. My record collection consisted more of Randy Newman and Van Morrison than...
PM: Chick Corea.
MR: Yeah, that kind of stuff. So it was a good fit. One thing led to another, and then all of a sudden, I moved up to Nashville. And then it just sort of built on itself, as it does. And God bless Jim Ed Norman's heart.
PM: There's always somebody at the start.
MR: Somebody. And Jim Ed allowed me in. The first guy, really, the guy I owe a lot to, who's no longer with us, is Don Ganz. He was the vice president of Tree at the time. And he was a song guy, man. And the second floor at Tree never closed. It was just very energetic for years. And it was a really closely knit family of songwriters.
PM: God, it's exciting just to hear about that. continue