Nashville session ace Kenny Greenberg on playing with 10 music legends
During country superstar Kenny Chesney's current Brothers Of The Sun tour (a co-headline extravaganza with fellow chart-topper Tim McGraw), concertgoers are treated to hit after hit after hit. But they're getting something else, too – a whole lot of rock guitar crunch, courtesy of ace axeman Kenny Greenberg, who joined Chesney's band in May.
"Putting rock 'n' roll guitar on country records has become sort of a trademark of mine," says Greenberg, a Cleveland native, raised on the music of Jimi Hendrix and the Allman Brothers Band, who moved to Nasvhille at the age of 21. "My first few years in town, I was playing on some records and doing some producing. But then one day a producer named Tony Brown, who was the head of MCA, told me, ‘You know, you should play rock guitar on some of our country records.' He got me on some stuff, and things exploded from there."
Since then, Greenberg, who was recently named Guitarist Of The Year by the Academy Of Country Music, has racked up hundreds of sessions and established himself as one of Nashville's first-call players. The list of names on Greenberg's CV is fairly mind-boggling, but we cherry-picked an even 10 to ask him about.
"The acclaim and everything that comes with doing what I do is fantastic," says Greenberg. "But the best things are the relationships and the learning experiences. If you're lucky enough to sit in the studio with great artists, something's bound to rub off on you. You just have to keep your eyes and ears open."
“This guy named Wally Wilson, who’s now a record executive, was my songwriting mentor. We were in a band together that nobody ever heard of, The King Snakes, and one day he said to me, ‘Kenny, I’ve got a friend who knows Joan Baez. You and I are going to get on a plane, we’re going to go meet her, and by God, we’re going to talk her into letting us record her record.’ And, of course, I said, ‘What?!’ [laughs] The whole thing sounded crazy.
“So we flew to San Francisco, went to Joan Baez’s house, and he talked her into letting us make records with her. He’s just that kind of a guy.
“It was fucking unbelievable! Joan had the best stories of anybody I’ve heard. I did two records with her, and at one point I even got to play on stage with her. It was the Newport Folk Festival, and it just so happened to be a tribute show to her. Her usual guitar player couldn’t make it, so I did the gig. Talk about incredible. She’s an icon, somebody who’s really made an important mark on society.”
Brooks & Dunn
“I played on Kix Brooks’ solo record, before he was even in Brooks & Dunn, and that was kind of a pivotal moment for me. But when Brooks & Dunn formed and I started playing on their albums, things really started happening. Working with them really put me on the map as a country session guy.
There’s a couple of songs of theirs, Ain’t Nothing ‘bout You and Only In America, that were very big for me – Ain’t Nothing ‘bout You, in particular, because it’s got a real rock ‘n’ roll rhythm guitar thing going on. The rock guitar was prominently featured.
The song Red Dirt Road is another really cool one for me because I played slide on that. The whole Brooks & Dunn era really did wonders for my career. They’re great guys, great friends of mine – totally amazing people.”
"The thing about Kenny Chesney is, he knows exactly who his audience is, and he knows how his songs should go. When you go into the studio with an artist, there’s always varying degrees of how involved he or she is going to be. With Kenny, he’s involved as much as is humanly possible. You can count on it.
“He picks really great songs, and he writes really great songs – right there, that makes it a lot easier for me. A guitarist always wants to play on something amazing – it's inspiring. You sit down with Kenny and he’ll tell you what he wants. He might not describe it note-for-note, but he’ll give you the feeling of what he’s looking for. And you know that if he stops you, if he says, ‘No, that’s not it,’ he’ll always be right. He's totally tuned in to his audience. It’s weird.
“A great guy. Unpretentious, no bullshit – the real deal. And we’ve become friends. I can’t say enough about the guy.”
“I just played on a couple of songs for her new record. Sheryl is such an all-around talent. She's a record producer, no doubt about it. She knows her way around a studio, she knows about all about guitars, and has a great understanding of amplifiers and gear.
“What’s funny is, she was talking about this being her ‘Nashville record' – that's kind of how she's viewing it in the marketplace. Somebody in the studio said to her – and I think this was a great observation – ‘You know, Sheryl, here in Nashville we’ve been trying to make Sheryl Crow records for the last 15 years!’ [laughs] She got a big kick out of that.
“But it’s true. We’re all trying to get those sounds on My Favorite Mistake. I can’t tell you how many sessions I’ve been on where somebody brought that song up as a reference. Or Every Day Is a Winding Road – what a sound on that one, too.
“Her new stuff is classic Sheryl Crow. She’s very comfortable with who she is, and writes great songs. I was totally honored to be asked to be part of what she’s doing.”
“Amazing! An amazing experience. What’s strange is, I played on her album Seven Year Itch, and then on her follow-up, Stickin’ To My Guns, she recorded one of my songs, Cry Like A Rainy Day, but I didn’t play on that.
“Working with Etta James was definitely a highlight for me. She was getting on in years by the time I worked with her, and of course she had a history of drug addiction. But when you sat and talked with her, all of that stuff just disappeared. She was the nicest person in the world. Smart, too. I think she was a very smart lady with a lot of demons.
“Barry Beckett was the producer on the records, and he was a huge influence on me. He influenced anybody who was ever in the studio with him. He was a Muscle Shoals guy, so working with him was very educational.
“And Steve Cropper, too! Oh, man, I was scared to death. This was before I really broke into the scene, and there I am with Steve Cropper. What do they need me for, you know?”
“He’s extremely knowledgeable about the history of music. I’ll be in the studio with him, and he can name you every song – who wrote it, produced, he’ll quote you lyrics. It doesn’t matter if it’s Roger Miller, Hoyt Axton, Willie Nelson, David Allen Coe – you name it, he knows it. So I said to him one day, ‘Toby, you love all those songs, you should do some of them.’ So we formed a band and booked a gig in New York. He didn’t want to use his own name, though, so called it The Incognito Banditos.
“We recorded ourselves. On his last couple of albums, there’s some extra songs, which is us as the Incognito Banditos. I got to be the producer on those songs.
“I’ve played on Toby’s records for the last 10 years. He’s a sharp guy. He’s the record label, the songwriter, the artist, but in every respect he’s exactly the way he seems – laid-back and easygoing. But the important thing is, his songs are great, which makes it extremely easy for me.”
“My favorite thing about recording about Willie Nelson actually happened on my birthday. I remember it was a Sunday and they couldn’t get everybody to come in to work, but I went in and we recorded a version of Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody.
“I remember sitting across from Willie – he was in a booth with his old Baldwin amp, and I was out on the floor – and we were just trading licks on guitar. There I am, it’s my birthday, I’m playing Gotta Serve Somebody with Willie Nelson, and I just thought… It don’t get any better than this!” [laughs]
“I think I played on eight tracks or nine tracks on the Tuskegee record, and let me tell you, it was an incredible experience. And the best thing was watching just watching Lionel Richie sing. Everything he did was so effortless.
"There were all of these guest stars on the album – Kenny Chesney, Willie Nelson, all of these big artists – and of course, everybody was there to sing a different song with Lionel. He would come in, tell everybody what he wanted, and while we were playing, he’d go to the mic and sing… and he sounded just like he did 30 years ago! I couldn’t believe it.
“A natural singer, and just the nicest guy in the world.”
“I've done two records and a tour with Bob Seger, and I can honestly say, learned a lot about playing rock 'n' roll guitar from him.
“He’s a super upbeat guy who likes to laugh. What I didn’t know at first was, on a lot of his records, he either came up with the guitar parts or he played them. When I recorded with him, it was the same thing. I’d play something and he’d go, ‘Yeah, I like that, but… ‘ and then he’d take the guitar and play something incredible. He’s got great ideas. He’s real garage band raw. If I played something too sophisticated, he’d be like, ‘Naw, that needs to be more angry.’ He’ll sit there and play you this real Detroit rock, gritty and dirty stuff. You just watch him and go, ‘Man, I can’t believe what I’m hearing.’
He’s similar to Chesney in the way that he really knows how he wants his songs to sound. Such an ear and instinct. The song That Strut – he played all those parts in the studio. So when we rehearsed it for a tour, he took my guitar and said, ‘No, here’s how we did it when I recorded it.’ I’m standing there thinking, ‘Wow, I’m watching Bob Seger show me how to play the guitar.’
“He’s super-nice about it... but he’s always right.”
“She’s one of the best singers in country music. She recorded one of my songs called Bring Me All Your Lovin’, and I got to play on it. That was one of my first songs. Being in the studio and playing the guitar, and listening to Tricia Yearwood on my headphones singing a song that I wrote – that was pretty cool!"