Keeping It Real: The Role of Traditional Instruments in Modern Country

By Joseph Hudak with reporting by Ken Tucker

© 2011 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

Rascal Flatts, Taylor Swift, Shania Twain, Keith Urban — these are but four of many modern-day artists who have helped expand the boundaries of Country Music by enriching a pop sensibility with some well-placed instruments associated with more historical associations.

It’s the presence of these instruments — banjo, fiddle, mandolin and pedal steel guitar among them — that ensures the finished product, even with strong pop leanings, stays firmly planted in our genre.

Exactly when those stringed icons of traditional Country Music are added, however, is a critical question. Often, they can be heard at the song’s inception. But, as some of Nashville’s top session players and producers will allow, they can also be added to the mix after the fact in a conscious effort to keep it Country.

Multi-instrumentalist and singer Chris Rodriguez, an in-demand session player who toured for five years as Urban’s guitar and banjo player and is currently on the road with LeAnn Rimes, has witnessed that aftermarket approach firsthand.

“If there is an element that starts rocking and takes a song outside of Country, I notice that producers want to bring in one other element of traditional Country just to ground it,” he said, noting that he takes along his ganjo — a six-string banjo/guitar hybrid — to the studio for just such occasions. “It injects that traditional timbre into a modern Country/pop session.”

As the producer of many of contemporary Country’s most recognizable hits, Dann Huff has had hands-on experience with this practice. “Are there times when a song is barely hanging on by a thread as far as it being ‘Country’ and you kind of stick a flag on it with a steel guitar? Yeah, that happens,” Huff confirmed. “I’d love to say it’s never done or that I’ve never done it, but we all have. It’s been done in Country Music since the days of Chet Atkins, when they had to compete with the sound of the day. The idea is that you’re compelling people to listen to the music. It sounds like I’m trying to justify, but the truth is, it’s the music business, and yes, we do use instruments to paint within the paint box of Country Music.”

One of the primary colors in that paint box is the banjo. Consider Swift’s self-written “Love Story” or many of Urban’s recent radio staples, including “Better Life” and “Sweet Thing,” written by Urban with Richard Marx and Monty Powell, respectively. Urban himself brought the banjo into the spotlight at the top of the 2010 CMA Awards, joining hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood to perform “Songs Like This,” recorded by Underwood and written by Marty Dodson, Jerry Flowers and Tom Shapiro.

“Is it overused? Yes. But what isn’t in any form of music?” said Huff, who has overseen all of Urban’s albums since 2002. “The banjo has become the sequencer of Country Music. It has that throatiness and that percussive element, and you’re able to have a rhythmic, almost programmed approach. It’s not unlike a lot of the synth programming that they use in hip-hop.”

“It’s a way to add a percussive groove,” Rodriguez agreed. “That’s why the banjo has enjoyed a renaissance in modern Country. When you start adding that rhythmic element to a song, it starts percolating and is a way of getting both music and percussion in there all at the same time.”

That certainly was the instrument’s role in Urban’s “Somebody Like You,” written with John Shanks. With its rock drums and soaring chorus, the song’s structure is straight out of pop radio. But the presence of the ganjo, laying down the signature lick and driving it along, may be what ultimately defines the composition as Country. “The ganjo is how the song starts out, just that and a drum machine,” Huff recalled. “And I believe when Keith wrote it, he wrote it on a banjo.”

Urban may soon be adding another vintage instrument to his arsenal. Shortly before writing his recent single, “Put You in a Song,” with Sarah Buxton and Jedd Hughes, he had purchased a bouzouki. “It’s really the inspiration for the riff on that song,” Huff noted. When reminded that the instrument, essentially a Greek mandolin, isn’t technically in the Country family, the producer brushed that aside. “It’s a cousin to the mandolin and it’s certainly acceptable because it’s organic. The fiddle isn’t a Country instrument. It was a violin until someone called it a fiddle!”

Whatever its preferred name, the fiddle is integral to the sonics of Country, whether in classics such as Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” (written by Daniels, Tommy Crain, Joel “Taz” DiGregorio, Fred Edwards, Charlie Hayward and Jim Marshall) or in Zac Brown Band’s “As She’s Walking Away” (Brown and Wyatt Durrette) and other current fare.

“Real down-home Country fiddlin’ — the people still ask for that,” said Johnny Gimble. The Texas legend isn’t just fiddlin’ Dixie. He has rosined up the bow for some of Country Music’s finest, from Bob Wills and Merle Haggard to Willie Nelson and George Strait, and released his most recent album, Johnny Gimble: Celebrating with Friends, on CMH Records in 2010, produced by Ray Benson.

The instrument’s magic lies in its ability to instantly transform even a dance song into a Country tune — see Carrie Underwood’s “Cowboy Casanova,” written by Underwood, Mike Elizondo and Brett James, for instance. So just saw some strings and the song becomes Country?

Not necessarily. “A lot of times people throw fiddle and steel guitar in there to make sure it fits the format, like that’s going to make any song Country,” said producer Jay Joyce, whose recent albums include Sweet Home Alabama: The Country Music Tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd on Universal Music / Hip-O Records. “It just doesn’t.”

Still, if used the right way, or even better with some innovation, it may be enough to garner play on Country radio. As an example, Huff cites what producer Mutt Lange did with the fiddle when recording Shania Twain. “God bless him. He came into Country Music doing Shania’s records with his thought process and imagination. He was like, ‘Fiddles are great, but why not stack them?’” said Huff, recalling how Lange layered fiddle upon fiddle. “It’s a very obvious thing, but it took somebody from the outside to say, ‘Let’s use this like this.’”

Those very fiddles, however, were stripped from the alternate version of Twain’s 2002 hit “I’m Gonna Getcha Good,” written by Twain and Lange, tailored for pop radio airplay. In fact, Mercury Nashville released an entire remix of Twain’s album Up with the non-Country market in mind.

Not that there’s anything unusual in this approach. Huff and Rascal Flatts tinkered with the band’s power ballad, “What Hurts the Most,” written by Steve Robson and Jeffrey Steele, for similar reasons. “We remixed it after pop stations started playing it,” Huff explained. “They requested it. They said, ‘Our listeners don’t like steel guitars. Can you take that out?’ Anything people in the pop market deem ‘whiny,’ we’d have taken out. Banjo is a little foreign to the pop audience. But it’s easy to replace with something else. It’s funny, though, that the sound of an instrument would be off-putting to somebody.”

For Rodriguez, where traditional instruments are in the mix also depends on the role they play in the arrangement. “I couldn’t possibly think of a song like Keith’s ‘Somebody Like You’ with the ganjo mixed back,” he said. “That’s the main theme of the record. Same with ‘Who Wouldn’t Want to Be Me’ (by Monty Powell and Keith Urban). It’s the main riff of the song and it has to be front and center.”

Likewise for “Rain Is a Good Thing,” recorded by Luke Bryan, who co-wrote the tune with Dallas Davidson. “The fiddle is essential to both verse and chorus, which is what Bryan intended,” according to producer Jeff Stevens. “When I first saw Luke six years ago, his band had a fiddle in it, and it’s pretty hard to get a fiddle player when you’re out in No Man’s Land,” he said. “That was important to him and it was always important to me in my songs, my demos and things that I produce.”

That is exactly what makes Country Music so varied and vital, said Rodriguez — the differing views and techniques of each artist, producer or player. “There’s no one way to do it. That’s the beauty of it,” he mused. “There are a million approaches.”

“Nashville now is not the Nashville of our grandfathers,” Huff added. “There are writers from all around the world here on any given day, and there are writers from Nashville around the world on any given day. There have been massive hits in Country Music that have not even been written by Country writers. But they’re the kind of songs that people want to hear.”

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