20th February 2016 Matt Cowley

Laying down my Roots …

Hello!  I’m writing this in-between gigs while on a UK tour that is a Roots musicians dream … the gig celebrates the music of Johnny Cash and June Carter and is a great opportunity to lay down a whole selection train beats, rockabilly grooves and of course, some fine country shuffles!  I’m playing my usual basic 4 piece drum set and my cymbal selection for this tour was a  no brainer – my trusty 22″ 50’s Nostalgia ride, 20″ 70’s Nostalgia ride and my old faithful 15″ Nostalgia Hi Hats.  These cymbals give me all the vintage warmth and control I need alongside a full dynamic range, from playing brushes on a June Carter ballad to crashing my way through the chorus of Ring of Fire!

It’s all about feel …

I keep using the term ‘Roots’ music and this gig got me thinking that I should probably explain a little of what I mean by that.  I’m using the term to broadly refer to the varying musical styles that form the bedrock or seeds if you will, of just about all popular music we hear today.  I’m talking about the earliest forms of Rock & Roll, Rhythm & Blues, Blues, Country, various forms of New Orleans music … you get the idea!  I’ve always been fascinated by the sound on early Blues, R&B and Rock & Roll records and I love the grooves played by the drummers on them.  It’s probably fair to say that I have been trying, both unconsciously and consciously, to incorporate and adapt what I have learned and am still learning from those records into my own playing, ever since I could hold a pair of sticks … I hope I have succeeded at least a few times!  One of the things that fascinates me most is the feel achieved on those recordings – the feel of certain grooves, the feel of certain records, the feel of certain bands or rhythm sections and the feel of certain drummers; it’s as much about the space between the notes as it is about the notes that are played.  It’s all there in the not-quite-straight-not-quite-swung feel of Earl Palmer (perfectly described by Stanton Moore as ‘playing between the cracks’) or when you find the swing fighting the straight, adding some roll to the rock … all part of the DNA of modern rock & pop music.  Check out how Freddy Below plays a swing behind Chuck Berry’s straight chugging chords on Sweet Little Sixteen , or how New Orleans great George Recile plays ‘between the cracks’ on Bob Dylan’s Thunder On The Mountain & you’ll see what I mean …

Train Keeps a Rollin’ …

Playing Johnny Cash’s catalogue on this tour covers quite a lot of ground in roots grooves.  His original rhythm section was just guitar and double bass and in the absence of a drummer, Cash was known to slide a sheet of folded paper in-between his guitar strings to give a snare drum effect instead of strumming open chords – check out the train beat he creates this way on I Walk The Line  from 1955!  By 1959, W.S. ‘Fluke’ Holland had joined the band on drums and remained right up to Johnny Cash’s death in 2003.  Playing Fluke’s parts comes with a challenge in that he has a very distinctive style dictated by his unorthodox set up.  He plays open handed, leading with the right hand on a kit that is set up left handed leading with his left foot … still with me?!  I haven’t taken it this far and am sticking with my regular set up but I am attempting to play with the appropriate feel and vocabulary!  There is loads of footage of Fluke playing his unique set up with Johnny Cash on YouTube – some of the best clips are from TV shows in the 60’s and definitely worth checking out!

Some of my favourite parts of the set to play are the songs about trains … of which there seem to be many!  Fluke was a master at playing train beats and I’m really enjoying playing around with variations based on his own takes.  Instead of thinking of a train beat as a hand to hand groove played on the snare drum, I get to play it with tight hats and cross stick on John Henry’s Hammer, as fast 16ths on closed hats on Wreck of the Old 97, as straight paradiddles on Tribute To Luther Perkins and as inverted paradiddles on snare on the classic Jackson .. all great fun and something to try out if you ever find yourself asked to drive the train on a country gig!

Going Up The Country ..

I also get to use the classic country groove that is attributed to Buddy Harman on a couple of songs in the set; using a brush to play a straight 8ths ostinato on the snare with a cross-stick backbeat.  For those who don’t know, Buddy was a Nashville session ace who employed this groove on countless recordings.  You can hear Steve Jordan use it to great effect on Robbed Blind on the last Keith Richards album too …

I used the same groove in studio myself during the sessions for the recently released Robert Ray single, Love Curse.  Working with producer Liam Watson at Toe Rag Studios, the song started with strummed acoustic guitar and a classic country flavour.  The Buddy Harman groove was perfect for the song … we ended up using the same feel on tight closed hats and cross stick but the vibe is there … go check it out!

I’ll leave it there on a country note today and will be back soon with more new release news and my experiences with my Istanbul Mehmet cymbals in the studio … see you soon!


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About the Author

Matt Cowley Growing up in Teesside, I was raised on a healthy if somewhat diverse diet of Blues, Jazz, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Frank Zappa and Chuck Berry via my Dad's record collection ... That said, it was seeing the marching drummers from a visitng Scottish Pipe band to my hometown of Billingham when I was 3 or 4 years old that got me started on the lifelong obsession with all things drums! A couple of years later, my destiny was to be confirmed when I heard Ginger Baker on a beat up cassette copy of The Best of Cream ... My Dad took to me to the local music shop and I left with a pair of warped sticks, a tambourine and a practice pad ... the rest as they say, is history! It's been an ever changing, always interesting but always ecelctic journey since, taking me all over the world and giving me the opportuniy to play with some of the finest musicians around; from The Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra to Rhythm & Blues Originators Jimmy Thomas & Lazy Lester, from 1950's Doo-Wop stars The Teenagers to Rock Guitar Royalty Bernie Marsden, from the easy listening pop of Tony Christie to the hard hitting chicago blues of Angela Brown ... I wouldn't have it any other way! I am currently playing with BIG BOY BLOATER AND THE LiMiTs, CASH and ROBERT RAY

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