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Super Session Ace Richard Bennett

January 30, 2014
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gp0910_art_benn117“WHEN I STEP BACK AND CONSIDER MY CAREER, I CAN’T account for it,” says Richard Bennett. “If I do anything well, it’s being a second banana. I thank my lucky stars I get to putter along, decade after decade, playing guitar and making records.”

Bennett is one of those rare musicians who can expertly support another artist’s vision, yet also nurture his own. As a studio guitarist in Los Angeles and Nashville, Bennett has done thousands of sessions. His credits include Joan Baez, Ringo Starr, Billy Joel, Glen Campbell, the Everly Brothers, Roseanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Barbara Streisand, George Strait, George Jones, Neil Diamond, Waylon Jennings, Smokey Robinson, Lyle Lovett, Vince Gill, the Ventures, and Duane Eddy. Bennett has also produced acclaimed albums by Steve Earle (including the epic Guitar Town), Emmylou Harris (Cowgirl’s Prayer), Marty Stuart (Hillbilly Rock, Tempted, and This One’s Gonna Hurt You), and the Mavericks (From Hell to Paradise).

As a member of Mark Knopfler’s band for more than 15 years, Bennett has toured the world five times, played on all Knopfler’s albums since Golden Heart, and contributed to his film scores for Wag the Dog and Metroland.Despite a busy schedule of roadwork and sessions, Bennett has managed to record three instrumental albums of his own: 2004’s Themes from a Rainy Decade, 2008’s Code Red Cloud Nine, and his latest, Valley of the Sun [Moderne Shellac]. On Themes, Bennett explored the twangy crossroads of Twin Peaks and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. On Code Red, he revisited the swinging sounds of ’60s West Coast jazz. For Valley of the Sun, Bennett shifts between these worlds to create a sonic memoir of his life as a budding guitarist in Arizona.

You describe Valley of the Sun as a collection of 11 love letters.
The title is a term folks use to describe Phoenix, where my family moved in 1960 when I was eight or nine. There was music everywhere—every cocktail lounge had a pianist, every beer joint had a country band, there were jazz mills, and you could hear Mersey beat and surf music at the teen clubs. Phoenix also had a healthy recording scene back then. Duane Eddy recorded his hits there, and that’s where Waylon Jennings got his start. It was a Mecca for a youngster getting his first guitar.

What was that first guitar and your reaction to getting it?
Well, my reaction was love at first sight, though I can’t speak for the guitar. I’d been pestering my folks for one, so after a weekend trip to Nogales, Mexico, they returned with a e-size steel-string. No brand name, but boy, I sure loved it. It hangs in my music room now. I look at it and touch it every day.

What was your first electric?
A Kay Vanguard—a two-pickup solidbody that should have been a Hawaiian guitar, the action was so high. I just played it and played it. I was on my way, or so I thought.

When I was 14, I started playing with weekend club bands. I wasn’t old enough to drive, so my folks would chauffeur me to these horrible places where I’d play from 9:00 until 1:00 in the morning. My first steady gig was every Friday and Saturday night at Mac and Marge’s Snake Inn, down in South Phoenix. Their clientele lived week to week in a little motor court next to the club, and it was really the end of the line. I saw people getting pool cues busted over their backs, but I was thrilled to be there—I was playing guitar and making six bucks a night.

What kind of music?
It was country. But because the next youngest guy in the band was about 40, we weren’t playing country music of the day. We were playing country of their day—Bob Wills, Webb Pierce, and Hank Williams.

Who were your influences?
Grady Martin, Hank Garland, Ray Edenton, and James Burton were my guitar gods. I was aware of the Beatles, but I had my hands full just trying to make sense of three chords. It wasn’t until later that other vistas began opening up for me.

There’s a strong swing current in your playing, which must have snuck in via Hank Garland. Absolutely. And Cliff Gallup, once I started expanding my horizon. I became a huge Barney Kessel fan too.

Valley of the Sun covers a lot of sonic turf. Did you set out to write a musically diverse album?
Actually, I cut four or five tunes with no intention at all, other than getting them down. Listening back, I thought, okay, that’s a pretty disparate collection. Now what? I couldn’t hear a thread running through the music and that worried me. Then the penny dropped: Of course, it’s all music that surrounded me in Phoenix. That’s when the concept took hold. When I was producing an album with Emmy [Emmylou Harris], I remember her saying, “You start out making the album, but about a third of the way through, the album tells you what it’s going to be.” That’s exactly what happened with Valley of the Sun.

Where did you record Valley and how long did you spend on it?
I recorded it with George Bradfute at his studio in Madison, Tennessee, which is also where I cut my previous solo albums. George owns Jim Reeves’ old house, and the studio is downstairs in what used to be the rec room. George is a fantastic musician with great ears. Like me, he’s also an avid record collector, so I can say, “George, we need 1957 Ray Conniff echo,” and he’ll know what I’m talking about—and if he doesn’t, he’ll flip through some vinyl and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t pull out a 1957 Ray Conniff LP. We’ll put it on, and he’ll go, “Okay— got it.” I still record to analog tape and George has a 1" 16-track deck, which is cool, too.

Making an album, I tend to complete one song at a time. Once a tune holds water compositionally, I’ll call a session and we’ll cut it in the morning. I’ll finish it up during the day and that will be it. I might not go in again for several months. Valley of the Sun dragged on for about a year, but if you were to add it up, we spent maybe 20 days in the studio.

Valley features a lot of orchestration. Do you record live or build up the sound with overdubs?
I’d love to be able to track everything live, but because of space constraints I generally start with a four-piece rhythm section consisting of another guitarist, bass, drums, and me. Then I gently sweeten those tracks with live strings and horns.

On a couple of tunes, I played most of the instruments myself. I had an idea for arranging “Saguaro,” the opening track, but wasn’t sure if it would work. So I booked a morning session with George and threw down a quick sketch with me playing drums, percussion, rhythm guitar, and the melody. Listening to it after lunch, we thought it sounded pretty good, so I replayed the electric guitar, wrote out a cello part, and on we went.

What were your main guitars on Valley?
Since 1982, I’ve played an early-’80s Fernandes replica of a vintage Strat. I used it quite a bit on Themes from a Rainy Decade, and I came back to it for a lot of the tracks on this album, including a jazz-flavored tune called “Barton’s Theme.” That’s my 1956 Gretsch 6120 on “Nadine’s Scene” and “A Sunset Ride.”

Those familiar with your playing know to expect twangy Western and swinging archtop tones, but “A Sunset Ride” sounds like an homage to Chet Atkins.
After I’d written the melody, I tried to figure out my role in the tune. It’s like you become an actor in someone else’s play. I tried many different ideas, but I couldn’t get a grip on my part. As a lark, I thought, what would Chet do? And then the whole thing fell into place. My guitar teacher in Phoenix, Forrest Skaggs, had a band called the Sunset Riders and some of my first gigs were as a Sunset Rider. So it’s a nod to both Skaggs and Chet.

What are you playing on the swing tunes?
That’s a 1963 archtop built by William Barker, a luthier from Illinois. That guitar belonged to Al Casey. He was part of the Wrecking Crew—A-team session players who cut hits in Los Angeles for everyone from Nancy Sinatra and the Mamas and Papas to the Byrds and the Beach Boys. Al had studied with Forrest Skaggs about 15 years before me. In fact, I met Al through Skaggs, who I’m sure persuaded Al to take me under his wing. Al became like a big brother to me. He died in 2006 and I miss him terribly.

Is the Barker a historic guitar?
It is indeed. It’s the rhythm guitar on “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” and it’s the electric guitar that kicks off “Never My Love” by the Association. And it provided the fingerpicked and rhythm parts on “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the theme from Midnight Cowboy. Al bought it from Bobby Gibbons, a wonderful guitarist who did a lot of record dates in the ’50s and for years backed Tennessee Ernie Ford on his TV show. Bobby bought the Barker new in 1963 and sold it to Al in ’66, I believe.

What amps did you use?
I mainly used an early-’70s Polytone 1x15 combo that belonged to Al. For “And So It Seemed” and “Ciné Capri,” I used a Jennings amp for its tremolo. After Tom Jennings sold Vox in the late ’60s, he built these for a short time. It’s basically an AC15 in a different cabinet.

You’ve spent much of your life in the studio, guitar in hand. Do you remember your first session?
I sure do. It was the summer between my junior and senior year of high school. I was still living in Phoenix, but I’d arranged to stay with Al and his wife in L.A., and work at his music store five days a week. Al would take me around to sessions, as would James Burton and [Wrecking Crew bassist] Joe Osborn. I remember going to a 2:00 session with Al on August 1st, 1968, just to observe and maybe learn something. This was a fullblown Hollywood date with horns and a complete rhythm section.

They’d called three guitar players, but by 2:00 only two had arrived. While waiting for the third guitarist, they ran the charts for the three songs they were planning to track. By 2:30, the other guitar player still wasn’t there. When the arranger, H.B. Barnum, asked, “What are we going to do now?” Al replied, “Well, my buddy here plays guitar.” Barnum said, “Okay, give him a guitar and let’s go.” So I played my first session sitting next to Al.

How did it go?
I was so scared, I don’t remember, but I think it went fine. I’d kept my ears open during the rehearsal, so I was able to dodge my way through the charts. It was amazing: I’d just turned 17 and now I had everything I wanted in life. It was like getting laid the first time—that was it, man.

But then I had to go back to school and run around the track with kids—it was strange. Of course, I couldn’t tell anybody I’d done a Hollywood record date because they’d think I was full of crap. Somehow I got through that last year of school. I graduated on a Friday and the next day I left Phoenix and moved to L.A. On Monday morning I was working at Al’s store, teaching guitar and meeting people. Eventually the sessions started coming in, and I never looked back.

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