“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Those familiar with your playing know to expect
twangy Western and swinging archtop tones, but
“A Sunset Ride” sounds like an homage to Chet
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
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
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
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