NASHVILLE CATS: David Briggs Reflects at the Country Music Hall of Fame, 26 March 2011
Nashville Cats: David Briggs
Country Music Hall of Fame
They call them the cats cause they’re far cooler than the notion session player implies. Methodical, precise, exacting. Absolutely, but these guys were funky, had soul and knew the greaz and the slink on an intimate basis.
Hosted by Bill Lloyd, half of the late-80s progressive country-punk-pop druo Foster Lloyd & a musicologist of some reknown, Nashville Cats takes the legendary players – and lets them tell the stories of the sessions, the studios and songs that have become part of cellular structure of modern American pop, soul and country music from the 1950s and forward
With film clips, sound tapes, old pictures and good memories, the fibre of American music is not only deconstructed, but lovingly reanimated.
For David Briggs, known for his time at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, mentored by Owen Bradley as a singer which led to a network that led him to Nashville, as well as an extended run in Elvis Presley’s live band, it is an easy talker. Quick with a quip, self-deprecating regarding his stature, genereous to his fellow players, encyclopedic in his recollection of the time, he’s a man who’s been in a lot of places and paid attention.
This is a person who can say he’s written with Dan Penn, had a Brenda Lee Top 10, Jim Ed Brown’s first solo hit called “A Taste of Heaven.” He played on Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move on,” worked for Chet Atkins “when they couldn’t get Floyd Cramer or Pig…” (Hargus “Pig Robbins)
He was there at the changing of the guard, when DJ Fontant and Scotty Moore left Elvis’ musical core – working on a religious session that included “Love Letters,” which – when Presley called out for him to go back to the piano — “scared me to death.”
For Briggs who could play electric piano with one hand, another keyboard with the other and conduct strings with his head, doing what seemed impossible was something of a refrain. Joining forces with Norbert Putnam and right before opening Elliot Mazer, they opened Quad Studios – which showed sessions could be done another way: Neil Young’s Harvest was recorded there, as were many watershed hippie/rock/country classics.
Joan Baez, Dobie Gray, Dan Fogelberg, Linda Rostadt all came through that humble cinderblock building – and the incredibly creative forces that Briggs and Putnam brought together. And when years later Briggs opened the House of David, Joe Cocker was his first client – and Neil Young came to record Old Ways.
They estimate he’s played on somewhere from 40,000 to 50,000 sessions, listening to him spin stories about Tommy Roe and the deal that his band had to wear Skeetz trousers, taking over Shotgun Willie when Arif Mardin and Jerry Wexler couldn’t cope with the roughness of Willie Nelson’s Family band, being the demi-phantom duo Joe Kenyon with forced publicity still and a refusal to tour, publishing Steve Winwood’s ASCAP Song of the Year “Valory,” one thinks he remembers every one.
Quipping about the number of #1s he played on at RCA Studios – for Kenny Rogers, Barbara Mandrell, Charlie Pride, Lee Greenwood, Alabama, Waylon Jennings – “and the pianos were never in tune over at RCA,” he invests the reality of music-making with a sense of humanity and reality that it lacks in today’s auto-tuned, machined to precision lifelessness.
Briggs even was part of the post-Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, perhaps Monkee Mike Nesmith’s originated – some believe producer Elliot Mazer, who’s also credited as a member of the group – Area Code 6-1-5, a funky supergroup of the city’s best session-pickers. The group – featuring Briggs, Weldom Myrick, Wayne Moss, Norbert Putnam, Mac Gayden, Bobby Thompson, Charlie McCoy, Buddy Spicher and Kenny Buttrey — made two albums and opened for Linda Ronstadt at San Francisco’s historic Filmore.
Indeed, Briggs’ realm of music is so potent, his two hour interview session saw an unprecedented turn-out among the playing community. From Hargus “Pig” Robbins and Harold Bradley to compadres like Putnam, Myrick, Moss, Reggie Young and Chip Young to more contemporaries including Michael Rhodes, E Streeter Gary Tallent and Radney Foster, each recognized his impact and wanted to hear all about a time when people did four sessions a day, Jimmy Bowen would have them working “for doubledouble” on Thanksgiving and Christmas and Nancy Sinatra could be your 10, Al Hirt and a 60-piece band your 2 and Waylon Jennings or Elvis your 6 o’clock sessions.
David Briggs has been a player, publisher, producer, songwriter, television musical director, jingleman for the world’s largest commercial house, an innovator. A member of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and a Country Music Association Musician of the Year, his touch on the piano brought him, but it was love of music, songs, artists and the game that has given him resonance across genres, generations and disciplines.
Pulling music buffs, old dogs, musical icons and random fans into the Ford Theatre, Nashville Cats is the kind of quarterly event that pulls back the curtain, shows off the stories and allows some of the most colorful characters in Nashville to tell their stories in an unbridled format. Himself a musician, Lloyd understands keeping people on track without losing their moment – which allows for a flow that gets to the meat and never seems to step on the point.
As Briggs said of the thinking when he came into his prime, “The rule was ‘Don’t play tv shows, road gigs or the Opry – because it said you weren’t good enough to be on records.’ Obviously, now you have to do it all…” That last declaration showing that the true players never die, they just sense the shift in the tide.