From The April 2017 Issue Of DRUM! | By Bob Doerschuk | Photography by Becky Fluke and Reid Long
Born in Detroit. The son of a jazz drummer. Played djembe with an African percussion ensemble while in middle school. Later on, got a gig with the Tyrone Smith Revue Funk Band, based out of Nashville.
So, of course it makes sense that Hubert Payne is one of the today’s top country music drummers, right?
Right, according to the members of Little Big Town, whose five-year reign as the Country Music Association’s Vocal Group Of The Year suggests they know what they’re talking about. Payne has anchored their rhythm section on the road for two years. He also recorded with them on their two most recent projects, one of them a cross-genre experiment produced by Pharrell Williams and the other a straight-ahead country release, The Breaker.
Payne’s deep groove makes it clear why LBT and several other high-profile country acts have recruited him. But his impact has a greater significance, in how hard work against steep odds has molded him both personally and musically.
Don’t Do What I Do
The closer you look at Payne’s life, the less likely his success might seem. Yes, his father was and still is a working drummer. He was also determined to do all he could to discourage his son from getting into music; this collision of wills between two individuals who never stopped loving each other was the key to how the younger Payne would define and pursue his development as a drummer.
“Really, my dad is my main influence,” says Payne one afternoon over a plate of brisket at Edley’s Bar-B-Que, one of his favorite hangs in East Nashville. “He’s the second Hubert Payne; I’m the third. He’s a great drummer. And he’s an incredible man. I think you can hear that in his playing. Back then he played with a vocal group called The Dramatics; they were kind of like The Temptations. He toured with them for most of my life.
“But,” Payne continues, “he didn’t want me to have anything to do with music. He did everything short of telling me, ‘Don’t do this.’ We were a very loving family, but to be honest, this caused a lot of issues in my parents’ marriage. All his traveling and our up-and-down financial situation were difficult for my mom. He just didn’t want that for me. He just didn’t think it was possible to play the drums and make a consistent living. I didn’t understand that at the time, so I was really angry. I had a huge chip on my shoulder for a long time because I didn’t understand why he didn’t want to teach me anything about drums.”
Instead, Dad suggested pursuing sports. While that seems like hardly a sure-fire path toward security, Payne did show promise, particularly in football. By the time he’d graduated from high school, he had earned himself a football scholarship to Saginaw Valley State University, where he initially played running back — all of which his father supported wholeheartedly.
As Payne recalls, “He told me, ‘I’m going to teach you to live a good life as a man, so you can develop and create relationships. But you know what? Playing drums is mostly about feel. If you want to play,
you’ve got to have a good feel. And if you grow up to be a good man, that’ll come naturally to you.’”
At this point in their relationship, father and son both assumed that football was the key that would open the door toward getting a college degree and building a better life. But both also knew that drums were already an indispensable part of Payne’s journey.
For that, credit Payne’s grandfather, who persuaded young Hubert to turn off the cartoons and instead play along to Earth, Wind & Fire videos on bongos. He also gave his grandson his first full kit. Payne’s uncle, a keyboard player, abetted these efforts. “He’d expose me to new music,” Payne recalls. “Or he’d say, ‘You like Earth, Wind & Fire, but do you understand what’s going on when they play?’ He’d get into it with my dad about letting me know it was okay to play. I was just dreaming and he and my grandfather poured into that dream.”
With Dad unwilling to provide lessons, Payne essentially taught himself, mostly by playing along to what he heard on records or TV. “I’d see a drummer play a beat and I’d play it back,” he says. “Also, my dad practiced quite often, so I’d listen to what he did and try to figure it out on my own. But it was so frustrating because I wasn’t around any other drummers, so I didn’t really know how to get better.”
All throughout high school and into college, Payne never once played his drum kit with other musicians. “I literally played in a room by myself until I was 21. I did have a Carter Beauford VHS tape in high school, though,” he says, with a laugh. “I wore that thing out! He was huge.”
He did, however, perform in an African drum and dance group with his younger brother while in elementary and middle school. “I was the lead drummer,” Payne says. “We’d practice two and a half hours every single day, just working on groove. For each song we did, we learned maybe four different dances, accenting what the dancers were doing. There might be a dance for healing or welcoming someone into the community or something like that. But it was always about playing a pattern. That pattern could go on for years [i.e., maybe an hour]. It was all about how you played it. It was all about groove.
“That totally formed the way I look at the purpose of rhythm,” he continues. “Once you find a groove, you’ve got to protect that energy. That’s what African drumming is all about. When I look at my playing now, that’s pretty much what I am. And especially with a vocal band like Little Big Town, that’s really important.”
Filed away for future use, this lesson idled during his football years. When asked to switch from running back to defense, he complained about the move to his father. “I called him and said, ‘I don’t want to be here and not do what I know how to do,’” he remembers. “He said, ‘I got your back.’ I wound up transferring to Middle Tennessee State University to play football. That’s the only reason I came to Nashville.”
Life After Football
Musically speaking, how green was Payne when he made this move? “I had no idea this was Music City,” he says, laughing. “I mean, I had heard of the Music City Bowl, but that’s it!”
It didn’t take long to recognize that fate had placed him in one of the best possible places to revisit his fascination with drumming. The first step came at the Mt. Vernon Missionary Baptist Church, whose congregation he joined. “My family was Jehovah’s Witnesses so we didn’t do the church thing,” Payne explains. “But I was getting thirsty spiritually, so when I found a good community of people in this one church I started finding answers to questions I’d had about destiny and following my passion.
“So one day I was messing around on the drums at the church,” he says. “This dude Mwangi Dean was the drummer at the time. He walks up to me and says, ‘God told me I’m standing in your way.’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean, bro?’ He’s like, ‘Dude, I want you to take over at the church. I’m done.’”
So he did. That led in turn to trying his hand at playing with other musicians in the area. Having only played alone to records and tapes up to that point, Payne soon realized that he had lots to learn about how to listen to and interact with live players.
“I didn’t feel 100 percent confident that if someone walked into a room and heard me playing, they’d want to use me,” he admits. “So I went home one night, turned on the TV, and saw Chaun Horton playing with Macy Gray. His drumming really spoke to me deeply. And it wasn’t about chops. It was 3:00 o’clock in the morning, but I went online and looked up his bio. I saw that he went to the L.A. Music Academy. I’m 26 years old and I was like, ‘I want that. I don’t know how to read music. I play drums every day but I’m not happy with my progression. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to be able to say what I want to say on my instrument.’”
The next day Payne called the Academy, applied for a scholarship, and sent in an audition video. He was accepted shortly after that, headed west, slept on his uncle’s couch, and attended the school. “I learned how to read. I learned how to study. That was huge because it gave me the tools to practice and to understand what I liked about other people’s playing. That opened up the world for me.”
After a year, newly equipped and inspired, he returned to Nashville, where opportunity and a life-changing injury were waiting for him.
At first, most of the work Payne picked up involved doing weddings with funk bands or playing in church. He was thinking as well about dusting off his guitar chops and heading down to Atlanta to audition for a church band there. Things seemed to be on track when he and some friends decided to take the night off and catch some live music at a club called 12th & Porter.
“We were talking about going to IHOP when a guy walked in off the street and onto the stage,” Payne says. “He had a beer can in his hand and shades on, even though it was around midnight. He gets on the mike and starts screaming. Then he pulls a knife out of his pants — it looked like a machete. I’m looking around like, ‘Security?’ But then he came up to me and put the knife on my head. That moment was like ‘fight or flight,’ so I grabbed him. We wound up fighting and he stabbed me; I didn’t know where exactly, but I knew I was bleeding.”
Payne stumbled out the front door and onto the street. Luckily, he saw a police officer half a block away, in the midst of a routine traffic stop. Calling for help, he ran toward the officer; bizarrely, the assailant chased him and was quickly arrested. Payne was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he received sobering news.
“I had two wounds,” he says. “The guy stabbed me in the leg and nicked my femur; I could recover from that. But he also sliced my left hand; he cut the tendon. The doctor told me, ‘If we don’t do anything, in a few days all your fingers are going to roll up. Now, if we do surgery immediately, you will be able to control all of your fingers except the little one.’ I was like, ‘Dude, if I can put a stick in it, let’s do it.’”
The operation left Payne’s little finger permanently curled. It also wiped out whatever savings he’d accumulated so that he even had to sell his drums. With as much as a year of recovery ahead of him, he moved back in with his parents, who had left Detroit and settled in Gallatin, just outside Nashville.
“I sat on their couch for six or seven months and evaluated my life,” he says. “What I came up with was to realize I had another shot. I didn’t care if the people I played with didn’t look like me. I didn’t care what kind of music it was. I was going to go where there are drums and play them. I was going to maximize my life. I’d learn to hold the stick in a new way. If there was a weakness in my playing, I was going to attack it. If I could sit in, I would. I was like a lion in a cage, man, until I could get back.”
He smiles. “And now whenever anybody asks, I tell them this was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
For one thing, with all the local news coverage, everybody in Nashville knew who Hubert Payne was. He had friends too, including drummer Keio Stroud, who encouraged him to start hanging out at the country music honky-tonks along Lower Broadway. With his left hand not as strong as it was, he concentrated on feeling more than chops, listening to bands play unfamiliar repertoire and figuring out what he could bring to it that maybe they hadn’t experienced before.
“Coming from an R&B background, I had to figure out what speaks down there,” he notes. “How are these guys phrasing? I talked with them, trying to pick their brains. Any time any of them said, ‘I like that guy on drums,’ I asked why. I watched every drummer I could and took something from each one. I tried to build this amazing drummer in my mind, this one guy — and then I’d chase that guy.”
In figuring out how to bring a country edge to his beat, Payne decided that the secret was to listen to the guitars. “In R&B or funk, the guitars might be the sauce. In country music, guitar is the main course,” he points out. “This made me feel I should change my stick attack to be more on top of the hi-hat. When you’re playing with guitars, with maybe a four-on-the-floor groove, they’re probably chunking eighth-notes. You have to support that, so my hi-hat volume will be a little louder and less syncopated than when I’m doing R&B stuff. From there I can go into making it feel different ways: Is it a straight-eighth feel or more of a triplet thing on the hi-hat? It all depends on what the guitars are doing.”
The more Payne absorbed, the more dates he started to pick up at these venues. And the more he played, the more connections he made. Other drummers, including his friends Keio Stroud and Louis Winfield, started calling him to sub for jobs they couldn’t make in the honky-tonks and on short tours. These led to some steady gigs: After playing with the duo Love And Theft, Payne backed Joel Krause and then American Idol alumnus Casey James as each opened for Taylor Swift on an arena tour. By the time he beat out ten other drummers for a spot in David Nail’s band, Payne sensed he was at the top of his game.
“It’s about what I learned from my dad even though he denied me lessons for so long: Play like your personality. You’d be surprised at how many things speak through your playing. Now, I know I’m a dominant man, so since I’ve gotten married and become a dad, my ‘yes’ has to mean ‘yes.’ My ‘no’ needs to be ‘no.’ That translates into my playing. Even though I spend a lot of time working on technical things, it’s only so I can say what I want to say — and that comes from who I am.”
Big Time With Little Big Town
In January 2015, a week after his run with Nail ended, Payne was invited to try out for Little Big Town. Fitting in with them was easy onstage. But a year later, as their sessions with Pharrell Williams drew near, things got more complicated. He had never tracked with artists in a studio. Characteristically, rather than be intimidated, he decided to do something about it.
“I sold some gear. I went to Guitar Center and ended up spending a thousand bucks on some mikes. My whole purpose was to prove to myself that I could record drums and have something to offer, just like I do when I play live. Three weeks afterwards I get a text. Karen Fairchild from LBT says, ‘We’re in a studio with Pharrell. Can you come here?’ I’m like, ‘I’m 45 minutes out!’”
Williams was more particular and hands-on than Joyce, according to Payne. “He was like, ‘Listen, on this song, ‘One Dance,’ you’re not even going to play the snare. I just want you to make the kick and the hat sound as best you can.’ His thing is linear; you play a part as if you were programmed. With Jay, you respond to the music. There’s a little more creative freedom although you don’t want to add a bunch of fills and crashes, so the vocals speak. We’d come in some mornings and spend three or four hours just on drum tones, running them through amps or whatever — maybe too much time, according to LBT,” he observes, with a smile.
Payne also appreciates the freedom Joyce allows for the drum parts. “He gives me room to be sensitive to the emotion of the song,” he says. “For this ballad called ‘Free,’ I was thinking of that Carter Beauford DVD; he plays with [Regal Tip] Blasticks on ‘Minarets’ and that just spoke to me for this song. Then I wondered how it would sound with a straight-up hip-hop beat. So I wound up playing a Dirty South rap beat with brushes on this song.”
For another song, “Lost In California,” Payne felt a connection to the Matt Nathanson song “Come On, Get Higher.” “It’s got a John Mayer feel. I took that hi-hat pattern and thought, ‘What would Steve Jordan do? If John Mayer had Adam Deitch, what would they do on this track?’ So I mixed those drummers together and am super-proud of what came out.”
It turns out that Dad is proud too. “He goes home after work every day and watches anything on YouTube that has my name on it. I’m thankful now for what he did. In fact,” he adds, beaming, “I bought him his last kit!”
John Thomasson: Holding It Down For Little Big Town
When Seth Rausch left Little Big Town’s band for a new gig with Keith Urban, word spread quickly that one of the top drum chairs in Nashville had just opened up. It was up to LBT bassist and music director John Thomasson to pare the number of applicants to just four finalists. All were major players, including former Sugarland and Better Than Ezra drummer Travis McNabb. Even so, after each had auditioned there was little doubt of who would get the nod.
“It was so obvious that Hubert won that we didn’t even have to talk about it much,” Thomasson says. “He was super quiet and focused. I could tell he was a little nervous. But when he played he had the right mix of digging in with authority without being too loud or busy.”
Initial impressions were confirmed as Payne began performing with LBT. “The strongest thing about him is the emotion he plays with,” Thomasson notes. “There are times when we’re playing a ballad and I’ll just stop in awe of what he’s doing. Then right after the song I’ll give him a fist bump, not because of the groove, but because of how he can transcend a simple part and make it so emotional.”
The more he got to know his new bandmate, the more Thomasson came to believe that Payne’s nonmusical background had a lot to do with his ability to fit in with LBT. “So many musicians have a chip on their shoulder,” he observes. “It’s hard to rein them in. But Hubert is a team player. He’s super driven. He’s disciplined. He’s always trying to learn.”
As an example, Thomasson points to when Payne, who had little studio experience, readied himself for the challenge of recording The Breaker. “I told him, ‘There will be times when you’ll feel like a complete asshole in there because [producer] Jay Joyce isn’t sure of what he wants, but he’s going to figure it out through you.’ He had to experience all the crazy stuff that Jay does, like putting the kick drum through a bass amp. Luckily, the first couple of times we were in there, Hubert killed it.
“I think that comes from his sports background,” Thomasson reflects. “You can say, ‘Hey, I need you to do this’ and he’ll learn it. I like that angle of drawing from his time playing sports to become an ever-greater musician.” — Bob Doerschuk
For more about Hubert Payne, go to “Groove Analysis: Hubert Payne of Little Big Town,” written by Andy Ziker, with a video lesson by Nate Brown.