The Biggest Little Drum Scene In The South

“Welcome to Nashville, now y’all go home.” Expect to hear the official greeting if you move here. Why sugarcoat it? Your best option is to stay where you are unless you have a gig, or at least a day job to support you while you try to break into the Nashville scene.

So you’re determined, huh? Well, there are plenty of opportunities to work with Nashville’s local talents, as well as the national acts that call Twangtown home. But competition is fierce, and there’s an undeniable trend towards underpayment. In some cases, the band members make less than it costs to park their cars! Nashville pickup bands have a virtually endless supply of musicians who will play for less money than the guy who currently has the gig. Subsequently, wages have dropped lower and lower, and since you can’t complain very loudly, we have a ton of musicians scrambling for low-paying gigs with no job security.

Not a pretty sight.

But hey, if you thrive on competition, are willing to starve for your art, and aren’t averse to waiting tables (lots of available positions), Nashville just might be your kind of town. Without further ado, here’s where to go, what to see, and where to be seen in Nashville….


This is the home of two distinct groups of musicians: union and non-union. Union musicians do most of the recording work on major labels. If you’re in the union, Nashville has a good one, and you’re really in luck as a drummer. The secretary at the Union is none other than Nashville studio legend Buddy Harmon. From the late ’50s until the late ’70s, Harmon recorded more than any other drummer in town. Before he came along, there were no drums on country music records. Buddy’s still the house drummer for the Grand Old Opry, but he spends the days in the union hall, where you will find the proverbial bulletin board. By visiting the union hall and other selected hangouts, you can network with other musicians and put your name in front of a steady stream of people who just might recommend you for a job one day.

If you want to be a little more proactive, there’s also Dick McVey’s Musician’s Referral List. For a small fee, you get a one line capsule description: “Wallace, Ian, drums. Pro Offers – Art. exp w/Dylan-Raitt-Henley-ETC. Contact … ” It’s short, to the point, and mailed to all interested parties. Call 615-322-9997 for more info. The Nashville Scene is a weekly entertainment magazine that is distributed free throughout the city, and is the best place to find “Drummer Wanted” classified ads, as well as listings for virtually every gig around town.

Gigs. The places to see and be seen in downtown Nashville are mostly tourist-oriented country music clubs, or hangouts for the city’s numerous “writers nights.” You might have seen the Wild Horse Saloon (120 2nd Ave. N., 615-256-WILD), which is featured on a syndicated weekly television program. It’s a three-story honky-tonk complete with dance floor and state of the art sound and lights. Top name national country acts appear regularly, and the club also hosts many writers nights, showcases and special events.

Most country musicians start at the other end of the scale and try to break into the small bar scene on Lower Broadway. Tootsies Orchid Lounge (422 Broadway, 615-726-0463) and Legends Corner (428 Broadway, 615-248-6334) are famous for having country artists stop by to sit in with the band. However, very few of the working drummers I’ve spoken with have ever landed a major gig from working at Tootsies, and playing “in the window” at Legends is somewhat akin to drumming in a fishbowl.

Then there’s Robert’s (416 Broadway, 615-256-7937), a western wear store where local alt country/rockers BR-549 got their start. The band became so popular that they outgrew their homespun venue, but the Robert’s sign still says “Home of BR-549,” and live country music and western wear are the order of the day. Brazilbilly is currently in residence every Thursday-Saturday (look for their album in a couple of months).

The Bluebird Cafe (4104 Hillsboro Pke, 615-383-1461), a more upscale, yet smaller venue, is notorious for the cramped stage and “drummer optional” policy, due to the writer-focused atmosphere. Many new songs are premiered there and famous people stop from time to time to watch or join in on the fun. If you’re into playing with brushes and being unobtrusive, it’s a great gig.

There are a number of clubs on Printer’s Alley, including Barbara’s (615-259-2272), a renowned honky-tonk that attracts many Nashville country stars, and Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar (615-242-5837), which features the blues exclusively. Printer’s Alley has its own pedestrian mall atmosphere, so you get a little taste of each club just by strolling down the sidewalk.

Although Nashville may be a little limited in its jazz offerings, there are a few clubs hanging in there. Club Mere Bulles (152 2nd Ave. N., 615-256-1946) features acoustic jazz on a regular basis. With acts ranging from John McLaughlin to Elvin Jones, the chances are pretty good that the music will be top notch here. Owned and operated by the Gibson Guitar company, Gibson’s Cafe Milano (176 3rd Ave. N. 37201, 615-255-0073) is another good source for jazz and adult contemporary with a focus on national acts. In the Green Hills area, F. Scott’s restaurant and jazz club (2210 Crestmoor Rd. 37215; 615-269-5861) still features live local jazz musicians on a nightly basis.

Rock and alternative music are very much present in Nashville. The ultra-hip 12th and Porter (cleverly located on the corner of 12th and Porter, 615-254-7236) features an eclectic group of nationally known and not so nationally known alternative rock talent, ranging from local band SWAG (comprised of Wilco’s Ken Coomer, Cheap Trick’s Tom Peterson, Mavericks bassist Robert Reynolds, and songwriter Jerry Dale McFadden) to acid jazz trio Medeski, Martin and Wood. 3rd & Lindsley (615-259-9891) is the address and the name of the premier “adult contemporary with a bluesy feel” kind of club. Exit/Inn (2208 Elliston Place, 615-321-4400) boasts an extremely diverse roster, from country to metal, and about 99.9 percent of it is really good. The End (across the street from Exit/Inn) is a younger brother alternative to the Exit/Inn where you’ll find skateboard music, smaller acts, and basically a proving ground for Exit/Inn-bound bands. 328 Performance Hall (328 Fourth Ave. South, 615-259-3288) features mid-level national acts on a weekly basis, with top level Nashville bands anchoring the rest of the time.

Finally, The Klub, and its upstairs sibling The Attic anchor the rock and roll on Lower Broadway (at 2nd and Broadway). Meat and potato grooves with an R&B feel and, uh, intellectual content, ya know? Tennessee’s newest band, Kingsize has also appeared here with the infamous Johnny Rabb at the tubs. Yup, the same guy who makes the new drumsticks actually plays them too.

Robert’s Western Wear, home of BR-549 ... at least it once was.

Robert’s Western Wear, home of BR-549 … at least it once was.

Downtown in old Nashville.

Downtown in old Nashville.

Gary Forkum presides over one of Nashville’s few remaining drum shops.

Gary Forkum presides over one of Nashville’s few remaining drum shops.


One of Nashville’s music sub-industries is supported by the expense of moving instruments to a session. Typical cartage for a drum set ranges anywhere from $50 per setup to $150 from one of the “big boys.” When you consider that the guys who are schlepping the gear for top sessions generate more than an entire band on Lower Broad, it makes sense to look at this as an option to working outside the industry.

Soundcheck (750 Cowan Street, 615-726-1165) is the largest (and best) of Nashville’s rehearsal studio and cartage companies. Owner Bob Thompson oversees the complex of rehearsal studios and also provides cartage, instrument rental and storage service to an impressive group of clients. Vince Gill, Jars of Clay, DCTalk, Brooks & Dunn and Reba McEntire rehearse and store their gear and sets in this mammoth 120,000+ square foot facility. Technical support, studio instrument rental, lighting, sound and crews can also be accessed separately through the other businesses that are located there, including Peavey (Artist Relations, 615-259-2568), Not So Modern Drummer (vintage drum magazine, 615-244-6763), johnnyraBB Drumsticks (248-9992), Entropy Recording Studios (615-252-8948), Bandit Lights (615-641-9000) and Crewmasters Techstar (615-242-2925). Since there are over 150 lockers full of musical instruments from some of the top musicians and touring bands, a steady flow of musicians filters through. It’s definitely worth your time to post a card on the bulletin board.

Just a block up Cowan Street from Soundcheck, you’ll find Drum Paradise, Nashville Inc. (615-248-3786). Owned and operated up by former L.A. drum tech guru Harry McCarthy, Drum Paradise caters to the creme de la creme of Nashville recording drummers. McCarthy’s employees hustle around town setting up drums for rehearsal and recording sessions, while Harry follows behind tweaking each kit to his own specifications. It’s a gourmet service for gourmet drummers at a gourmet price, but McCarthy is well known for delivering the sound that makes hit records for clients like Steve Gadd, Lonnie Wilson, Greg Morrow and Kenny Aronoff.

Other cartage companies (SSU, SIR) round out the options for most of the drummers in Nashville, but there are several top session drummers who still have one guy to do all of their setup and tech work. One of the most enterprising is Rick Malkin, who works with studio drummer Eddie Bayers. Malkin is a well-known drum photographer in his own right with innumerable photo credits in top magazines (including the article you’re reading). He also maintains a band of his own and performs regularly in the clubs around town. If you want a model for how to make a living mixing several drum-related careers, Malkin’s your man (615-833-8568).

Outside Tootsies Orchid Lounge.

Outside Tootsies Orchid Lounge.

Nashville drumming legend Buddy Harmon.

Nashville drumming legend Buddy Harmon.

From The Log Cabin (above) to Reba McIntire’s Starstruck, recording studios come in all shapes and sizes.

From The Log Cabin (above) to Reba McIntire’s Starstruck, recording studios come in all shapes and sizes.


The recording industry in Nashville is highly unionized and stratified. Grade “A” master-level sessions are generally produced for major labels and incorporate a cutting crew hand-picked by the producer. A handful of drummers do the majority of these sessions. Probably the most prominent Nashville studio players right now are Paul Leim, Lonnie Wilson, Eddie Bayers, Greg Morrow, Chad Cromwell and Kenny Aronoff. Dave Mattacks occasionally pops in for a session or two, but he’s one of London’s top session drummers, so they don’t let him out much. Most drummers at this level typically earn double scale (approximately $600 for a two-hour session), but triple scale is not unheard of. Since an album can either be cut in a single day or over several sessions, whenever the clock ticks into another session, it’s money time again!

Lesser recording sessions that may or may not be for a major label carry the “B” or “C” status. Some of the drummers who knock out the majority of these dates are Gerry Kroon, Tommy Wells, Terry Feller, Brian Barnett, Owen Hale, Milton Sledge and John Gardner. Even though these guys are single-scale players, they’ve also played on many platinum records that were recorded under less costly circumstances. In other words, your value as a player hinges on the sheer volume of high-profile work you’ve contributed to.

Sidemen also get the standard single scale rate (approximately $300 per session) on master sessions, but the session leader earns double that amount. The session leader also handles the paperwork for the union and the session, makes sure that the charts are written out and directs the musicians according to the producer’s requests. All union sessions have additional payment for “health and welfare” at $16.50 a session, and pension payments that equal ten percent of the scale rate. Drummers who carry their own gear get a cartage allowance ($12 for single-scale sessions), although many producers will agree to cover cartage fees.

A definite hierarchy applies to each type of session, starting with demo and custom record sessions, which pay approximately $45 per hour with a two-hour minimum. There is also a “Custom Records” scale, “Limited Pressing” scale (for recordings intended to sell less than 10,000 copies), and “Low Budget” scale (a budget of $125,000 or less for entire album) ranging from $150 to $185 per session.

Many people overlook the fact that the Christian music industry is as big in Nashville as country music. Paul Leim, John Hammond, Steve Brewster, Chris McHugh, Scott Williams and Dan Huff rule the high-end Christian recording scene. Brewster also holds down the house drummer position on the top rated Prime Time Country television show, which is another story in itself. Think “Letterman for country fans.”

You might be surprised to learn how lucrative the commercial jingle business can be in Nashville, since the player receives a residual payment every time the ad appears on television or radio. If you play on a jingle session that produces four separate ads that run for a while, you could recognize a substantial income from residuals, which is why some of the top players like jingles every bit as much as album projects. Jingles pay only $92 per hour with a two-hour minimum, but when you add up the first use and residual payments, some commercials can earn upwards of $10,000 on a single jingle!

Since there are literally hundreds of sessions logged each day in Nashville, it’s fair to say that demos represent the lion’s share of recording work. Don’t forget that you need to be well versed in the Nashville Numbers system. If you’re not familiar with the system, you’d be well advised to read up on it or take a class or two with someone familiar with it. Gerry Kroon and Tommy Wells teach a six-week course in studio techniques at NPI (see school section), which includes extensive coverage of the numbers system for drummers.


Want to work for a drum company? Nashville has three of the biggest. The headquarters for Pearl’s U.S. operations and warehouse is located just a few minutes from downtown in an unobtrusive office/warehouse (349 Metroplex Dr., 615-833-4477). The Slingerland Drum Company makes its home (and all of the cool drums) on the lower floor of the Original Acoustic Instrument (Gibson) building in the heart of downtown at the corner of 11th and Church (615-256-1523). A little further out in LaVergne, Tennessee, you’ll find the U.S. distribution office for Mapex Drums (1248 Heil Quaker Bl., 615-793-2050). All Mapex drums sold in the United States come through this warehouse, which also has offices for the sales and administrative staff. TreeWorks is a smaller manufacturer that builds wind chimes and a variety of other effects, and JohnnyraBB Drumsticks (750 Cowan St., 615-248-9992) makes a full line of drum sticks in standard maple, hickory and oak, as well as exotic woods like wenge and rosewood.


For a long time there were two or more professional drum shops in Nashville. All but one has disappeared in the past three years. Fork’s Drum Closet (2701 12th Avenue South, 615-383-8343), owned by drummer Gary Forkum, holds the title of oldest and most respected drum shop in Nashville. It continues to be the pro shop of choice for most working drummers in town, and features a well-rounded group of private instructors to accommodate beginners. Trey Gray (drummer with Faith Hill) is usually located behind the counter at Fork’s if he’s in town for more than a day, and many other Nashville drummers have worked at Fork’s at some point. Besides having the best stocked pro shop in town for new and used gear, Forkum also displays his vast collection of Slingerland snare drums in exotic finishes along with a few rare vintage kits.

Mars and Thoroughbred have been open for almost a year now, and feature very well stocked drum shops and top-notch drum teachers. Between the two of them, you can find almost every major brand of drum and percussion equipment. They’re both big, expansive superstores, but once you get to know their salespeople, you can get a really good deal. Mars is located in the 100 Oaks Mall off Highway 65 South, (615-463-3208). Thoroughbred is located in the northern suburban Rivergate/Madison area at the intersection of Myatt Drive and Gallatin Road (615-860-7475).

If you’re a vintage hound or just like used gear, Broadway Music (a consignment store) is a good place to buy and sell. With a well-stocked drum department and reasonable prices, they fill the niche for bottom feeders in the drumming food chain as well as a few top feeders who just like older stuff.


If you’re a drum instructor, you’ll find plenty of options in Nashville. Whether you prefer the structure of a set curriculum or the freedom of private lessons through a music store or in your own studio, teaching drum lessons is a time honored way to gainfully employ yourself without suffering the pain and stigma of having taken a “real job.”

To earn a degree in music, Nashville hosts two local universities that cover standard secondary educational options. The Blair School of Music (2400 Blakemore Ave., 615-322-7651) – an offshoot of Vanderbuilt University – follows a traditional curriculum centered around classical music. BelMont University (1900 Belmont Blvd., 615-460-6000) features a “music industry curriculum,” and develops musicians for the recording business.

Nashville’s only real drum school is The Nashville Percussion Institute (1/2 block west of 16th and Church, 615-313-9000). Headed by Boo McAfee (Eric Hamilton Band, Junior Brown), it offers courses and private instruction designed to develop skills needed to survive in the “real” music world. The drum school combined with partner ventures, the Nashville Jazz Institute and Nashville Bass Institute (featuring Victor Wooten), come together to form (you guessed it) Nashville Musicians Institute (NMI). Did I mention that they have a bulletin board?


Nashville is home to three events of interest to drummers. First of all, the Percussive Arts Society sponsors a Day of Percussion every year (this year it was in April). The summer features a blowout of events on the weekend of July 24 and 25. To take advantage of the crowd of music industry people in town for the NAMM show, on Saturday, July 24, NPI presents its Summer Extravaganza (615-313-9000), and Sunday, July 25, brings the Third Annual Southern Vintage and Custom Drum Show and the Snare Drum Olympics to town. For info and/or booth reservations for the Vintage & Custom Show or the Snare Drum Olympics, call 615-244-6763.

Think I’ll Stick Around, After All. Well, that’s about it. Nashville really is a cool place to hang, and if you’re serious about working in the drumming community, it’s a great place to start. Be sure to stop by next time you’re passing through!