Breaking Out in Nashville
Berklee alumni are moving to Music City and making their mark in diverse quarters of the music industry.
Songwriting and country music are still the pillars of Nashville's music business. But Nashville's reputation as an affordable place to live with plentiful opportunities in the industry at large now lures musicians of all types. The Berklee alumni profiled below are examples of the recent influx of young music professionals to Nashville, and they're adding additional color, texture, and dimension to the sounds of the Music City.
|Natalie Stovall '04
Natalie Stovall '04 has aspired to the stage since she was a toddler. She began taking violin and acting lessons at three and started appearing in commercials at six. Unlike others profiled in this article who have adopted the Music City as their home, Stovall grew up in Columbia, Tennessee, an hour outside of Nashville. Throughout her youth, she sang at shows at the Opryland theme park and the Gaylord Opryland hotel. "I'm a real ham," she says. "You can't keep me away from the stage."
That's the right attitude for Stovall, who is determined to break out as an artist in Nashville. After leaving Berklee, Stovall returned home and, within a few months, began making plans for her first solo album. Stovall will release the disc Late Night Conversations independently this summer. She tapped two Berklee friends, Ben Strano '01 and James Bavendam '04, to handle the engineering and production chores. They helped Stovall assemble top session players and craft an album that draws the listener into her instantly appealing musical world. The music has a punch of rock, a hint of r&b, and enough twang to please country fans.
Front and center are Stovall's powerful vocals, and on some tracks she plays her fiddle. Ten of the album's cuts are her originals. In a departure from Nashville protocol, she declined cowriting assistance and didn't seek a publishing deal to provide extra income and awareness among the big labels. "People encouraged me to try for a publishing deal while I was going through this process," Stovall says. "Maybe I am selfish about my songs, but if the material is strong enough to go on an album, I want it on my own!"
She decided to do her album independently without a label. "I didn't want to be constrained by thinking about what would work on country radio," Stovall says. "But of course, I hope the album will be perceived as commercial. The music has taken a turn toward r&b and soul, even though there is steel guitar, mandolin, or fiddle on every tune. I'm proud of the record I've made. It really represents what I'm writing." (To hear selections, visit www.nataliestovall.com.)
The hardworking Stovall plays weekends with her five-piece band and freelances as a session singer and extra in music videos and films. She financed the CD herself with an infusion of cash from her parents as funds ran low. While she's worked hard to complete the disc, she knows that perhaps the hardest tasks lie ahead. "I'm working with a manager to get a grass-roots PR campaign and get some reviews," she says. "I didn't cut corners for the website, photography, or album art. Now everything is ready. My band has two clubs that are our home base, and we're developing a following and an e-mail fan list. I'm talking to agents about a college tour."
Hitting the road is both the most romantic and grueling part of launching an act. Typically, a neophyte band traverses the country in a van hauling its gear from gig to gig. But Stovall doesn't shrink from the task. "I'm totally ready to pack up and live out of a suitcase and a van."
|Casey Driessen '00
Pushing the Envelope
"My original thought was, just make the record at my house," says fiddler Casey Driessen '00, about his new release, 3D. "That was before I was offered a record deal with Sugar Hill. Next, I called Jason Lehning ['94] to produce it, and we decided to call in some friends to play." Those "friends" include world-class musicians like banjoist Bela Fleck, dobro player Jerry Douglas, bassist Victor Krauss, percussionist Jamie Haddad, and multi-instrumentalist Tim O'Brien. The new CD is a top-notch showcase for the eclectic Driessen, who has found his niche among the progressive acoustic musicians of Nashville.
The offer from Sugar Hill is typical of how things have unfolded for Driessen. The label approached him about the album after hearing his work with other artists on their roster. The distinctive sound of his five-string fiddle and his ability to improvise fluidly in almost any musical situation have opened doors for him. People hear him play, and before long, his phone is ringing.
Growing up in the Chicago area, Driessen played traditional music and made the rounds at bluegrass festivals, playing with his father, a guitarist, banjo player, and pedal steel guitarist. In 1995, Driessen switched to the five-string fiddle after running into a craftsman who built them. "I'm always experimenting, finding new places to go musically," Driessen says. "When I heard that lower string, I fell in love with it. I finally had the range to play Charlie Parker's tunes."
Driessen came to Berklee after meeting String Department Chair Matt Glaser at Mark O'Connor's Fiddle Camp. The summer before he finished Berklee, Driessen got a call from Tim O'Brien to join a tour with Steve Earle's bluegrass band. "I moved to Nashville for the summer to see if it might be the place for me to go after Berklee," says Driessen. Discovering a great community of musicians and a very high level of musicianship, Driessen decided he'd return there to launch his career. "In Nashville, there are great players on a number of different instruments-especially in the progressive acoustic field. They all push the envelope and keep you on your game."
Since moving to Nashville in 2000, Driessen has been a busy sideman with such acts as Bela Fleck's acoustic trio, Lee Ann Womack, Nickel Creek, Darrell Scott, and many more. The tours have taken him around the country and to Scotland, Ireland, England, Denmark, Finland, and China. Together with banjo player Abigail Washburn, he will take part in an upcoming American cultural mission to Tibet. "I enjoy getting to play with musicians from elsewhere," Driessen says. "Traveling and sharing folk music from other cultures makes the world seem like a smaller place."
Driessen intends to stay a while in Nashville. It's a great town for a fiddle player. Riding the buzz about his new album, he's gotten opportunities to go out as a bandleader. "I've done 10 shows of my own, and it's really fun," he says. "I hope to attract an audience with my own music, but I won't make that the only thing I do. It's too much fun playing with different folks down here." (For more information, visit www.caseydriessen.com.)
|Jason Lehning '94
Jason Lehning '94, son of veteran country producer Kyle Lehning (who has worked with Randy Travis, Kenny Rogers, George Jones, and Waylon Jennings), earned his Berklee degree in music production and engineering. The younger Lehning, a keyboardist, grew up around music and Nashville, returning to the Music City in 1994 after graduation. He moved into a house with members of the band he'd played with in high school to keep his expenses manageable.
Having a father in the business helped him get work as an assistant engineer initially, but Lehning easily proved himself on his own merits. "I got work as an assistant engineer right away," he says. "I worked for my dad and producers Gary Paczosa and Bill Schnee. I had low overhead, so even if I only worked three days a month, I could still pay the rent. I enjoyed assisting, and as I got better at it, I got more calls.
"Being an assistant engineer is hard because there are hours of sheer boredom interspersed with spurts of total mayhem," he says. "After being an assistant for about two years, I realized it was time for me to become a first engineer. I stopped taking assisting jobs, and things got really quiet for about six months." Things turned around soon enough, though, and Lehning was getting calls to be a first engineer. His engineering credits include work for such artists as Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek, Lyle Lovett, Brad Paisley, Toby Keith, and Randy Travis (with whom he has earned two Grammy Awards). In 2004, Lehning earned credits on 17 records.
He is moving more toward writing songs and producing these days. He applied all his skills as a producer, engineer, keyboardist, and writer for his own band, the Bees, on their High Society CD, which was released in April. He also placed a song cowritten with David Mead on the TV show Everwood.
As mentioned, Lehning was the producer for Casey Driessen's CD 3D, and in March he flew to Woodstock, New York, to produce a new project for Garth Hudson of the Band. From there, he went to Los Angeles to record a solo project by bassist Victor Krauss. "As much as I enjoy engineering, it's a craft or work for hire," says Lehning. "For me, producing is a real love and more creative. I'll do spec work as a producer; I think you have to. Sometimes I feel that the artist will get signed, and there is a production deal in place. Other times, I do a project just because I really love the music and I'm proud to be involved with it."
Lehning thinks that the scene in Nashville is a lot more varied stylistically than people suppose. "Nashville doesn't feel like it is just a country music town anymore," he says. "Bands like Guster and Kings of Leon are making records here, and a lot of pop and rock music is recorded here. But if someone wants to work exclusively on rock records, he or she should go to L.A. I love it here. I've been lucky to work with great people, make the music I like, and work on my own terms." (For more information, visit www.jasonlehning.com.)
|Elaine Nurse '04|
Called to the Work
Elaine Nurse '04 grew up in Denver but settled in the Nashville area after getting a glimpse of the business during her internship at EMI Christian Music Group. Nurse earned her Berklee degree with a double major in music production and engineering and music business/management. Nurse made the transition to the real world when EMI Gospel offered her a full-time position at the end of her internship.
While Nashville is known as the home of country music, it's also the locus for the Christian music industry. EMI Christian Music Group contains the Sparrow, ForeFront, Gotee, and Tooth and Nail labels, and EMI handles 70 percent of all Christian record distribution. A dedicated Christian herself, Nurse has a special affinity for her job as a national promotions specialist at EMI Gospel. She works with the label's black Christian artists and gospel choirs. EMI Gospel is another small label in the company with a staff of just eight people. "It was good for me to start with such a small staff," Nurse says. "I get to see what goes on in A&R, sales, retail, and radio. I get a taste of everything. It's been great to sit in on meetings where the complete marketing plan is discussed."
Nurse's responsibilities encompass managing new media and digital promotions. "That includes online marketing and artist imaging, banner ads, artist MySpace sites, and other avenues for getting the word out about CDs and performances by EMI Gospel artists," she says. "I also manage the www.emigospel.com website. The Internet is such a powerful tool these days for connecting artists with their fan base."
Working at a company like EMI has given Nurse valuable business experience. "I didn't know the meaning of multitasking until I got here," she says. "When you're doing marketing for a new release, you have to stay ahead of the record. New media is all about building up grass-roots support before a record comes out. I have to be scheduling things four months in advance."
Nurse has kept her hands and ears in the actual production of music. "I love doing new media, but I also get the chance to go into the studio and give my input on rough mixes. I can understand the concept and hear where it's going. Part of the beauty of being on a small staff is that they want my opinion." She keeps her engineering chops up by doing live sound for a large band at her church. And her friends who work at major studios keep her up to date on the latest recording technology.
Nurse hopes to one day work in A&R, but not yet. "I feel there is still a lot more for me to learn on the marketing side," she says. "I want to see urban-inspirational music-hip-hop with a positive message-grow. I couldn't be at a better label to do that. There are some people in this industry who are straight businesspeople, but I am in this for the ministry. I feel this is what God has called me to do."
|Mark Dreyer '90
Many Irons in the Fire
"You'll run into a lot of broke musicians, but I'm not one of them," says Mark Dreyer '90 in a strong Southern drawl. "I like to work a lot." Dreyer is a hot guitarist first and foremost, but also an enterprising businessman with many irons in the fire. Dreyer came to Berklee from Alabama in 1985 and spent the next five years pursuing a double major in film scoring and performance. After graduating, he moved to Nashville in 1990 with a promise of a gig that fell through soon after he arrived. Undaunted, Dreyer decided to make a go of it. "I got 1,000 business cards made up and began sitting in on jam nights at the clubs," Dreyer says. "Within four months, I'd given out all of those cards, and pretty soon I had all kinds of work as a guitar player. To work in this town, you have to get yourself out there. You can't just sit around waiting for the phone to ring."
Dreyer started working for Gaylord Entertainment at the Opryland theme park and Grand Ole Opry, performing with one of its top acts, fiddler Tim Watson and Black Creek. Dreyer also got hired to back numerous the Grand Ole Opry stars. "I do 250 to 280 dates per year with Gaylord," Dreyer says. "I play with Tim on the General Jackson, a boat that cruises up and down the Cumberland River almost every day. That's a gig I've done since 1990."
Like many in Nashville, Dreyer tried his hand at songwriting, collaborating with established tunesmiths. "I've written with Hank Cochran, Jim Foster, Mark Peterson, and others," he says. "I have about 60 songs cowritten with big songwriters in my publishing catalog," he says. The song "I Know You Hear Me, but Are You Listening?" which he wrote with Beverly Ross, was recorded in 1996 by Engelbert Humperdinck. Dreyer also wrote songs for television. But he didn't get a toehold in the songwriting field, so he moved on to other pursuits.
"I'm always playing, but these days I earn the best part of my living making records and producing artists. I fell into recording and producing and opened up Studio 23 about 15 years ago." Dreyer routinely records demo sessions for hit songwriters as well as up-and-coming artists. He keeps a video camera running in the studio and streams it on his website for anyone interested in how sessions run in Nashville. (For more information, visit www.nashvilleconnection.com.) Additionally, Dreyer has a cable TV show called Traveling Music Television and produces the RCC Western Stores Talent Search.
As if that's not enough, Dreyer publishes the Nashville Music Business Directory. The book is included with the Nashville Chamber of Commerce packages and is highly regarded on Music Row. The 130-page volume lists studios, music publishers, managers, CD manufacturers, and much more.
"The first thing any musician new to Nashville should do is get a copy of the directory," says Dreyer. "It's got the contact information for the people you need to know here." And Mark Dreyer is among those who newcomers may want to contact (email@example.com). He's always looking for studio engineers, video editors, and singing guitarists who can sub for him at a moment's notice when he sees a new opportunity arising.