Peter Huttlinger '84: Favored-Nations Status
By Mark Small
Peter Huttlinger '84
After the first notes of the scorching opener on Peter Huttlinger's latest CD Naked Pop, discerning listeners will know instantly that they are hearing a major player. Huttlinger's solo acoustic guitar disc is full of pleasant surprises. From the galloping bluegrass-tinged original "Brown Bomber" to Steely Dan's "Josie," to Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed," to the hymn tune "'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus," and his Latin-flavored rendition of "Over the Rainbow," Huttlinger's arrangements are clever and appealing, and flawlessly executed.
While Huttlinger has chops to burn, he's no hollow guitar technician. Well aware that technique and flashiness have their placeknowing when to bust loose and when to play it prettyhas kept Huttlinger in demand as a Nashville session player, sideman, and solo artist. After fellow guitar heavyweight Steve Vai '79 heard Huttlinger's music, he was impressed enough to add him to the growing roster of acoustic guitarists on Vai's Favored Nations record label (www.favorednationsacoustic.com).
Huttlinger says that he learned important lessons about both dazzling and connecting with listeners early on. He tells a story from his Berklee days of how he and fellow student Jeff Troxel '83 would play at the Harvard Square subway stop and return to their dorm rooms clanking with coin. "Jeff played guitar and I played banjo," Huttlinger recalled. "We'd go to Harvard Square every Friday morningFriday is payday for many peopleand we'd stay all day. We knew about 25 songs, but 10 of them were 'the money tunes.' We played what people responded tobluegrass tunes like 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown' and 'Rocky Top.'" Other friends of theirs tried to duplicate the feat, but never got the same remuneration. Huttlinger and Troxel routinely netted a couple hundred dollars for the day. That was "serious money for college students in the early eighties" according to Huttlinger.
Born in Washington, D.C., Huttlinger spent many years in Northern California before moving to North Carolina during his late teen years. Like many, he was exposed to music by family members. His mother was a pianist and his older sister's husband was a banjo player. Both had an effect on him. Huttlinger started playing the banjo at 11 and later took up classical guitar. "When I came to Berklee, I was an acoustic player," Huttlinger said. "Shortly after I arrived though, I went out and bought a hollow-body jazz guitar and an amp and immersed myself in electric guitar. I was in Mike Ihde's rock and country ensembles and studied with Bret Willmott and Joe Rogers."
After earning his Professional Music degree in 1984, Huttlinger and his wife Rhonda loaded up their car and headed to Nashville. As they approached the city, they tuned in to a talk radio show that had Chet Atkins on the air as a guest. Huttlinger got to a phone, called the station, and actually got through to Nashville's legendary Country Gentleman. Huttlinger said, "Chet, I'm a guitar player who just moved to town 30 seconds ago. What do you suggest I do? He told me to go out and play and network."
While Huttlinger would have preferred to hear something like, "Why don't you stop by my office, son, and I'll introduce you around," he did heed Chet's advice and took a gig at the Opryland USA Theme Park. It was good steady work and introduced him to the circle of players who wanted to stay in town rather than go out on the road.
After several years of working at getting established, Kris O'Connor, John Denver's tour manager and producer, heard Huttlinger play in 1994. He was so impressed that he recommended him for Denver's band. Huttlinger toured the world, recorded, and performed on television with Denver. Working steadily with Denver, Huttlinger had played a gig with Denver just two weeks before the singer's untimely death in 1997.
Huttlinger has managed to stay in demand in the highly competitive Nashville studio scene. Contractors call him because of his playing abilities, but Huttlinger has found other ways to stand out from the crowd. "There is a small number of guys getting the work here these days," Huttlinger said. "I am called to play acoustic guitar mostly. Most people don't know that I also play banjo and mandolin, so I bring them to the session and pull them out if I think a track might need that sound. I also bring my own mic preamps and mics. Sometimes my equipment is better than that in the studio. An engineer's eyes light up when you walk in with an Avalon or UA mic preamp and a pair of Neumann mics. I have seen my work increase because of that."
Huttlinger also has built a studio at his home with cable Internet connections so that he can tap into sessions far from Nashville. "A guy from Colorado who had cut eight jingles with an orchestra recently called me after the guitarist on his session bombed," said Huttlinger. "He sent me the tracks and I dumped them into my Pro Tools setup, put my tracks down, and sent them back to him. I think that this approach is changing the face of recording."
To date, Huttlinger has performed on several Grammy-winning and Grammy-nominated projects. Last year he toured with singer LeAnn Rimes, and backed James Taylor and Neil Young at a California benefit concert. He also has been nominated for an Emmy for music he composed and performed for a PBS special. Huttlinger's music has been used in several national TV series, including the PBS nature special Let This Be a Voice and as the theme song for ESPN's Fly Fishing America show. An avid fly- fisher himself, Huttlinger recently made a "guest fisherman" appearance on the show.
Huttlinger is presently doing a number of projects at home and on the road. He is making an instructional video/DVD for Homespun Tapes, beginning a summer tour with his Favored Nations Acoustic label mates, and doing sessions and writing projects. "It's great," he said. "I live in a place that feels like I am out in the country, yet I can be in downtown Nashville in 25 minutes. While I enjoy traveling, I'm not a road dog. I have found a great balance."