NMG Musicians Spotlight - Kenny Malone
©2009 By Bronson Herrmuth
Kenny Malone has been playing drums since he was 5 years old and he's now 71. One of the most recorded drummers of all time, he is the consumate percussionist and he moves freely from genre to genre without missing a beat. He's played on hundreds of albums with some of the greatest artists and songwriters of all time. A partial list of credits include names like: Joan Baez, Sam Bush, Garth Brooks, Carl Perkins, Barefoot Jerry, Charlie McCoy, Doug Kershaw, Doc Watson, Townes Van Zandt, Dobie Gray, MIckey Newbury, Tony Joe White, Lee Clayton, Billy Joe Shaver, Kinky Friedman, John Prine, Dave Loggins, Buffy Sainte-Marie, J.J. Cale Waylon Jennings, Ronnie Milsap, John Hartford, Gene Cotton, Amy Grant, Don Everly, Vern Gosdin, Dillard-Hartford-Dillard, New Grass Revival, Lacy J. Dalton, Johnny Cash, Crytal Gayle, John Anderson, Emmylou Harris, Keith Whitley, B.J. Thomas, Bela Fleck, Nanci Griffith, Marty Stuart, Mark O'Connor, Marty Robbins, Charley Pride, George Jones, Merle Haggard, and on and on and on.
The following is taken from a 20 minute interview while sitting in my car in Nashville on May 30, 2009. Meet Kenny Malone.
You can also listen to this entire interview:
Part 1 of 4 (13 MB) mp3
Part 2 of 4 (10 MB) mp3
Part 3 of 4 (13.4 MB) mp3
Part 4 of 4 (12.4 MB) mp3
Bronson: You've had quite a career. You've recorded on over 300 albums and played with everybody. Where are you originally from?
Kenny Malone: Denver, Colorado. I came to Nashville in 1970 after 14 years in the Navy. I was playing in bands the whole time and I went to sea in a unit band for about a year and a half and then went to the Navy band in Washington, DC, and then for the last six or seven years I became an instructor at the school of music for the armed forces, Army, Navy, and Marine Corp. I had the percussion department.
Bronson: So what prompted you to move to Nashville?
Kenny Malone: I didn't want to raise my children in New York or LA or any of those other metropolitan places, I thought Nashville was a small town, you know, two or three main streets (laughing) I knew nothing about it.
Bronson: Who taught you to play drums?
Kenny Malone: I had some great teachers, two of them. George Roy was one name and I joined a boys band called the Denver Junior Police Band. That's where I learned from scratch, I mean how to read music, music notation. While he taught the whole band at one time, when we learned how to hold drum sticks we also had to learn to name and play all of our scales and chords in every key so we learned music along with the band, not just drummin so it was really an education. At the same time I was taking private lessons from a marimba teacher, Charlie Watts, and that's where I learned marimba and xylophone, those kind of instruments. Then when I went in the Navy and auditioned to get into the Navy music program I could read anything, it was real easy for me.
Bronson: So when you came to Nashville, all of us when we come here, we have to meet someone to get started out?
Kenny Malone: I knew a guy named Ron Oates and he was a piano player in the navy and all the piano players had to learn to play a marching instrument. I had taught him bass drum and cymbals and he was one of my students. He was the only name I had so when I got here I called him up and he took me out and kinda intoduced me around to different sessions that he was playing and that's how I got my first few demo sessions is with that rythym section. It was Bobby Dyson, Jim Colvard, Bobby Thompson, were the main guys. We played a lot of little demos and things over the course of a few months and then my first master session was with Carl Perkins. Shortly after that I did "Drift Away" and Don Williams, "Amanda". They kinda became a hit at the same time and then it just started you know, all the time.
Bronson: After all those sessions you've done is there anybody that you haven't played with that you'd like to play with?
Kenny Malone: I'd like to play with Nancy Wilson someday and also, I love her singing, is Barbara Streisand, oh my god. Those are primarily the two that I would like to record with.
Bronson: When you think Kenny Malone, you obviously think drums but you think so many other instruments. You bring so much to a session I would have to think of you as a percussionist if I had to say the one word that would describe what it is you do. You play everything.
Kenny Malone: The whole world is a drum to me.
Bronson: Have you ever thought about any other instruments?
Kenny Malone: I took three piano lessons and decided it wasn't for me when I was a kid. I knew when I was five I wanted to play drums and that's all I ever did. I mean I've done that for sixty six years, I'm 71 right now but all my life I've been playing. I'll bang around on everything you know 'cause that's the fun of it, finding out what type of sound you have. When I first asked Jack Clement what he wanted me to play on something, he says, "I don't care what you play as long as it sounds good."
Bronson: And that's been the philosophy you've taken into it?
Kenny Malone: Yeah, I'll play paint cans or anything that makes the sound of the record, you know, that makes it match the attitude of the record.
(Authors Note: Check out Mr. Kenny Malone in Action in 2011)
Bronson: I've had the honor of going into the studio as producer with you on a session on more than one occasion. I had met you through Johnny Drake of course and Pete Drake, but I had never worked with you in the studio and I remember that when we went in that you came to the session, the very first thing you said to me, you wanted to know what the artist wanted from it. You wanted to know what the artist conceptually what we were going for from the artist, from the song we were going to be recording. You were really concerned, it wasn't a matter of just coming in and I'm going to keep time, you wanted to bring something of yourself to the session.
Kenny Malone: Yeah and I always ask for a copy of the lyrics because the lyrics tell me what attitude to play this song with. To me everybody in the band is a like an actor on a stage and the lead vocal does nothing but tell the story and we support that story and we paint a picture in the background that matches that story. So if it's a sad story if I go at it with a happy attitude it isn't going to match so I really have to access those emotions of the lyrics at the moment to tell me how to hit the drums. Whether it's a sad song or a sensous song or a violent song you know? How I'm going to play those drums because that's one of the key points, being able to play with dynamics which is something that is missing in our music today. It's all compressed on the top end and from the bottom and you have a big wide band of sound and dynamics have seem to have gone by the wayside someplace.
Bronson: You've played so many different kinds of music, I mean you've worked with New Grass Revival and you've worked with Joan Baez, we could talk for an hour, two hours, three hours, just trying to remember all those great sessions but there's so many different genres. Is their one genre that this is your music that you just love to play?
Kenny Malone: I grew up with jazz, that was my first love when I was a kid. I heard Dixieland music and when I was five years old that's when I decided I wanted to play drums and it was because of Dixieland music. Plus classical music you know I love classical music also. I'd never listened to country music before I got here. If I ever heard it coming on the radio I'd just turn it off because that wasn't where I was coming from but when I started recording with Don Williams and those people, I actually heard the lyrics for the first time, I mean what the story was about. I always used to treat the vocalist as just another horn that could change sibulence and vowel sounds and things but it was just another horn, I didn't pay any attention to what the songs were saying. So that's what was a big turning point in my career, when I was on a demo session one day and producer, Bob Montgomery. I'm back there wailing away on the cymbals and everything and he stops the band and says, "What are you doing back there? I don't need all of that stuff. You can pack up your cymbals, all I need is a kick drum and a back beat. That's all I want.", and from that moment I started really hearing each note and how that note led to another note and they were all connected. They weren't separate anymore and each note and each direction of the notes had a different texture and gravity and things. It's how you lead to and from each note that gives it it's character and that's what makes music come alive and that's part of the dynamics also.
Bronson: You've worked with so many producers. Was there a producer that taught you as a producer, someone that you grew from?
Kenny Malone: Jack Clement, he was one of the main ones because he's a firm believer that you can make a hit record in three minutes you know. I've recorded with a lot of different styles of producers, the best ones hire the people that they want to play and then let them play and if there's a problem or something, then step in and figure it out together. Allen Reynolds was great at that, he was Garth Brooks producer and Crystal Gayle and he wouldn't say much, he'd just let you play and that's the main function of a producer. He's producing a record, a product, but the musicians are the ones that are all congealing into one idea of that song, building that sound stage for that song. It's fascinating to me, every one of the producers was a different style like Billy Sherril, he used to produce George Jones and Ray Charles and all these different people. Sometimes the band would get in a big discussion out there about something about a song and he'd come on the intercom and say, "What's all that cerebal crap out there? Just play the damn song." (laughing) That was Billy Sherril, he was real straight ahead but he would figure out one thing in a song to make it just come alive, like a modulation unexpected or a break, a little thing, but he had a good ear for that. A good understanding.
Bronson: Now we have all this new technology and you've been working on a DVD. Tell me a little bit about what that is.
Kenny Malone: It's an instructional DVD on hand drumming and how to play hand drums with like conga and djembe and these different hand drums that fit so well acoustically with acoustic instruments. I fell in love with them when I started playing them with Don Williams, all these different percussion instruments. It was fun and I've put together a DVD that shows from the beginning how to begin playing hand drums where you can teach yourself and see these things. They're really simple and I'm really proud of it. I think it's gonna be a great DVD.
Bronson: When do you think that's going to be available for people?
Kenny Malone: Probably no later than the end of June, 2009. It's in the final edit and it's really neat man.
Bronson: A lot of folks new to Nashville are always wanting to know what they could to to get into the studio world, whatever instrument it is they may play. You got any advise for anybody what you do when you come to town? How to to get in the door?
Kenny Malone: Play music with as many people as you possibly can play with in as many different styles as you can play. Demos and things aren't so important because not many people actually sit down and listen to somebodys demo when they come in and have a demo of themselves playing. They don't have time for one thing and it's hard to tell, you know. Most of the job is compatibility and how you get along with other musicians, like after you can play, 90% of it is whether you can have fun together on a session.
Bronson: I know that for a certain amount of time you were with the Tone Patrol. Tell me a little bit about the Tone Patrol.
Kenny Malone: That was a fun band to play with. Dave Pomeroy, Sam Bacco, Kirby Shelstad, we used to play jazz at Douglas Corner. We played there for about a year and we recorded every night that we played there and Dave somehow managed to edit all that music and just kept the solos that we did on these songs, didn't use any of the songs, just the solos and edited them all together and made this CD which goes on for fourty five minutes and it's like free jazz. We had everybody you know, like Sam Bush would come and sit in with us and stuff. It was a lot of fun man, it was an experimental band and we played music that we wanted to play just for kicks.
Bronson: So live playing and studio playing. Do you prefer one over the other?
Kenny Malone: No, at one time in the seventies for a long time I was just doing studio work and not any live playing and it about drove me crazy. In fact I got to the point I had burn out and I just quit, I said I don't know where I'm going but I want to start a jazz group. So Charles Cochran and Joe Allen and myself we started a little jazz trio and went down to Key West and played in a little jazz club down there, Captain Hornblowers, and Crystal Gayle came and sang with us one Saturday night and we ended up going with her for a year on the road you know, just all over. We had fun man playing and after the concerts and stuff we'd look for places to play and that helped me decide that I really need to play live because the audience is what gives it a immediate purpose to you. There's not fixing it in the mix and there's not any later on we'll make it right. It's right now, the performance, and that brings my awareness to the present which is key for listening with your big ears. The present to me when you're playing, when you really get yourself out of the way, is when you listen to everything at one time and figure out what it's really sounding like and you don't know where it's gonna go and you don't know where's it been because you don't have time to focus on memory or future. All you have is present, right now, and that's what I love about jazz. You have a framework that you play from, chord structure, etc., but the real magic happens when you get yourself out of the way and you become the attitude, become the song, become the lyrics, and that's when the magic happens and the music starts playing you. You don't play the music, I mean you're just hanging on to whatever instrument you have you know. That's all you can focus on, you can't remember what you played after you played it because it goes by so fast. You're just a witness to what's being played.
Bronson: I asked Charlie McCoy one time if he'd show me some licks and he said, "Just buy the records.", and then a little bit later he came back to me and he said, "I wasn't trying to be rude when I said that but I couldn't tell you what I played."
Kenny Malone: No, because you're responding to other influences like you're responding to an idea that's being played by somebody else. So you respond in your way and then you pass the ball on to somebody else and it's like the whole band shares that. That's why I got so excited about starting my own jazz group because the first time that happened to me I was fourty years old and we were over at Cowboy's. Our kids were starting a little rock and roll band and we were trying to show them what it would be like after you could communicate with each other and play. Charles and I and Joe hadn't been together in seven years at that time and then all the sudden, Bam, we played seven songs or so that were absolutely perfect, I mean perfect. You couldn't recreate it because it would be different every time you played it but it played us and we were playing with each other from each other. That's what I had to find and every time I looked for that it wasn't there because I'd be trying too hard you know, to get myself out of the way, or trying to hard to reach the magic point of communication 'cause it happens boy and when it happens it's the most beautiful freedom that ever happens to a musician. It's just this sharing and it's what's kept me in love with it.
Bronson: So now we're into all this new techology, 2009. So you're going to have a web site pretty soon or do you have a web site already?
Kenny Malone: Yes he's started building it. It's www.hand-drumming.com and you can just type in hand drumming and it will be the same thing or one of those. He's building the site now with different things that I've put together.
Bronson: So that's going to be opening for business at the same time that your DVD comes out?
Kenny Malone: Yeah around the end of June, that's what we're shooting for.
Check out Kenny's personal web site www.hand-drumming.com
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