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Guitarist Ben Miller Opens the Vault for Think Country

Photo courtesy of Ben Miller

People sometimes tell me I’m a good writer.  I do alright, but I’m my own toughest critic.  I will struggle for the longest time to find exactly the right word because I think I write too plainly.  I have absolutely no “style” and as far as rules go, I don’t follow many. Aside from trying to use some semblance of decent grammar, I kind of let thoughts flow out of my brain and onto my keyboard.  If there are facts that need to be checked, I do my best to know what I’m talking about. After that, it’s a crap shoot. I put it out there and hope it turns out relatively okay. Unless I’m completely crunched for time, I’ll move mountains to take someone else’s words and create their story for them.  That’s what I do, but once in a blue moon, a friend introduces you to someone like Ben Miller.  

Thanks to my friend Zack LaChappelle, I was introduced to, and able to meet with Ben Miller on a hot, humid August day in Nashville, and had there been more time, I could have listened to him for several more hours.  Ben is a fascinating person who graciously shared some priceless stories about his life and career. After sifting through a lot of audio, I came to the conclusion that there was no way I could possibly rewrite anything he said and relay it any better than how he said it himself. 

I made some minor edits for space, but for the most part, what you’ll read is the interview in its entirety.  What I love about this most of all, is it can appeal to a wide variety of readers. Ben Miller is a guitarist, so naturally, what he talks about will interest musicians, but he touches upon so much more than just music.  He’s far and away, the easiest person I’ve ever interviewed and I am looking forward to doing a follow up in the future.  

Think Country:  “Alright, so, you were born in Tampa, Florida?”

Ben Miller:  “New Orleans, actually.  I was born in Louisiana and grew up in Tampa.  My dad got transferred for work.”

TC:  Tell me about being a kid.  Give me a typical day when you were about eight-years old or so.  

BM:  Video games.  

TC:  What was your favorite video game, or games?

BM:  It’s still my favorite, it’s Crystalis.  My favorite games were role-playing games.

TC:  Were you into, like, Dungeons & Dragons?

BM:  I wasn’t into Dungeons & Dragons because I didn’t find out about that until later in life and I think I would be a fan of that, so I stay away from it.  That, and World of Warcraft I stay away from.

TC:  What kind of music was around the house when you were young?  

BM:  Basically none.  My musical upbringing was pretty sporadic.  There were no instruments in the house. I didn’t start playing the guitar until later on.  My mom played piano, but she would just sit there and read sheet music and that was even after I started playing guitar.

BM:  It’s gonna sound funny, but my music consisted of the Star Wars soundtrack.  I had a record player and I used to play the Star Wars soundtrack.  I used to play Queen, basically anything that my mom had.  Star Wars, Queen, David Bowie, Wynonna Judd and there were a lot of Broadway musicals.  Some Elton John. I didn’t know about rock and roll music, well, I guess Queen is rock and roll.

TC:  It is.  It’s also pretty theatrical.

BM:  Fair.

TC:  When did you start playing guitar?  Most people don’t just wake up one morning and decide that’s the day they’re going to pick up the guitar.

BM:  There was definitely a moment.  

TC:  Really?

BM:  Yeah.  I was next door at my friend Matt’s house and he was playing the Superman game on Nintendo 64, terrible game, but he was hooked on it.  It’s a one-player game so I was sitting there watching it. I really liked to watch people play video games, even to this day I like to watch people play video games, but I was kinda bored because the game was kinda “eh”.  So, I noticed over in the corner, he’s got a guitar that he got for Christmas, and it was just hangin’ out over there. So, I was like, “Hey man, while you’re doin’ this, do you mind if I touch that thing?” He’s like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, go ahead”, don’t bother me.  He’s really focused on some ridiculous thing he was doing.  

BM:  So, I picked it up and it had a book with it.  It was a beginner guitar book. I was like, okay, okay, so, that’s a chord.  I think I can do this (Ben shows me some “air” chord finger placements). So, if I put this here and strum from here over, it’s a G chord, alright, that’s one in the bag.  I learned G, G7, C and D and they were really easy. The D was the hard one. It was the shape, but I was like, playing guitar is really cool. He was kind of watching me pick this up, and without sounding cocky or anything, I wanted to be the best at it.  With anything I do, if I want to do it, I want to be the best I can, and if I really want to do it, I will.  

TC:  Were there songs you could play in this book?

BM:  There were, but they were the childish songs like “Hot Cross Buns”.  I wanted to play Blink-182 and stuff. So, that’s how it started. He was like, “Did you just learn that now?”  I said, “Yes, I did.” He was like, “That’s cool. Well, we should put it away. Let’s play another one.” He was a little jealous, I think.  

BM:  So, I had to go home for dinner and I walked in the kitchen and I said, “I want a guitar.”  My parents said, “Alright, you want to come work for us?” It was tax time and they were shredding papers.  They had me shredding papers for a week and they gave me a hundred bucks. I knew I could get a guitar for a hundred bucks.  I didn’t make it through the week. As soon as I hit that hundred dollar mark, I quit. I said, “Mom, Dad, it’s been real. Let’s go to the guitar shop.”  I bought this terrible little acoustic guitar which I still have. It’s breaking, it has Sponge Bob stickers on it.  It has a Zakk Wylde Black Label Society sticker on it.  There’s a Static-X sticker on an acoustic guitar. That’s how I started.  I didn’t think it would lead me to where I am now.

Video courtesy of Ben Miller Music and YouTube

TC:  I was going to ask you that.  Did you ever, in a million years, think then, that you would make guitar a career?  

BM:  No, but I do still look at guitar the same way today, like a video game.  It’s like Tetris.  On the guitar, there’s shapes, and the way I play guitar is the same way I would play Tetris, by connecting shapes.  This looks like a staircase.  This looks like a T. This looks like a square.  This scale looks this way. There are different shapes and I connect ‘em.  So, when I was first starting off it was the same feeling, like, I wanna be really good at this, like brain fuel, and now I know all the shapes.

Image courtesy of geek.com

TC:  I’ve been watching your videos on YouTube for a week now and you’re very good, and you sing too.  You’re really a good singer as well. You can even sing Steve Perry. That’s impressive. A lot of people try to sing Steve Perry and they might be okay, but they sound like they’re singing through their nose.  You can hit those high notes. That can’t be easy.

Video courtesy of Ben Miller Music and YouTube

BM:  Well, thank you.  Steve Perry, he has my heart.  I didn’t have it to begin with.  It took a lot of practice. I want to be a better version of myself every day.  My wife taught me that.

TC:  That’s good advice.  She’s a smart woman. A beautiful woman too.  You recently got married, correct?  

Photo courtesy of Ben Miller

BM:  Yes, not that long ago.

TC:  How did you meet your wife?

BM:  Saw her from the stage in Cullman, Alabama.

TC:  No way?!  That’s so cool.  

BM:  It’s a cool story.  It was about six months before that, I had just come out of a nine-year relationship and I went through a phase.  It was bad. It was ridiculous.

TC:  One-night stands?

BM:  It was just so easy to do.  Every gig we did, especially in the southeast, his (Riley Green’s) local draw was mostly women.  It was like looking for alligators at night. You just shine a light and look for the glowing eyes and there they are.  On the way to that Cullman gig, I was just tired of it all and I had a full-blown conversation with God. I said to Him, “If this is what I’m supposed to be doing for the rest of my life, being a side guy and playing music and never being a husband and a father and playing with Riley, then so be it.”  It was really hot outside, but on the plus side, it was an Octoberfest event, so there was a lot of great beer.  

BM:  So, I was building the set and going through my checklist and Chelsea, who’s now my wife, was with her friends and she noticed me.  She says to her friends, “I’ve seen Riley Green before, but I’ve never seen him before”, talking about me. 

TC:  Did you notice her at this point?

BM:  Not yet.  I noticed her in the crowd during the show (he pulls out his phone and shows me a photo of Chelsea).  This is exactly what I saw.  

TC:  How could you not notice that?

BM:  (Beaming) Right?  I played my guitar solo and I kind of bowed to her (he demonstrated it and it included a widening of his eyes and a raise of his eyebrows).  She got a big smile on her face. I was trying to throw her guitar picks and koozies all night and she wasn’t catching ‘em. I wasn’t throwing ‘em too well.  Now, I could take your eye out with ‘em, my aim is so good. We were flirting back and forth the entire time. I was picking up after and I wanted to talk to her, I mean, I had to now, and I’m looking around for her and she’s gone!  I kind of threw my hands up and thought, “I guess that’s how it is.”

TC:  She left?

BM:  Well, Tyler, our other guitar player with all the tattoos who kinda favors Riley, comes up to me and says, “She wants you.”  Chelsea and her friends snuck backstage and were kinda hanging around where Riley and some other people were. Now she’s playin’ shy.  It was so awkward. I forgot how to shake hands! I think the first words out of my mouth were, “So, did you enjoy the show?” I asked her if she had Snapchat and I snapped her a couple times that night and she snapped me back.  

BM:  She lived in Birmingham and I lived in Nashville.  I wanted to take her out somewhere in between. I asked her if she liked steak.  She said, “I love steak.” I said, “Perfect.” We met at a steakhouse in Huntsville for our first date.  I knew when we prayed over that first meal I had to start saving up for a ring. She was sort of seeing a guy and I was sort of seeing a… I almost said I was sort of seeing a guy (he laughs).  I was sort of seeing a girl. So, within three weeks of that gig we were at the Yellowhammer Brewery in Huntsville on our first date. Three months later, we were on a date and I brought a ring in my pocket.

TC:  This is so romantic.  Maybe we can skip the rest and talk about this.

BM:  It gets funny too because I had the ring in my pocket and she says to me, “Why do you keep fiddling with your pocket?  Do you have a ring in there or something?” I said, “Ring? No, no. I don’t have a ring.” Well, we got out to the parking lot and we were standing there and her hand grazed my pocket and then there was no way of hiding it.  

TC:  Did she cry?

BM:  Oh yeah.  We both did.  It was like that scene from Hitch where Kevin James throws the inhaler before he kisses Allegra.  I had the ring in a black box and the black box was in a white box.  I chucked the white box, just like Kevin James threw the inhaler.  

Video courtesy of Eduardo Francisco and YouTube (this scene was very difficult to find completely in English, so I needed to settle for English with subtitles)

TC:  Is this on video?

BM:  Nope.

TC:  Did anyone see this happen?

BM:  Nope.  Just us and Jesus.

TC:  Very cool.  I guess everything was meant to happen the way it did.  You became a husband. Maybe a father next.

BM:  She’s pregnant right now.

TC:  You’re kidding?

BM:  Twelve weeks away.

TC:  I can’t believe it.  Do you know? Boy or a girl?  

BM:  A boy.  We’re naming him Mason.  

TC:  You must be over the moon.

BM:  We’re lost in euphoria.  She’s due right before Talladega and we’re going.  We’ll see if her water breaks there. Then the baby will know why his middle name is Ricky or Bobby.  

TC:  A baby born at the speedway, wow.  That would be something! The sheer vibration alone might get her going.  

BM:  At least one leg out.  Or a head out. He just keeps turning.  He was breech yesterday. He turned the right way today.

TC:  Well, this certainly is turning into a thing!  Congratulations to both of you. I’m really excited.  I don’t think I’ve ever been on a Think Country baby watch during an interview before.  Very cool.

Photo courtesy of Ben Miller

TC:  I guess we should talk about music, right?  We know how you started playing guitar. When did you get more serious about it?

BM:  About a week after I first got my guitar.  It was easy because it was when the internet first became a thing and I could just find the tabs and play whatever song I wanted.  I played so much, it was like the Bryan Adams song, “played until my fingers bled”. I would download every song I could and I’d attempt them.  I would practice all the time. It was serious for me from day one.

Photo courtesy of Zack LaChappelle

TC:  What about playing in a band?  

BM:  That started with me playing in my high school talent show.  I wanted to play in that and I was like, “What song should I play?”  Everyone told me I should play Van Halen’s “Eruption”.

TC:  Did you find that to be complex?

BM:  Listening to anything for the first time, it sounds complex, but after listening, listening, listening, you learn how it goes, how the pieces go together.  Then all it really came down to was finding an accurate enough version that someone had posted online. I’d sit there and dissect it and study it and I had it.

TC:  Were you good at memorizing?

BM:  Oh yeah.  Most songs I’ve had to play for demo sessions that I’m never gonna hear again, those all go away.  Songs I’ve had to play live with someone or in a band, that all stays up here (points to his head).  That never goes away.

BM:  With “Eruption”, it was pretty bitchin’ for only playing for five or six months at the time.  I did get pretty close to the edge of the stage though and I almost fell off. My dad was taking video and you can hear him on the video saying, “Don’t fall off, don’t fall off”, it’s on a CD somewhere.  I’ll have to try and find it.  

TC:  Did you fall off?  

BM:  I didn’t, but it was close.  The year after that I wanted to do the talent show again, but I got smart.  

TC:  You didn’t get so close to the edge of the stage?

BM:  Well, that too, but I started off my audition and I came up with this eight-minute thing.  It was way too long. I ditched everything the night of the show and decided to just wing it.  Right before the show I walked up to the judges and I asked them, “Do you guys like music?” They were like, “Yeah, we listen to music.”  “Yeah? What kind of music?” One guy was like, “I like Ozzy Osbourne.” Another guy said he liked Van Halen and the other one said Scorpions or something.  There were probably a thousand people sitting in the auditorium. My mom, my dad, teachers, aunts, uncles, it was packed. I get up there and I decided to start with a bright red A chord.  I did a little improv and then a riff everybody knew. When I did the riff everybody knew, everybody cheered. I kept on doing that. Improv, another riff everybody knew.  

BM:  My dad used to smoke cigarettes and he went outside to smoke and asked me to hold his lighter, so I shoved it in my shirt pocket.  I did this one-handed playing thing the year before, and I decided to do it again since it went over so well the last time. So, I’m doin’ that and it hit me like, “I’m about to win this thing RIGHT NOW” and I reached into my pocket and I lit that lighter.  

TC:  Is there any video of this?  Please say there is. 

BM:  I’ve been looking for years and haven’t found any yet.  It was before smartphones were everywhere, but I’m sure someone must have got it on a camcorder I just don’t know who.

Writer’s note:  If anyone attended Sickles High School in Tampa, Florida and has video of, or knows of someone who has video of Ben Miller’s performance at this talent show, please contact him.  I’m sure he would be forever grateful.

BM:  I’m still like that.  We do this cool cover of “Seminole Wind” and at one point Riley turns me loose and I’ll walk down the catwalk and I’ll be like, “What am I about to play?”

TC:  You don’t even know until you get to the end of the catwalk?  You just figure it out then?

BM:  Yeah.  I’m like, “Okay, cool, let’s do this.”

TC:  So, it could be different from one night to the next?

BM:  Yeah, like I had, I think it was Rock the South, there was this young lady who wanted my guitar pick, so I handed her my pick as I’m walkin’ down there, and I get to the end of the catwalk and I’m standing in front of 36,000 people and I don’t have a pick.  I was just like, “I guess I have to change gears.” That was the day I played the Star Wars thing.  I played “Luke Skywalker’s Theme”.  

TC:  You went way back to your musical roots?

BM:  Oh, yeah.  I still bring it out every once in a while.  It’s pretty cool.  

TC:  Now, knowing there’s a history there, you didn’t just decide to do it five minutes ago, that Star Wars runs  deep in your way back roots, that’s a cool thing.

BM:  Oh, yeah.  Star Wars runs deep in my blood.  One time it was Super Mario Bros., or prettiest one was, I did this cool version of “Pure Imagination”, that song from Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (he hummed a little bit of the tune).  I remember playing that and I really felt cool about that one.

Writer’s note:  We had jumped a bit ahead, but that was perfectly fine.  Now, we were going to rewind a little. Hold on to your hats.  This part of the ride is a lot of fun.

TC:  Alright, so obviously, you were living in Florida, but you eventually moved to Nashville.  Did you think about moving for a while or was it more sudden?

BM:  It was kind of spur of the moment.  The woman I was with at the time, she’s a makeup artist, and a very good one.  She could basically work from anywhere. She would always get calls to work on films in Alabama or California or wherever, so it didn’t matter where her home base was.  All I was doing in Tampa was teaching during the day and playing at night and I could do that anywhere. I always had this thing where I would think, “How good am I?” The really good ones move to a hub.  They go to New York, L.A., Austin or Nashville. I was thinking, “Well, most of my heroes are from Nashville and I most identify with Nashville. Let’s jump in the ocean and see if I can swim with the sharks”, and that’s what it was.  

TC:  When you got here, what did you do to get yourself enmeshed with the music community?

BM:  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  I was scared shitless.  

TC:  You were?

BM:  Yeah.  I was so afraid.

TC:  That’s funny, because you seem like the type that would have been kind of fearless.

BM:  Seems like that.  I can put up a good front.  It was, and I’m better at this now, but I hated it if someone was better than me, and I was like, “I have to learn everything that they know, and do what they do and assimilate and get all of their talent.  Give me all of their talent.” 

TC:  You probably wanted to observe everything first to see what they knew.

BM:  Yeah.  I never felt inferior in Tampa.

TC:  Because you weren’t.

BM:  Right.  Big fish, small pond, but coming here, wow.  These were all the big fish from these small ponds and they’re swimming around in the ocean, and there’s some big, big fish here.  Like, “Holy crap, that guy’s good”, but you know, that was really the thing, the first eight months that I lived here, I did nothing.  I didn’t have a job the first four, and I did nothing basically, but play Call of Duty, and I’d smoke pot every once in a while.  I almost moved back to Tampa. The woman I was with, we’d get in arguments and all sorts of stuff, and I almost moved back to Tampa about six times, but His plan (points upward), you can’t get away from your purpose, no matter how hard you try.  He’s always in my ear about that too, because I know my true purpose.

TC:  Your true purpose is coming in 12 weeks.  If you had moved back to Tampa, 12 weeks wouldn’t be happening.  

BM:  No, none of that would be happening.

TC:  There was a grand plan.

BM:  Oh, yeah, yeah.  

TC:  So, it’s good that you didn’t move back to Tampa way back when.  

BM:  So, I got a job working at Corner Music, which is a music shop in town.  They’ve been around for about 40 years and they were located down there on 12 South where all the musicians would come in.  Working there would give me the opportunity to watch incredible players every day, and I stole everything I ever heard somebody play inside that store.  If there was a fantastic guitar player that came in, I would stand there and do my sales pitch, like, “Oh, if you’re interested, we have 12 months same as cash on that one.  How does that one play?” That kind of thing. Customer service, customer service, sales, sales, but what I was really doing is taking it all in and loggin’ it away. “Hey, that’s a really cool way to do that.”  “Oh, what chord was that again?” Then, I’d take the guitar and go, “Oh, that’s a neat chord. That’s really cool”, and before you knew it, I had a hard time finding guitar players to steal stuff from, because I’d stolen everybody’s stuff.  Every guitar player is a mashup. A little bit of originality, and a whole bunch of everything else. Like, you play what you know. Like a crockpot. You throw it all in, and it simmers and there’s your meal. It’s guitar food. 

BM:  Then I thought, “Well, I’ll start playing when these well-known people arrive in the store.  Maybe I can catch an ear or two, and that worked a few times. There were some really, really cool moments.  I was getting really good. I was practicing a lot. I was buying DVDs and books and expanding my knowledge, which I still do today.  I was meeting people. My heroes, I would ring them out for picks or strings or something like that. Small talk conversations with people who were doing what I wanted to be doing.  One of the coolest moments was, I saw him walk in, but Steve Wariner, he’s a big one for me, but I saw him come in. Nobody else at Corner Music knows I saw him come in when this happened but, I immediately went over and picked up a guitar that was kind of louder.  It was an acoustic guitar that I knew he’d be able to hear, and I was playing a bunch of his licks, and Todd, one of the other guys that works there (aka “Toddzilla” around town), you know the guy I’m talkin’ about, right?

Photo courtesy of Ben Miller

TC:  I do, yes.

BM:  Todd comes walkin’ over to me and he’s got this big old grin on his face and he says, “Hey man, whatcha doin’?”  I said, “Aw, sorry man. I know I shouldn’t have been playin’.” He goes, “No, no, no, no. I want you to meet somebody.”  I said, “Okay, alright.” I played dumb, but I knew what was about to happen. He was going to introduce me to Steve.  

TC:  That was cool of him.

BM:  So, I’m still playin’ dumb and I walk up and I’m like, “Hey, nice to meet you, I’m Ben.”  Steve Wariner goes, “Hey, it’s nice to meet you, but you had me over here cussin’ at you.”  I was like, “Oh, I’m sorry.” He was like, “No, you sounded good over there in that corner. You sure can play that thing.”  I said, “Thank you, I really appreciate that.” It was a big moment for me. I keep all these moments. I don’t share ‘em. I don’t tell anybody.  Until now. So, he goes off into the acoustic room and I went to answer the phones for a little bit. The store slowed up, so I went back to the acoustic room to watch him and he starts playing this Chet Atkins-style thing.  He came up under Chet Atkins.

TC:  I didn’t know that, that’s interesting.  Chet Atkins had quite a distinct style.  

BM:  Oh, yeah.  Now, Chet certified a few people as CGPs, Certified Guitar Players.  Steve’s one of ‘em. There’s not many of them, and now Chet’s dead, so there’s not anymore.  So, Steve was playing this piece and when he finished it he (Ben makes a sound effect) does it with this pretty chord, and I’m like, “Alright, got it locked away.  Anything else you want me to steal from you?” By that time, there were more guys that had come and circled around, and one of my favorite things happened after that.  He goes, “I’m gonna tell you something that Jerry Reed told me once.” I’m like, “Okay.” He goes, “Don’t stand in front of my car, boy.” He was joking, of course, but…”

TC:  Were you thinking, “Did I overstep?”

BM:  Not at all.  He was saying I was a good player and it was like, he’s gonna take me out if he ever has the chance to, you know?  Very playful. I thought about that and the line that followed, with Jerry Reed saying that to him and then him saying that to me.  That was so cool.  

TC:  That is cool.  That’s a great compliment, that’s what that is, and Jerry Reed is no longer with us either.

BM:  Yeah, he’s one of the ones I never got to meet.  It’s a neat little trinket. It’s one of my favorite things that’s ever happened.  I love it. That’s how I started meeting people. That’s how people started understanding what I do.  “Oh, you know that guy? The guy that works at Corner Music? He’s a guy that can really play. He sings too.”

TC:  Okay.  Now we have that established.  How did you get started playing in a band?

BM:  Anthony Joyner.  He’s been a side guy in Nashville for quite a long time.  He was with Faith Hill for nine years. He was with Shania Twain.  He was with Tim McGraw. Bass player. Big, tall black dude. Dreads, tattoos all over his body.  I ran into him in a Walmart in Hermitage. I said, “Hey, you’re one of my customers, aren’t you?” I didn’t know any of this.  I didn’t know about Faith Hill. I didn’t know his touring past. I just knew I’d sold him strings and that before. I said, “Hey.”  We were in the tub aisle. We were both shopping for tubs, and he’s like, “Hey, I’m Anthony.” I’m like, “I’m Ben, nice to meet you.”  He’s like, “Ben, I’ve heard you play around the shop. You’re very good. You know, you wouldn’t happen to play banjo, would you?” I don’t know what came over me, but I said yes.  

Photo courtesy of Ben Miller

TC:  Even though you didn’t?

BM:  No. I didn’t.  I didn’t own a banjo.  I was thinkin’, “I don’t think he’s got a bluegrass thing goin’ on.  If he does, no, I can’t do that yet, but if it’s just a pop/bro country kind of thing that he’s trying to hire me for, then yeah, I’ll figure that out all day long, that’s easy.  Piece of cake. So, I said, “Sure, whatever you need.” So, he says, “I’ve got this guy named Cody Purvis.”

TC:  I know Cody Purvis.

BM:  Yeah?  Well, Cody Purvis was my first country gig.

Photo courtesy of Ben Miller

TC:  That’s so funny.

BM:  I was playing banjo, some rhythm guitar, some baritone, basically whatever else they needed.  Just an easy little gig.
A monkey could learn these parts.

TC:  If you knew how to play the guitar already.

BM:  Oh, yeah.

TC:  You just figured it out.  That’s awesome.

BM:  That was it.  That was the first gig I had and that led to a lot of different things.

TC:  Alright.  So, what kinds of different things?

BM:  That Cody Purvis gig led to probably my favorite one of the stories.  Our drummer for Cody had to go do something and we needed a fill-in guy.  I didn’t know who it was going to be and I wasn’t the band leader, so I didn’t need to take care of that.  I didn’t care. It was Nashville, whoever was going to show up was going to be fantastic. Nashville is full of musicians who are amazing.  Enter Jimmy Elcock (now with Logan Mize). The first time I ever met Elcock, I was like, “Hey, I’m Ben.” He goes, “Hey, I’m Jimmy”, and I flicked his left nipple.  I don’t know why, I just felt like I could. He just laughed and that was the beginning of a fantastic friendship.

(I’m laughing semi-hysterically at this point)

BM:  To this day, he’s one of my closest friends.  I shook his hand and went (he makes a clunk-type sound effect) and then demonstrates the nipple flick (on himself, not me).  He then demonstrates Jimmy’s wide-eyed look of momentary disbelief. Jimmy just laughed and was like, “Okay. This is off to a good start”, and we both started laughing.  We ended up playing a gig. I think it was downtown on 1st or 2nd Avenue. Cody was doing a showcase or something like that. He’s a fantastic drummer, he’s great. We stayed in contact after that.  I think that was the only time he played with Cody. There was just this one day when I wanted to make him laugh, so I sent some profane things to him in all caps and exclamation points. I was just expecting him to answer with “ha ha ha” or “lol”, but he sends back, “Hey, do you play dobro?”  I’m thinking, “Shoot, no.”

TC:  Are you then thinking to yourself, but maybe I can figure it out like I did the banjo?

BM:  Exactly, but it’s very different.  Like, you don’t have frets. You have to slide.  They wanted a square neck dobro player. You hold a bar in your left hand and you pick with your right hand while the dobro lays on your lap, almost like you play a pedal steel.

TC:  So, there’s definitely a lot more to it.

BM:  Learning curve, but I said yes anyway.

TC:  You were going to have to learn this very fast?

BM:  Very quickly.  

TC:  For who?

BM:  Jamie Lynn Spears, and that was the next test.  So, I said, “Sure man, I got you.” Jimmy said, “Well, actually, we need dobro, mandolin and banjo.  So, I kept thinkin’, “Banjo, if she’s doing some kinda crazy bluegrass thing, absolutely not, but if she’s doing what I think she’s gonna be doing, pop country, country/Americana kinda thing, sure, I can do that.”  Then mandolin stuff, it’s the guitar upside down with frets. I can figure all that out. That’s easy. I mean, I knew I wasn’t gonna be playing any Chris Thile parts or anything.

TC:  Right, or any Ricky Skaggs type stuff.

BM:  Exactly, so I knew I could figure it all out, especially if there were parts on a record that I could just sit there and listen to and learn.  If I just play that every night, note for note, and that’s the only thing I know how to play on those instruments, I still get the gig. That wins.  That gets the gig. You know, you don’t have to be some amazing, crazy mandolin player to play mandolin in a touring band, so I knew that. The only thing I was worried about was the dobro.  I was like, “I’ve gotta make this convincing, but what do I have to lose?”  

TC:  The worst they could do was say no.

BM:  Exactly!  So, I turned around, and I was at the shop at the time, and I ended up calling him and he told me in two days we were going to audition as a band for our producer, which is Corey Crowder.  He’s a big writer.

TC:  Now, hold on.  Why did that name just come up for me?  Corey Crowder. I just had to type it and tag him for something very recently.

BM:  He writes a lot for Chris Young.

TC:  That’s what it was, I think.

BM:  He’s been writing a whole bunch of good stuff lately.  Great writer and a great guy. So, he produced Jamie Lynn, which is how this thing started goin’ around.  So, I turned around to my buddy Scott who was working at Corner that day and I said, “Hey, I got a call for an audition.  I need to borrow a dobro.” He goes, “Okay, just take that one over there.” He told me to take it, put it on my account and roll with it and just make sure you get a bar.  He was really, really good to me. He went upstairs and got a case for it and put it in the case. He got the bar and an extra set of strings

TC:  It’s not a bad thing to work in a music store when you suddenly need a dobro.  (Ben laughs)

BM:  No, not at all.  So, I get home, I sit down in my studio and I pull up my email and it says, “Jamie Lynn Tunes”.  I was like, “Okay, here’s eight tunes (heavy sigh), I hope this is easier than I think it’s gonna be.”  I opened up the first song and it was “Run”, and it was a dobro song, and it was in G. That dobro was tuned in G.  So, okay, right off the bat I thought, “I’m winning. This is not difficult at all.” So, this, your left hand, you have to be careful.  A lot of guys put a lot of vibrato into it, and I did that in the beginning also, but you know, I’m just finding the parts and I couldn’t even use the thumb picks and the finger picks at the time.  I was using a flat pick and playin’ the parts, which is kind of a no-no, but you figure out whatever you gotta do. So, I’m playin’ the parts, and well, I got this one, okay. So, move on to the next one.  The next one’s in E. That was kind of a struggle to find that and transpose it in my mind, but if this piece works here, I have to play this here, and I went through the whole album. You know, the banjo parts were a piece of cake.  The mandolin parts, that was a piece of cake too. Then I get a call from Jimmy. He said, “Hey man, the single is a song called “How Could I Want More” and it’s a dobro song. There’s a solo in it. I know you’re a talented musician, just come up with whatever you want in that section.  He still didn’t know that I didn’t play dobro yet.

TC:  Oh, you never told him?

BM:  Uh-uh (laughs).  The funny part is when I did tell him.  So, I said, “Yes sir, no problem. I’ll have something for you.”   I hung up and I’m sitting there thinkin’, “Well, shit. If I’m gonna get this gig, I’m gonna play that solo note for note.  I’m gonna learn how to do that thing. I look at the liners and it turns out that Josh Matheny…

TC:  Oh, he’s really good.

BM:  He’s a buddy of mine.

TC:  Is he really?

BM:  Yeah.  He’s a buddy of mine, so I talked to him.  I said, “Hey man, did you retune for this, or did you play this note for Jamie?”  He goes, “No. It’s in open G on the first three strings, like, exactly where you think it would be.”  So, I sat there, and I said, “Okay”, and I learned the solo, note for note, and I had it, I got it. Then we had a rehearsal the next day, and the next day we auditioned as a band for Corey.  I just remember after we got done playin’ all eight songs he goes, “Man, like Jimmy, where’d you find these guys?” He says, “I don’t know. It’s just, like, they were all coming home from a gig with Cole Taylor.”  

(Ben kind of looks up and at the ceiling as if remembering one of the best days ever, smiles and lets out a short laugh)

BM:  This is the most amazing circle of people.  Jimmy Elcock, Tyler Tomlinson, Mike Reilly and Cole Taylor are in this SUV, and that’s when I had texted him and he had just found out that he was gonna put together a band.  So, he just looked around the car and said, “This is the band. We just need to find a utility guy”, and then his phone lights up.

TC:  That was you.

BM:  Right, and I was their utility guy, yep, and he was like, “Aw man, Jamie Lynn is gonna shit when she sees how good you guys are”, and I was just sitting back there like this (Ben kind of sits way back into his chair, eyes darting back and forth, not saying a word), “Did I just do that?  Did I just pull that off?”

TC:  You did.

BM:  I was like, “I think we all got this gig.”  So, then we all practiced with her the next day and she was super, super, super sweet.  She’s one of my favorite people. She’s great, even to this day, we’re still all good friends.

Photo courtesy of Jimmy Elcock

TC:  That’s great.

BM:  It’s really weird that I’m friends with Britney Spears’s sister.

TC:  That is pretty weird.  Did you ever get to meet Britney?  If you did, is she nice?

BM:  Yeah.  She’s nice.  She’s been through so much. They’re all sweet people, an amazing family.

TC:  Louisiana people.

BM:  Yeah, Louisiana folks.  So, then a couple days later we started rehearsing because we were gonna tour that record, and after the rehearsal our tour manager Tristan said, “Go down to TriStar.  You guys need to sign a bunch of papers about your pay and all the other legal stuff.” So, we go down there, and as I’m walking in, Tristan and Jimmy are walking out, and Jimmy just has this grin on his face.  I was like, “What are you grinnin’ about? What are you so happy about?” He goes, “Do you wanna fly to New York on Friday and do the Today Show?”  I said, “Do I have a choice? What song are we playin’?”  He goes, “How Could I Want More”, and I’m like, “Shit.”  

TC:  That’s the one with the solo that you learned note for note, right?

BM:  Right, but it just hit me.  I’ve been playin’ dobro for a week and a half and I’m about to go play it on live television.

TC:  Amazing.

BM:  I was kinda freakin’ out.

TC:  Was that the first time you’d ever played on a live television show?

BM:  Yep.

TC:  An instrument you just learned to play five days ago.

BM:  Mmm hmm, yep.  Yeah, it was actually like, nine days ago and I had a little time to practice.  So, we fly out there, we land and there was a limo to pick us up and we’re heading to the hotel, and that’s when I told Jimmy.  I said, “Hey man, you wanna know a secret?” He’s like, “What’s up Benny?” I said, “I’ve only been playin’ dobro for like, nine days.  I’m a little nervous about tomorrow morning.” He goes, “You’re kidding.” I said, “Nope. I’m a little nervous.” He said, “Nine days? Well, what about the dobro?  Is that even yours?” I said, “Nope. I borrowed it. I have no idea what I’m doing.” He goes, “Well, you can just improvise”. I said, “Nope. The only thing I know how to play on the dobro is this song we’re about to go play for about, like, millions of people on TV.”

TC:  But you knew how to play it really well.

BM:  Yeah, I knew how to play it, but I was a little nervous.  I was “shaking” a little nervous, you know. Then we woke up early the next morning.  The lobby called for 4:15 AM so we could get down there by 5:30 or something like that.  We all load into NBC and they put us in hair and makeup. They combed my long hair out, they put product in it.  It looked gorgeous.

TC:  You were pretty.

BM:  Oh, yeah.  I was pretty.  I was also overweight and really, really pretty.  I had this beard. I had this gigantic beard, like a Chris Stapleton beard.  So, we sat down, we rehearsed the song twice and then they called us back about an hour and a half later. We were sitting down in the green room, and everybody that’s gonna be on the show kinda filters in and out of the green room.  There were all sorts of people that walked in and out and we were starstruck by every single one of ‘em. We were like, “Shit, that’s Carson Daly.” Then, Tessanne (Chin), that chick that won The Voice, she sat right down next to Tyler.  I didn’t watch it, so I didn’t know who she was, but out of her purse she takes The Voice trophy and puts it on the table, and he goes (makes a gasping sound), like physically makes a sound about this trophy.  There it was, just sittin’ on the table. He’s like, puttin’ it on his Instagram and everybody’s takin’ pictures of that.

TC:  Now, there must be video of this performance because it was on the Today Show.

BM:  There is.  It was very good too.  I was so worried about it, I was so nervous. 

TC:  Do you look nervous on the video?

BM:  Nope.

TC:  I was going to say, you probably look as cool as a cucumber.

BM:  Nope.  Nope, nope, nope, nope.  On the inside, I was losing it.  During the rehearsal, they didn’t do what they did for the actual live shot.  So, for the rehearsal, everything’s fine, the camera’s are kinda off in the distance and they’re zooming in, I guess, with buttons, instead of actual zoom coming in on you, like Flight of the Navigator.  That’s what it felt like.

BM:  There was a little bit of a calming thing that happened though.  You know how there’s always people outside looking in through the windows?  

TC:  Yeah, they watch from outside, yes.

BM:  I looked outside and I saw a Corner Music customer.

TC:  Come on…

BM:  Yeah, and he goes (does a thumbs up gesture), and I’m like, “Hey, wow.”

TC:  What are the chances of that?

BM:  I’m thinkin’, “I just sold you strings two weeks ago.”

TC:  You had to be thinking, “What are you doing standing outside this window in New York City?”

BM:  It was the weirdest thing.  I think it was to calm me down.  It was right before we started. Then we start playin’ the song, and it was like, “ Oh, okay, shit, we’re live.”

TC:  That is so weird.

BM:  So, I’m sittin’ there playin’, and I don’t even think I looked up.  I remember I was slightly shaking, you can’t see it in the video though, you can’t hear it.  I’m playin’ my harmonics, I’m movin’ the harmonics around, she starts singin’ and we’re into the song.  Everything’s goin’ good, alright, solo time. This damned camera, on a crane, comes out of nowhere and it’s right on me, and I’m just sittin’ there goin’, “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.  This camera’s right here. If I’m goin’ to mess up, this thing is goin’ to catch it.” So, the only note I missed, I missed one note, and it was on a downbeat, you can’t hear it.  

(He’s laughing quite a bit right here)

BM:  You can’t hear the note that I missed!

TC:  Even if you could, you’re probably the only person who would have noticed it.

BM:  Absolutely, one hundred percent.  People who aren’t like us don’t hear that.  

TC:  That’s a great story.

BM:  That performance, I was dreading listening back to it.  I remember I missed that note and everything else was fine, but (he hummed part of the song) there should have been a note there.

TC:  It flowed so well though, it didn’t matter.

BM:  Honestly, I think either Tyler or Corey played that note anyway.  It fools your ear. So, the performance ends, they go to commercial, I stand up and I almost fell down, ‘cause I wasn’t breathing the entire time.  I had a giant weight lifted off my chest and everybody’s standing around like, “Hey, thanks for coming, great job” and I feel somebody grab my arm, and I look, and Carson Daly has me by the arm.  I was like, “Holy shit. Why are you touching me right now? I was freakin’ out.” He was like, “Hey, that was great!” You know, in his Carson voice. I was just, “Wow, thanks man. I’ve been watching you for a long time.”  In my head I’m thinkin’, “Did you just touch me?” He said, “You guys sounded awesome.”

TC:  You were thinking, “You didn’t notice my one note I missed?”  That is so great.

BM:  That was a fun time, but yeah, nine days, and you know what?  We just did it again with Riley and I missed a note on that performance and you can’t hear it.  Same damned thing.

TC:  What song did you do with Riley?

BM:  “There Was This Girl”.

TC:  I thought it was probably that one or maybe the “Grandpa” song.

BM:  No, but gosh, that song’s blowin’ up.

TC:  That’s a great song.  It’s so good. That’s a tear jerkin’ song if ever there was one.

BM:  Oh, yeah.  You know… He… I… I guess I should tell you that.  You know NBC, well, I was sittin’ there, right before we started playin’, and I will do this every single time I get to play on that show, any NBC thing we get to do.  The call tag, bom, bom, bom (sings the very recognizable three notes that NBC uses for their call tag).  

Video courtesy of Daniel Chapman and YouTube

TC:  Oh, yeah, it’s always been.

BM:  So, it’s pretty easy to stick that in the song somewhere.

TC:  Without anybody noticing it?

BM:  Yeah.

TC:  So, did you stick it in there somewhere?

BM:  Hell, yes.  I’ve done it every single time.

TC:  Where is it in the Riley Green one?

(He then tells me where the NBC call notes are hidden in the Riley Green song)

TC:  No kidding?

BM:  Yeah, and I did it with Jamie Lynn (he told me where he placed the notes with her as well).

TC:   That’s the coolest thing.  That’s kind of like a Hidden Mickey when you go to Disney. 

BM:  I’m kind of wondering how many people have done that.  

TC:  I don’t know if anybody’s ever done that.

BM:  Somebody had to.

TC:  I don’t know.  I don’t know if I should even reveal that.

BM:  Hey, your choice.  You can if you want, or you don’t have to.

TC:  Maybe I’ll flip a coin on that.

BM:  You can let that be something you know and nobody else does, but now, I told Rob, our utility guy.  I said, “Hey man, I’m gonna do this. Listen for it.”

TC:  Well, now that I know, if I listen for it, will I hear it?

BM:  Oh, yeah, you’ll hear it.  (He gets out his phone where he just happens to have the Riley Green video from the Today Show

TC:  Oh, come on.  Play it. (He played it)

Writer’s note:  I decided instead of flipping a coin, I would let our Think Country readers know about this sweet little factoid that Ben Miller shared with me.  I will not, however, tell you where in these songs he slid those notes in. If you care to find them, go hunting. Good luck. If you want to be the coolest fans ever, check out Ben’s social media pages and listen to him jam.  Then thank him for opening up some of his life book to us. I think you’ll dig his music, with Riley Green, and on his own. As I was proofreading this piece prior to publication, I also made a last minute decision to NOT post the videos where these hidden gems are located.  That would make everything way too easy. Good things are always so much better when people have to go looking for them. #treasurehunt

TC:  Riley Green.  How did you end up with that gig anyway?

BM:  So, there were interesting events that led up to that.  I went from Jamie Lynn, and I was pulling double-duty with her and Stephanie Quayle.  

TC:  Okay, I know Stephanie.  

BM:  She’s one of my favorite people ever.

Photo courtesy of Ben Miller

TC:  We actually have a nickname for her at Think Country.  (I told Ben what our pet name for Stephanie Quayle is) I don’t think I can say it in public, but she knows what it is.  We just love her.  

(Ben enjoyed the nickname and said he could understand how Stephanie would like it too)

BM:  I was her band leader for about a year and a half, or so.  Then Zach Swon called me up and stole me. I went and did about a year with the Swon Brothers and we were on Carrie’s (Underwood) tour.  I had always wanted to play with them. They were such a great band. They always sounded so good.

Photo courtesy of Ben Miller

TC:  They’re such nice guys.

BM:  Yes, and they’re good, so good.  Played with them for a little bit and then I branched off and did my own thing.  I left that tour and started like, an opera/rock project that I had. It’s still goin’.  At the beginning of the year I started getting calls from different bands and I started going on auditions.  Tyler Tomlinson used to play with us with Jamie Lynn, then he branched off and got the gig with Eric Paslay when he had “Song About a Girl” and “Friday Night” and those songs were hitting.  So, Tyler left, and I moved from playing utility to my natural position which was playing guitar. So, I never had to do any of that stuff anymore and I never went back. Tyler was then moving on from Eric Paslay to Seth Ennis, which created a void for Eric Paslay, so I got called to audition for Paslay.  You know, I had the inside track. I like to think I was one of the ones who was really being considered, and I went in and crushed the audition, and when I was leavin’ I saw Dane Kinser come in. Dane’s a really close friend of mine.

TC:  I know Dane too!

Photo courtesy of Dane Kinser

BM:  Oh, wow.  I looked at him, and I went, “Oh, shit, ‘cause I knew he was better for that gig than I was.  It wasn’t a playing thing, I don’t think my tone, I don’t think my hands sounded as good as his hands sounded in that gig.  I knew he was gonna get that. Stephen Keith was also auditioning for that gig because Marcus was moving on to something else,  and they were auditioning for drums at the same time. I knew Stephen was gonna get it because Stephen’s amazing, he’s a great drummer.  I knew Dane was gonna get it too. I had called Dane the night before or the day before, he’s very good with effects, pedals and stuff like that.  I called him to help me with setting up my timeline, you know, “Hey, how do you do this?”, “How do you set up this?” He’s like, “Oh, well, you just do this, this, this, this…”  So, I was like, “So, whatcha been doin’? Are you still playin’ with RaeLynn?” He goes, “Well, no I stepped down off that one and I’m kinda takin’ some time to reevaluate things”, and there was an awkward silence.

TC:  Did you just know that he was going to be doing the Eric Paslay audition then?

BM:  Well, the audition was the next day.

TC:  So, you had to be thinking, “You ARE going to the audition for Eric Paslay the next day.”

BM:  Well, there was this awkward silence and then I go, “You’re auditioning tomorrow, aren’t you?”, and he goes, “Yeah. Wait? What?”  I go, “Yeah, you’re auditioning for Paslay.” He goes, “I am. Oh, shit. You too?” I said, “Yeah.” He goes, “There go my chances.”  I said, “Well, honestly, I think you got a good shot and the best man’s gonna win.” I knew it. When he said he was auditioning, he was a better fit for that anyway.  So, consolation prize, that’s how I got my gig with Shenandoah.

Photo courtesy of Ben Miller

TC:  Oh, okay.

BM:  I was like, “How did I wind up in that gig?”  So, we did the auditions, Eric’s a nice guy, everybody’s nice, we played the music, it was great.  Everybody did such a great job. Nick, I always forget his name (Nick Scallorn), the Carly Pearce guy, he was auditioning that day.  Like, in the hallway at Soundcheck, it was just a Who’s Who of Nashville guitar players who got called for the gig.

TC:  I’m sure there were a whole lot of great ones.

BM:  Everybody you knew.  Everybody knew each other and they were all like, “Aw, crap, you’re here?”

TC:  It was gonna be tough.

BM:  Oh, yeah.  I think it was an easy decision.  I would have picked Dane over myself.

TC:  Sometimes, it’s like you said, it’s just who’s gonna fit better with that particular artist.

BM:  Oh, yeah.  So, Chris (Roach), the bass player for Eric, used to play bass for Shenandoah, and Jamie Michael, the bass player for Shenandoah, was talking about leaving Nashville and moving his family somewhere else to go do other things.  So, Chris called me and he goes, (Ben turned on a rather convincing UK accent here) “Uh, we’re going to go with Dane on this one and we really appreciate you coming out and auditioning for us, you’re very talented and I’ll tell you what.  I used to play for a band called Shenandoah and they’re actually looking for a guitar player and if you want, I can put your name in there mate.” I said, “Yeah, sure.” So, no audition, no nothin’ and they just called me and hired me.

TC:  Just like that?

BM:  That is a son of a bitch gig on guitar!  Like, not just anybody can pick up and play that gig.

TC:  Really?

BM:  You gotta think, that’s like late-80’s through the 90’s in country music, and there’s a lot of like, really slayin’ guitar pickin’ goin’ on.  There’s a lot of crazy stuff.

TC:  That was a hot time for country music.

BM:  Mike McGuire, the drummer from Shenandoah, he called me, and he’s like, (now Ben goes into a deep southern accent), “Hi Ben, I heard you’re our guy”, and I said, “Yeah, I’d like to be your guy, when’s the audition?”  He comes back with, “They said you didn’t need it, you were just the guy, so just go with it.” I’m like, so a band that has 13 number one singles just calls me on a recommendation? I was flattered. He sent me all the music in Dropbox and I’m just going through and learning it.  The original guitar player is a guy named Jim Seals, and Jim Seals is like, one of the unsung heroes of guitar history. He is one of the greatest guitar players to walk the Earth.

TC:  So, you had huge shoes to fill?

BM:  Huge shoes to fill.  I mean, the same thing with Jamie Michael.  Jamie’s mind blowingly good. Terrifying guitar players, you know?  I had to learn their parts. I had to play just like ‘em. After beating the music in my head, I had a while, two or three weeks to really let it simmer, and get super, super familiar with the material.

TC:  How long were you with them?

BM:  So, I was with them for about four months and then Jamie wanted to come back.

TC:  Well, you know, what could you really do?

BM:  I’m a place-holder, it’s not my gig to begin with.  

TC:  Okay, so he came back.

BM:  Jamie comes back.  I was still pullin’ double duty with Shenandoah and Jamie Lynn, because Jamie Lynn rarely played.  The first two years we did a lot of touring and we played a lot of shows, but then the third and fourth year it was like, ten shows a year, and then the last year, it was like, two shows.  She got pregnant again, had a kid, you know, mom stuff. She’s a fantastic mom. So, I’m walking into a rehearsal with Jamie Lynn and Marty Raybon calls. Cool, Marty Raybon (Shenandoah) calls and fires me.  He said, “Aw man, aw, hey”, he’s got this kinda Foghorn Leghorn thing goin’ on. He goes, “I’ll tell ya what. Our old guitar player Jamie, well, he’s got a chance to purchase a home in Nashville for his family, but only if he’s back on the Shenandoah gig.  Would you be alright if he came back?” I was like, “Does that mean I’m gone?” He goes, “Yes sir, it would mean that”, and I go, “Yes, of course”. Even if I’d said no, it was still gonna happen, he was just being nice about it. He’s a sweet fellow. Those were some of my favorite times.  He used to read Bible verses to me and tell me Bible stories on the bus. Imagine hearing it in Marty Raybon’s voice.

TC:  Oh, yeah, that had to be the best.  Bible stories in Foghorn Leghorn’s voice.  

BM:  (In his best Marty Raybon impression)  “Son, I tell you. David went down to the river and he picked up, not one, not two, three or four, he picked up five shiny, smooth stones.  He put ‘em in a sack, and he went over to Goliath…” it was great!

BM:  So, I’m walking in, and they’re like, “Hey, how ya doin’ bitch?”  I’m like, “I’m good man. Marty Raybon just fired me.” They’re like, “What?  You’re not doin’ the Shenandoah thing anymore?” I’m like, “Nope. As of like, ten minutes ago, no.”  They were like, “Oh, well, we got some gigs coming up.” I was thinking I have to do what I have to do to make money right now, doing what I’m doing.  The next day I go into Corner Music and my boss cuts me down from four days a week to two.

TC:  Everything was just falling apart.

BM:  Just like that.  All of a sudden, I have like, zero work.  I’m like, “What am I doing?” At the time, I was dating a woman in West Virginia and I was driving back and forth from West Virginia to Nashville twice a week.  I would spend the beginning of the week out there with her, then I would drive back, work at Corner Music, go do some gigs and Sunday evening, Monday morning I’d drive back out to be with her.  That was cool for about three, four months until I realized she wasn’t gonna move to Nashville and I wasn’t about to move to West Virginia, so I cut that off. Now, I have no gig, hardly any work at the music store, every two weeks I was making about $300.00, and I had no savings.  I was terrible at saving at that time. I was pretty much, I didn’t really have a home and I was living on peoples’ couches. I was living in my car. That kinda thing. There was a buddy of mine, when he found out I was living on couches, he called and said, “Hey man, you need to come over here.  I got a spare bedroom for you and you can stay there.” I didn’t wanna do that but I took him up on it. I didn’t want to impose. So, all this is going on, I’m taking stuff from storage to this place, and stuff from living out of my car back to storage. I was living out of my car and storage and my buddy Alan’s house, and I still don’t know what I’m gonna do. I’m floating now, so I started reaching out to all of my guitar player buddies.  “Hey, I’m off this gig. I need a gig, I have nothing goin’ on.” Tyler Galloway, he reached out to me. He was wondering if I could cover a gig for him because he was going to his sister’s wedding. I told him, “Yeah”, and then I told him what happened. Then he said, “Well, you can come play on my shitty gig and make 400 bucks this weekend.” I said, “Alright, what’s the gig?” He goes, “This young dude from Alabama named Riley Green.”

Photo courtesy of Riley Green

TC:  What year was that?

BM:  It was 2017, I think.

TC:  That was before Riley was signed to a deal or anything.  Just a young Alabama boy? Hadn’t really hit yet?

BM:  Yep. No deal.  He had a pretty decent following because “Bury Me in Dixie” was out, “Georgia Time” was out and “Runnin’ With An Angel” was about to come out.  He had kinda that Corey Smith size following already. So, he could tour in the southeast as long as he wanted to and never have to worry about it.  I didn’t know that. I didn’t know any of this. So, I figured, okay, I’ll play for this guy. It was just a fill-in thing. I was just comin’ in and playin’ Tyler’s part.  Well, it turns out Riley was having an issue with his lead guitar player who was having kind of a drug and alcohol problem, and they were going to replace that guy. Riley wanted to move to Nashville and he wanted to get an all-Nashville base, and I’ll go on-record saying this, but the first show that we did was at The Bluewater Saloon in Valdosta, Georgia.  That is, if you’ve never been there, they shove seven or eight-hundred college kids into a room that I think is only supposed to hold five. It’s really hot and it’s a really, really small stage. There’s a great big American flag over here (gestures to how the flag hangs), and it’s really hard to get up there and it’s hard to fit six people up on that stage.  

TC:  It’s pretty claustrophobic.

BM:  Oh, yeah.  Oh yeah. That was the first gig I did with them and I almost quit because I was like, “Well, did I sign up to go right back to what I was doing in Tampa?”  Playing these college places, playing these college bars, I hated this down there, but it was just the first night. So, I gave it another shot and the next day we had a festival, it was the Rome River Jam.  It was Riley, Jon Langston and Old Dominion. That’s when I knew. There were maybe about six to eight thousand people there, and they all knew the words to Riley’s songs. I was like, “They’re singing every word.  How the Hell do they know this music? Where are they getting it?” That’s just one of his big streaming markets. So, I was like, I’ll give it another week. We went somewhere else and it was the same thing

TC:  You knew there was a chance this guy could take off?

BM:  Yeah, and he’s a handsome fella, and he’s nice and I really like his voice.  

TC:  I liked him from the first time I heard him.  I was like, an “instafan”.

BM:  I have a checklist, and when I check ‘em off, I’m done and I move on to the next one and that’s how I accomplish my goals.  That’s how I get to bigger goals and different things. So, I had always wanted to tour, so I got to be with Jamie Lynn and the Swons, check.  I knew I wanted to be with a bigger band and do arena stuff, so I got to tour with the Swons and we were on Carrie’s tour, that’s fantastic, check, check.  I knew I wanted to do a legacy thing. Shenandoah, that’s great, check. The next thing on my checklist was I wanted to take an artist from no deal, no management, no nothin’ to all the way up to a number one song.  Done. That’s how I started playin’ with Riley. The next things were, he called me and he said, he’s gonna get mad at me for this, but (now in his very best Riley Green impression), “Dude, you seem like you got a good head on your shoulders, and you seem pretty smart.  You seem like you can do a lot for us. I want to pay you a little extra and I wanna make you the band leader, musical director, whatever you wanna call it. We need to clean house.” I was like, “What do you mean?” Basically, he and his manager at the time said, “Let’s get rid of everybody and hire an all-Nashville band.”  I said, “Cool. I’m on it.” Then, like a day later, he called and said, “You know, I’m thinkin’ about it and I think Quinn (Stanphill) has kinda earned his spot, so let’s keep him, and let’s keep Tyler.” I think Tyler’s a fantastic guitar player anyway, I probably wasn’t going to get rid of him. I probably wasn’t going to get rid of either one of those guys, but we got rid of the guy who had the addiction things and about a week or two later, the bass player turned to me, the last note of the last song and he goes, “Hey man, I just want you to know, this is my last gig with you guys.”  I was like, “Okay, that’s it.” He just wanted to be at home with his daughters and his wife. So, then I hired my roommate at the time, which was Dave Elder, fantastic guitar player. He came to do utility and lead guitar. Then we hired Alejandro Medina for bass.

TC:  I know Alejandro too.  He did some video work for my friend Payton Taylor.

BM:  That’s where I know the name from!  Okay. So, that’s how we all started, and that’s right when Riley was starting to really, really catch fire and really take off.  I think for the next gig that was a sold-out Soul Kitchen and the next weekend was two back-to-back sold-out Georgia Theatre gigs.  The weekend after that was back-to-back Iron City gigs, both sold-out, and after that it was just everything, all sold-out. He was selling out between 700 to 1,400 ticket venues on average.  

TC:  I was looking at the Nashville dates with Jon Pardi and there were just a few seats, and I mean, a few, like two seats up front and a couple in the balcony left.  That’s it.

BM:  Those are the Ryman dates.  It’s been interesting to watch the whole progression of things.  I’ve played that stage before, but not a show, just the Opry.  

TC:  It’ll be cool.

BM:  Oh, yeah.  It will be cool.  It’s gonna be fun.

TC:  I’ve seen Riley play before at things like CRS, but never a full show.  I need to see an entire show. Like I said, from the first time I heard him, I was a fan.  His voice is so good, so natural. Very different. It’s gritty.

Photo courtesy of 90 East Photography and Think Country

BM:  It is.  It’s so good.  That’s the thing about his voice.  It’s his talking voice. If he’s sick, you can’t tell, he sounds the same.  It’s his talking voice. That’s the thing, he doesn’t sing from the stratosphere like Steve Perry, he’s right here (points to himself).  He’s basically putting a melody behind his talking voice, he’ll never lose his voice, it’s gold. Me? If I get sick? I can’t do this. I can’t go all the way up there, I have a ceiling that I hit.

Video courtesy of Kelly Raven and YouTube

TC:  Let’s see if we can find some fun stuff for you real quick.  Have you played Broadway?

BM:  Nope.  There was a lot of luck, but it was also that I did a lot of that in Florida and I just knew I didn’t want to do that because I hate crowds like that.  I can’t stand the drunk people. Like girls on stage, that pisses me off. I’ve had too many drinks spilled on nice guitars and I’m like, “This is for the birds.”  Yeah, I skipped all that. You never know, though. I might do it one day.

TC:  Just for fun?

BM:  Yeah, like a less busy place where I could play some old country or something.

TC:  Cities you really enjoyed playing in?  

BM:  That’s a tough one.  Sacramento, but just because of the day.  It was like, 70 degrees out, we went down to Fisherman’s Wharf, ate sushi, looked at Alcatraz, we had some good beer that night.  It was a Carrie show, so it was an arena thing. We went to see the Full House house.

TC:  That’s fun.  I didn’t know you could go to that.

BM:  That was kinda neat.  Bozeman, Montana. So, Stephanie (Quayle) has a house in Paradise Valley and I don’t think she does this anymore but, once a year she would fly out there and do this food drive for the school and raise all this money and all these cans.  We’d have a gig and a festival the first and second day and five days off in between to do whatever we wanted. You have a bunch of guys getting put up in this beautiful guest house, with gorgeous weather, it was like, 55 degrees, with mountains in her backyard… We did a bunch of hiking, fishing.  

TC:  It really is paradise.

BM:  It is. So, that stuck out.

TC:  Fill in the blank.  The least glamorous part of my job is (blank).

BM:  That’s tough.  There’s a lot of little things.  It can really be who you’re out with, because if you don’t like who you’re out there with that can really be hard.  The least glamorous thing coming from an esthetics kinda thing, not taking a shower for a few days is pretty not-glamorous.  Sometimes you end up not taking a shower for a few days because these fairs and festivals just don’t have showers.

TC:  You just kind of have to wing it.

BM:  You have to improvise!

TC:  You have to go with your natural glow.

BM:  Let’s see, the “hurry up and wait” thing.  Like, especially since we’re on Paisley’s tour (Brad Paisley) right now.  It’s great but we play for like, 25 minutes, so there’s 25 minutes of that day that we’re on “go” time.  Well, there’s maybe about a half an hour on each side where it’s building your set, unpacking the trailer, packing the trailer and packing everything up.  Like, tomorrow, we’ll land, I’ll go get some breakfast and we’ll start building our set. That’ll be about 10:30, 11:00. I won’t have anything to do until about 4 or 5.  A lot of downtime. That’s pretty not-glamorous.

TC:  You’re right.  Not glamorous.

BM:  It’s just kind of a pain in the ass.  You really have to do something. I bring a Nintendo Switch and I play these long video games, you know, RPGs.  I bring my studio with me, I edit music, I edit videos. I write a lot. Oh my gosh, I’ve written so many songs on this tour.  I don’t care for the honeymoon phase any longer, because I’ve been touring for six or seven years now, and I get it, when I first started doing all this stuff I did quite a bit of drinking and havin’ fun, it is what it is.  I like, never partied so hard that I passed out somewhere, it’s just not me, but that’s the least of my things, I avoid it at all costs. Like, heavy drinking, there’s just stuff that goes with that, I’m like, old man status on that.  I’m in my bunk so fast and I shut my thing (gestures as if shutting a curtain), put my in-ears in, and I can still hear just, chaos on the bus. There’s times where there’s girls and I have no idea where they came from.

TC:  They’re just there.

BM:  They’re just there and I have no idea where they came from.  They’re just hangin’ out and havin’ a good time. We don’t know if they’re gonna like, steal something out of somebody’s bunk or anything like that.  I’m like, “What are these people doing here? Get these people out of here. What are y’all doin’?”  

TC:  You wish they would all just go away.

BM:  Yeah, and you know, I always tell ‘em, “Y’all will be over this pretty soon.  I’m just letting you know.”

TC:  Exactly.  You will be old man status someday.

BM:  Oh, yeah!  Like this (points to his wedding ring), like now that I’m married and I have a kid on the way and I’ve seen it and done it, I have no desire.  Uh-uh. The only thing I do at the end of the night is, I carry some pretty good whiskey, some pretty good bourbon, and I’ll have a good glass or two, maybe that much (indicates a small glass of whiskey), just to relax.  Until the shit hits the fan and we get back to the bus and chaos ensues.

TC:  Then you tune yourself out as much as you can.

BM:  Yep. Yeah, I’ll put my ears in and I’ll put the sticky side of velcro on my DVD player so the phone holds down, and I have my Netflix, I plug my ears in and I can’t hear you.  I’m layin’ down in my bunk like this and I watch a movie. It’s excellent, it’s choice. I’ll be doing that at 10:30 tonight.

TC:  It’s good that you have a plan.  Let’s see, my ride is here, let’s do one more.  What artist, when they die, will you be crushed about?  

BM:  I really have zero connection. 

TC:  Wow. I find that so interesting to hear you say that.  I’m kind of the same way. I mean, I might be really sad when an artist dies because I won’t get to hear them anymore, but if I didn’t personally know them, I don’t get that intense sadness and cry like some people did over some artists.  Like, when Prince died and people mourned like crazy.

BM:  Exactly, like I was a little sad when Tom Petty died, but it was more that I was sad because I never got to see him.

TC:  I feel better now, because I always wondered if I didn’t have a heart because I didn’t feel completely crushed when an artist I really liked died.  It was just that I didn’t know them as a friend, even if I had seen them play before. If I had known them personally, I would have been very sad, I’m sure.

BM:  There’s just no connection.  No matter how personal a piece of music was, it wasn’t written about me.  Stevie Wonder’s another one. I hope he doesn’t die soon for selfish reasons.  I’ve never seen him. I feel terrible for saying that, but it’s true.

TC:  Thank you.  I feel better now.  Either that, or we’re both heartless.  (He laughs) I only have one more for you.  When you “Think Country”, what do you think?

BM:  Not the 2000’s.  (Big laughs)

Photo courtesy of Zack LaChappelle

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*Featured image courtesy of Ben Miller

 

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Patti McClintic
I’m Patti. Rock music is my first love. My daughter, who was a country fan as a teenager, dragged me in when I'd drive her to school and we would have radio wars in the car. I'd have on my rock station and she would switch it to the country station. Guess who always won? As they say, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, so I did. patti@thinkcountrymusic.com First it was all modern country, but my parents were big Merle Haggard fans. I went along with them to a Merle Haggard/Phil Vassar show at the local fair and that was it. I was hooked on the Hag. Since that day, I've become a fan of bluegrass and I continue to explore all facets of the country genre. I guess you could say, I'm all in. When I'm not up to my neck in any kind of music, I enjoy genealogy, history, my granddaughters and my addiction, SongPop. I guess it could be worse, right? I'm a Buffalo, New York girl living in a Nashville, Tennessee world, and I'm livin' the dream with my husband, my dog and my two cats.
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