LEE HENDRICKS, BASSED INSIDE THE OUTSIDERS’ BAND
The desire to pick up an instrument and learn to play can come from many different sources. Sometimes it’s an escape from a troubled world or an outlet for a creative mind. If you feel like an outsider, joining a band can put you on the playing field instead of standing on the sidelines watching the world go by. Finding that coveted spot in a garage band can change the trajectory of your life long before you’re aware of it. When Lee Hendricks became fascinated with learning to play the guitar, he wanted to be in a band. Once he landed a spot, he relished being inside a musician’s world. Little did he know back then that being an insider would some day lead to The Outsiders and his membership in the Eric Church Band (ECB). Confident, cool, and comfortable on bass for Eric Church, he poses in dark shades with his band of brothers for the cover of The Outsiders album. If you’re going to be an outsider, being skillfully armed with an instrument, playing beside equally skilled musicians, and having a band leader named Eric Church, isn’t such a bad thing.
If you’re familiar with the lyrics to the title track of Eric Church’s Grammy-nominated album, The Outsiders, you know that they reference “a band of brothers, together alone.” Before that band of brothers would become ECB, they were kids who wanted to learn to play. Future bass player, Lee Hendricks, was born and raised in Boone County, West Virginia, coal country. He didn’t have childhood dreams of being a rock star, nor did he graduate high school with a hand me down future, a trust fund, and a Tesla. Lee’s music career started with a casual interest in playing that led to a full blown preoccupation. He dabbled a bit in his grade school band because it was part of the curriculum. During high school, about age 15, his mom’s boyfriend played the guitar and he was fascinated by it. Drawn to something he didn’t know how to do, he sought help from the closest source available to him, and the man with the guitar taught him to play a little. From there, he sat in his room and figured it out. When he’d learned enough to seek a spot in a local garage band, he took what they offered. He said everyone wants to play lead guitar or drums, but rarely is there a line of guys waiting to audition for bass. His answer to how he got started playing bass was simply, “I got stuck with it.” I would learn over the course of this interview that Lee Hendricks is a musician without pretense. The honesty in that statement reflects the man he is and shows why he’s a natural fit for ECB.
After high school, Lee’s interest in music pointed him in the direction of West Virginia State’s music program. He said it was this environment that really piqued his interest in music and he studied guitar playing intensely. He learned to read music and got some professional lessons from a college professor. To put you in the mindset of where he was musically in those days, he said the first music he learned to play was AC/DC. He was a straight ahead rock listener then with no deviation in the sound he preferred. Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers Band, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, and Judas Priest were among the ranks of his wheelhouse. He remembered being with his buddies and finding a cassette tape on the side of the road that was Judas Priest’s, British Steel. In West Virginia in those days, there was no MTV to look at for reference as to who Judas Priest was or what they sounded like. Pressing play on this tape could have led to anywhere. For Lee’s taste, it was a gift from the “Metal Gods.” A buddy that was a drummer, and part of the punk scene in Charleston, got him listening to other kinds of music like The Police and The Pretenders. That opened things up for him musically. He spent two years at West Virginia State before he realized it was leading towards an end he couldn’t embrace. There was no degree in rock star, then, or now, and becoming a music teacher was the only outlet available for a steady, reliable income. Despite the attractiveness of a guaranteed career, he knew himself well enough to know this wouldn’t make him happy, so he left school and did what rock stars do……started a band with some college friends. On the mixtape of Lee’s life, “School’s Out” and “Living After Midnight” is in.
In 1988, the jazz fusion band that Lee was playing in wasn’t making money the way they’d hoped. Ready for a “New Sensation,” they immersed themselves in the sound of INXS and started playing pop music. Suddenly, they were playing clubs and filling up their calendar. A booking agent they connected with got them on the hotel circuit playing up and down the east coast for the next two years. As a young musician making a living, this seemed alright until Lee saw what was happening to friends and colleagues around him. Playing hotel gigs five nights a week looked more like a “Grinder” than a rock star dream. The drugs and alcohol that permeated the circuit made it a fast track to “Highway to Hell.” Again, knowing what he didn’t want, Lee made the decision to relocate his aspirations.
For most musicians looking to make it big, there are three dots on the map – New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville. Lee knew one person in Nashville, so he called him up and told him he was thinking of making a move. He was invited to come down for the weekend and check it out. At that time, he wasn’t into country music at all, and had no idea what he would find in Music City. In 1991, downtown Nashville was not the vibrant scene it is today. Nevertheless, he came to town, checked out the club scene, and liked what he saw. Two months later, he moved to Nashville and stayed on his friend’s couch for a couple of weeks until he got a temporary warehouse job and rented a “crappy apartment.” Starting from ground zero in a town full of musicians, directions on how to throw your hat in the ring don’t come with the signing of that new lease. Lee agreed, saying, “You can’t go to the union and say, here I am, put me in a position.” The hiring highway that runs through Nashville is paved with word of mouth recommendations. All you can do in the beginning is work hard, play music, make yourself part of the scene, and hope that “One Thing Leads to Another.” Lee started out by going to clubs on jam nights where there might be eight guys in the circle. Over time, the circle continued to grow, and he stuck with it until he got that first job touring with a Nashville artist.
His first hire in Nashville was by brother/sister act, John and Audrey Wiggins. That touring gig lasted about a year before he was shuffled through a few new artist gigs that never amounted to much. In the late 90s, he spent a few years touring with Bryan White and Edwin McCain. His big break came in 2000 when he got a call about an opening in Olivia Newton-John’s band. She didn’t live in Nashville but her band was based out of there. Over the next four years, he toured worldwide with her, playing mostly theatres. It was a time he thoroughly enjoyed. In August of 2006, he got a call from a friend about an opening in Eric Church’s band. This friend just happened to be Eric’s drummer, Craig Wright. He’d known him for awhile and they played golf together, so when the position opened up, Lee got the call. Eric had just released his debut album, Sinners Like Me, when Lee was offered a spot in his band. He said he listened to it and loved it. What he appreciated was the fact that Eric is a great player and songwriter. It’s easy to take an outsider’s view of this opportunity and say, “Wow! How lucky to get a shot at playing with Eric Church!” This, however, is 2015. In 2006, Eric Church wasn’t ERIC CHURCH!! Lee had just come off years of touring with a worldwide superstar. Eric Church was an unknown entity who may or may not become a headliner. Musicians are put in tough spots to make these kind of calls early in a singer’s career when they have no idea whether things will fall apart or explode in a good way. Lee found Eric to be an artist he believed in and respected and he had a peripheral connection to his band. Bassed on nothing other than this, he opted to become a member of ECB.
The story from here becomes an insider’s view of a “band of brothers, together alone.” As a musician, hired to play a role, it often takes some time to determine exactly what that role will be. When you’re starting with an artist early on in their career, they’re testing the waters as much as you are. It seems this brotherhood, that would become ECB, started with Eric casting himself among their lot. Lee’s arrival in Nashville as an unknown musician meant starting at the bottom and building a reputation. In 2006, Eric Church would have to walk that same walk, an outsider without a name. When Eric moved to Nashville, it was with the intent of being a songwriter. Arthur Buenahora, Jr. heard some of his songs and suggested taking them to a label. Struck by “Lightning,” Eric Church became a signed artist. From this point, his growth and the band’s become intertwined. Lee remembered playing that first gig with Eric and feeling that something big was going to happen with him. As if a bolt of lightning went from Eric, through the floor, and into Lee’s bass, he was connected to the journey and intent on staying the course with his new boss and band of brothers.
“We’re the paint where there ain’t supposed to be paint” is the operating blueprint of Eric’s career and the mantra by which ECB rolls. From the very beginning, they walked a different walk. At the time the label released Eric’s first single, “How ‘Bout You,” they also released his first album, Sinners Like Me. It was an early release that made all the difference. Not much happened on country radio, but they were able to tour with this album and sell it on the spot. Lee feels like this was the oil in the engine in those early days when they were trying to build a fan following. If fans are excited about the music, they want to take it home. At the time Lee joined ECB, the tour had label support. They had one band bus that pulled a trailer, but no crew. Eric, the band, and one front house guy rode the bus together. Lee said he used to break down his gear after a show and then help Craig pack up his drum kit. Bare bones support being what it is in the early days, you learn to be a band of brothers and survive on the road. Playing 200+ shows a year at mostly rudimentary venues, and logging all of those road miles, separates the men from the boys. For this band, it solidified their resolve to own that ‘outsiders’ moniker. “We do our talkin’, walk that walk, wide-open rockin’, That’s how we roll.”
The inclusiveness that Eric operates with extends to the making of his records. Since Lee’s joining the band in 2006, he’s played on every one of Eric’s records. Unlike other sessions he’s been a part of, there’s a habitual process with Eric that he admires and appreciates. It comes down to a basic belief in the way music should be made. Lee (bass), Craig Wright (drums), and Jeff Hyde (utility), play on all the records, as does producer, Jay Joyce (guitar). Jay has been Eric’s producer from the beginning. The first three albums were recorded in his basement studio. The Outsiders was the first album to be recorded in the new church studio owned by Jay Joyce. Lee said the sessions he’s done with Eric are different than the formulaic 10-2-6 standard that requires you go in and get it done within the time allotted. They don’t look at a clock when recording with Eric, taking their time to experiment with the music. Typically, it’s one song a day production work. Utilizing his band members and a producer he’s worked with for years, there’s a comfort level there that allows for experimentation without reservation. Lee said it happens that someone will try something and the group gives it a thumbs down. They take their time in getting to that five star review from this close-knit group. The new church, turned recording studio, is a big space that allows for different rooms to be used for recording different parts of the song. It’s a set-up that lends itself to a Church Choir hallelujah when the record is done and a resounding amen from “Country Music Jesus.”
The attention to detail that goes into the recording process isn’t lost when they take this show on the road. Eric and ECB do not play to recorded tracks of any kind. Everything you hear at one of their shows is being played live. For The Outsiders album, Jay Joyce added keys into the mix. They’d never been used on any of Eric’s previous albums so Lee learned to play keys. For a guy who’s spent his entire professional life playing bass, playing keys led to one of the most nerve-wracking moments of his career. Eric and the band were scheduled to play “Give Me Back My Hometown” recently at the Grammys. Lee was tapped to play bass and keys during the live performance. Just prior to them starting the song, he looks into the audience and sees Prince sitting there. No pressure. Just your typical Eric Church crowd.
Eric’s fan base is a cross section of America that’s now extending to Europe. It’s important to Eric to connect with his fans at each show, and he does that in a myriad of ways that stay true to who he is. On this tour, he’s using an octagon shaped stage that allows for wrapping the audience around his performance on all sides. There are ramps that go down to floor level that give band members the opportunity to showcase their part in a song in a spotlight created moment. Eric relishes these moments as much as the fans do. He wants the music to make a statement and graciously steps out of the way to let that happen. From the stage looking out across the crowd, Lee said you can tell who listens to the radio and who buys the albums. It’s the loyalty of his hard core fans that made the song “These Boots” a hit at shows despite never having been released as a single. It speaks to the work ethic of the fans, the band, and Eric himself. He plays a 2 ½ hour set list that changes every night. He rewards his most loyal fans by bringing them down from the cheap seats and putting them into a special pit section built into the stage. One of these lucky fans gets to pick a song for the band to play and it could go back quite a ways in his growing catalog of songs. It’s these kind of connections with the fans and the inclusiveness of his band that make Eric Church no ordinary artist.
As Eric’s career has grown and the amount of buses used on tour have increased, the band may travel separately from him, but in no way are they excluded from the product they’re selling. Countless times in our interview, Lee commented about Eric’s loyalty to the band and how much a part of the daily process they are. One of the examples he gave me was when I asked about the choosing of the opening acts. Eric rotates opening acts during a long tour and likes to give someone radio doesn’t play a lot a chance to gain some exposure. He often asks the band for input when choosing these and Lee told me that Halestorm was one of their choices. Eric had given them a list of names and said pick one. Nice work ECB! But the work they do doesn’t just revolve around touring and recording. In 2010, following the devastating flood in Nashville, Lee had some equipment in a locker than was flooded and received financial help from MUSICARES to help replace it. The assistance that organization gave in helping so many musicians replace lost equipment inspired Lee and ECB to try and give back. In 2011, they hosted the first ECB Tournament at Gaylord Springs Golf Course in Nashville to benefit MUSICARES. Eric lets the band use his name for the tournament but gave the event to them to run. It’s open to music industry personnel and sells out very quickly. Headliners donate items for auction to help raise funds for the cause and fan club members are allowed to bid on these items. The tournament takes place in August.
Working for Eric Church has allowed Lee to strike a nice balance in his personal and professional life that allows time for session work outside the EC sessions. In addition to playing on Eric’s records and on the videos, he’s recorded with Dierks Bentley, Randy Houser, Charlie Worsham, and Chase Bryant. He’s lived in Nashville over 20 years now and has a great respect for the musician community he is proud to be a part of. He says he still meets musicians he’s never played with and marvels at the number of incredible musicians that call Music City home. It will be nine years this August that he’s been touring with Eric Church and a part of ECB. During that time, he’s played everywhere, and said he’s been on the road with someone for most of his professional career. For a guy who said he got stuck playing bass, he has embraced the instrument and become a much sought after session player in Nashville. Some of the bass players he admires are James Jamerson, Cliff Williams, Pino Palladino, and Glenn Worf. His music tastes have branched out some from the early days and he appreciates well made music. When I asked who his favorite country artist was with the stipulation that his boss was not an option, he gave me an answer, but still felt the top spot belonged to Eric Church.
Lee Hendricks learned to play bass guitar so he could be in a band. It started as an interest that became a passion, and with not much more than the musical skills he’d gained and the ambition to point his dream in another direction, he moved to Nashville. He didn’t have a fancy school diploma to hang on his wall or a Rolodex full of contacts to help him find a gig. He came to Music City an outsider. Every musician’s goal when they move to Nashville is to lose that outsider tag and become part of the scene. The idea is to play by the rules, gain acceptance, and get hired. Lee did that and found steady work. 15 years later, he joined another band. This time, he was an accomplished bass player, taking a chance on a band that didn’t fit any mold or conform to a country label. In the early days, he said they didn’t even play country bars. They were booked into rock bars and heavy metal clubs. You might say they were outsiders no matter where they went. It would be another eight years from the time Lee joined this band before he would stand with his new band of brothers, led by Eric Church, on the cover of an album titled, The Outsiders. Most outsiders fly under the radar, unknowns. A prominent member of ECB and respected bass player amongst his peers, Lee Hendricks now wears the outsider tag proudly. Before the band takes the stage on show days, Eric Church introduces them generally with the intro to “The Outsiders.” At the conclusion of the song, his band surrounding him on stage, he lets the music make a collective statement….. “You’re gonna know who we are.”
Lee Hendricks proudly endorses Dean Markley, Ampeg, and Amptweaker.
Catch Lee on tour with Eric Church! Visit Eric’s website for tour info: http://ericchurch.com/events/upcoming
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