BILLY FREEMAN FINDS PROFESSIONAL DRUMMING NO LITTLE FEAT
Texas isn’t shy about their love of football, the Dallas Cowboys, or cowboys that ride away. When Texas natives, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, teamed up on “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” it was practically unpatriotic. Since 1978, the Dallas Cowboys have fondly been referred to as “America’s Team.” The song implores mammas to urge their babies to be “doctors and lawyers and such.” What if we changed lawyers to drummers? I wonder how that would suit a Texas mamma? If you happen to be Billy Freeman‘s mamma, just fine. Billy was born and raised in the Dallas suburb of Garland, Texas, immersed in the music scene there from an early age. If there’s one thing Texas appreciates almost as much as football, it’s live music. Texas school music programs are some of the best in the nation, and many a professional musician has been reared in Texas. I assumed the state turned out drumline after drumline of rock star level drummers, all living out their dreams on grand stages. In our interview, Billy shocked me by saying your odds are better of becoming a professional athlete than a professional drummer at the top level. The 50th Anniversary ACM Awards were recently held at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, home of the Dallas Cowboys. Who knew it would be easier to get into the end zone there than on stage as a drummer for a major touring act? According to Billy Freeman, getting to that stage is no little feat.
It was evident at a very early age that Billy Freeman was going to grow up to be a drummer. At the age of four, Billy started accompanying his mother to The Garland Opry (formerly The Big G Jamboree), where she was a guest singer every Saturday night. The evening’s show would feature 10-12 singers. On Sunday mornings, he was back at the Opry with idle hands while his mother cleaned up. When you’re a four year old boy with no agenda, something that makes noise is highly attractive. Billy said he gravitated towards the drums for exactly that reason. It wasn’t long before a gentleman in the room said to his mother, “He’s good!” Following his first rave review, he started formal drum lessons at five years old and played two hours daily. Billy’s mom never pushed him towards a music career, she simply encouraged him to do it only if he liked it. It’s safe to say, he liked it. Before he reached middle school age, he’d learned to read music. His talent was innate, and he impressed his teachers and those who saw him play early on. At the age of 12, the regular Opry drummer moved away and Billy was asked to “Join the Band” as his replacement. Not even a teenager, he began playing with the other members of the band who were all middle-aged. From 12-18 years old, he did this every Saturday night. His regularity matched that of a long-running, late night TV show. LIVE from The Garland Opry, it’s Billy Freeman on drums!
The path Billy chose from middle school through high school was entirely percussion driven. From the time he entered the drum program, he was fast tracked to Honors Band. Anything musical involving drum set, he did – Jazz Band, Show Choir, Drumline, and Honors Band. His skills were such that he took a solo to state every year and participated in the ensemble performances. Billy said the whole reason he went to school was just to be able to play drums. He went to his other classes solely to fulfill the requirements for band participation. The show choir at his high school had an official name, The Showboaters. Billy referred to it as Glee before there was Glee. They operated as a professional choir, performing at corporate parties during school hours and earning money for the school. Tryouts for the choir were at the end of the school year. If you were chosen, your schedule was adjusted to accommodate the class. With a limited number of slots available to fulfill graduation requirements, this could be problematic. At the end of Billy’s sophomore year, the band director left. The timing of his departure came at a crucial time when balancing class work along with the rigorous demands of the music program were starting to overwhelm him.
Outside of the school environment, Billy was busy as well. From the time he was in middle school, he said he was always working somewhere. Besides his gig at the Opry every Saturday night, he also worked at the driving range and a local music store. In the little spare time he had, he spent a lot of it at the Opry. Billy’s first taste of what being on a Nashville gig was like came from watching LeAnn Rimes’ band members practice at The Garland Opry. LeAnn grew up in Garland and her band members were all A-list players from Dallas. Billy and LeAnn were about the same age and he said they used to flirt with each other on stage, taking a cue from George Strait at one point in the handling of this relationship – “Check Yes or No.” Stay focused Billy. It’s you and the drums in this “One Love Stand.” At times, he was even snatched out of school to come and watch these rehearsals, learning a lot about what it would take to become a professional musician at that level. It was a message that hit home at the time. He’d been practicing in his garage for hours a day since he was five, on a drum kit that was huge for a little kid, speakers on both sides. His go to album to play along with was Little Feat’s, Waiting for Columbus. His path of discovery was about to take him into uncharted territory.
Halfway through high school when the band director changed, Billy’s experience in the program changed as well. Just as players and coaches don’t always get along, life under this new leadership was difficult. Entering his senior year, he quit the band. It was a devastating decision considering his commitment to the program and the life blood he drew from it. The loss he felt was not easily replaced. The diversity of drumming at that level is unmatched outside the school environment. For most, when the Friday night lights go out, so does the feel of being in a marching band. In drum corps, you learn hand skills not easily picked up elsewhere. Suddenly, he was faced with a future that was not part of a scheduled program. There would no longer be course requirements or a set plan for attaining future goals. What he did, “Day or Night,” was entirely up to him. Fortunately for Billy, music was not an encapsulated high school experience. It was the saving grace that kept him from a “Teenage Nervous Breakdown.” It was time to take his passion and his skills to the next level of opportunity.
At 18, Billy had connections and a marketable skill set. Turning that into a career and a livable means would translate to his version of Hustle & Flow. He’d paid close attention to the players who were successful and sought advice from those with a proven track record at the upper levels of the professional scale. Rather than focusing on “All That You Dream,” he broke it down into attainable goals, the first of which was to play as often and as well as you can. Because of his prior associations, he was eligible to play with many different groups. He took freelance gigs whenever possible and started playing with a rock band. Mars Music – Learning Center in Dallas gave him the chance to share his love of drumming with those who were just discovering theirs. He said he taught beginners because he could relate to learning as a young kid. His life experience was a wealth of instructional information. By age 20, he was a proven player attracting attention. He did session work and played some gigs with LeAnn’s band members and spent a decade in the Dallas music scene networking and freelancing a burgeoning career. At one time, he was juggling playing with ten different artists. He met a lot of players during his years playing the club circuit and focused on building real relationships from his associations. Billy wasn’t content to be a casual bystander in the Dallas music scene. His intent was to be as present and vital as a pulse in his community, creating a body of work to further and sustain his musical growth.
Over the years, playing as much as Billy did, he made a lot of friends in the business. Several of them would factor into his future. Being in the Dallas metro area, it seems you can’t go far without a Cowboys connection, no matter what your profession might be. Cowboys Dancehall in Dallas is a Texas standard for live music with their own house band. They play four nights a week there and the drums stay set up for this purpose. At age 28, Billy was hired as band leader and drummer for this gig. Two friends he’d met playing earlier gigs, Brad Neher (keys) and Tony Pierce (guitar), were also members of the house band. This was an opportunity to stay home and make a great living, if you were “Willin’” to stay in Dallas. You could earn a six figure income just playing the local music scene. Two or three times a month, Cowboys would get national acts coming through to add variety and notoriety to their home stage. Justin Moore was a frequent guest artist beginning in 2009. He’d taken notice of the house band when he played there and recommended a few of its members when new artist, Dustin Lynch, was looking to form a band. Billy’s two friends, Brad and Tony, were tapped and accepted the offer to join Dustin’s band. Billy stayed on at Cowboys a couple of months longer and then took an offer to tour with Neal McCoy. Neal was touring, but based out of Dallas, so this allowed Billy to keep his home base and still be on the road meeting new people. He toured with Neal for a year before landing an opportunity to take his career to the next level.
In the spring of 2013, Billy got word that Dustin Lynch’s drummer had quit. On April 1, he flew to Nashville to audition alongside 15 other drummers. He got the job and joined the band. Still not shaking that Cowboys connection, he went from a city and a venue swollen with pride by their association, to a higher calling playing “Cowboys and Angels” with a country singer. Dustin Lynch had just released his debut album the previous summer and was out promoting it on a smaller arena tour with Justin Moore. He was in the middle of the lineup, following opener, Jon Pardi. He was aware going into this gig that Dustin was signed on to Keith Urban’s 2014 Light The Fuse Tour with Little Big Town. They would have the opening slot on this one, but it was a high profile tour and a smart move to put their “Name On It.” Following that, they’ve taken it up a notch this year promoting the release of Dustin’s second album, Where It’s At, on tour with Luke Bryan and Randy Houser. However, touring with a big name act doesn’t afford you the same opportunities for days off as the headliner gets. Dustin is still touring over 200 days a year, and that means going from grand stages to playing in the “Middle of Nowhere” frequently. It’s a daunting schedule that means the band gets home no more than 24 hours at a time regularly. Until you can reach the goal of playing less shows for more money, this is the reality of the “After Party.” Get back on the bus and ride “All Night.”
When you’re on a tour that’s as demanding as the schedule Dustin Lynch keeps, it’s essential to have a good rapport with your boss and your bandmates. Billy thrives in this environment because he says no one is as hungry or has the work ethic of Dustin Lynch. He is what he sings and he got there honestly. Dustin acknowledges that all of his guys give up their home lives to be on the road this much, doing what they love for 90 minutes or less on stage. He could have a private tour bus, but has chosen instead to ride with his band. He sleeps in the bunk just above Billy’s. On the bus, it’s not unusual to find them up “All Night” listening to music together. Their tastes are a mixed bag of sounds from metal to jazz, country to hip hop. What they have in common is a love of music, and how their music progresses is by allowing it to be influenced by what shaped them. Dustin writes a lot, and Billy hopes to play on a demo in the future. He has a home studio and is transitioning to doing more work in it. Production work is something that interests him and he’s currently learning all the pieces that go into that venture. His goal as a producer is to discern what feels good and fill the space in a meaningful way. He believes that to stay on top of your game, you must always be willing to learn something new.
As a player, Billy Freeman is the embodiment of all he’s learned through his years of making “noise” on a drum kit. He is no longer the young player overwhelmed by the size of his music playground. The value he places on music and the experience he’s gained shows up in his performance. Whether it’s country or rock he’s playing, his life in music and drumming shows up in form and feeling. At each show, Billy tries to build in moments of opportunity within the limits he has. He believes that if you play like there’s a “Rocket In My Pocket” all night, your impact points are lost. His value from the seat of that drum kit extends beyond what the audience hears to building confidence in and learning from the singers he’s played for over the years. Not only has he earned the respect of his boss, but of his peers in the Nashville drum community as well. He understands that even in Nashville your work ethic can’t take a vacation. Creating opportunities for yourself is the secret to success and imperative to consistent cash flow. What gig you have, or whether you have one at all, is often seen as a status symbol that overshadows the sum of the player. As gigs are both easily won and lost, Billy prefers to keep things in perspective and emphasize the importance of the well-rounded musician. Being present in your community and taking the time to connect with people are equally important when adding ‘professional’ in front of ‘musician.’
When Billy was in Dallas and earning a living as a musician, he couldn’t tell people that was his job without being asked, “What do you really do?” He’s found that only in Nashville is being a professional musician considered the norm. When he talked about the number of professional drummers who are on a universally recognizable gig, he thought there might be 50. Your odds of getting to that level aren’t such that most would bet on it. Finding an artist/drummer relationship that lasts for years may be as much luck as it is about playing ability. Billy would advise that you don’t look “To the Sky” to attain your dream. Ground it in passion and hard work, and listen to your mamma. “Do it if you like it.” Even if you think “She Wants a Cowboy,” better to play for one that sings than become one wishing to win a Superbowl ring. If the qualification for being “America’s Team” came simply from being recognizable, then Billy Freeman is well on his way to becoming “America’s Drummer.” His career has been built on good, old-fashioned hard work and honest talent. His mamma may have raised him in Dallas, but she likely listened to Waylon and Willie and silently urged her son to become a drummer. It may not be a profession Dallas recognizes as viable and star worthy, but for a drummer, Nashville is “Where It’s At.”
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Billy Freeman endorses Ludwig Drums, Vic Firth sticks, Zildjian cymbals, Kelly Shu mic mounts, and 64 Audio in-ears.
Nashville Drummers Jam 5, Neil Peart Tribute, Billy playing RUSH, “La Villa Strangiato.”
CMA Fest photos are courtesy of Bill McClintic at 90 East Photography/Think Country UK.
Nashville Drummers Jam photos are courtesy of Bill McClintic at 90 East Photography.
Listen to Billy’s latest interview on Working Drummer Podcast with Matthew Crouse:
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