BRYAN KEELING FINDS THE BEAT IN MUSIC’S BIGGEST DESTINATIONS
Every musician in Nashville has a story. The circumstances of their musical backgrounds are as different as their DNA, yet all of them were drawn to this place known worldwide as “Music City.” It’s the land of opportunity for anyone who dreams of a career in music, regardless of their preferred genre. It used to be that Nashville was thought of most often as the country music capital of the world. In the 21st century, that is no longer the case. The diversity of musicians is ever-changing as new faces appear in Nashville every day. For some, it’s a first step on their journey to realizing their dreams. For others, it’s a fresh start and a new job pool for their talent. Most of the musicians I’ve met in Nashville have been there awhile. If they’re new to the city, it’s because they’re young and just getting started. When I met Bryan Keeling, he’d only been in town for a few weeks. He’d driven the 2,012 miles from Los Angeles to Nashville for an opportunity to take his career in a new direction. He’s got both the education and experience to fill any number of openings in Nashville. With veteran credentials, earned over countless miles on tour and in famous studios (Paramount, Conway, Mad Dog, Clear Lake, Hollywood Sound) with big name artists, I wondered what he saw in Nashville and how Nashville would see him. If you move from one music scene to another, can you pick up the beat with a hint of personal style and technique, or must you follow the beat as set by what dominates the destination to find employment? Is it the player that affects the landscape, or the landscape that makes the player? Someone as musically well-rounded as Bryan may just be the conduit through which new lessons are learned and “Music City” spins gold from the enrichment.
Bryan Keeling was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and spent his childhood between Albuquerque and Dallas, Texas. He started drumming with intent under middle school instruction in Albuquerque and poured himself into learning. After his father’s death when he was in ninth grade, he moved back to Dallas, where music became an outlet for his passion and his grief. Not knowing his story, and seeing the success he had at such a young age, I suspected he might have been a musical prodigy. He was quick to refute that, saying what drove him to achievement was endless practice and dogged determination. In the middle of his high school years, things started to unravel with the music program and he auditioned for a spot at Arts Magnet High School in Dallas his senior year. He was selected to attend and participated in several ensembles, music theory, ear training, and the standard curriculum. His performance in the school’s program and audition for admission to Berklee College of Music in Boston, earned him a scholarship to study at the next level.
Diversity of experience is something Bryan considered when making his choice to study at Berklee. The top three programs for advanced music instruction are at Berklee in Boston, the University of North Texas in Denton, and the University of Miami in Florida. UNT was practically in Bryan’s backyard growing up in Dallas, but he decided he wanted to travel and absorb the differences between what he’d learned in Texas and what this prestigious school in New England had to offer. It was a completely different climate in most every way. From the range of classes offered and opportunities to play, to the kaleidoscopic student body, Berklee was a window on the musical world in technique and expression. It was a solid foundation on which to build a professional career. Immediately after college, Bryan moved to Austin. Well known for its thriving live music scene, Austin is a melting pot of opportunities for musicians of all genres. The blending of sounds that became alternative rock spawned the formation of several successful bands Bryan became a part of. Water the Dog, Mr. Rocket Baby, Johnny Law, and Eden’s Plot were all highly acclaimed bands that drew faithful followings. Bryan cut his teeth on the Austin music scene and added production work to his capabilities with the use of Pro Tools. He had seven records to his credit before making the decision to test his skills in a new market.
In Los Angeles, Bryan saw an opportunity to play music in places formerly unreachable. The L.A. music scene has always been an experimental petri dish of sound and influence. Some of the most eclectic sounds in music came from bands and singers who launched careers in California. In the 50s, the Bakersfield sound was a regional reaction to what country music fans found distasteful in the popular Nashville sound of the day. Buck Owens and Merle Haggard led the revolt and pioneered a new sound that took hold and paved the way for future stars such as Dwight Yoakam, Marty Stuart, and Brad Paisley. Subsequent decades developed their own signature sounds like the Surf Rock of the Beach Boys and the Psychedelic Rock of The Doors, Frank Zappa, and the Grateful Dead. The 70s and 80s saw an explosion of successful bands led by the iconic Eagles, Sly and the Family Stone, and Journey. Glam Metal unleashed Quiet Riot, Motley Crue, and Poison. Three of the “big four” bands that dominated the thrash metal scene were California’s Metallica, Megadeath, and Slayer. The Red Hot Chili Peppers set the standard for the alt rock era and alt metal produced Faith No More and Jane’s Addiction. The 90s proudly claimed indie rocker, Beck, saw the rise of a hip hop scene in L.A., and entered the grunge era with Rage Against the Machine, Stone Temple Pilots, and Hoobastank. The century ended with what has become California’s biggest annual celebration of music, Coachella. The inaugural event was held in 1999.
Bryan moved to L.A. in 2002, just as a new century of music possibilities was getting started. He’d matured as a player on the Austin scene and gained some valuable production skills that would carry over to opportunities in L.A. In Austin, Bryan could play as often as he desired. What he couldn’t do was log much distance or international mileage while playing. His desire to play bigger stages and experience music in different countries drove him to push the boundaries and embrace west coast living. The L.A. music market has the added advantage of offering jobs in the television and movie industries. Bryan put his Pro Tools knowledge to work, learned some new skills, and worked during the day mixing audio for shows on Comedy Central and MTV as well as movie trailers. He played on the soundtrack for First Daughter and made a cameo appearance in the film. His playing can also be heard on the soundtrack for the film, Son of the Mask. When he relocated to L.A., the other members of Eden’s Plot (from Austin) moved with him. They changed their name to AlterEden and played together for about two years. Bryan mixed, produced, and engineered their recordings and played drums in the band. They shared a practice space with a pop band called Galapagos, and when their drummer quit, Bryan was asked to play with them. In 2003, he also started playing with emerging country artist, Shooter Jennings. Living in L.A., the music scene is such that Bryan could fill in the gaps in his schedule with studio work. He recorded with Pink, Dionne Warwick, Macy Gray, Lucy Woodward, Jessie Colter, and Damon Elliott, just to name a few. The first two years of Bryan’s west coast residency were a well balanced mix of what the music scene had to offer. Starting in 2004, a call from Shooter elevated him to the anchor spot in Bryan’s professional life.
Shooter Jennings was preparing to make a big splash in the country music market and needed a strong sounding, heart pounding band to back up his unique brand of outlaw country. He was working on new material for his debut album and called Bryan to offer him full-time employment as his drummer. The band was completed with Leroy Powell (guitar) and Ted Kamp (bass). Collectively, they were known as the .357’s. The band played on the first album, Put the O Back In Country, which was released by Universal South Records in 2005. The lead single, “Fourth of July,” produced a video for the song that the band played on as well. Over the next five years, the .357’s and Shooter Jennings recorded five albums: Sessions@AOL (’05), Electric Rodeo (’06), Live at Irving Place 4.18.06 (’07), The Wolf (’08), and Black Ribbons (’10). In 2008, the .357’s also played on a posthumous release of Waylon Jennings’ music, Waylon Forever. The seven years that Bryan spent with Shooter Jennings and the .357’s added a wealth of experience to his resume with extensive touring in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, television appearances, studio recordings, and video shoots. Bryan’s original song, “Higher,” was included on Shooter’s 2008 release, The Wolf, performed live on Last Call with Carson Daly, and used in a CSI: Crime Scene Investigation episode, “Bull,” in season eight. In a review, Rolling Stone referred to it as the one track that stands out on the album. Capping a banner year in 2008, Modern Drummer ran a story on Bryan in the November issue.
With the founding of Black Country Rock Records, Shooter Jennings decided to go in a new direction and hired a new band. Bryan’s impressive resume garnered multiple opportunities to record and tour with L.A.- based rock bands. He played with Hell City Rockers and some dates with Fuel. In 2012, he was hired as the full-time drummer for Eric Sardinas and Big Motor. Over three years, they toured worldwide and Bryan played on their 2015 release, Boomerang. His 13 years in Los Angeles gave him a full-spectrum view of the music industry, allowing him to gain experience in many aspects of the field. He became an in-demand studio player and a top-notch tour drummer as well. His outstanding work in engineering and production, having worked with Grammy-winning producer, Jim Scott, and Nashville-based producer, Dave Cobb, makes him a triple threat in the professional world of music. L.A. is a major market music destination, and finding success on that playing field is no easy task. Many come to California with big dreams, seeking fame and fortune. Bryan saw a market he was more than qualified to do business in. He came prepared and went to work, sustaining a relentless work ethic in an industry that demands it to achieve success. When things start to slow down, Bryan looks for the next stage to play on in a place he can set the beat. Being a drummer, that’s imperative to keeping the passion alive and playing with a purpose. Looking eastward, Bryan set the GPS for Nashville, Tennessee.
Many factors have played into the down-sizing of the music industry and its concentration in select cities. Once thriving centers for entertainment and production have seen opportunities dry up and economics turn creative space into condos and retail outlets. Where musicians could liberally turn their passion into profession, they are now forced to reinvent themselves in a more confined market space. Many are being pigeon-holed into playing part-time and working day jobs to make ends meet. It often takes an extreme level of ingenuity to find, and/or create, an opportunity that suits your resume and professional desires. Nashville is fast becoming America’s foremost “Music City.” Where it was once considered a one trick pony, it is now seen as the land of A Thousand Horses with an open plain to run on. The history of music in Nashville dates back to the time of Davy Crockett in the late 1700s. He was likely “Music City’s” first musician as a frontier fiddle player. In the 1800s, the city became nationally recognized for music publishing. Local talent, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, toured worldwide, putting Nashville on the global map of music destinations. Playing for the Queen of England, she remarked that the group must have come from the “Music City.” From her lips to the music industry’s ears. God Save the Queen!
Since the early 1900s, Nashville has continued to build on that legacy. The Ryman Auditorium became home to the Grand Ole Opry and is often referred to as “the best auditorium in the nation to experience live music.”* Music Row sprang up from the power and influence of industry bigwigs who operate there. With the abundance of songwriters in Nashville and iconic venues like the Bluebird Café, the city is proudly known as the “Songwriting Capital of the World.” The Tin Pan South Songwriters Festival is a showcase of that moniker. Music Mile is an architectural demonstration of how music can change the landscape and the economics of a town bursting with opportunities. There are more than 130 music venues in and around Nashville and live music can be heard 365 days a year. Those who promote tourism proudly proclaim, “Welcome to the city where music is written, recorded, and performed every single day.”* It’s no surprise that Bryan Keeling has come to Nashville to record the next chapter of his professional life. He is one of a new crop of musicians who’ve long been connected to “Music City” through projects they’ve worked on or bands they’ve played with. There are merely a few degrees of separation between what happens musically in other cities and the magnetic center of the music industry, Nashville, Tennessee.
Over the next two decades, the population of Nashville is expected to double. Many of the immigrants will be musicians. Bryan comes to Nashville with years of experience and a resume that reflects that. He is one of many who’ve decided to move out of L.A. in search of creative ground, a lower cost of living, and a thriving community of musicians. The networking capabilities are endless and the odds of your finding that creative spark are high. Initially, it can seem like trying to merge into high-speed traffic on a golf cart. Even the guys in the slow lane appear to be lapping you. It can take more than a few miles to get up to speed and in tune with the city’s unique beat. Once you make a few friends or reconnect with old ones, you can enter the highway with a drafting partner and start to gain some traction. Someone with Bryan’s capabilities isn’t looking to apprentice and simply follow the beat. He’s looking to open a door and break new ground. In just a short time, he’s already been called for studio work and has some steady gigs around town. Bryan plays with hard rockin’ country artist, Eldon Huff, whose new album, Tough Times And The Truth, is creating a stir in Nashville. Southern rockers, The New Black Seven, recently hired him to play on their new video and have extended the invitation to include recording their next album and touring. His exceptional reputation preceded his arrival in Nashville, and watching him work will only add to the interest he’s generating. There is a buzz in “Music City” about the level of talent the area is attracting. Like bees to honey, this creative atmosphere draws them in.
Modern Drummer magazine sets the bar for evaluating drum talent as they take an in-depth look at the player and his impact on the band. Shooter Jennings and the .357’s played a show in New York City at Irving Plaza in 2006. The show was recorded and released as Live At Irving Plaza 4.18.06. Recalling that performance, Modern Drummer wrote a review of Bryan’s playing and had this to say, “Who says L.A. guys can’t play that low-down, Lone Star feel? We heard it with our own ears – and in New York, no less.”** Bryan Keeling is a player that has built his professional identity through every beat he’s played. His strength of skill and experience allows him to adapt to any playing situation, with or without notice. He sets the beat to suit the need of the music, and uses his own personal style to moderate accordingly. Whether in New York City, Los Angeles, Austin, Nashville, or any city known for its brand of music, Bryan can show up and play – and it will be no average performance. The sound of his beat will linger in your ears. With the influx of seasoned musicians arriving in Nashville, unwilling to leave their hard-earned identities at home, the question is this. Will they change Nashville, or will Nashville change them? The passion from which music is created makes it a muse for those looking for a born again landscape on which to stake their claim and take root. From its earliest settlement, welcoming those who disembarked on the shores of the Cumberland River, Nashville has proven itself fertile ground for those with music in their soul. It nourishes and responds to the needs of its musician citizens, showcasing the best of a bountiful harvest, year after year. Bryan Keeling, and the musicians who follow him to relocate in “Music City”, will write, sing, play, record, and produce in the tradition of those who came before them. Most likely, they’ll find their own beat and enrich the output with their individual talents. In a city whose legacy is built on the quantity and quality of its music, embracing these new citizens will ensure its longevity as the center of music production in a global age. Call it Fort Nashborough, Nashville, or “Music City,” the message is the same…….if you’re a musician, welcome home!
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Listen to Bryan’s original song, “Higher!”
“Higher” takes a hard rock lyrical approach to a song with a honky-tonk beat and an outlaw country attitude. It opens and closes with a guitar that hints of a rock anthem and perhaps portends the rock star confessions you’re about to hear. When the honky-tonk beat kicks in, so does the chicken-pickin’, and Shooter’s unapologetic delivery is pure outlaw. The addition of the harmonica serves as a bridge to take you back to those classic rock guitar chords. When I listen to this, I think of Bryan playing it, as he did on the recorded version and in concert. He has a 360 view from his seat behind the drum kit and likely the same view from the back of the bus. If he were a writer, this might have started out, “Dear Diary….” Because he’s a musician and a songwriter, we get “high and then get higher.” Every girl loves a bad boy, or in this case, an outlaw.
“Higher” is available through iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/higher/id266168248?i=266168283
“Steady At the Wheel” off Shooter Jennings’ debut album, Put the O Back In Country.
Bryan Keeling is endorsed by: Gretsch Drums, Zildjian cymbals, Remo heads, Gibraltar Hardware, and QwikStix.
*Excerpted from visitmusiccity.com “The Story Of Music City”: http://www.visitmusiccity.com/visitors/aboutmusiccity/storyofmusiccity
**Excerpted from Modern Drummer, “Live Action Report,” November ’08 issue
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