JON HULL’S FIELD OF DREAMS LEADS TO GRANDER STAGES
The Heartland is full of all those ‘nothin’ towns’ country lyrics refer to and the activities that occupy kids who grow up there. Little pink houses and small town dreams are commonplace. Whether it’s dreaming of the big leagues or performing for packed stadiums of screaming fans, it takes a little extra to find the yellow brick road out of Kansas without a GPS or the means to buy one. If you’re lucky, you might get a map from AAA. Mapping the route from where you are to where you want to be isn’t a one-dimensional process. Growing up is a 3-D endeavor, and every pixel matters. Short of being tech savvy or having the opportunities and equipment available to build your dreams, Heartland kids rely on ingenuity, unrelenting drive, and a hard day’s work to bring their dreams to life. It may start out as a field of dreams in a cornfield, or a bedroom turned Madison Square Garden stage with a drum kit in it, but forging a path of your own is often the only way to get past the corn stalks and see what’s on the other side. Jon Hull went from small town, Chillicothe, Ohio, to sleeping under a neon moon in Nashville, Tennessee. He grew up with two dreams, playing baseball and playing drums. They ran parallel to each other until he graduated from high school and had to choose his path. His current employment, as drum tech for Rich Redmond, on tour with Jason Aldean, is only one facet of the 3-dimensional dream he’s living. He laid the groundwork to build his dreams on and believed in the idea that if he built it, the opportunities would come.
The setting for Jon Hull’s field of dreams was Chillicothe, Ohio. It’s the only city in Ross County, and the original capital of the state. It lies at the foothills of the Appalachians, surrounded by farming communities. Growing up in the midst of nature’s bounty, and the shadow of the mountains, gives you a heightened sense of family, community, belief in a higher power, and your connection to all three. Hard work and overcoming obstacles are accepted as part of everyday living. Kids here are attracted to sports and music, as they are in many other locales. The difference is the balance of a day’s work along with these extracurricular activities. Baseball was the first passion Jon embraced, beginning when he was just a young boy. By fifth grade, he started with the school band, and soon discovered a burgeoning passion for playing drums when he got a set for Christmas at age 13. That was the turning point in his decision to get serious about playing and pursue learning using the resources that were available to him. In a place like Chillicothe, with a limited population, private lessons were hard to come by. Driving farther afield, to get more technical and inspirational instruction, was not cost effective when factoring in the time lost from gainful employment. Beginning in middle school, barely old enough to withstand the rigors of farm work, Jon started earning a paycheck along with the value of multitasking. For the next seven years, farm work would be a part of his daily schedule, logging hours both before and after school, sunup to sundown. High school was where Jon began the arduous task of laying the groundwork on which to frame his field of dreams.
Jon’s high school years at Unioto were a demonstration of intense commitment to what was necessary, what was required, and what he desired for a well-rounded academic and athletic experience. Music took on a priority status, both during and after school. Scheduling was a tight weave of minutes and hours devoted to Marching Band, Pep Band, Concert Band, Jazz Band, and Honors Band. Add to that weekend hours spent playing with guys he’d formed a band with, and practicing in every spare minute he could find. Farm work, conditioning, and baseball were factored in seasonally. Rarely do you find someone who pursues both athletics and music at the same time. Most often, by high school age, kids are forced to make a choice between the two as time restraints and overlapping requirements simply do not mesh. Combine those two activities with steady employment and academic demands, and this becomes a case study in the superhuman. A typical year of Jon’s high school career went like this. Liken the nine months of the school year to nine innings of a baseball game. Jon was a pitcher, thereby controlling the tempo of the game on defense. What he contributed offensively supported his efforts on defense and contributed to the likelihood of a positive end game.
The end of the summer growing season and fall harvest were busy times on the farm, and Jon’s work hours were steady as the school year began. Football season dominated the same time frame, which meant marching band practice took precedence. After school, practice was from 3:30-5:30 daily. Performances were during Friday night games. His school day may consist of Concert Band as a class, Jazz Band rehearsal as part of an arts class, and the general academic requirements for graduation. During hay season, he would be up early to get in some work on the farm before school and return after band practice in the evening to put in delivery hours until 10pm. Then, it was home to deal with school work. Being a part of Honors Band meant an audition, practice, dress rehearsal, and a performance at a larger high school in the fall and spring. January and February added conditioning two or three days a week and tryouts for spring baseball. Pep Band practice was after school for performances during basketball games. When basketball ended, a full baseball schedule rounded out the spring and farm work kicked back into high gear. Saturday nights throughout the school year, Jon played with a band at a local venue. Summer meant an increase in work hours, practicing as much as possible, and playing with various bands on the weekends. Throughout high school, a typical day started in the fields on the farm. Jon came out to play on the field of dreams he was building during the day and disappeared into the fields again at night. Under moonlight, he may return to the playing field to further elevate his game to the next level.
Jon’s passion for music and playing drums hit a crescendo towards the end of high school at the same time his baseball career was on a downswing. Years of pitching and playing third base had taken a toll on his shoulder and it was time to stop or face serious injury with surgical ramifications. He’d invested an enormous amount of time in playing and practicing drums as well. At this juncture, he said, “It was time to get serious or just stop doing it.” College level instruction was the logical next step to improve his playing and learn about the business side of music. He’d had limited private instruction and learned what he could from music teachers at school. Mostly, he’d taken charge of his own music education. He relied on books and instructional DVDs that were available from some of the drummers he admired. Johnny Rabb’s were the first he studied, and he said he wore them out trying to learn the material. He used Thomas Lang’s DVDs and books, along with those from Virgil Donati, Mike Mangini, and Dave DiCenso. His favorite drummers to watch were Alex Van Halen, Phil Rudd, and Neil Peart. He’d done his share of jamming along to rock songs without really improving his playing techniques. In college, he would again forge his own path and collect the coordinates he’d need to load his future GPS, pointing himself in a new direction.
Jon attended Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio, about an hour’s drive from Chillicothe. His major was Applied Business with an emphasis in Music Management that included production and lessons. Along with his classes, he began private lessons to improve his technique and develop the skills he may need for future employment. Instead of the formulated regimen he’d learned in high school, he was now able to learn from teachers that inspired him to want to do it on his own. The music that inspired him was 80s rock. The drummers he loved to watch from that era had a passion about their playing, and his wheelhouse included Queensryche, Bad Company, Def Leppard, and Bryan Adams. In addition to his college classes and lessons, he joined a World Champion indoor percussion ensemble and youth education organization from Columbus, Ohio, called Rhythm X. They compete in Winter Guard International competitions, which showcase indoor percussion activities. Part of their mission is to provide leadership through education and improve the quality of the participating ensembles. An audition is required to participate and funding is the responsibility of each member. Yearly fees run about $2200 per person. Being a part of this takes an above average level of commitment, both financially and time-wise. Expectations are high, and you must be willing to elevate your skills to world class level, individually, and as part of the group. What is gained from this experience could lead to future opportunities in the professional world of music. As it turned out, it was his involvement with Rhythm X that opened the door to his current employment.
On November 19, 2011, Jon attended the Percussive Arts Society International Convention, where Rhythm X was scheduled to do a 60-minute clinic showcasing the various elements of their program. Rich Redmond, drummer for Jason Aldean, clinician, producer, writer, and session player, who was there presenting his C.R.A.S.H. Course, was also invited to this one. The two met and discussed similar interests. That same week, Jon sent a follow-up email to Rich and mentioned a future trip to Nashville he was planning. It was agreed they’d touch base before his arrival. Later that winter, they’d arranged for Jon to be in Nashville full-time during the coming summer. In the meantime, Rich offered to let him help with clinics and assist with correspondence. This led to a full internship upon moving to Nashville, which included studio work and clinics in town, as well as running work-related errands as needed. An internship was required to officiate Jon’s degree from Hocking College, but he needed more hours to satisfy the requirement. When Rich asked if he had the flexibility to go on the road and help out with Jason Aldean’s tour, it was the perfect opportunity to gain valuable experience and fulfill the internship hours. In the fall of 2012, he flew to Columbus for one show at Crew Stadium. This was a trial to see how things worked out. He met the backline guys and shadowed them for the weekend. The next week, the tour manager called and offered more internship hours. He was asked to finish the tour, which meant two and a half months on the road until its completion. The offer, though unpaid, included his transportation to and from shows via the bus, and catering for his meals. It was an introduction to tour life that schooled him in the art of making a bus call and living out of a suitcase. Not unlike his time with Rhythm X, or any of the bands he’d played with, it was a lesson in how to play well with others. Having impressed his boss, he continued to work for Rich in Nashville when the tour ended. In January, 2013, before Jason Aldean rolled out on a new tour, Jon was moved to employee status. His official position was listed as drum tech for Rich Redmond. Boarding the bus, wheels rollin’, that field of dreams amongst the cornstalks was suddenly just a vision in the rearview mirror. Off the backroads and onto the highway, bigger stages and bright lights awaited in the distance.
It isn’t commonplace for a drummer on a country tour to have a drum tech unless it’s a major artist. Funding simply doesn’t allow for it. Jason Aldean is a major player, and his drummer, Rich Redmond, is one of the top drummers in Nashville. Getting to work on this tour, and learning side by side with Rich Redmond, was an exceptional opportunity. Rich is meticulous in everything he does, and two things he believes strongly in are being prepared and being positive. I recently had the opportunity to visit Jon Hull behind the scenes at their show in Hershey Park, Pennsylvania, to see what a typical day on the job is like for him. There is a rhythm to it, and a purpose for every task. Between 8am and noon, local laborers offload the equipment from the tour trucks and push it to where it needs to be. In the case of Rich’s drum kit, that would be somewhere in close proximity to the stage and the riser it needs to end up on. Getting it in place on the riser is Jon’s responsibility. Before that happens, everything must be checked, cleaned, and assembled. This includes changing drumheads, polishing cymbals, and replacing anything that may be broken. When this is finished, the drums are ready to be set up and tuned. Every piece must have a certain tone, and it is Jon’s job to make sure the sound of the kit is perfect for Rich’s set list. Unlike rock tours, where the techs do everything up until the players take the stage for the performance, sound check on a country tour involves the band members themselves. Rich plays during the afternoon sound check, and may make adjustments as needed. Jon is also on hand for sound check, should Rich need anything.
A typical day on tour can be a lot of hurry up and wait, or scrambling to overcome complications as they arise. All the moving pieces have to fall into place or things can get off track very easily. Jon summed up his responsibility as having Rich’s back all day, so there’s no stress and he can focus on the show, not on how things will function. That means he must anticipate potential problems and prepare for them before they happen. The worst that’s occurred on stage so far is a fire on the drum riser. They recovered, as professionals do, and the performance went on as scheduled. During the show, Jon sits nearby Rich, connected to the performance through his earbuds. Should he need anything, Jon is just steps away. They are connected during the entire set. At the conclusion of the show, the drum kit must be disassembled and packed up for loading on the truck and transport. Everything must be precisely and carefully put in cases to ensure their safety during travel. Jon has this procedure down to an art form. I attended a Jason Aldean show in Baltimore last year and witnessed this firsthand. When the show ended, I left the arena immediately. By the time I made my way from the floor to the exit doors and around the side of the building, cases stamped with Rich Redmond’s name on them were already being loaded onto the truck. Jon’s day had come to an end.
Being a drum tech on a rock tour might require being gone 3-6 months at a time and working six nights a week. Jon finds the advantage of being on a country tour is you get to have a home life and free time to earn additional income. Typically, he’s on the road 3-4 days a week, and home the others. He has a home studio where he can practice, record demos, and give private lessons. Teaching is something he takes very seriously. His intent is not just to instruct, but to inspire. Drumming requires good technique and an emotional connection to be truly great. Jon takes on students of all ages, but sees kids who are middle-school aged as an ideal subject for his teaching. They’re just starting to gain a focus on their playing, and being able to mold, teach, and inspire at that point is especially rewarding. It also keeps him fresh and inspired in his own playing, as the energy and desire to improve is infectious. In addition to his personal pursuits, he often works with Rich in Nashville to occupy the days off the road. A full schedule is nothing new for Jon Hull and he prefers it that way. It’s a well-rounded life, burgeoning with new opportunities, both on and off the road.
It’s been three years since Jon became a full-time drum tech and employee on a major tour. In that time, he’s logged a lot of miles and been in nearly every iconic venue in the country and some abroad. Crossing the country in a bus, he’s seen the beauty and sometimes the monotony those miles can reveal. From his seat on the concert stage, he’s witnessed arena crowds, packed stadiums, and the view looking out from a bucket list venue in the quiet moments before it’s filled to capacity. When I asked Jon if he had a desire to play on a tour like this, he expressed complete satisfaction with his professional life and the way things have come together for him in Nashville, adding, “but who wouldn’t want to play these same venues at some point?” The perks of being on a major tour are satisfying, and working with someone like Rich Redmond is something you can’t put a price tag on. What he’s learned under Rich’s instruction and the inspiration he draws from watching Rich work, is valuable beyond measure. Again, it’s part of the groundwork on which to build future dreams. Jon still gets to play drums, taking what he’s learned and pay it forward to his students. He gets to travel the world under the best possible conditions, and experience tour life from a fairly comfortable position, on the bus, in catering, and on the stage. Every day brings new possibilities that could turn into new opportunities. His careful preparation, hard work, and zest for learning have taken him from the humble field of dreams he built in Chillicothe, Ohio, to grand stages everywhere. He may have given up his dream of a career in baseball for one in music, but from my vantage point at Hershey Park Stadium, it sure looks like he hit a home run.
Jon Hull is available for lessons and demo recording. Please visit his website for contact information: http://jonnyfletch.com/
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