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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Chris Rodriguez: Veteran Sideman Takes Center Stage

  • 1999 11 May
Chris Rodriguez: Veteran Sideman Takes Center Stage
"It's taken me thirteen years to get to the point to feel like I was ready, that I was mature enough and had the songs to do an album." --Chris Rodriguez

By Bruce Adolph, courtesy of %%Christian Musician%%

You've heard {{Chris Rodriguez}} a lot - we mean really A LOT - and you probably don't even know it. For more than a decade he has been singing and playing guitar on hit records as a Nashville sessionist as well as enhancing live performances of top touring acts. As a sessionist and sideman he's played with Kenny Loggins, Shania Twain, {{Amy Grant}}, Wynonna, Vince Gill, Michael McDonald and Michael Bolton.

If you live in a pop music vacuum and just sit on your couch and watch TV, well then you've heard him there, too: he's sung jingles for both McDonald's and Burger King. He produced {{Erin O'Donnell}}'s first album and scored a number one hit on the Christian charts with the first single from the record. Recently this hard working sideman and servant of others' musical desires got the opportunity to step into the spotlight and take center stage to present his own music. With the release of his first solo album, CM thought it was high-time to introduce {{Chris Rodriguez}} to our readers. Not only will you appreciate him as a musician, but also as a brother in the Lord.

CM: Tell us about your early musical influences and how you made music your career choice.

CR: It all started when I got Sergeant Pepper on Christmas morning 1967. I was seven. That was the beginning of me thinking, "I've just got to be a musician." I pretty much became a Beatles freak. My fascination with the Beatles hasn't changed one iota since then. I'm a lifelong admirer of their collective body of work. I'd say until I was nine or ten years old there really wasn't any other music that I'd listen to. I had all the Beatles records and I played them nonstop.

Prior to the Beatles I wanted to be like Robert Goulet - I wanted to be an opera singer or a Broadway singer. My dad had the soundtracks to Camelot and Man of La Mancha, so I was really into that kind of stuff. But after I got the Beatles' record, I started buying anything with their name on it.

I didn't really notice that other music existed until about 1970, and then I got into the Jackson Five and Marvin Gaye. There was more to that music than being a teeny-bopper fad. It was very well written music, and the playing on it is stellar. The session musicians were all these giants of Motown music, like James Jameson. The bass lines are virtually textbook.

By the time I hit high school, I was really into English rock - almost everybody was at the time. I listened to Led Zepplin, Deep Purple, the Rolling Stones, the Who the list goes on and on. If it was from England, I bought it. That was pretty much my childhood. On the one side I had anything English, from the Beatles to the Who, and on the other side was the Motown, R&B sound.

I lived in New York City, so I always had this urban influence in my life. It was a melting pot. So half of me wanted to be a skinny, straight haired English guy, and the other half wanted to be a member of the Spinners. I had this sort of crazy mix.

I was an air guitar player until I turned eleven. For my birthday that year my parents bought me a guitar and got me some lessons. I was a very serious student, but I didn't really dive into it until we moved to Miami when I was in the eighth grade. I got into a band within a month of moving, and basically supported myself through high school playing with bands every weekend. I was making pretty good money for a kid. I cut lawns so I could buy an amplifier - a Peavey Musician - which was very loud and very big. That meant it was good to me. My first really good electric was a Fender Strat that my parents bought me.

So after picking up the guitar at age eleven, by the time I was thirteen I was completely certain that I'd never do anything else. I never had a plan B to fall back on. Parents will suggest, "Here's a guitar, but if you're smart you'll think about being a lawyer or a pilot." I had absolutely no interest in doing anything else, which is probably the reason why I've been able to do only music. I had a really single minded direction that I pursued early on and stuck with. It's been the one passion of my life.

Of course it's encouraging to pick a vocation and be able to make a living at it. Those who can live on what they earn playing are doing better than 85% of the people out there. I think I was fortunate because I happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was in Miami in the mid-seventies, and there was so much going on there musically then. Next I went to Nashville and went to music school one block off Music Row. Outside of having the talent that God gave me, I just happened to be in places where I could successfully pursue this career.

I got to Nashville when I was eighteen, did five and a half years of college and graduated from Belmont College with a Bachelor of Arts in Music. I never learned how to read music until I started college. I studied classical guitar and jazz and tried to get well-rounded musically. I learned theory and history and the kinds of things you have to when you go to school.

In the summer of 1980 I was working at the sky ride at the Opryland theme park. It was right next door to a place that had a '50s show by day and a Top 40 show by night. A friend of mine, Gene Miller, was leaving there to work with Barbara Mandrell, and so I went over and auditioned for his spot in my sky ride uniform. I got the gig, and from that point on, I've always worked as a musician. I was sort of the park hero, because one day I'm working on a ride and the next day I'm in the show. It was a very big deal. After that I kept going to school until I graduated in 1983 and worked at the park during the summers.

I met {{Michael W. Smith}} in 1985, and that was the beginning of my association with Christian music. After doing that first tour with him, I started working in the studio with the other guys on that tour. Chris Harris and Mark Heimermann were doing jingle writing in Nashville, and I started doing session work with them. The whole session thing sort of ballooned out of that first tour with {{Michael W. Smith}}.

The first master recording that I ever worked on was {{Rich Mullins}}' first record. My principle focus in college had been guitar. I wanted to be like Larry Carlton - to be a session guitarist. But on that first recording and for about the next five years, I was primarily a vocalist. Now my session work is divvied up about fifty-fifty between vocals and guitar.

CM: You've toured with several top artists, including Shania Twain and {{Amy Grant}}, as well as doing dozens of recording sessions. How do you prepare yourself mentally for serving others musically?

CR: My job is to make the artist look good. As a session musician, you work for hire. My attitude has always been, "Whatever you need, I'll do." That applies to whoever I play with - Wynonna, Kenny Loggins, {{Steven Curtis Chapman}} - whoever. I'm here to make their dream come true. It's their song, it's their vision. I'm like a musical plumber. I've got my bag of tools to help them build the house they want. "You want this kind of guitar lick? Yeah, let's do it."

CM: You've sung some major jingles: McDonald's and Burger King. How is that different from the session work you do?

CR: I take jingle work when it comes to me, but it's not something I pursue. I don't have an ambition to be a jingle musician. I enjoy records more than jingles. You have to be more observant during jingles, because there's just no room for artistic showboating. You've got to stick with the plan. Jingles have changed. They're much more song based. These days, they're leasing an old Rolling Stones song for a jingle more often than they're writing them. Overall, you've got much less artistic license with jingles. Sometimes it's nice being told what to do instead of always being asked to come up with something though.

CM: You were recently named the best background vocalist in Nashville. That's quite an honor. What association gave you that title, and how did they decide?

CR: The Nashville Music Awards are like a small version of the American Music Awards. You're nominated by a panel of your peers, and there's a ballot in the Nashville Scene, a local entertainment guide. The winner is the one who receives the most votes from the community.

CM: How did the work on Prince of Egypt come about?

CR: I got a call on a Saturday night asking if I could put a ten person choir together for a Monday night recording session. Pam Tillis and Marty Stewart were recording a song for the {{Prince of Egypt}} soundtrack. That was the first song that I worked on for the Nashville soundtrack, but I ended up singing on eight or nine of the twelve songs.

CM: Were you paid for the session, or do you get some kind of residuals?

CR: I imagine there are some kind of residuals. I'm still getting checks for an album I did with Vince Gill four years ago. It all depends on how many copies are sold. {{Prince of Egypt}} was quite an honor. It's a real feather in your cap to sing on a major soundtrack like that.

CM: You've had a very successful career as a session musician, and now you're stepping into the spotlight as a solo artist on Word Records. Tell us about that project, Beggar's Paradise.

CR: I was approached by a few companies when I was a brand new Christian, right after that first tour with {{Michael W. Smith}}. As a new believer, I didn't feel I had the maturity to perform as a Christian artist. I hadn't lived the life long enough to put it into song with any depth. At that point, I didn't quite understand the charismatic protestant church. My own church background had been very liturgical. Culturally, Christian music was a bit of a shock. I was a little paranoid about fitting in. I come from a big city, I don't have an evangelical background, so I felt a little bit like a fish out of water. I was enjoying myself as a sideman.

In 1994 I was signed to Reunion, but it was a very troubling time in my personal life. My marriage was falling apart, my walk with God was falling apart, and so after about three songs I had to step back from the project. It's taken me thirteen years to get to the point to feel like I was ready, that I was mature enough and had the songs to do an album. I wrote a lot of material without consciously fashioning a Christian record - I was just songwriting. But when I compiled all the material, it hit me, "Wow, you have a Christian record here!" So I was trying to figure out who to go to, and the name {{Brent Bourgeois}} kept popping into my head. I've been a long time fan of his. His first solo record made me feel like, "All right, I get this. I can do this." I found out that he was an A&R man at Word, and so I decided to bring my songs to him and totally risk embarrassing myself.

I brought my tape to him the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and he took it with him over the holiday and called me the next Monday. He said, "We've got to do a record together. Please don't go anywhere else." It was the easiest thing I ever did. It's like I've been waiting to birth this baby my whole life.

CM: Did you rerecord everything in the studio, or did you have everything done already?

CR: I had demos done, but we redid them.

CM: Who did you use to play on the album?

CR: Chris McHugh played drums. Will Owsley played guitar. Phil Maderia played B3 on a couple of songs. Larry Tagg - who was Brent's partner in the '80s band BourgeoisTagg - cowrote the title cut, "Beggar's Paradise" with me. He's one of my favorite bass players, so no one had to twist my arm to include him. I'm a fan of every player on the record, and they're all my close friends. I tended to pick the guys who love the same stuff I do. We used the Nashville String Machine led by Karl Cordevsky. There was a string quartet on three songs, conducted by Tom Howard. Jeff Bailey played trumpet on "Magdelena." Brent Bourgeois and I did all the background vocals except on "Walk you to the sun" and "The Valley Road." My wife sang on those with us. We had a pretty small group of session people. I was trying to keep the casting to the minimum, because I wanted a real focused direction for the record.

CM: What kind of gear did you use on it, and what endorsements do you have now?

CR: Yamaha has a model called the AEX1500, which is their answer to the old Brian Setzer style Gretsch. It's a big orange hollowbody. Kenny Greenberg, {{Ashley Cleveland}}'s husband - who is one of the top guitar players on the planet - was the first person I saw playing it. It looks incredible. My record has sort of Beatlesque tones, and George Harrison always played a Gretsch. This guitar has a great Gretsch sound.

I used Taylor acoustics as well as the Tacoma Papoose. I used the Baby Taylor to do some slide stuff on "Retreat" and "The Valley Road." I have a Fender Tele that I used a lot.

I have a 66 Fender tremolux head and cabinet which is awesome. I used that and a Peavey classic 50 head with a 410 cabinet. I love that amp. And then I have two amps that I got from Yamaha - the DG1000 and the DG100. I used those quite a bit. I think Roland was the first to introduce amp modeling two or three years ago, and Yamaha has answered with this amp. If I could only have one amp with me on a desert island, that'd be the one. Not that I'd be recording on a desert island

CM: You've produced ({{Erin O'Donnell}}'s album), you've toured, you've done the studio thing. You've looked at Christian music from all angles. At this point what does music mean to you?

CR: I know this: I'm leaving for Denmark on Sunday, and I don't know any Danish. But I can go over there and play "Layla" and I'm making friends. Music transcends language. You can go anywhere on Earth and play "Smoke on the Water" and people get it! It's a very powerful communication tool, and it does what language can't. It's always brought me a great deal of solace. I think I managed to stay out of a lot of trouble as a kid because I could lean on my guitar. It's a great thing to be able to play the guitar and pay my rent. In a lot of ways I feel like I'm still a kid, since all I do is run around the world and play the guitar. I feel very blessed that the Lord gave me the talent to sing and play the guitar. I don't deserve it, but I want to glorify God with the music I'm doing now. I want people to feel hope.

I've made a record which reflects a lot of the struggles that I've been through in life. But I tried to put this bow on the package: at the end of the record, I want to leave the listener with a feeling of hope. When I play, I feel like I'm pouring myself out to the kids, sharing my faith, sharing my struggles. They're all struggling too, and they just want to hear that you've been there, and that you know what it's like to go through the ringer. My message at the end of the record is: stick with the Lord. There's healing and there's reconciliation. Hold on to God with all that you have.

ALSO AVAILABLE - Tune in our Artist Exclusive interview for even more from Chris Rodriguez!