Nashville Cats: Billy Sanford

November 17, 2012
As Billy Sanford listened to John Conlee’s #1 country hit “Lady Lay Down” he held up one finger at the sound of an electric guitar note he contributed to the beginning. He raised a second finger when a similar note rang out a few beats later.

"I played two notes on the intro, two notes on the turn-around, and two notes on the outro, and that was it," Sanford told an audience in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's Ford Theater. "There were standing jokes around town about some musicians playing too much on records. I said, 'Well, I won't be guilty on that one.'"

Sanford recalled the story during a segment of the museum's Nashville Cats series, which pays tribute to musicians who have played an integral role in country music. His minimalist performance on the recording illustrated Sanford's "less is more" style of studio musicianship, a philosophy he shared with guitarist Grady Martin and other Music Row session players.

"There [were] plenty of other good things going on besides yourself," Sanford said of the sessions he played from the early 1960s to the late 1980s. "You wanted to listen to the others and complement what they were going to do, instead of everyone jumping in at once."

Born in January 1940 in Natchitoches, Louisiana, Sanford learned guitar at age thirteen, after his brother-in-law bought him a Stella acoustic guitar at a pawn shop in Mesquite, Texas. In 1955 he helped form a rock & roll band, the Blackjacks. He later gained experience in the music scene around Shreveport, Louisiana, where he was friends with James Burton and Jerry Kennedy, who also became renowned studio guitarists.

As a session player, Sanford played on recordings by country singer Bob Luman while residing in Shreveport. In 1962, Luman brought Sanford to Nashville, where the young guitarist met Wesley Rose, president of Acuff-Rose Publications. "Wesley kind of took me under his wing and hired me for a lot of sessions," Sanford said.

Sanford moved to Nashville in February of 1964. His first day in town, Roy Orbison invited him to join his band, the Candy Men. While on tour, Sanford began playing around with a guitar lick inspired by Little Richard's rock hit "Lucille." That guitar lick gained iconic status when Orbison featured it in one of his most famous songs, "Oh Pretty Woman." Around the same time, Sanford played on another rock hit, the Newbeats' "Bread and Butter," also recorded in Nashville.

With his wife, Carolyn, and two children at home, Sanford found touring increasingly difficult. After a strenuous two-month outing with Orbison, he decided to stay home and focus on playing recording sessions. Sanford quickly became one of the busiest musicians in town in the late 1960s, with help from Rose and producer Don Gant.

Settling into a role as a Nashville session player, Sanford played on recordings by Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Oak Ridge Boys, Dolly Parton, Johnny Paycheck, Charlie Rich, Kenny Rogers, Keith Whitley, Don Williams, and Tammy Wynette as well as with Ann-Margret, Ray Charles, John Denver, Clint Eastwood, and the Monkees. Sanford was responsible for the unusual electric guitar parts on Jack Blanchard & Misty Morgan's tongue-in-cheek "Tennessee Bird Walk" and Ray Stevens's novelty hit "Guitarzan."

"I just imagined what a gorilla would sound like playing guitar," Sanford said of the latter. "I played it as if a gorilla was pulling on the neck."

Sanford also played on what he believes were the last recording sessions at Graceland, Elvis Presley's Memphis home, in the residence's famous jungle room. "They brought [recording] trucks in from New York, I think, and had them set up out back," Sanford said of the 1976 session. "They just miked the room, and that was about it."

As recording styles changed, and as more non-country singers came to Nashville to record, session musicians didn't consciously try to update the music they played, Sanford said. "There was a natural evolution.  When you're a part of it, you don't see the changes, because they happen slowly."

Asked if producers ever wanted him to play in a style that was less country and more pop, Sanford said no, that it was often a by-product of the song or the singer's voice that brought about a different sound. "There was really no instruction like that," Sanford said, then made an example of the session that resulted in Dave Loggins's pop hit, "Please Come to Boston." "We listened to Dave sing, and we tried to play what would go with his voice and his lyrics."

Sanford noted the busy schedule a Nashville session player had to face. "You could work four sessions a day, which would be at 10 o'clock, 2 o'clock, 6 o'clock, and then 10 p.m.," he said. "You'd leave the house at 8:30 in the morning, and you'd get home around 2 a.m. or something. Long days."

He also spoke about the various producers he worked with over the years, recalling Owen Bradley as "intimidating," and how Billy Sherrill, as a musician himself, often came out and sat at the piano to show what he wanted.

While some guitarists specialized in electric or acoustic playing, Sanford was known for both. Asked if he had a preference, he said, "Maybe electric, but not much." He also explained the meaning of a "high-string guitar," saying that he would tune the third string of his acoustic guitar an octave higher, creating a piercing sound that stood out. Other guitarists would tune the third, fourth, and fifth strings at a higher tone. "It gets you out of the bottom-end range," Sanford said. "It gives a little twinkle on the top."

Asked if he missed the road while performing on recording sessions, Sanford said no. However, in the late 1980s, as Sanford drifted toward what he described as "early retirement," Don Williams invited him out on the road as his guitarist. "I said, 'I'll do a year, maybe two years,'" Sanford said. "That was 1988, and I'm still playing with him."

Sanford also played on Williams's 2012 album, And So It Goes. "It marked my fiftieth year of studio work in town," Sanford said, a feat that drew applause from the crowd.

-Michael McCall