Nashville Cats: Salute to Eddie Bayers

February 13, 2010
Like many of the musicians honored by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in its Nashville Cats series, Eddie Bayers endured poverty, hardship, and family tragedy early in life. Unlike many others, though, Bayers didn’t come from a hardscrabble rural background; instead, the Maryland son of a highly decorated military officer was left homeless in his mid-teens and eventually had to persuade a member of a crime-syndicate family to let him live.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” Bayers cracked about the adventures of his early life.

One of country music’s busiest and most admired drummers over the last thirty years, Bayers was honored as part of the museum’s ongoing Nashville Cats series, a quarterly program that pays tribute to veteran musicians who have proven integral to the city’s role as a leading recording center. Interviewed by series host Bill Lloyd, Bayers traced his unusual, wide-ranging career in a ninety-minute program before an attentive audience in the museum’s Ford Theater.

As Lloyd stated, Bayers’s rhythmic skills have been heard on more than 150 gold and platinum records. As one of Nashville’s first-call drummers, he has worked with many of the most successful and influential artists in Nashville.

The program began with a display of Bayers’s talents, in a video clip from a CMT program that is now part of the museum’s Frist Library and Archive. It shows the Players, a group of top session players with Bayers on drums, backing country star Vince Gill as they tear through a version of Gill’s “Liza Jane,” re-arranged to allow the musicians to show their skills and their tight ensemble work.

Born in Patuxent River, Maryland, Bayers moved often early in life, as the family followed his father, E.H. Bayers, a skilled U.S. Navy fighter pilot and officer. “He was born to be a pilot,” the drummer said of his father. The family moved to California when Eddie was in the first grade, then to North Africa, eventually settling in Nashville in 1959, when his father retired.

Eddie was ten years old at the time, and it soon became evident that his father encountered problems adjusting to life outside the military. “As our warriors often do, the culture shock after thirty years of military service, then coming back into civilization, was a shock to him,” Bayers said. “He sort of went awry, and he basically left the family and started another family.”

By then, Bayers had begun his musical life as a keyboard player, initially nurtured by his father, who encouraged him to take formal training at age seven after seeing a young Eddie playing with chords on a piano.

By age sixteen, Bayers was a senior in high school, having started early in the military. That year, Bayers’s mother and sister were killed in a collision with a drunk driver. To avoid becoming a ward of the state, Bayers moved to New Jersey at the invitation of a musician-friend, who told Bayers that he knew of a band that was seeking an organist. “I said, ‘Well, I’m the guy,’” Bayers recalled.

Bayers joined the rock band, playing in clubs along the Jersey shore around the city of Wildwood. Two weeks into the summer, the band broke up, with the local musicians returning to their parents’ homes. But Bayers was left without money for rent, so he slept on the beach and on rooftops, panhandling for money for food. A club owner allowed Bayers to play during the day, giving him practice time.

“I got the nickname ‘Eddie Cakes’ because, being hungry, they put me in eating contests, and I won every one of them,” Bayer said to a round of laughs.

While playing at the club, a guy who wandered in complimented Bayers on his skills and asked if he had a job. Invited to join a show band, Big Bear Revue, Bayers became acquainted with a syndicate family whose son was leader of the band.

While playing one night with the Revue, a member of the Checkmates, Ltd. heard Bayers and saw that he switched between the Hammond B-3 organ and the drums.  The two vocalists for the Checkmates played keyboards and drums, and the band had wanted to free them up on their respective songs to take the microphone in front of the band.

 “You’re exactly what we need,” the band member told Bayers, knowing his dual skills would allow each singer to be free when needed. The Checkmates offered him a job, which included moving him to Las Vegas. “I thought, ‘This is it, I’m on my way,’” Bayers said.

Only, Bayers encountered a significant obstacle: The son of the syndicate family worried that Bayers knew too much about his family and their illegal activities to let him leave the band. But Bayers begged his case, and on a fateful late-night drive around New Jersey, the threatening band mate finally relented.

“Don’t ask me why I’m doing this,” he told Bayers. “But you realize that if you ever come against this family, or if any knowledge comes out through anyone who ever contacts you under any context whatsoever, if we know you have divulged anything, nothing around you will be alive.”

In Vegas, the Checkmates became a top draw, and Bayers connected with a former Nashville friend, producer-engineer Brent Maher, who at the time ran a Sin City studio. Bayers stayed in Las Vegas until a friend convinced him to move to Oakland, California, where Bayers played with the Edwin Hawkins Singers (creators of the gospel-pop hit “Oh, Happy Day)” and found support from Jerry Garcia and Creedence Clearwater Revival members Doug Clifford and Tom Fogerty.

In 1974, Bayers returned to Nashville, at first living in his car in a rest area outside of town. He heard about an audition for a pianist at the Carousel Club in Printer’s Alley in downtown Nashville, so he auditioned for famed drummer Larrie Londin, who played in the club’s quartet. Londin hired him on the spot and got him on his first Nashville sessions.

Bayers then walked into a new studio, Audio Media Recorders, offering to play for free as the studio got off the ground, along with other young, burgeoning studio players, including guitarist-producer Paul Worley and keyboardist Dennis Burnside. “For about seven years, we were a non-mainstream production company,” Bayers said. “We would do jingles, soundalikes, contracts with National Geographic magazine, things like that.”

In the late 1970s, engineer Marshall Morgan introduced producer Jim Ed Norman to the Audio Media band, and Norman began to use them on his country recording sessions. Through Norman, Bayers played on sessions with Mickey Gilley, Anne Murray and others. Producer Mike Post also started using the group; they worked on the soundtrack for the movie 9 to 5 and on Parton’s version of the song that appears in the film.

From there, Lloyd underscored how several major country artists have tended to hire Bayers consistently over the decades to work on their albums. “If there’s anything I can say for that, it’s that I want the inspiration to come from the artists and their songs,” he said. “I want to be their drummer. I tell them, ‘I know some things about drums, but whatever ideas you have, I want to hear them. I’m not bringing the last successful effort I had in with me. This is your record, I want to be your drummer.’”

Bayers began playing on hit records by John Conlee, George Jones, Charlie Rich, Dan Seals, Ricky Skaggs and others. Bayers also got in on the earliest sessions of the Judds. Producer Brent Maher thought he was cutting demos for the new mother-daughter duo, Naomi and Wynonna Judd. But those demos ended up being the duo’s debut eight-song EP, The Judds: Wynonna and Naomi, for RCA Records.

“I remember telling Brent, ‘I’ve never been involved in anything like this,’” Bayers said of his early Judds work. “I think all of us knew this was going to be something big. I asked Jim Ed Norman, ‘You ever heard of the Judds?’ He went, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘Well, you will.’”

By now, Bayers says he and other players sense when they get involved with someone new who sounds like they own a special, distinctive quality that could connect with a mass audience. He cited Alan Jackson as another example, from the songs he played on for Jackson’s first album, Here in the Real World, which came out in 1990.

By the 1980s and 1990s, as country music exploded in popularity, Bayers found himself working almost beyond capacity. Record companies started creating sub-labels, allowing them to sign even more artists, and suddenly recording studios were full around the clock. “We couldn’t do all the work,” Bayers said. “There were years where even by this month (February), I’d be booked through October.”

Host Lloyd illustrated Bayer’s nuanced touch on traditional country albums, citing songs by Vince Gill, the Judds, and Keith Whitley and playing samples for the audience to hear. He also highlighted Bayers’s work with Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell, particularly Crowell’s standout Diamonds & Dirt album, with all five of its singles reaching #1.

Bayer also discussed a serious wrist and hand injury from a motorcycle accident that took him out of the studio for six months. Bayer cited four people who helped him pull out of it: producers Steve Buckingham and Brent Maher, and singers Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill. “Rodney called and said, ‘I don’t care if you [don’t] got an arm, you’re playing on my record,’” Bayers remembered.

Bayers holds the record for winning the ACM Drummer of the Year award, taking it eleven consecutive years and thirteen in all. From there, Lloyd talked about Bayers’s versatility, citing his work on nearly all of George Strait’s albums, on Wynonna’s solo albums, and with Trisha Yearwood and rockers Mark Knopfler and Bob Seger. Lloyd also cited Bayers’s work in a band, the Notorious Cherry Bombs (with Crowell and Gill), and as a feature player in the house band for the Grand Ole Opry. Bayer also has worked for the last four years with the Berklee School of Music, holding workshops in Nashville and traveling to Boston to work with the faculty and students on campus.

To end the program, Bayers joined Crowell for a duet guitar-and-snare-drum version of the song “Many a Long and Lonesome Highway,” and then on piano with Bayers’s wife, Lane Brody, on vocals and Kristin Wilkinson on viola for a new song by Brody, “Go Quickly By.”

The program ended just as it started: With Bayers getting a standing ovation from the crowd.

—Michael McCall