A band is a group of musicians, but a great band is much more than that.
Top notch musicianship is a plus, of course, but great bands are as much about attitude, energy, chemistry, luck, magic and a thousand other elements — defined and undefined — that somehow come together at a given time. And even if you can’t fully explain it, you knows when you hear a truly great band.
Several of the most influential bands in country music history are highlighted during CMT 20 Greatest Country Bands, a special premiering Saturday (April 16) at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
As a founding member of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Desert Rose Band, Chris Hillman has been involved in three bands that have made a major impact on modern music.
“It’s a gang of guys,” Hillman says of the band experience. “It’s your brothers, it’s your comrades. You’ve got to go out there as a unit, and it’s almost like a combat mission. You get on stage and play together. It’s five guys, each holding a paintbrush, and you’re all painting the Mona Lisa’s smile, right? That’s a good band. Once one guy leaves, the painting suffers. It starts to fall apart, but that’s the magic of it all.”
Del McCoury, who worked with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys before gaining widespread fame with his own band, says, “It’s a lot of people thinking alike. I think that’s what makes a great band.” Elaborating, he notes, “A lot of it is hard work, rehearsing things and recording the material that suits the band. If you have a lead singer in a band or a guy that does most of the singing, all the people in that band should be able to back him up and do things that suit him and not go off on tangents. I think that’s a natural thing. If that doesn’t come together, it’s not really a great band.”
Ricky Skaggs’ work with Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, J.D. Crowe & the New South and Boone Creek brought him success in the bluegrass world long before he joined Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band in the ’70s and became a mainstream country superstar in the ’80s. These days, he leads the award-winning band, Kentucky Thunder. From his extensive experience, Skaggs concludes that a great band begins with a strong bandleader.
“I think you really have to know what you want, and I think you have to know the kind of musicians that can perform for you what you want,” he explains. “But I also think you have to be the kind of musician and bandleader that can allow a band to step on it, you know, when they need to and when they want to and trust that they’re not gonna wreck the machine.”
For Harris, assembling her first Hot Band with legendary guitarist James Burton was a key reason she drew crowds to her early shows after releasing her major label solo debut album in 1975. Burton’s career as a studio musician had already included classic recordings with Merle Haggard, Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Buck Owens, Johnny Rivers, the Monkees and many others.
“When I first started, nobody did know who I was,” Harris says. “But I felt having James Burton — probably the greatest country guitar player, one of the great guitar stylists in the world — there were people coming just to see him. And that did not bother me at all. In fact, I loved it. It almost took the pressure away.”
In addition to Burton and Skaggs, the list of musicians working with Harris in the ever-evolving Hot Band includes Rodney Crowell, Albert Lee, Hank DeVito, Emory Gordy Jr., Tony Brown, Steve Fishell and others.
“I knew I had this great band,” Harris says. “No matter what my performance was, I knew these guys were gonna be playing great … and I would just sort of be able to stand back, play a little rhythm guitar and step up and sing when it came time to sing the words. … You knew that they were going to catch you if you fell. If you didn’t have a particularly strong night or if you started telling some stupid story that wasn’t making any sense, you knew that you could all of a sudden just break into a song, they would be backing you up beautifully and somehow you could move on to the next moment. So I always thought of myself, when I started being an artist, as a band member — a member of the Hot Band.”
While Alison Krauss is the focus of most fans’ attention, she very much considers herself a band member in Union Station.
“What’s so wonderful about these guys is that when I’m playing, I want to impress them,” she says. “That’s who I want to play for. If I get a good vocal in the studio, if these guys like what I’m doing, I know I’ve done a good job. And their opinion, that’s what I’m wanting. I want a good job from them.”
In many cases, the band helps create their leader’s signature sound. As Blake Shelton cites, one of the prime examples is Buck Owens’ Buckaroos.
“Man, there was a band that was as important to the artist as the artist was to them,” Shelton explains. “I mean, for God’s sake, the Buckaroos had their own theme song … and it became as popular as anything. Anybody knows the theme song to the Buckaroos.” Noting that the musical backing was as important as Owens’ vocals on hits such as “Together Again,” Shelton adds, “They’re what created that Bakersfield sound — that thing that nobody else was doing. It would be strange to think of Buck Owens without the guys he had in his band, because what would those records have sounded like?”
Hillman is well aware of the legacy he and Gram Parsons created in the Flying Burrito Brothers, but he’s the first to admit that precise musicianship was not one of the band’s strong points.
“We weren’t the best band,” Hillman says. “We were never the tightest band, but we had a lot of soul when we were doing what we were doing. You can hear it on the first album. … It’s never a blueprint. You’re doing something from your heart at the time, and the lasting effects don’t blossom until years later. You really don’t know if you touched a nerve.”
Union Station member Barry Bales agrees that bands need to concentrate on the moment and not worry about their place in the history books.
“I’m surrounded by some of the best acoustic players in the world,” Bales says. “And it’s pretty amazing, when you think about it. But as far as where we are as a band … if people remember us for five minutes, we’ll be doing good. But I guess sometimes you’re too close to things to really see where you’re at.”