Producer’s Chair: Tom Hambridge

Tom Hambridge

Tom Hambridge

Don’t miss two-time Grammy winner & five-time Grammy nominated producer, songwriter and drummer Tom Hambridge on The Producer’s Chair on Thursday, March 2 at Sound Stage Studios at 6:30 p.m.

Believe it or not, since my last interview with Tom Hambridge in 2014, Tom has produced 17 more albums, received 27 award nominations, six of which he won, played drums and/or sang on 19 other artist’s albums, made numerous TV appearances, toured extensively and now, he’s about to release his 7th solo album The Nola Sessions

In 2016 alone, Hambridge added another 93 cuts to his songwriting discography which already boasts the likes of Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Susan Tedeschi, George ThorogoodJoe Bonamassa, Quinn Sullivan, Keb’ Mo’Eric Burdon, Delbert McClinton, Johnny Winter, Colin Linden, ZZ Top, BB King, Steve Cropper & Felix Cavaliere, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Meat Loaf, Kenny Neal, Shemekia Copeland, Van Zant, T. Graham Brown, The Outlaws, Jack Ingram, Taylor Hicks, Rascal Flatts, Joe Nichols, Chris Young, Gretchen Wilson, Danny Gokey, Billy Ray Cyrus, Lee Roy Parnell, Pat Green, Hank Williams Jr., Montgomery Gentry, Rodney Atkins, Ronnie Dunn and the list goes on … and on, including Keith Anderson’s song “Every Time I Hear Your Name,” co-written by Hambridge and Jeffrey Steele, which won a 2007 ASCAP Country Music Song Award. Hambridge is a writing machine who not only has 500 cuts in multiple genres but over 50 producer, songwriter and musician awards including two Grammys, five Grammy nominations and a boatload of Blues Music & Blues Blast Awards.

The unique thing about Tom’s career is that he gets to produce, co-write and tour globally with both, legends like Buddy Guy and James Cotton and some of the Hottest new young artists, on the planet, like Quinn Sullivan. Hell, Mick Jagger even asked Tom to play drums for him, at the White House. But don’t think that Hambridge was un-known before he arrived in Nashville. After graduating from Berklee, between 1988 and 1999 he won six Boston Music Awards and was bandleader for Martha & The Vandellas, Bo Diddley, Little Anthony, Chuck Berry and he played drums with the band Boston.

Today, a review of Tom’s Grammy awards and nominations speaks volumes about his journey. His first Grammy nomination came in 1998 for Best Contemporary Blues Album when he produced Susan Tedeschi’s album Just Won’t Burn. Then, in 2004 Hambridge received his second Grammy Nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album: Johnny Winter – I’m A Bluesman and in 2009 his 3rd Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Album: Buddy Guy – Skin Deep, which featured Eric Clapton, Susan & Derek Trucks Tom wrote 10 of the 12 songs including three with Gary Nicholson, including the title track. In 2011 Hambridge produced Buddy Guy’s – Living Proof which won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album featuring all 12 songs written by Tom, 4 songs he co-wrote with Gary Nicholson and four co-writes with Richard Fleming and in 2013 Tom also produced Buddy Guy’s double album Rhythm & Blues, which was Buddy’s biggest charting album ever, as the album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Blues Chart. The album includes guest star performances by Kid Rock, Keith Urban, Gary Clark Jr., Beth Hart and The Muscle Shoals Horns and Steven Tyler, Joe Perry & Brad Whitford of Aerosmith and featured 18 Tom Hambridge original songs.

In 2014 Hambridge received another Grammy nomination for Best Blues Album: James Cotton – Cotton Mouth Man. Tom wrote 12 songs on this album which included appearances by Gregg Allman, Joe Bonamassa, Ruthie Foster, Delbert McClinton, Warren Hayes, Keb’ Mo’, Chuck Leavell and Colin Linden and last year Tom produced Buddy Guy’s – Born To Play Guitar won the Grammy for Best Blues Album, which included 13 Tom Hambridge songs including the song “Flesh & Bone” featuring Van Morrison.

So far this year, Hambridge will been touring with Buddy Guy, he’s scheduled to produce a new album on Nashville artist and American Idol runner up Casey James. He’ll be doing some tour dates with his own band The Rattlesnakes, he’s currently working on a new documentary about Quinn Sullivan’s life…and it’s only February.

The Producer’s Chair (TPC): From the time you graduated from Berklee, it took you 15 years before you moved to Nashville. Was there a reason why it took so long for you to move?

Tom Hambridge: I had no plan to go to Nashville at first. I had just graduated from college and at that time I was already plugged into the amazing music scene there in Boston. Right after college, I went on the road with Roy Buchanan as his drummer/lead singer which was one of my favorite gigs to this day. Then after him, I started playing with Bo Diddley and I had my own band in Boston. There was an amazing club scene—500, 600-seat clubs and original, good rock n’ roll bands—and we could actually make a living. We could play five or six nights a week and go off to Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Boston, and other parts of Massachusetts. We were rolling and I was playing on other people’s records in town. Big acts would ask me to play whenever I was in town and that’s how I started playing with Chuck Berry. It’s just there was no reason for me to go. I didn’t have enough days in the month.

What ended up happening was I had produced Susan Tedeschi’s record. I had a few of her hits on the radio that I had written and I was playing with Boston. So at that time of my life, I thought I was at the top of the mountain. Then it started to feel like the sky was closing in. Like there’s nothing else I could do. I’m doing everything here. Record companies were calling me, asking me to work on this record or this project, and other people wanted to write. I thought I needed to relocate to New York or Los Angeles, but we had our first child, and my wife said we can’t raise her in New York City. L.A. was the same deal. And I said well there’s an industry happening in Nashville and I wanted to go where the industry was, where they are making records. So we took off to Nashville and we got off the plane and when we were walking through the airport, people were walking up to Rachel like ‘Aww what a cute little baby!’ Everyone was so friendly and my wife said she felt a vibe here and we thought this is where we can raise Rachel. Then I went back to Boston for six months trying to figure out how to tell everybody that I was working with, I was moving to Nashville. When I moved to Nashville, I didn’t know anybody.

It’s a funny story. I was playing with everybody – Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, Little Anthony – Everybody would call me to play bandleader and play drums and do their shows when they came to New England. I was doing this with Sha Na Na. And one of the guys from the group, Jocko, calls me and says, ‘Hey man! We got a gig in Las Vegas so we’re going to send you a plane ticket out of Boston.’ I said hey man, I’m not there. I’m in Nashville. He says what are you doing in Nashville? I said, I don’t know. I’m just down here; I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do. And he goes, ‘Oh man, I got a friend who works at MCA and his name is Chip Young.’ So I called Chip and he goes ‘Yeah?’ said Jocko told me to call you, I just moved to town. He asks, can you do a 2 p.m. on a Thursday? I asked what that meant and he continues, ‘Come on up on Thursday. We’ll having a meeting and bring some songs.’ Chip Young is just so wonderful, he worked in the publishing department and he’s an amazing producer. He’s produced so many great records, Jerry Reed records and stuff.

I met Chip and I brought one of my solo CD’s When we walked in the room he said, ‘Alright, let’s hear some songs.’ He played the whole CD. It was like 40-45 minutes long. Then he says, ‘Ok. How much do you want?’ and I said for what? Then he goes, ‘For a publishing deal. You wrote all these songs?’ I said ‘Yeah.’ Then he says ‘35!’ I didn’t know what that meant. The he goes ’35 thousand!’ then he says ‘40!’ I was surprised I even got a dollar for my songs. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I don’t know what we’re doing. He says, ‘You’re really not negotiating, are you?’ I said “No” , , I just got here. We went out to eat and he said, ‘You got so much going on. Just hold on to your songs.’ From then on every time I got offered a deal, I just held onto my publishing. I used my song money to buy a house and feed my family.

TPC: Did the blues resonate with you, more than other genres, as a kid?

Hambridge: I never considered myself a ‘genre’ guy – or a blues person. I just love music and it’s the only job I’ve ever had in my life. Since I was 5, I’ve just been playing music. I got paid for it in the 3rd grade and I never turned back. I play jazz, bee-bop, soul, country, rock, pop and it just so happens that I made this record for Susan Tedeschi and it became the biggest selling blues record.

TPC: What’s a good way for a blues artist to get noticed by you or someone else who could propel their career?

Hambridge: Most cities including Nashville have a Blues Society that you can join. Each year each society sends local bands and artists down to play at The International Blues Challenge in Memphis. Years ago, Susan Tedeschi was a runner-up in one of them and everyone saw her. That’s one way to do it.

TPC: In 2004, you produced Johnny Winter’s I’m A Bluesman album, which received Grammy nomination. How did you meet Johnny?

Hambridge: That was cool. His manager called me and said; Johnny loved the song I wrote called Rock Me Right by Susan Tedeschi. He said he was just playing the shit out of it. So that was really cool. Johnny asked if I could write something like that for him. I wrote a song called the Lone Wolf. I cut it and sent it to him. He said oh man I got to do this. They said you got any more? Then they asked if I could come out and do a record and I did. I was extremely saddened to hear that he died in a hotel in Europe. When I was working with him, his health wasn’t that great. He was an albino, an ex-heroin addict and had a hard life but I heard that he was getting better. I guess it eventually took its toll.

TPC: How did you wind up producing Buddy Guy?

Hambridge: I met him years ago on a tour I did with him and BB King. When I got a record deal, I was out on tour and I was doing 15 or 16 shows opening up for Buddy Guy. One particular night I came off stage and his manager said, ‘Buddy wants to see you.’ And I felt really nervous. I went into his dress room and he said hey man sit down. His driver got him there early and there was a speaker in his room and he had listened to my entire set. So on this particular day he heard my music. He said I heard you out there, was that a George Thorogood song? I said yes but I wrote it. He asked have I ever met Johnny Winter and I said yes, I wrote and produced Johnny. He asked about the Susan Tedeschi songs and I said yeah that was her but again, I wrote them. Then he goes well why in the hell haven’t you written a song for me? Then we talked more and struck a relationship and then about a year or 8 months later –The A&R guy at Sony called me and asked how would I make a Buddy Guy record. I explained to him what I would do.

I said the fire that I see in Buddy Guy when he’s playing live and I want that on the record. I want to capture that. And I don’t think anyone’s really captured the danger – he’s not only a blue’s master but he’s a rocker. He’s the real deal. Another thing I said is that I would want him to sing songs about him and about his life. I want to hear his story. I don’t want to hear him sing someone else’s story. I want to hear what’s on his mind. They said well how would you do that? I said I’ll get together with Buddy and he’ll tell me what’s on his mind – I’m a songwriter, we can start from there. That’s how Skin Deep started. He told me a story about his mom. He said his mom never got see him play and one time his mom told him beauty’s only skin deep. He says is there a song in that somewhere? I said well, let me mess around with it. I got together with Gary Nicholson and we wrote it. He was telling me stories about the fields and his crazy life in Chicago. So I would write all of these songs, then I would demo them and then send them to him. Then he would go, I love this man! We had a connection.

TPC: Quinn Sullivan was signed to your label Superstar Records but his 2017 record Midnight Highway is on Provogue Records. Why the change of label?

Hambridge: This new label has artists who are more guitar- and blues-oriented. I’m excited about it. They were all there last night when we did XM Radio in New York. I was talking to them about Quinn and they have seen him on the internet but haven’t seen him live. So he came and we played for them. And they got it! They were saying to me that this is incredible. You have to see him play to feel it. So it was mission accomplished. You know in Billboard this week the Rolling Stones album is No. 1 and he’s number No. 3!

TPC: Last year when you, Buddy Guy, and Quinn Sullivan toured, what was your most memorable moment on that tour?

Hambridge: That tour was so amazing. I think playing in London was unbelievable, and L’ Olympia in Paris. I think I’ve played there two or three times. The Olympia is always amazing because that is where the Beatles first played in France. It’s also where The Grateful Dead recorded Live Europe 72′. Stuff like that to me is historic. Last time we played in London, I took Quinn to Abbey Road. We just stood in front of it. I love the historic part of it all.

TPC: If you had to boil it down to one thing, what would you say Buddy Guy’s greatest gift is?

Hambridge: I think his gift is he keeps the blues alive. He said when Muddy Waters passed away, the last thing he said to him was, ‘Keep this music alive.’ I hope someone comes along that can do this but, when Buddy Guy and James Cotton are gone, there’s going to be a hole. The thing about Buddy Guy that people forget about is his vocal ability. He’s an amazing singer. He can really deliver a lyric. You get chills, you know?

TPC: Tell us about your latest Tom Hambridge album The Nola Sessions.

Hambridge: I just finished it. We went to New Orleans for five days and it was wonderful. I wanted to make it with musicians I had never met. All these wonderful New Orleans musicians came out: Sonny Landreth, Ivan Nevelle – and the icing on the cake was the last day and I said I have a song that I’d love to do as a duet with Alan Toussaint.

The guys in the studio gave me his manager’s number so I called him. And Alan showed up. He was so freaking cool! I told the musicians that Alan Toussaint is doing it and their jaws dropped. He came in, walked over to the piano and we sang the song – it was beautiful. I think it was his last session that he did before he passed away. I actually mastered the record at Abbey Road in London. How crazy is that? It was awesome!

TPC: What really separates the men from the boys?

Hambridge: For me, it’s about saying something and meaning it.. I’m the guy that when someone wants to do a record, I say well let’s write the record. That’s why I never thought of myself as the traditional type blues guy. Let’s just write our own. I mean I love a great cover but for me, I’ve always leaned towards – let’s be original. I love creativity and originality.

TPC: Did you have a mentor, along the way?

Hambridge: My mentor was my dad. He was it. He didn’t play music and he didn’t sing but, everything I am, I got from him. He taught me to be strong but kind, while being humble. Be frugal but generous. Be a hard worker. So I just put that in everything I do. I couldn’t have had a better teacher.


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