Something Else! Interview: Nashville sessions drummer Lonnie Wilson

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“It’s funny how perceptive parents can be,” ace drummer Lonnie Wilson tells me. “When I was little, my mother was listening to me practice. I was running into the house, listening to a record, then practicing some more.”

Musicians call that kind of near-evangelical practice “wood-shedding.” From these lonely, repetitive sessions, many a great musician has been born. Your Charlie Parker>s, your Bill Monroes, your Elvises, your Stevie Rays — they all spent minutes and hours and days sweating out that sweet revelation.

Wilson’s mom, Nancy, was having her own kind of insight that afternoon.

“She said, ‘You know what? You should go up and become a Nashville session player,'” the Louisiana native says, then sits for a moment with a far-off look. “I get chills just thinking about it,” he says, rubbing his arms.

That’s because, as country fans know, it’s exactly what happened.

Wilson would, in fact, become perhaps the most accomplished drummer working today in Nashville — appearing on songs by everybody who matters in country, from Brooks and Dunn to Martina McBride to Tim McGraw.

Not satisfied to influence the very backbeat of most country radio stations, he then moved into writing songs and even producing records — working with legendary producer Don Cook on LPs like Joe Diffie’s “A Night To Remember.” Wilson co-wrote, co-produced and played drums on Diffie’s subsequent hit “Texas Size Heartache.”

Ask Wilson about his dizzying, if low-key, success in the capital of country music and he’ll talk about luck. But that underestimates his impressive dedication. This guy is everywhere.

Wilson, for instance, is the engine on McGraw’s thundering debut hit, “Indian Outlaw.” On the other hand, his work on the crossover “I Swear,” by John Michael Montgomery, features a deft, almost feathery touch. Wilson co-wrote Diffie’s “New Way (To Light Up An Old Flame).” His drumming is so integral to Tracy Lawrence’s “Time Marches On” that you wonder if there’d be any song at all without him. That’s Lonnie on Faith Hill’s chart-topping charmer “This Kiss,” too.

In fact, Wilson has contributed to (literally) hundreds and hundreds of country albums since 1985. “I probably played non-stop for several years,” he admits. In a two-year span in the late 1990s alone, Wilson actually appeared on more than 50 titles.

Wilson, though you’ll never spot him running up the aisle to accept statues at an American Country Music Awards show, is pretty famous. He has stayed grounded by tending to some deep family roots. When Wilson visits his parents in Monroe, La., he sleeps in the same bedroom that he grew up sleeping in. He sits at the same dinner table.

And one of the reasons Wilson gave up a promising career as a band leader — his regionally popular group Bandanna charted 10 singles, including a No. 13 hit in 1983 — was so that he could spend more time with his wife and kids. (Wilson met Donna during a gig opening up for Loretta Lynn. His wife was one of her backup singers.)

Lonnie’s parents played in their own popular local group Variety; his father Bill plays drums and mom Nancy sings. So, yeah, there was a tradition. Still, his biggest early success as a session drummer crackled like a lightning bolt: He was at the drums for the initial pairing of a couple of unknowns called Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn.

“I was working, doing some demos with Don (Cook). And he was producing Kix,” Wilson says. “Cook persuaded the powers that be to use me on drums. Being kind of a new kid of the block, that was a lucky break.”

You could say so. The album shot to the top of the charts, with blockbuster hits like “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” and “Neon Moon.”

“None of us knew what we were cutting. We didn’t realize it was going to be such a success,” Wilson says, laughing. “I may have been nervous had I known how big it would be.”

Or had he known that this was just the beginning of a long association with country’s biggest stars. Since 1996, Wilson’s consistently led the drum polling in Music Row magazine, Nashville’s music industry publication. He was voted the Academy of Country Music’s drummer of the year in 2002, then again in 2004.

Wilson’s written more than enough of his own songs to make a hit record, though he remains unsigned as a solo artist. In fact, so far, Wilson has penned eight Top 10 country singles, including “Love You Out Loud” by Rascal Flatts and the recent Top 5 debut “All My Friends Say” by Luke Bryan.

So, yes, Mom was right.

“When I was a kid, growing up, I always knew that that was what I wanted to do. From the age of 14,” Wilson says. “Moving up there is the toughest thing, kind of like exercising. Just getting out and doing it is the toughest part.”

After gutting out the early years — a period spent endlessly touring with Bandanna, then tirelessly elbowing his way into publishing and recording – Wilson finds himself at the top of his game.

You imagine him listening to the radio on some recent evening. He hears a set featuring McGraw, JoDee Messina, Diffie, George Jones, McBride and Mark Wills. (Or, for that matter, Alabama, Tammy Wynette, Bryan White, Lee Ann Womack and Alan Jackson.)

Sure, he might consider the uncertainty he felt “making yourself uproot your whole life and take a chance.”

But, then again, he might consider that he’s performing, co-producing, even writing, on every song the DJ just played.

“You gotta try,” Wilson says, thinking about those early days. “You gotta try at your dream.”

Consider it done.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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