The Philosophy of Backing Up a Singer

This is Bob Hempker. I’d like to talk about my approach to backing a singer. Everyone has their own style and thoughts on the subject of course and I’m only going to talk about how I handle it.

Let’s face. Most of us live for the solos. We can’t wait for our spot in the light. We sit there doing our best to be patient while whishing the singer would hurry up and finish their part over with so we can get on to the good part. Our part.

Bottom line, singers don’t hire us to be the show, they hire us to help make their show better. Backing the singer is our place in the grand scheme of things. We need to be as proficient as we can be at this or someone else might be doing it the next time the singer works.

Different players or styles can really fit with certain singers. For instance, Ralph Mooney really fit the early Buck Owens sound, whereas Tom Brumley was perfect for Buck’s later sound.

When I think of Ray Price music, Jimmy Day and Buddy Emmons come to mind. Buddy Charlton comes to mind when I think of Ernest Tubb. This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been some other fine players who have worked with certain artists. Certain styles of playing can really fit different singers.

When I think of the steel players that really influenced me when I was young, they were not just steel players but stylists as well each having a very distinctive way of playing so you knew who it was without asking. We lost one of my heroes at the end of last week. Sonny Burnette worked with Webb Pierce, The Wilburn Brothers, worked the Opry Staff Band for many years, worked the Ralph Emory Morning Show. The steel guitar world has suffered a great loss. My condolences go out to Sonny’s family.

The best and most successful studio players would usually develop and adapt a different style to each singer that they worked with. That’s a tough act to follow but if you can do it, you’ll distinguish yourself as a player.

One of the main things to always bear in mind when you’re playing behind a singer is to not overplay. What I mean by overplaying is playing lines on top of the singers lines. Sort of visualize the singer’s melody in music notation and when you see rests, that is where you need to play. This is sometimes called filling the holes.

It’s also good if we have the time, to somewhat get to know the singer that we’re playing behind and find out what they like and dislike musically. We don’t want to play something that is over their head of the singer or something they don’t understand. The K.I.S.S. keep it simple stupid saying really applies here.

It’s also a good idea for the other people in the band to look at this in the same way we do because we’re all out there on that stage trying to help the singer sell a product to the audience. The singer can somewhat be a quarterback and we’re other players on the team. When we’re handed the ball, we need to run with it. But the rest of the time, we block.

Most of us that have been playing any length of time have played our way out of jobs at one time or another in our career. That is a very easy thing to do. I’ve been on jobs where everything just magically fell into place and I’ve also been on jobs where there would be personality conflicts between me and the singer or maybe me and another member of the band.

When this is the case it’s inevitable that sooner or later something will give, that one of us will end up leaving and there have been times that it’s been me. Every gig we get hired on is not going to fit us perfectly. If you find yourself in such a situation, then grin, bear it, put your money in your pocket and go home.

I chose music as a career when I was young because I love music and love making music. It was fun and I enjoyed it. Anytime any particular gig became a “job”, it was not fun anymore. This comes out in our playing. Life is too short and we can make better money doing other things than playing music. So if we’re unhappy we need to move on.

Bear in mind that we all have an ego. The singer is no exception. Usually a singer who can really entertain an audience has a huge ego. I guess that’s just part of it. In many cases we have to humor the singer offstage and just plain put up with them because so many of them have huge, overblown egos. It really took me a lot of practice to learn to tolerate them.

I must admit, it is more tolerable when a singer has some hit recordings and some other things to back up their ego. When I have to work with someone who’s got a huge ego and has no talent and not one thing to back it up, it gets old quickly. They get out of their little home town and nobody knows who they are, and they still have this overblown ego. Then, I have to bail out.

I stayed with Loretta so long because she was a total class act onstage and off. If she screwed up onstage, she would admit it and wouldn’t blame it on somebody in the band. People like this are few and far between and I was very, very fortunate to have someone like her to work for.

I took what Hal Rugg did in the studio and adapted it to our live arrangements and made it work. I sort of put my own little touch or little twist to what he had done on the recordings and happily played it onstage. I was totally spoiled working for Loretta.

Again, the bottom line to all of this is to play with as much soul and feeling as we can and do our best to make that person out in front look and sound good.

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