If you’re ever inclined to declare someone The Hardest Working Musician in Nashville, get ready for some contention – there are as many as there are stars in the night sky. No matter how laid back the veneer, if there’s a slacker pickin’, strummin’ or fiddlin’ in Nashville, nobody’s heard of him, and while you’ll find hard-working session players and sidemen just about everywhere, Nashville is where it has endured longest, stretching back nearly a century, rolling through the changes, always about the songs and the musicians playing them. It’s how a town gets a name like “Music City, USA.”
Since moving to Nashville in 2001, Guthrie Trapp has arguably been a contender, making a name for himself playing guitar and mandolin on gigs and sessions with the likes of Patty Loveless, Jerry Douglas, Dierks Bentley and Pistol Annies while carving out a niche for numerous projects of his own, including a solo career, a radio show, multiple bands (including TAR, a “power trio” with Paul Abbott and Michael Rhodes, and 18 South, another collective featuring some of Nashville’s finest players and songwriters) and a stellar country guitar course via ArtistWorks. If you’re inclined to fall down a YouTube rabbit hole, Guthrie can take you from the tiny stage at The Station Inn to the Grand Ole Opry, with stops along the way sharing grainy footage with Tony Rice and Sam Bush (not to mention a whole mess of clips of him playing some pretty sweet guitars at Carter Vintage Instruments). And he subscribes to the Fretboard Journal, so how could we not reach out to him?
Fretboard Journal: Can you tell us a bit about how you got started playing guitar?
Guthrie Trapp: Well, man, I started getting involved in music when I was about seven, or so. My parents aren’t musicians, but they were, and still are, huge music fans. They were listening to New Grass Revival with Sam Bush and Bela Fleck, when I was growing up. And tons of what I consider, you know, kind of not Top 40. We didn’t listen to the radio, in my house, growing up. It was all records – a lot of folk music, bluegrass. My family was going to festivals, and all this music was around, which I think is a huge part of a lot of people that grow up to just kind of naturally get involved in music. I think they get the feel of it, and the rhythm, and the tonalities of things, from a really, really, really young age. So that was something that I was really lucky and fortunate to have going on.
I started noodling on the harmonica when I was seven or so, and then started getting into guitars, taking the guitar more seriously. I played a lot of bluegrass on acoustic, and then, at the same time, I would jam out on electric to, like, Allman Brothers records, southern rock, blues records, Johnny Winter, and some stuff like that growing up. My uncle was a self-taught musician. There was always a bunch of instruments around, at his place, and I hung out a lot with him, after school, and played music, and one of my other uncles was a huge jazz fan, so he was listening to, like, Jean Luc Ponty, and all kinds of progressive jazz music, back in the ’80s and ’90s, when I was growing up. And, man, just, all that together just kind of – you know, it really turned me on to being open to a lot of different kinds of music. Everything, from the bluegrass stuff, to rock and roll, blues, jazz, funk.
You know, the funny thing about all that is, I didn’t really listen to a whole lot of traditional country music. So, I didn’t really learn how to play – I mean, I was still chicken pickin’ on the Telecaster down on the Gulf Coast, when I had my band Filthy Rich down there. But it was coming from a more kind of like a little different place. I didn’t grow up playing country music, but in a way I grew up playing the kind of music that led to country music, like bluegrass.
FJ: And when you got to Nashville…
GT: When I got to Nashville, I started playing Don Kelley, and he’s famous for having all of the Telecaster players in his band – I came in right after Johnny Hiland played with him for four years, and that’s where I really learned how to play country music. You know, the country shuffle, how to kick songs off, how to back up the singer playing country music, how to fill around with a steel guitar and a fiddle. Like, if there’s a steel guitar in the band, you don’t wanna be playing a bunch of steel guitar licks. So there’s all this stuff – underlying etiquette and ways to make that music work out, different rhythm parts to play. I just kind of learned how to fine-tune it in that band.
You know, I’ve been lucky, even living on the Gulf Coast I’d say was a little bit of a direct connection to Nashville, through the Frank Brown’s International Songwriters’ Festival, guys like Carl Jackson, Hank Cochran and Red Lane, Mickey Newbury would come down there and do this festival every year, and I’d get to play with all of ’em. So, being from a really small town in the Gulf Coast, I had this cool vein of Nashville that came down there, every year, for, like, three weeks. So, you know, Larry Jon Wilson, Cadillac Jack Williams – all these guys would come down there. I met Shawn Mullins there, just played on his record this year. Just a lot of different people that I was exposed to, and learned how less is more. If you grew up playing around songwriters, you learned that it’s not really much about your guitar solo, it’s basically what you can add to the song, you know? And Nashville being such a song town, that’s a huge part of it. When you go in to do a session you learn very quickly, here, that it’s not about you, unless it’s your record. But, you know, you might go in there and play one-tenth of your ability. It’s good to have that horsepower, but you’re not gonna be able to use it on sessions all the time here, and that’s something that young guys, I think, learn pretty quick – when you go in, you really gotta – you wanna let them ask you to play more, you know? You don’t wanna go in and overdo it right away. It’s all about the song.
So, that was something I learned, early on, kind of growing up playing with Gove Scrivener and guys like that, down on the Gulf Coast.
And then I moved up here when I was about 22, and I started playing with Don Kelley, and then got called to play with Patty Loveless on the road and ended up playing on a couple of her records [Dreamin’ My Dreams, Sleepless Nights and Mountain Soul II], with Albert Lee and her husband Emory Gordy producing, and it was great. And from then on, just, I’ve never had to play bad music. I’ve always played what I consider really cool, rootsy, organic music. I’ve been very lucky.
FJ: What was it like playing alongside Albert Lee?
GT: Yeah, it was unbelievable, man. And, you know, the funny thing about that record that I did with her, man, is, I just got called to do it. They said, “Hey, we’re gonna use a couple of the guys with the band on the record,” and I was one of ’em. Emory plays bass, it was Owen Hale on drums, me, Albert Lee, and I think Russ Paul might’ve been there playing steel guitar. I can’t really remember who it was, but it was awesome.
I just went in there, and I just kind of, you know, I had the beginner’s mind, student mindset, and went in and just – I didn’t say a whole lot. I just played my part and tried to fit in, and that was it. I did, and it was pretty unbelievable. I wish I got some photos from that day, but I don’t know what happened to that.
FJ: Tell us about working in Nashville…
GT: It all comes down to doing your job, and just kind of knowing and having enough experience to just know kind of what works in what capacity, in what situation. If you’re in session, you’re gonna know pretty much what to play on the song. You know, we don’t get the songs in advance. I mean, a lot of times, if somebody comes in from out of town, they’re not used to recording in a music community like Nashville. No one has sent the songs ahead of time, and, “Oh, you gotta listen to the songs…” Well, it really doesn’t work like that here.
Somebody calls me for a session, I show up tomorrow, at 10:00 – I don’t even know who the artist is. I don’t know who the other band members are. All I know is, I’m playing electric guitar, I’m playing acoustic guitar, or bring your mandolin, or bring this. And, okay, we show up at 10:00. We go in. We set up. We get some sounds in the room. We go in the control room, and the next thing you know, we’re listening to a song, looking at a chart.
The studio etiquette is so – it’s such an unwritten rule kind of thing, you know. It’s really special how all that stuff works with the music community. I mean, people just, they’re cool. They know how to act and behave in those environments. And it can be funny and loose and fun, but it never gets – it always stays on track, here in Nashville, because everybody’s really professional, you know?
It’s really great. I mean, this is one of the great towns, obviously, for music, and it’s just growing so much, man. The amount of music that’s happening here, and the young people that are moving here and bringing new flavors – it’s way more than just a country town anymore. It’s just so much cool stuff happening, here. It’s really very exciting. I’ve been here 15 years, and it’s – everyday, I just love living here.
And another thing about this town is, if you’re open and you know kind of what is in your heart musically and creatively, you’re gonna end up finding your crew and your stream, here. And there’s a bunch of ’em. There’s pop country, there’s rock and roll, there’s singer/songwriter, there’s bluegrass – there’s all this different stuff. So, you know, you kind of end up where you’re supposed to be, I think, if you’re open to it, and you kind of are doing it for the right reasons.
FJ: How has your experience as a session player influenced your work as a producer?
GT: Well, the thing that I’ve learned with working with guys like Garth Fundis, Frank Liddell, Charlie Peacock – there’s a lot older school producers in town, and younger guys, too, like Jason Lehning – it’s just amazing working with these guys. And what a real producer does, especially in a town like this, where bands are still cutting live, where there’s five or six guys in a room cutting live music – when you’re playing music with a live band, it’s like picking paint colors: they know who to hire for the right songs. So, you know, there’s a palette of colors that you can pick from, here in this town. If you want a specific thing for a specific song, or even a specific part, you can call that guy for that. So the thing I learned about producing, from those guys – and I’m just getting into it, you know, having produced my first thing that I’m really, really proud of, this Rylie Bourne record; we did that in four days, on a very, very shoestring budget, with a 21-year-old girl who’s never been in a studio before, and I think it’s great – but, what I learned from those guys was: call the right guys for the project, and just let ’em play. Don’t get somebody in there and start telling ’em what to do, because that’s gonna freak ’em out, you know?
There’s guys that have specific parts that they want, and that’s fine, too, we can do that, but if you really wanna make good music, with a great singer/songwriter, or something like that, you get ’em in there, get the right players, book a nice studio, and just let them play. And that’s when the cool shit happens, you know?
If you go in there and you’re a control freak, and you just wanna tell everybody what to play, it ruins music. I’ve seen it happen a million times. I’ve worked with those producers that micromanage, and they wanna tell everybody what to do, and they suck the life and the air and the creativity right out of it. You’ve got a bunch of guys, in this town, that – every session player in this town could be a producer. Those are the guys that are really producing the records, are the musicians. And that goes back to the ’50s, when Bob Moore and all those guys were coming up with all those amazing parts for “King of the Road” and not getting credit for it. They’re writing the songs as they sit in the studio.
The real producers just call the right guys, and then get out of the way, you know? And if something’s not working, then of course they’re gonna speak up and go, “Okay, you know, in this part, we might wanna try this,” and that’s fine. But not to micromanage it, you know?
FJ: We’re kinda gear heads here, for better or worse, so, what’s the story with that Telecaster?
GT: Okay, that Tele is my favorite guitar. That’s the one everybody knows me for. I’ve had that thing probably over ten years. Floyd Cassista built that guitar – he used to do fretwork and guitar repair, over at Joe Glaser’s shop, in Berry Hill. Which is about four minutes from my house I’m sitting at, right now. He’s right across the way, here. I knew he had a couple guitars on consignment, at a pawnshop type of place, up in Hendersonville, which is north of town. It’s a part of town I rarely, rarely, rarely, rarely ever go to. But this guy Buck had this studio out there, and we did some sessions, out there – and it turned out to be Porter Wagoner, and George Jones, and all these people…
So, anyway, we do all that. And then, one day, I was leaving that studio, and I knew the place was not far. So I found the place, went in there. It was freezing cold, and these old guys were sitting around this, like, kerosene heater, the floors were almost like dirt floors, they had some lawnmowers in there, and, like, a glass desk that they’d brought in there and just sat down. I mean, it was really, really backwoods kind of funky, this whole situation – very strange. And Floyd had these three guitars sitting behind the counter, and I said, “Man, let me play that Tele.” And I bought it on the spot. I said, “You know, I actually know Floyd. Call him and see what he would take for this guitar.” And Floyd goes, “Man, tell Guthrie he can have it for $700.00.” And I said, “You’ve gotta be kidding me.” So I ended up giving him more – I gave him, I don’t know… I gave him, like, $730.00 or $750.00, whatever I had on me.
He had a bunch of redwood that he built a compost bin out of, in his front yard. And he said one day he was in his kitchen looking out at it, and he goes, “Man, why did I build this compost bin out of this nice redwood?” So he went out there, tore it down, scraped all the mold off of it, or whatever, and built that guitar, out of that redwood. So, that guitar used to be a compost bin, out in somebody’s yard. I think it’s got, like, Mexican Tele pick-ups in it, and it’s just – he built the neck by hand, he built the body by hand – it’s no Allparts neck or anything. He built everything by hand, shaped the neck, and everything. And, man, it’s by far my favorite guitar. That guitar’s got something special to it, you know.
FJ: What else do you have going on?
GT: I’m involved in a bunch of different creative projects, here in town. I host a live radio show, that we’re taping down at Acme Feed & Seed, which is one of the top venues in town. I do a Wednesday night show, there, called Trapped Above Ground, where we showcase new talent. We’ve had legends on there, as well – Steve Crawford, John Oates. I’m involved in a lot of education with ArtistWorks. I’ve got a full country electric guitar curriculum on there, with almost 500 students, that just launched in November. And then the sessions, and a little bit of select touring with – I’ll go out and do shows with John Oates. Or we’ll do some TAR stuff, special events. I’m not doing any big tours or anything, right now. But I’ve been really enjoying and surviving well, by just, you know, spending my time here in Nashville, in town, and kind of cultivating all these different projects. So, it’s been very fun.
Nashville’s a place where everybody’s involved in a lot of different bands. Nobody wants to really commit to one thing. We’re all freelancers. We do what we kind of wanna do that inspires us to play. Unless you’re new and young and just moved here, then you’re gonna take any gig you can. But, you know, once you get to where you can kind of pick and choose what to do, we just wanna do what fulfills us creatively, and lets us kind of really express ourselves to our highest ability. And that’s when we’re at our happiest.
The TAR thing that happened, I met this guy, Pete Abbott, who’s turned out to be like a brother to me. He was with the Average White Band for a long time, drummed with them, and then he was working with Larry Carlton, here, one night – the night of the flood, actually, here in Nashville. I helped him to carry his drums out to his car, and we kind of hit it off. Then me and Michael Rhodes were getting to play a little bit together at that point, and we just said, “Hey, let’s get together and – you know, I’ve got a couple ideas we could run by.” We just started jamming in Michael’s basement, and then we started playing out. With that trio setting, it makes it just so much fun. And to just let music happen like that, in such an organic free way, is – that’s our way of really kind of cutting loose after being in the studio and having to play really, really restrained. You know, so we have to have that kind of outlet, or we’d go crazy.
But, yeah, man to be here, and to be able to play with some of my heroes – like, being on the road with Patty, for all that time, and playing really good songs. And then, going from that gig into touring with Jerry Douglas for six or seven years, and playing on two of his records [Glide and Jerry Christmas]. But just – I mean, that stuff is, like – you know, I wanna pinch myself and go, “Man, how did I get lucky enough to be playing, and now friends with guys that I was idolizing on records when I was a kid?” And that my family still idolizes. I mean, Sam Bush is one of my good friends, here in town. And when I was a kid, he was like God in our family, you know.
I’ve got guys messaging me from, like, Norway and Sweden, going, “Hey, man, you know, I wanna come to Nashville and be a session player. Is there anything you can do to help me out?” And I say, “Man, not till you get here.” There’s a funny thing in Nashville, and people say this all the time, You gotta be present to win. Once you’re here, all the opportunities, if you’re really good, start happening, because people wanna hear you play here. It’s not like some of these other towns where everybody looks cool, and they can talk a good game, and all that, but down here, man, we wanna hear you play.
Photos by Shelly Swanger. View Guthrie Trapp’s credits on AllMusic.com