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Hired Hands 

Three Charlotte session players discuss their secrets to success

Imagine if it were this way in other artistic endeavors. Imagine if Don DeLillo hired a dialogue man to come in and spice up his latest novel with witty repartee. What if Julian Schnabel dialed up a "background facilitator" to shore up his latest painting?

In the music world, calling on such a specialist is part and parcel of doing business. Usually called a session musician, these guns-for-hire get called during the recording of an album to play a bass line here, maybe sing a harmony line there. Perhaps that same artist is touring after the release of said record, and needs to fill out a band in order to better render the studio experience. Rather than struggle to put together a full-time ensemble, many musicians again choose the session player route, relying on an experienced road warrior or two to steer the music.

Charlotte is fortunate to have a number of these artistic mercenaries. Jim Brock, a drummer and percussionist, has played with hundreds of artists, a short list of which would include John Mellencamp, River Phoenix (!), Joe Walsh, Branford Marsalis, Janis Ian, Sam Bush, and Joe Cocker. Tim Cashion has worked with artists as diverse as Robert Palmer, Bob Seger, Grand Funk Railroad, and Shakira. Chris Garges, perhaps best known as a studio engineer, now regularly works with artists like Don Dixon and Mitch Easter. All three say that there is no real secret to their success, other than knowing your instrument and not acting like the world's biggest A-hole while on the job. But how do you get in the position to get those ever-important phone calls in the first place? The answer? Any way you can. (But having a Miami connection doesn't seem to hurt.)

"In "72, when I was still living in Ohio, there was a studio about 40 miles from my house, that is now called the Recording Workshop," says Brock. "There were very few drummers in the area, so I kind of broke into it then. Then when I moved to Charlotte, I lucked out and started picking up some sessions around town. Then I moved to Florida for about a year and a half or so, and I started doing some things in Miami. When I came back to Charlotte, it was easier for me then. I guess it kind of started when I got some gigs with the Windham Hill label back in "83. I started touring with some of their artists and doing some of their records. Then Don Dixon and I discovered each other and we started working together a lot, doing a lot of things."

"I think I've basically traced it back to connections I made when I was at the University of Miami," says Cashion. "I got an undergrad and masters degree in studio jazz vocal at Miami, which at the time was one of the few colleges that had such a thing. The degree was one thing, but the people I met were probably the biggest help. Gloria Estefan was just coming up, and her band the Miami Sound Machine was the Concert Jazz Band at Miami, more or less. For fun and for money, they'd go play in a club. Through those connections, I met Emilio, Gloria's husband/manager, and got a few gigs. From there, it just sort of took off."

In 1991, Chris Garges was also awarded a scholarship to the University of Miami to study in the school's Studio Music and Jazz program. He specialized in drumset and ethnic percussion (primarily West African and Haitian), but points to another experience as being just as shaping to his way of thinking.

"I had a band way back when with Justin Faircloth (The Houston Brothers) and Bruce Hazel (The Noise) called Relayer," Garges says. "We used to play these teen centers, and it was all part of this little scene growing up. So we went into the studio to make this album, and I thought it was probably going to suck. How could it be as cool as playing in front of a whole bunch of people? After about four or five days, we had cranked out this little EP. By the end, it was this tape, something we could hold in our hands. So...that's how it could be cooler! You do all this work, and have something tangible to hold in your hands to show for it!"

Another key, say our panel of musicians, is to follow every musical passion you have to its absolute limit. After all, you never know when you might get a chance to work on that Polka record you've always dreamed of.

"(Being versatile) kind of came naturally, because I'm a musician first and a drummer second," says Brock. "It's the music that I like and not necessarily just the drumming. When I listen to songs, I listen to the song, then I see how the drummer fits into it. But I like all styles of music. I find each of them really interesting. When you start doing sessions, you just can't do the things you like, you do the things you get called for. So after a while you've learned how to separate those things in your mind. You don't want to go into a pop session with a jazz attitude. You know, that kind of thing. So, it's always my thing to put the music first, and try to make it sound as good as I can. If I get called for a blues gig, then I'm a blues drummer, as long as that gig is going on."

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