Marty Stuart’s lanky, cool-cat singing drummer on his Nashville roots, making a movie with Bette Midler, kickstarting the Americana movement and avoiding a fume-y future
Harry Stinson (right) with Marty Stuart (top) and fellow Fabulous Superlatives Chris Scruggs (left) and Kenny Vaughn
Harry Stinson is a unicorn.
No, not the mythical horse-like creature with a long, spiraled horn spouting out of the middle of his head. But something almost as rare.
He’s a singing drummer. And for further cred as a rarity, he’s a musician who didn’t have to uproot and leave home to get to Music City.
Stinson, the longtime drummer—and harmony vocalist—for Marty Stuart’s rhinestone-spangled Fabulous Superlatives band, is a Nashville native who found his life’s true calling in the basement of Dottie West, the late singing, songwriting hitmaker who, among other things, was the first country female to win a Grammy, became a pre-Dolly duet partner with Kenny Rogers and wrote and recorded a smash 1970s jingle—“Country Sunshine”—for Coca-Cola.
“I was really good friends in high school with Dottie’s oldest son, Morris,” says Stinson. “And we put a little rock band together—original music, about the time of Barefoot Jerry and Area Code 615,” two popular Nashville-based breakout country-rock bands of the early 1970s.
West had a small recording space in her basement, and Stinson’s band would woodshed down there—where he became a singing drummer, or a drumming singer.
“Since I was the only guy in our group who could sing, I was kind of chosen by default,” he says, adding that West’s basement was the crucible where his musical abilities all came together. “That was my school, my college for being a singing drummer; I’ll always be grateful because that’s been my biggest tool in the toolbox. The lucky thing was, I could sing well, and I could sing high, so I was able to cover a lot of ground. That really increases your worth as a band member or a player.”
You can hear him singing, and drumming, on the new album from five-time Grammy winner Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives, Altitude, set for release May 19.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Stinson opens up about music, his stint as a record-company executive, making a movie with Bette Midler and tapping into the Tao of Ringo Starr.
What kind of music did you grow up listening to?
I listened to a mixture of everything after the Beatles came along. I wasn’t really attracted to music before the British Invasion; I wasn’t into “Peppermint Twist.” I started listening when the Beatles came out, and stations began playing everything; you could hear soul and pop and novelty songs, all that stuff. I also listened to WSM and the Grand Ole Opry; my dad would have it on in the house. And I liked bluegrass but listened more to pop growing up.
How did you get into drumming?
When I was in the third grade, my parents bought a piano. I took piano lessons and liked it, but not as much as drums. I loved the drums; I loved rhythm. I begged them for a set, and they gave me something that resembled a drum set. And then I got another set—my first real, brand-new drum kit. But it didn’t have everything; it didn’t have a high hat or a floor tom. It was just the basic minimum. But I played the heck out of it, and I worked cutting grass all that summer to buy a floor tom. And that’s the set I used on our TV show, The Marty Stuart Show [on RFD-TV], because it’s a smaller-size kit and perfect for that setup. They were practically brand new; I had kept them in good shape, in my parents’ house, in their boxes.
Do you remember your first gig, playing in front of people?
Over at [elementary] school, I was the drummer who would play a drum roll when the flag would come up the aisle for school assemblies. Then, in 8th grade, we had a little three-piece band called the Goldbugs, and we all basically played out of one amp. I had a makeshift set of drums. But we won the talent show and went on to the citywide talent show, and I think we won that, too, or came close, second or third maybe. One of the DJs was Noble Blackwell from WVOL; he hosted the TV show Night Train on Channel 5, on Fridays or Saturday nights.
Most people can’t play drums, and a lot of people can’t sing. How did you fare when you started out doing both?
Well, it was difficult to line up the lyrics with the beat, because sometimes you sing behind the beat and sometimes in front of it, but you have to keep the beat on the beat.
Were your parents supportive of your career path—to become a professional musician?
They were. My mom the one that insisted we have a piano. My dad drove for Greyhound; that’s what brought them to Nashville in the late ‘40s. I think they were skeptical, as far as me being a professional drummer, because it was uncharted territory for them; their idea of a career would have been for me to go to college, learn a trade and get a job, and that makes perfect sense. My mom said, ‘Well, if it doesn’t work out, you can always get a job at the Esso station.’ But I never doubted myself, and that’s the thing. They never said I shouldn’t do it, ever.
Well, things worked out and you avoided that fume-y future pumping gas! What other jobs, beyond drumming, have you had along the way?
Luckily, I haven’t had any other jobs. I was a waiter for TGI Friday’s just before I went to college. But I’ve been lucky enough to just make my living playing music.
You’ve kept the beat, and kept singing, through gigs with the band America, with country singer-songwriter Steve Earle, with many other acts in the studio. And then you became, about 20 years ago, one of the founding members of the Superlatives. What’s one of the coolest places you’ve played?
[The Superlatives] played with Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman on the Sweetheart of the Rodeo tour [the 2019 concert events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Byrds’ seminal country-rock album]. That was a blast for me, going back to my living room in Nashville trying to learn to play the drums, listening to “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” That was part of my musical DNA from the beginning. What a thrill to have Chris [Hillman] over there playing bass, and Roger [McGuinn] up there singing.”
You spent a decade in California, until the mid 1980s, when you came back to Nashville. You were playing in a band, singing on sessions and then writing songs. What drew you to songwriting?
You live in Los Angeles, you’ll do anything to make a buck. I was in a video; I was on American Bandstand one time. As a background singer, you do whatever you can do. Then, that singer-songwriter kind of country rock, which I was really in love with, was falling out of favor on the radio, and those kinds of gigs were drying up. Toward the end of my stay in L.A., I started playing demo sessions for songwriters, and I kept thinking, ‘They’re paying me to play on them, but I can write better songs than this.’ I’m not as much in touch with the songwriting as other people are [now]. But I do still write. Marty and I have collaborated on quite a few things, and [guitarist] Kenny [Vaughn] and I have as well. But it’s not the easiest thing in the world for me to do. Marty’s got that channel really well-oiled, but for me, it’s always a little squeaky.
During your California days, you also co-starred with Bette Midler!
Oh, God, that was a fun experience. [He played a drummer in the 1979 film The Rose, for a scene in a nightclub where Midler’s character, Rose, reconnects with her musical roots.] She blows off a big concert and goes back to a local bar. That was the scene. I was asked by a friend of mine, who was putting together a country band for the film. We spent two days filming in some little sailors’ bar down in Long Beach. We played with a click system using spotlights; there were four of them, different colors, and they were timed as cues for the musical track; we used the lights to keep in sync. I’d never experienced anything like that before.
And then, you became a label executive, starting Dead Reckoning Records in the mid-1990s in Nashville with singer-songwriters Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch, Tammy Rogers and Mike Henderson.
We were all buddies. We had our own little crew. We decided to form a collective, like John Prine had done with Oh Boy. We knew we weren’t going to be able to make a deal where we could make any money with anyone else, and we were trying to get out stuff on the radio. So we decided to learn the record business—distribution, marketing—on a real roots level. It was the beginning of the Americana movement. We put a band together and went on the road, kind of like a revue. We made enough money to make the next record, and that was about it. I was so busy with the company, everybody thought I was a big record exec and I’d be too busy to play their sessions. So, all my work dried up. It was kind of a disaster, financially. But I learned a lot and I’m really glad I did it. It’s helped me with my perspective in the music business.
How did you get hooked up with Marty Stuart?
I was working with Steve [Earle] on Guitar Town [his debut album], and he had also been signed to MCA; he was under [label exec and producer] Tony Brown’s umbrella. He was aware of me when we were cutting Guitar Town, and when it came time for Marty to start making records [for MCA], my name must have come up with Tony, and somebody said, ‘Let’s get him in to sing on some stuff.’ So, I sang on a few things for Marty’s first MCA album [Hillbilly Rock, 1989]. Then I ended up playing, as well as singing, on some of his later records, “Burn Me Down,” “This One’s Gonna Hurt You.” We clicked; I really liked his sensibility—Southern and cool and rocking, all at the same time. He has that acoustic side very well developed, too, with his mandolin playing and bluegrass knowledge, which I also love.
Playing with Marty lets you showcase both your drumming and your singing, especially when he brings all the Superlatives “up front” for a vocal spotlight.
He brings everybody up for a couple of songs because he was a fan of how Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs would let Uncle Josh and Cousin Jake come up, and Paul Warren would do a solo. I mean, they were the Foggy Mountain Boys! They were a force. It wasn’t just Lester and Earl the whole time. [Marty] likes that comradery and the spark and the spontaneity.
Do you see the career path you chose, all those years ago, as leading you where you always wanted to go?
It’s more like following a creative spirit than a career. I think I’ve always wanted to be in creative situations, because the creative part is what fuels everything. Being able to come up with a drum part or a vocal part or write a song or make a record—it’s all about creating, and I love that part of it.
OK, a final drumming question. Which of these choices describes your drumming ethos: A.) More bang, more buck, B.) Less is more, or C.) What would Ringo do?
It’s a combination between A and B, because less is more, and Ringo was so amazing. He still is amazing, and amazing as a human being. I was attracted to Ringo’s style of playing from the get-go. It’s about joy, about love, about swing, all those things he had. And he wasn’t a “chops” guy, not like a Neal Peart, which is also fine. But I prefer somebody that supports a creative way, rather than just playing every lick they know.
Harry Stinson is an amazing talent.I always enjoy watching & listening to him.
Hello Iam a drummer and sing at times. I met Harry, and asked him how i could make it as a drummer in Nashville, He told me to keep plugging and someday somewhere someone would sigh me up.
I lived down the street from Harry. We went to the same high school. I remember the senior talent show Harry and Bill Harwood drummed the house down!