Riichie Albright is the Jimi Hendrix of country music drummers. While playing with Waylon Jennings from 1964 to 2002, Mr. Albright took the drums to new heights within country and set the standard for any drummer who followed him. As one of the architects of Waylon's signature sound, Mr. Albright is one of the foremost unsung heroes in the annals of outlaw country.
Last night, Waymore's Outlaws played in Jackson, Ohio. The band consists of four former members of Waylon's band and if you ever get a chance to see them, they put on a great show featuring a mix of both classic Waylon tunes and originals. After the show, I got a chance to talk to the man who I consider to be the world's best living drummer.
AS: Most of the time in country music, then and now, it's all about studio musicians. But there are a few great bands, you know, the Texas Troubadours, the Buckaroos, the Tennesse Three, and I think the Waylors and, later, The Waymore Blues Band definitely fits into that with a distinctive sound that nobody else could pull off...
RA: I agree.
AS: Can you talk a little bit about how that sound actually developed over time?
RA: Basically, when I first went to work with Waylon in '64 we just talked about it and he said to keep it real simple and listen to his guitar, which him and Jerry Gropp, the rhythm player...it was kinda derived from Buddy Holly really, because it was a rolling sound.
AS: Buddy Holly meets Ernest Tubb
RA: Right. And that's where the basis came and then, as time progressed Waylon and I found that we had a musical communication that just, you know, came out of the blue. So we did things that were kinda off the cuff and that's really how it came together. Just feeling the energy, you know?
AS: I've listened to a lot of Waylon's early studio stuff [with Chet Atkins] and listening to it you can definitely tell that he had the talent, but it just feels like there's something missing there. What were shows like back then?
RA: They were high energy. Because we played, because he created it. When that man walked on stage, man, you plug in and away you go. There's very few people that have that. Johnny Cash, Waylon, a few other maybe who just have that charisma and you lock on to it.
AS: When did you first start making the kick drum a major part of your style?
RA: Actually, live with Waylon probably in '65. We did our first album in Nashville in '65 and I remember goin' in there to mix it and Waylon would say, "Chet, could you turn up the kick a little bit?" And Chet would say, "No, it'll make the record skip." (laughs) They didn't use compression much back then.
AS: Who are some of your favorite drummers?
RA: Levon Helm. He and I got to be good friends and he's just so soulful and played so tasty and everything. He's probably my all-time favorite. There's some real good technical drummers out there, but Levon is it. He changed my style, actually, when we started goin' into the half-time thing 'cause I was listenin' to The Band.
AS: It seems to me that Waylon's albums were all about taking risk. You might see a cover of anybody from Neil Diamond and Jimmy Buffet to Steely Dan. And it all worked and it all had that Waylon sound to it. Do you think you guys connected in that way, having an open mind about music?
RA: Yeah. With him, he pretty much gave everybody the freedom. If it got out of hand he would say something, but when you have some talented people and you're giving them freedom, that's where the magic starts and that's where it derived from. I strongly believe that.
AS: What was the main difference for you between the Waylors and the Waymore Blues Band?
AS: Oh man! The musicians. Really top musicians and the horn section. That's somethin' every drummer wants is to play with a horn section. When you got them it's like playin' with a big fucking boat, man. It's just got so much power. Waylon sang the same way and everything like that, but the arrangements were a little bit different. That was his favorite band. The Waymore Blues Band. He said that more than once.
AS: I've seen a picture of you, Waylon, Jessi Colter, and Rosalynn Carter. What's the story behind that?
RA: We played Constitution Hall that night and Jimmy wasn't there. He was supposed to be there. We found out later that was the night that mission failed over in Iran. It was that very night. But as far as I remember, I was standing there just pushing up my glasses and someone just got a candid shot really
AS: You were there when Waylon was busted, right?
RA: Well, the secretary came in with the package which had been delayed about a week or so. I was real nervous about it anyway and she went to pick it up. She walked in and we were doing Hank Jr.'s album. We were working on "Storms Never Last" and Waylon was overdubbing harmony. So Waylon went and got the package and then he went back to the recording booth and he was out there and here come the DEA. They said they followed the package and all that. I said, "Do you have a search warrant?" They said, "No, we can get one." I said, "Well, this is costing us $250 an hour, so we're gonna keep workin'." They said, "Well, we're gonna put somebody in that room." I said, "Not out there."
So I went to Hank and I said, "You need to do that line again." And Hank looks at me like, "What are you talkin' about?" And I said, "You were in the vocal booth which was kinda over in the corner." So I got him into it and he knew what was goin' on then and he got to the booth over there. I asked Waylon where the package was and he told me so I went over and I found it. They'd taken most of the coke out. Hell, there wasn't even a full gram left. So I got that and we started recording again. While that was goin' on, one of our employees came in and he's kinda drunk and startin' to holler. Waylon hollered back and pretty soon they were arguing. I thought, "There's my chance." Because all the agents were standin' around lookin'. So I went in the bathroom and flushed it. There was a bunch of shit, but they had to drop the charges 'cause the evidence was gone.
AS: How did you get involved in [producing Hank Williams Jr.'s] The New South and what's the story behind that album?
RA: Well, Hank had fallen off that mountain and he was having trouble with his record company. You know, it was standin' in the shadow of his dad and this and that and he really wanted to go a new direction. And he ask Waylon, "would you produce an album on me?" and he said, "Yeah, me and Richie will do it." And he turned to me and said "you go down there and cut it" (laughs). So I went down to Muscle Shoals and cut the album and that was pretty far out. I spent three days with Hank and he showed me all his dad's stuff and everything like that. It was awesome. But those sessions is what gave him, put in his head, which way to go from then.
AS: You're one of the three co-writers on "The Conversation." What part did you have in that song?
RA: We were sittin' in Waylon's office, the three of us and the title came up and they were talkin' about what to do. And Waylon had a guitar and he kinda did a few lines and Hank threw a few lines back. They were kinda goin' back and forth and I reached over and grabbed a pad and a pencil and they messed with it about 20 minutes and said "yeah, we're gonna have to write that." I said, "well, here's what you got so far." They said, "damn" and they finished it within an hour. That's how I became a third writer. I was in the room and just pushed it.
AS: What's your process for producing an album?
RA: The process is pretty much the same. It all depends on the material really. You maybe go for a little different sound on drums or guitar, something like that. But we had a sound goin' and that's kinda the way we went at it. Waylon could put down five guitars on a track. He'd put one down and we'd take it away and if he didn't wanna hear it, we'd take that one down. He'd do that four or five times and then push 'em all up there and it just all slinkin' through each other. He had an uncanny thing about that. It always just blew my mind.
AS: During that time, in the '70s, you had outlaw country and you also had the Southern rock like Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers on the other side of the track. Did you guys kinda see yourselves as allies who fit in more with each other than you did with the mainstream country or rock?
RA: Musically, I'd say so, yeah. As far as hangin' out, none of that. It was two different worlds, but I did hang out with Dickey Betts a little bit. Musically, yeah. It's people doing the music the way they want to do it and it comes off different. It has it's own thing when it comes from the heart.
AS: You played on "Belle of the Ball" on the new Waylon record [Goin' Down Rockin': The Last Recordings, out Tuesday]. If you've heard the whole album what are your thoughts on it and do you think it sounds the way it would have turned out if Waylon was here?
RA: Yeah, I do. Because Waylon went down there with Robby and laid it down with him and his guitar. And you can't cover that up. I think it's very tasty.
AS: What's it like now playing with Waymore's Outlaws and what else are you involved in right now?
RA: I play with about three different bands besides Waymore's and do a little bit of producing with new songwriters. It's great to still play that music and make it feel pretty much like it did. It's pretty close. Of course, we ain't got Hoss. It's still a joy and I'm still enjoyin' it.
AS: I have a question out of nowhere for you. Was Roger Miller the grandfather of outlaw country?
RA: You could probably say that. Everybody that was anybody in country music back in the '60s pretty much bowed down to him. I mean, 'cause he was so far out there. The funniest man you ever met in your life.
AS: Do you think a Waylon or Willie could find success on Music Row today?
RA: Not coming in as an outlaw, because everyone's put in a package. The labels have taken over and they package it, it sounds like they want it to and this, that and the other. I don't think anyone will ever have control like that again. There could be a groundswell with somebody, but right now I don't see it.
AS: Thank you for talking to me. Is there anything else you want to say?
RA: Shooter, call me! (laughs)