In this edition of Sideman Spotlight, Nik Rodewald examines the life and music of session guitarist Rob McNelley, whose credits range from a long-time association with country blues great Delbert McClinton to records with Hank Williams, Jr., Lady Antebellum, Dolly Parton and countless others.
Imagine a smoky club in Columbus, Ohio. There’s a country-rock band on stage, and you’re only eight or nine years old. Your father is on stage singing and leading the band through another tune as the clock strikes another early morning hour. For days, months and even years, this routine seems to continue, and music becomes a part of the soul – inseparable from the rest of one’s life. Indeed, it becomes life.
For virtuoso guitarist Rob McNelley, this is how it all started. His father – Bobby Gene McNelley – was the lead singer of McGuffey Lane, a southern-rock band based out of Columbus in the 1980s. The younger McNelley spent much of his young life listening to his father’s band, and gradually picking up the guitar.
“There were always a lot of musicians in and out of the house,” McNelley begins, “so anybody that felt like sitting with me and showing me stuff for a few minutes helped me.” But, like so many masters, McNelley learned mostly from recordings and listening to licks over and over again until he was able to master them.
Growing up around a band that toured with acts such as the Allman Brothers, Charlie Daniels and the Marshall Tucker Band, McNelley had an early appreciation for country music, especially that of Willie Nelson because, as McNelley says, “my first guitar looked like his.” Growing up, McNelley was also influenced by the pop music of the day: the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. According to McNelley, “I learned every Beatles’ song and all the Stones stuff I could get my hands on.” From there, McNelley developed a deep love for the blues and dove headfirst into the music of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix.
All of these influences remain central to who McNelley is as a musician today. “That [the blues] is what I really got deep into for a lot of years, but because of the Beatles’ influence, I really like pop music too.” That versatility has allowed McNelley to develop into one of the top session guitarists in Nashville, with credits ranging from a stint with Delbert McClinton to records with Lady Antebellum.
McNelley remembers that he first started leading a band when he was in the 8th grade. They would write songs and talk the principal into letting them put on concerts in front of the school. While picking up licks off of records and listening to his dad’s music, McNelley taught himself guitar, with the help of a number of musicians who would take time to show him the tricks of their trade. Gradually, he started sitting in with his dad’s band and playing in local clubs.
McNelley’s musical training culminated with his high school music theory class. “There were only two other students in the class, so the teacher was able to move at a fast pace,” says McNelley, “That’s when I started to pay more attention to jazz and more harmonically complicated music.” After high school, McNelley immediately began playing in clubs around Columbus four nights per week.
Move to Nashville
After several years of playing in Columbus, McNelley realized that he needed to leave town if he wanted to advance his career. “If I stayed there, I would be playing the same clubs until the clubs were done…I wanted to get into touring and be somewhere where serious music was being made.” McNelley saw two options: Nashville and New York. Fearing that he wouldn’t be able to make it in New York, McNelley went to Nashville, a city with a similar cost of living and lifestyle to Columbus.
In 1995 Rob McNelley arrived on the Nashville music scene, going to open jams and meeting people. Shortly after, he met Tinsley Ellis who was looking to add a guitar player to his band. McNelley wound up making a record with Ellis, which was produced by Tom Dowd. McNelley joined Ellis’s band and went on the road with him for a couple of years, before leaving to spend more time in Nashville, instead of on the road. “He’s a great friend and I love him,” McNelley says of Ellis, “but I wanted to pursue more stuff that was the reason I moved here.”
So, McNelley began playing with various country artists. While on the road with Lee Ann Womack in 2002, McNelley got a call from friend and fellow-guitarist Todd Sharp, Delbert McClinton’s guitarist at the time. Todd was unable to make a gig and had vouched for McNelley. For the next six months, McNelley would sub for Sharp, until Sharp left the band, which “worked out perfectly, because my tour with Lee Ann Womack was winding down at that point.”
For eight years, McNelley worked as McClinton’s guitarist. However, as McClinton got older, he began touring less and less the last few years. As he started spending less time on the road with Delbert, he began getting calls for session work. It was yet another case of perfect timing for McNelley. “Just as my session work in town was heating up, Delbert needed to take us off salary because he wasn’t playing as much. The timing was good…I had enough work in town to keep me going.”
Life as a Session Musician
Now, McNelley does mostly session work. He enjoys working in the studio because it is “100% creativity.” According to McNelley, “On a country gig, you learn what the session guy did and you play that. With session work, I can make the song what I want it to be.” McNelley describes session work as a “blank canvas” where he has the opportunity to do a lot of different things, even during the course of a single day.
That being said, McNelley still has a serious appreciation for playing live. “Playing live keeps your edge going a little more; you get that immediate gratification when you’re playing live in front of an audience.” He also notes, however, that touring can be boring, when you’re playing the same show every night. “But that was the great thing about being with Delbert,” McNelley adds, “we didn’t have to play the same show every night. He never used a set list, so the show was truly different every night.”
Rewards of Being a Sideman
McNelley says that one of the most important aspects of being a sideman is having a low ego. He says that a sideman must, “have respect for who hires you and what they want. They need you for a specific service and you can never forget that.” Additionally, he says that, while being a great musician is required to be a sideman, “personality is what gets you gigs more than your playing.” A sideman, according to McNelley, must be someone who “isn’t a kid anymore, somebody that knows how to hang on a bus without bringing anybody down.” A sense of humor is a nice quality to have, as is the ability to make somebody laugh, as long as “you’re not funnier than your boss.”
The most rewarding part of being a sideman, says McNelley, is “having fun, playing music and getting to do what you want for a living.” He says that, “if you’re on a gig with someone for a long time, you meet plenty of interesting people along the way and have all these great stories for the rest of your life.” But, being on the road does have its downside. “If you’ve got a family, it’s tough,” says McNelley, “you work a lot of weird hours and miss out on a lot of stuff at home.”
The Good Life
McNelley seriously enjoys being a studio musician, but admits that he misses playing live sometimes, and when he does, he takes gigs around town. He loves the creative challenges of the recording studio, the constant change of pace and not having to travel. According to McNelley, “My ideal work is doing exactly what I’m doing now, unless Muddy Waters comes back from the grave and asks me to be in his band.” This statement shows McNelley’s love for the blues. While he enjoys pop music, he says that he could play the blues “endlessly.” “A lot of people think it’s boring to play a 12 bar blues,” McNelley begins, “but there’s so many places you can go…I could get lost in it for the rest of my life.”
McNelley is also quick to note that doing session work allows him to spend more time with his five-year-old daughter, and notes that she has helped him to evolve, both as a person and as a musician. “One thing that kids teach you is what’s important and what’s not,” McNelley begins, “that has come through in my playing. Seeing my daughter and being with her in several situations really taught me how to cut the fat out of my life and stick to what’s important.”
Now that he is working more in town, both as a session musician and leading his own band, McNelley enjoys spending time with his family, and has a particular fascination with cooking, saying that he and his wife cook “like crazy” whenever they can. He sees a strong correlation between his love for cooking and his love for being a sideman, saying, “I try to play music like I would cook something. If you cook something well, you don’t know what’s in it unless you read the recipe. That’s how music should be; it’s all just one thing where you don’t think about separate instruments making it,” McNelley concludes, “That’s the end-goal with music or cooking: to be a part of it, but not so much so that you are the only thing anybody notices about the song.”
And so the last chord rings during this interview. The chord is a full sound, like that of his guitar, packing power and soul into one. But, if we listen deeper, we’re sure to hear overtones. Overtones of Columbus, Ohio, overtones of his daughter’s smiling face, overtones his cooking, overtones of blues and pop. But just as all of these overtones combine to form the sound of Rob McNelley, so too is this sideman – and indeed any who is truly doing his job – one overtone, important and inseparable, of the bands he has played with. In the end, McNelley is an important part of the blues rock world, but, true to his style he is not, “so much so that [he] is the only thing anybody notices about the song.”
– Nik Rodewald