Nashville’s Go-To Guy
By Michael Aubrecht
In baseball the relief pitcher is among the most coveted of all positions. Their ability to step in when the pressure is on makes them invaluable. In many cases, it is the performance of the reliever that determines whether a team wins or loses. The same pressure can be considered for the subbing musician. It takes a wide skill-set and a great memory to step up behind the drum kit for a previous player. Good substitutes are everywhere while great ones are a rare breed. One such drummer of the latter is Keio Stroud who has made a name for himself as the primary drummer for the Nashville duo Big & Rich and the sub for a long list of country-rock favorites.
As a go-to-guy, Keio has forged a strong reputation that makes him in high-demand. Have a tour coming up that needs a drummer? Call Keio. Have a drummer drop-out of the gig at the last second? Call Keio. Want someone who will come in and seamlessly fit within your band? Call Keio. Need a solid player for your next session? Call Keio. With endorsements with Tama, Sabian, Evans and Vater Stroud has quietly become a premiere artist both on the stage and off.
I first became aware of Keio while standing onstage at a Jason Aldean concert. Keio was shadowing Jake Owen’s drummer Myron Howell while preparing to sub for him. During sound check he beat the hell out of Howell’s kit before throwing his sticks out to an imaginary audience. It was then that I realized Keio’s great sense of humor. That personality, coupled with chops, has made him a great guy to be around. Keio took some time in between rehearsals with Big & Rich to discuss his experiences.
MA: Thanks for taking time out of your incredibly busy schedule to do this interview.
KS: My pleasure. We go to Colorado tomorrow, then Pennsylvania and then back here to Nashville.
MA: I know you come from a musical family. What brought you to the drums?
KS: As a kid I was drawn to it. My dad had bands growing up. When they would rehearse I would literally climb inside the bass drum. I also did the typical drummer thing, tapping on stuff. Eventually I started playing actual beats. I loved music as a kid.
MA: What kind of music did you like when you were young?
KS: Mostly R&B stuff. When I was a kid I grew up with my grandparents. We had a really fun house. They had built an intercom system that ran through every room. My grandmother’s record player was connected to the system. She would wake us up in the morning with records like James Brown Live at the Apollo, Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace and albums by Earth Wind and Fire. My grandfather liked country music so he would play obscure artists and all kinds of weird stuff. As I got older I really got into country music too and as a teen I found Brooks and Dunn. That’s still my dream gig.
MA: At what point did you pick up a pair of sticks and start playing drums? Did you take lessons or are you self-taught?
KS: I am mostly self-taught. I never took lessons until I got into college. I watched other drummers and there were some things that came naturally. I developed as a player by listening to drumming and copying what I heard. When I was a teenager drum videos started coming out. I would buy as many as I could and spend hours watching them. I challenged myself by trying to match my hands to what I saw on the videos.
MA: Did you have a favorite video?
KS: I loved the Buddy Rich memorial concerts. I still have all of them in a box somewhere. Carter Beauford’s “Under the Table and Drumming” was another favorite. Dave Weckl put out some great videos too.
MA: Who was your biggest drumming influences growing up?
KS: As a kid I loved Clyde Stubblefield. Bernard Purdie was another favorite. As I got older I loved Dennis Chambers and Carter Beauford for his drum sound. Then I got into Alex Van Halen who is one of my absolute favorites. His style and performance is amazing. I got hip to him later in his career during the Van Hagar days. His approach to music is very cool. After that I discovered The Beatles and Ringo, The Who and Keith Moon. All of that classic stuff. I was grabbing everything from everyone. I would put on one of those variety radio stations that play everything and drum along to that. When I loved something I would write it down and go to BestBuy and get it on CD. This was before the internet music scene took off. Then I would find out who the drummers were and research them. When I moved to Nashville I got hip to the local guys. You have guys like Greg Morrow and Shannon Forrest, Chris McHugh and Larry London, Tommy Wells. All of these guys could not have been nicer when I met them.
MA: Speaking of growing up tell us about your first drum set.
KS: It was a Lotus Japanese kit. I had 12” tom, 20” bass drum, a snare drum and a really crappy cymbal and no hi-hat. I had that kit for a year. Once I got serious my dad bought me a used Pearl kit. It was the same finish as my Lotus kit. It had a 12” and 13” rack toms, a 16” floor tom and a 22” bass drum. I had hi-hats now and another crash cymbal. The kit was pre-Export. I got that kit in 1984. The tom mounts were not circles, they were hexes. I still have the snare drum from that kit. I still track with it. In fact, when I got the Big & Rich gig it was my main snare drum. It makes its way onto demos all the time. For the longest time it sat in my dad’s trunk. When he was getting ready to sell the car he found it and asked me if I wanted it. I use Evans on it now but way back then I used those hydraulic heads. Today I’ve gone back to my roots and I’m actually using hydraulic heads with no bottom heads on the floor toms.
MA: Talk about getting your money’s worth. Or should I say your dad’s money’s worth.
KS: Oh yeah. It definitely has lived a long life. My third kit was a chrome double bass kit that belonged to the drummer in my dad’s band. Ironically today I’m using a chrome Tama classic kit.
MA: Did you participate in any school music programs?
KS: Yes. I was in marching band and symphony and jazz band all the way until college. When I got to college I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life so I wasn’t enrolled in any music classes for the first few weeks. I liked music but I was only attending college at the time because my folks said I had to. It’s actually a funny story of how I started playing music there. I was hanging around the campus and found myself outside on the humanities building where the music department was. I heard a jazz band playing inside. I was an idiot at eighteen so I just walked into their rehearsal. When they stopped the band director Dr Bakos turned to me and said “Hey man can I help you?” I told him that I heard the music and came in to see where it was coming from. He asked me if I played music and I told him I played the drums. Then he asked me if I could play and I said yeah. He asked if I could read music and I said yes again. Finally he asked me to come up and play a song with them. I sat down at the drums and read the chart. I just went for it and played the part pretty well. When we were done he took me to the head of the music department who asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I told him I didn’t know. He told me from now on I was a music major [laughs].
MA: What college were you attending?
KS: I was at the University of West Georgia. It was a great thing to happen but also in a way the worst thing that could have happened to a music lover. Because I was taught to analyze and criticize music I ended up hating it for a while. When you’re looking at music from an academic standpoint you literally rip it apart. At that age I was really into music and coming into my own. Because I was studying it at such a level I couldn’t really enjoy it anymore. Every time I heard a song I couldn’t help but overthink it. Everything was wrong. Everything was bad. I had to step away from it. I did two years as a music major and after that I didn’t take any more music classes just to get my listening life back. Eventually I got past that and moved to Nashville.
MA: Did you march in college or did you just play in the jazz band?
KS: Yes I was in the marching band. I played tenors. I was horrible [laughs]. I enjoyed it but I didn’t get into it as much as some other guys in the drum line. I was also in the school’s symphony. I played all percussion but mostly timpani. I really enjoyed playing timpani. There is something about starting and stopping the notes that I felt was very musical. I also played triangle. I was a mean triangle player!
MA: When you say you walked away from formally studying music how did you “deprogram” yourself as a music lover?
KS: I did a couple things. I started listening to simple music. That included country and everything else I loved as a child. I also went back to reading my Modern Drummer magazines. I still have all of mine.
MA: Me too. I save every one.
KS: Yeah. It was cool because it enabled me to recapture my passion for the drums too. It took me about three months until I was happy again. I didn’t end up going back into the music program at all. I made it through the third week of my third semester and then I quit and moved to Nashville.
MA: Did you play out with any bands in college?
KS: Kind of. I played in my dad’s R&B band. I would go home on the weekends and gig with him. My granddad played at church so I would go there and play too. Speaking of gigs…When I was in college there was this up-and-coming dude named Zac Brown. You may have heard of him. He would come up and play shows because some of his band members went there. All of those guys are still in the Zac Brown Band. A few times I found myself playing at Mellow Mushroom because I had a drum set. I did a lot more studying than playing in school. My professor and I bumped heads because I had been playing drum set all of these years and according to me I was really good. That said, I didn’t know anything about classical percussion which is what that school pushed heavily. It got to the point where I just didn’t enjoy it. Now I miss mallets and wish I had a marimba at my house to play around with. There is a big difference between having to do something and wanting to do it. Looking back I may have hated some of the moments but overall I can say that I liked it. I’m glad I did it. I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t done it.
MA: We’ll touch on your subbing in a minute but I would imagine that the skill set you picked up in college, to include playing a wide variety of complicated music and having strong reading skills prepared you for the career you have today.
KS: Absolutely. It’s amazing that there are so many things you never think you’ll use that end up being crucial later in life. I was the guy that didn’t appreciate things at the time but came to really appreciate them later. I write charts for myself but I also rely heavily on my recall skills. I was always that guy that tended to wait until the last minute to prepare for things. That kept things fresh in my mind. I actually play better in my opinion when I use that approach. That stress level makes me more focused.
MA: When you moved to Nashville how did you spread your name around the scene and establish yourself as the new guy in town?
KS: It was kind of funny. When I moved to Nashville I already had a gig. My dad’s friend Tyrone had a cover band. His regular drummer was having some issues. One day I was back in Athens where I am from and Tyrone had to leave for a gig. He had to leave his drummer behind so he called up my dad and asked if I was still playing drums. He spoke for me and said “Oh yeah, he’ll do it.” When I moved to Nashville I was a member of Tyrone’s band. I slept on the keyboard player and bassist’s couches. The keyboard player was really into doing these blues jams and he convinced me to come along. That is where I met all kinds of players like Pat McDonald from Charlie Daniel’s band and Rich Redmond and Curt [Allison] and Tully [Kennedy] from Jason Aldean’s band. All of the pro touring guys were going to these blues jam nights on every Monday or Tuesday. I would sit in when I could. After about seven months of being there I was recommended for a club gig. I ended up playing a four-hour country gig at Fiddle and Steel.
After I established myself doing those gigs people started calling me for last-minute subbing jobs on Broadway. Many times I didn’t even know the songs but they would count me in and off I’d go. From there I met my buddy Greg Loman and he recommended me. Eventually I became the “Mikey” of drumming where they’d say “Call Keio, he will do it.” My reputation was that I was an honest person who might not know the entire song list but can get you through it. I have a skill to be able to fake my way through a lot of songs. As a last-minute call that’s valuable. When I could chart I would and I’d even research the song online but sometimes there was no time for that. One day I was playing in a bar and Dave McAfee and Rick were there and looking for a drummer to tour with this guy Wade Hayes. They came up to me afterwards to see if I was interested in the gig. This was in 2002 or 2003. I had to turn it down as I had a cover band gig. They called the next day and I finally said yes. I was that dude who would meet as many people as I could. We would play festivals and instead of going back and taking a shower I would hang out. I would watch all the bands that played after us and meet the band members. Everyone was so nice to me.
MA: The list of people you have subbed for is astounding. Here’s just a few: Richard Marx, Jake Owen, Deana Carter, Little Big Town, Emmylou Harris, Keith Urban, Roseanne Cash, Lee Brice, The Nashville Star television show, Randy Houser and Frankie Ballard. You even subbed for Tiffany. You’ve also appeared on featured recordings like “Let Us Be Americana – The Music of Paul McCartney” and “I Saw the Light” from the Hank Williams movie. What are some that really stand out in your mind?
KS: I really enjoy subbing on the Jake Owen gig. It’s been ten years of me doing that one. The Richard Marx thing was really fun. I did about fifteen shows with him and it was one of my favorites. I also like Sarah Buxton because that was when I started coming into my own. When I was about 26 that’s when I started getting called for the bigger gigs to sub for. I was subbing for Jake but he wasn’t quite there yet. Sarah always treated the guys great. Her music is really fun to play.
MA: When you were subbing for Jake where was his steady drummer Myron [Howell]?
KS: I became Jake’s international drummer because Myron for whatever reason does not like leaving the country. Anytime they leave the U.S. I get the call. His music is a lot of fun.
MA: How did you end up getting the Big & Rich gig?
KS: That gig came from a couple different things. I actually auditioned for this gig twice. I met these guys when I was subbing on the Terri Clark tour. We did a co-headlining tour in Canada for two weeks. I got to hang out and meet everybody. Fast forward seven years. I auditioned for the gig and didn’t get it. Lester Estelle got it. He’s a fantastic drummer. About two and a half years later after that Travis McNabb was playing drums but he had the leave to do something else. I had been friends with the bandleader for a long time and he told me that I was probably the guy for the gig but they had to audition other people. A couple days later I went in and played. John and Kenny were there. Both of them turned around and told me that they liked what I was doing. They offered me the job on the spot. They asked if I was available that weekend and I had to tell them no because I was set to go back out with Jake. I went out and did a couple weeks with him and then came back and had the Big & Rich gig.
MA: Those guys are brilliant entertainers. Every night on stage is a party and the audience is invited. What challenges do you experience working in that environment?
KS: Oh yeah. The best part about the gig is the atmosphere. It reminds me of the first job I had in Nashville in Tyrone’s band. The gig is literally a party. There’s a bar on stage and we have little people running around. There are fire-breathers and Cowboy Troy is there. People like Meatloaf and Ted Nugent will sit in. It’s all about having a good time. The songs are strong so they cause the crowd to have a lot of emotions and it never stops. It’s like a country band that is battling a DJ. We roll from one song to the next and it’s all high energy. Those guys give me the same energy that they want me to give them. The first gig with them I wasn’t ready for it. We played a huge festival and it was great. Everyone else on the stage was operating at fifteen and I was on twelve. I was the guy driving the ship so I had to do everything I could to make it to sixteen. They challenged me to step it up. The really cool thing about the gig now is that it allows me to be me. That’s only the second or third time that has happened in my entire career. They enjoy what I am providing and have never asked me to change anything. That to me is a huge compliment.
MA: What is it about you and your playing that has made you an artist favorite?
KS: I think it is my personality more than my drumming. I feel about myself that I am an OK drummer but I can get along with anybody. My parents taught me that being a nice person will get you far in the world. I’m speaking of a genuinely nice person not someone that puts on a front. That means caring for others, being considerate of other people’s feelings and treating people the way you want to be treated. That attitude has helped me to live on busses with people, talk with people and understand where other people are coming from. That is my ultimate talent, being a people-person.
Drumming-wise I have this whole thing where I believe that your true instrument is your ears. Your hands are simply what translates what your ears are telling you. You listen with your ears, you make musical decisions and then your brain tells your hands what to execute. That goes for any instrument and any music. I try to really listen to artists and the bands around me. I find out what is important and then don’t step on it. The singer’s voice is more important than a double bass drum solo. I try to be a musician’s musician and not just a drummer. I find out what the vision of the project is and that goes for live and in the studio. I played with this guy Rodney Crowell for about twelve years. He’s a great musician. He was the first guy to hire me to play drums and be me. We really didn’t get time to rehearse. After the first sound check I was doing a little Eddie Bayers or Larrie Londin thing. He turned to me and said that he didn’t want that. He wanted me and that was why he hired me. I said to myself “Shit…who am I?” Honestly I played the gig like I was getting fired. I played whatever I felt made musical sense and made me happy. By doing that I found myself and it’s made him happy since then.
MA: In addition to your live work you also do sessions. Tell us about that.
KS: My session career isn’t what I wish it was. It’s a lot of fun going into the studio. I’ve done more demos than records which is the nature of Nashville. There was a learning curve. I had to work on my charting chops. I had to learn how to be very quick and efficient. It is sometimes a challenge but it is still fun. Through all of that I’ve been able to play on some records from folks like Keb Mo. I just did a fun record with him and Taj Mahal called” Taj Mo.” That comes out in a month. I’ve done some movie soundtracks. I did the Hank Williams movie “I Saw the Light.” It’s funny because there are no drums. I played on different sized boxes with brushes. I do quite a bit of custom projects here in Nashville. Someone will come in from out of town and need to record something. Sometimes it turns into a full-blown record deal, sometimes it doesn’t. I now have a new home studio where I can record projects and demos. I’ve recorded some demos for FGL, Arliss Albriton, Jeremy Spillman, Randy Rogers, Dean Dillon, Scotty Emerick/Toby Keith, and Al Anderson. It’s really fun to roll out of bed and start making music. It’s good for the soul. Recording is definitely different from live because you’re under a microscope. The song is there forever and sometimes you only have fifteen minutes to do it.
MA: You have a nice collection of drums. Tell us about your current touring kit and then tell us about your favorite kit.
KS: My current set-up is a Tama Star Classic birch bubinga kit. It is custom and has a chrome finish. There is a 12×8” rack tom, 14×12” floor tom, 18×12” gong drum, 22×13” kick drum, and a Tama bronze 5×14 snare drum. I also have a 5×12 Tama birch bubinga snare drum. The cymbals are a little wacky. I use 18” Sabian HHX Studio hi-hats, a 22” Paragon crash, 22” Legacy crash and ride and a 22” HHX Ozone. I’m going to 24” on all of these soon. I’m using Evans red hydraulic heads on everything. My sticks are Vater MV10s which is a marching stick. They are 17” long. That kit is definitely my current favorite.
MA: How many drum sets do you have?
KS: I think six…three Tama kits, two Mapex kits and an older Ludwig kit.
MA: I noticed on all of your kits you use a gong drum. Not many people do. Why do you?
KS: I like the big boom that it delivers. It’s more of an accent thing. I love Billy Cobham. I love the way players like him use it as a melodic tool. When I need to make a big sound I go to the gong drum. I use it to accent crashes and for counting off…1-2-3 boom! Four is the gong drum. Right out of the gate the audience hears this big boom. It moves the PA and helps to set the tone. It works great for ballads too. I try to use it for what I call “musical shock value.” Not too much. Just enough to make the point.
MA: Do you have a favorite song that you perform with Big & Rich?
KS: I have a couple. One of my favorites is this tune called “Jalapeno.” It’s a funky song that we are bringing back this year. It’s very straight ahead…boom-bap-boom-bap. It’s four on the floor with some interesting kick drum things in it. I also love playing “8th of November.” There’s a really fun thing that happens in that song where we play it a little different than the record. We play it with a bit more intensity. There are a few parts where I use the gong drum and do these interesting fills. It starts with two guys and when the band comes in it’s like a kick to the face. We have military guys come up on stage and even they are surprised when we come in. All of the sudden we lock in and for a 6/8 ballad the energy stays up the whole time. Literally from that point on the rest of the show everyone is up. I also have to admit that I really like playing “Save a Horse Ride a Cowboy.” It’s so much fun. We do it as a medley so the song is about thirteen minutes long. I have to play four on the floor at 104 BPM for thirteen minutes. It can catch up with you later but it’s worth it.
MA: If you had to pick a gig, any gig, that personifies your playing style what would it be?
KS: I like the way I play right now. It’s real bombastic but it’s fun. It is definitely me. It’s all about driving the band and propelling it forward. I really enjoyed the music that Rodney Crowell brought out of me. I felt like he honed my musical tastes and focused me. From that we molded my current way of playing. I guess I play like a rock and R&B drummer but with Americana sensibilities while paying attention to the song. I find out what the artist wants and I deliver what they need.
MA: The last question that I am going to ask you today is what advice can you give another drummer that is looking to come to Nashville and break into the business? You have experience in all facets of the music scene, sitting in, subbing, touring, recording and producing. What would like to have known back in the day?
KS: The first thing I will say is this…you get out what you put in. You have to work at it because nothing is just going to come to you. If you don’t support the community it will not support you. Second thing is to be honest with yourself. Are you really as good as you think you are? Are you one of the best? There are people out there who think they are amazing and they suck. At the same time there are people out there who think they suck and are amazing. Both mindsets can hurt you in the long run. You have to be completely honest with yourself. Check your talent level and your personality too. Being a working musician is not like working at McDonalds. It is a career. You don’t work regular hours. You don’t leave your work at the office. The difference between having a job and a career is this: A career is a lifestyle. A job is just spending time at a workplace. You have to be willing to make sacrifices both personally and professionally. You must get out and meet people. That is crucial. Building connections will help get you work. It really is “who you know” sometimes. You could be the best drummer in your basement but that doesn’t matter. Play in front of people. Show them what you are capable of. Having a million views on a drum cover posted on YouTube video means nothing. It does not show what a person can do.
MA: So becoming part of the scene takes a lot of work.
KS: A lot and it’s all about building relationships. Nashville drummers are a real community. I’ve been lucky to have made a lot of friends with professional drummers at every level. We hang out. We text. We bounce things off of one another. We genuinely support each other. We keep each other in check. The best part about all of these guys is that we are friends first, musicians second. We want nothing from another other than friendship. What you see behind the kit is a product. When you step out from the kit you expose who you are as a person. My goal has always been to be the best person I can be and the drumming will fall into place.
For more information, visit Keio on Instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/blacyoda/