Gary James' Interview With
Rick Schell

Rick Schell is one Central New York musician who set out to make a name for himself in the music world and succeeded!

In Syracuse, N.Y. he was Benny Mardones' drummer. Moving to Nashville, Rick joined the recording group The Rattlers. Next he toured with Alison Moorer. His own group, Pinmonkey, enjoyed a Top 20 hit and toured the world behind it. These days you'll find Rick pounding the skins for Pure Prairie League.

Rich Schell talked with us about succeeding in the world of music.

Q - Rick, last time I spoke to you, you were living on Mooney Ave. here in Syracuse and you were having a garage sale.

A - Yes we were. We had the garage sale. That was the week we moved to Nashville.

Q - On October 31st, 1993, you packed your bags and moved to Nashville.

A - Right.

Q - Why did you choose that day and that year? And why Nashville?

A - (laughs) Nashville, because I had worked some in New York City and had friends of mine in high school and college that re-located to New York City. By the time I was spreading my wings, they had already come back with their tail tucked between their legs and nothing to show for it. Broke as all get out and didn't make any head way because of the cost of living in New York City. It's very difficult to focus on music without having to work a day job just to pay your $1,200 a month rent. It's probably more now for your small little Soho or Greenwich Village flat. L.A. didn't appeal to me for much the same reason, although I could handle the weather. So, the third best music town today is Nashville. It's much easier to live regarding the cost of living, much easier getting around, at least it was when I first moved here. I find myself sitting in traffic quite often these days. A lot of people have moved here since we have. I tell people that it had everything I needed in a big city, meaning record labels, recording studios and world class musicians. But, it also had everything I liked about a small town, affordable housing market and ease of just getting around town...logistics. So, that's why Nashville. Regarding the date, that was arbitrary. (laughs) I was actually working for Syracuse One Stop Recording Theatre. I did that for quite a long time while I was playing with Benny (Mardones) and quite a few other people up there. I was out servicing an account, selling those CDs and it kind of hit me all at once that I needed to do something. I first thought Memphis because I like a lot of the music that came out of Memphis...Stax and all that. So, I called my wife from a pay phone in an old Fays Drugstore in Fayetteville Mall. She was working at Coleman Florist at the time. I said "Look, I'm gonna go down to Memphis and see what's happening there and see if it's someplace we'll do." In the process of doing that, I had a moment of charity and thought; why don't we go to Memphis for a few days and rent a car and drive up to Nashville and fly back home from there. So, we got to Memphis and there was really nothing going on at all. It's a pretty depressed town. Still is. So, we spent like a night in Memphis as opposed to three days and drove up to Nashville and checked it out. By the time we got home, we decided we were moving and that would have been in March. We had the lease on our house. At the end of October was the end of our lease. So, we really packed our bags and headed out of town on the 28th and landed in Nashville on Halloween, after taking our time. Sold everything. You were part of that. You saw us selling everything, including one of our cars, and headed on down the road. Didn't know a soul in Nashville, save for one music attorney that I had lunch with once, on that first what I call "the reconnaissance mission", when we went down there. One thing just lead to another. Another reason I moved to Nashville; I'm not a big Reba McIntire fan or Garth Brooks fan. However, I was listening to a lot of Steve Earle. I thought if Steve Earle is making records in Nashville, there's probably something there for me then. I wasn't in town a year and found myself playing on Steve Earle's records. It just happened. I started working with this fella who's Ray's partner, named Ray Kennedy, who also had a big record deal on Atlantic for many years. Had a couple of hits. I started working with him, with a band that I had called The Rattlers. Almost got a record deal. Capitol was very close to signing us. One of those never know what happens. It just went away. But, that lead Ray to call me one day and say "Hey, if you can get down here in an hour, you can play on this record." It ended up being Steve Earle's comeback record after he got in trouble with the drugs and everything, and jail. It got named one of the Top 100 albums in Spin Magazine for the '90s.

Q - Did you visit Graceland when you were in Memphis?

A - Oh, yeah. I've been there a couple of times. We haven't done it in a couple of years. My wife and I would just go down and knock around. It's fun to go to Memphis, don't get me wrong. Beale Street is fun. Graceland is cool. Just hanging out by the river and checking out different museums. That's all cool. It's just there's no real music scene. There's no record labels. I mean there's recording studios. I actually worked at the famous Art Studios on a couple of records. So that's still cool. It's just that it isn't what it was in the '70s for the music I liked or '60s and '70s. So, it's really a different, different town. It's a different feel. It's still the Deep South.

Q - Did you bring a lot of money with you when you moved to Nashville?

A - We were pretty ready to do something. I moved to Nashville with the idea that I was not going to be working a day job. I could no longer split my energies and my brain down the middle and make either one of 'em work. We did have a nest egg, yes. So, I was able to not work. My wife got a job right away. In fact, she still has the same job. I was prepared to not do anything but focus on my playing and focus on networking and getting myself out there and not worrying about having to pay the rent. Plus, we also moved into a small one-bedroom apartment that was cheap. We were down to one car for about a year. Those garage sales we had, we probably made $2,000 on that. I sold my wife's car. Actually, I swapped her car for a van so we could load up one of my drum kits and anything else that we had that we weren't putting out by the curb as we were saying goodbye. (laughs) I was in it for the long haul. We gave ourselves two years. In two years we were gonna re-evaluate this. Her family is still all in Upstate New York. We were flying on faith. We were kind of methodical about it, even though we were throwing caution to the wind. We said we can always go back doing what we were doing. I kind of hit my head on the proverbial glass ceiling in Syracuse, although I always had a great time playing with wonderful musicians there. It was a great place to cut my teeth, it's just if I wanted to make it any further, I had to leave.

Q - What would've happened to you had you not made that move to Nashville?

A - I probably would've continued working at the one-stop. It's down to just a couple of employees now. Who knows? Maybe I would've gone back to school for something. I did my schooling over at Fredonia. I got my Bachelors degree in Music Business.

Q - Do you think the message then, to Syracuse and Central New York musicians is, it's a good place to get some club experience and learn how to perform in front of a crowd. But, in the end, if you want a career in music, you gotta leave for a bigger city.

A - It's a little different now than when I did it because of the internet. Obviously it's been fifteen years. You can start a band up and market yourself world-wide if you're savvy about it. I'm not saying a band can't get signed like that. It's very possible and it's happening. If you want to do what I did and come down here to freelance and if you want to work with the bigger artists, then you gotta be here. I always say "You must be present to win." I always see ads around the rehearsal studios and on Craig's List for people that are out of state saying "I'm a drummer" or "I'm a guitar player. Call me for tours." I know for a fact, 'cause I know the people that are doing the hiring. They're not gonna hire someone from out of town. They want 'em to be here so they can get on the plane like everybody else. So, I'm not saying it can't be done because of the internet now, but to get down here and immerse yourself... I happened to be in the right place at the right time to play on that Steve Earle record. I became fast friends with this girl, Alison Moorer. She's married to Steve Earle now. I played on some of her MCA records and toured the world. Played on Letterman and Leno with her. That wouldn't have happened if I didn't move. There's no way she'd consider someone from out of town. You gotta be here for rehearsals and things like that. Southside Johnny, same thing. I was here. With the advent of the internet, I sell my records on the internet. Plenty of people do. You can build a fan base that way, but I think if you want to be in the game, you really have to be here.

Q - Would you also say that you got "lucky"? That some doors opened for you that ordinarily wouldn't have?

A - There's always doors that open up when you just happened to stand in front of 'em, yeah. But at the same time, it's perseverance. If you're not making yourself available, then people don't know who you are. Of course, you gotta be good and luck in always gonna play a part of it. I made it to a certain level. With my band Pinmonkey, we had a Top 20 single, a Top 10 video. I always tell people it was really, really hard to get to that level. It was almost impossible odds to get...first of all you get signed to a major label record deal by one of the biggest record men going, Joe Galante at RCA. Suddenly you're on the bus, you're on TV. You're on the ACM Awards. It was really hard to get to that point and even harder, astronomical odds to maintain it. I tell you, there's just so many factors that contribute to the success or decline of someone's career.

Q - How do you think having a degree in music business helped your career?

A - I think it taught me how to learn. I don't use a whole lot of knowledge from that time, but I did cut my teeth at recording studios at Fredonia 'cause they have a great recording program there. That's the one thing I learned; how to play in the studio. Other than that, there wasn't a whole lot. To get myself thinking business wise so I wasn't just kind of hacking away at it. Honestly, college taught me how to learn.

Q - You also went to O.C.C. and played in a band called Stone Fox.

A - Yeah, I did.

Q - Where did Stone Fox perform?

A - Around the Southern know, Cortland, Ithaca, Binghamton, Onconta, Elmira. I don't think we ever played Syracuse.

Q - You were also in Smart Alec?

A - Yeah. Now that was the Syracuse area. That was along the Thruway strip. Smart Alec came from the remnants of Alec Star.

Q - You must've played the Lost Horizon?

A - Yeah. Waterloo. Out to Johnstown, Gloversville, Utica, Rome. I was actually the lead singer in that band. It was the drummer and bass player from Alec Star.

Q - How did you get that gig with Benny Mardones?

A - I started playing in a band with Mick Walker. I started doing a Rolling Stones cover band called Sticky Fingers and I think we maybe played only three or four gigs. That was a real learning experience too. It really streamlined my playing because just the way Charlie Watts played. Todd Troupitaris was playing bass for this band. Todd at the time, and still is Benny Mardones' bass player. So, when their drummer fell out, they asked me if I was interested in doing it and I said sure. So, I just went over and started rehearsing with them. My first show would have been 1990 or 1991, the Christmas show. Back then he held it at the Landmark Theatre. So, the show was actually on the 26th, so I had to sacrifice my Christmas because we had to rehearse all day Christmas day with Benny. That was the first day I met him, the day before the show. We went on and played that show and it went unbelievably well. In fact, I have a video of it.

Q - So, you get to Nashville and join this recording group The Rattlers?

A - Basically formed it, yeah. I didn't know anybody here. I answered an ad in The Nashville Scene, which is basically like The Syracuse News - Times. I cut it out. It sat on our kitchen counter for the longest time. My wife finally said "Why don't you call that number?" So, I did and formed this group that went on... we never did get a signed record deal, but we did all the showcases. That was a real learning experience to how the business works. Great band. I still listen to the recordings we did, today. It probably would do real well today. We were a little ahead of our time in that we were way more Southern Rock than we were Country.

Q - I interviewed a guy from Syracuse who was a Country singer / songwriter. He quit his job and moved down to Nashville to try to get a record deal. He gave himself a year to do it. After a year he moved back. He did those showcases you talk about and found out that industry people don't turn out at the showcase clubs anymore.

A - Well, they do. We were just at one last night that the guys from Rascal Flatts were at. I ran into Ed Benson, who's head of the CMA, the Country Music Association. I got to talk to him a little bit 'cause I haven't seen him in a couple of years. It just depends on what kind of "buzz" you have. If you don't have any "buzz", and if you're not any good, they're not gonna come out. But I'll tell you when Pinmonkey got signed, we couldn't fit everybody in the room it was so packed. It was amazing having three major record label heads in the same room and having their A&R staff with them. We had Joe Galanta and his A&R staff from RCA. We had Rick Blackburn and his staff from Capitol, Mike Dugen from Capitol. We had Rodney Crowell standing there wanting to produce us. We had Kenny Chesney's producers sitting there, wanting to produce us. We had everybody lined up. It was unbelievable. So, if there is a true "buzz", oh yeah, they're out. That's how the business is done. There's way more people trying to get a record deal than there are people trying to sign people to a record label. So that guy's comments are accurate, maybe not for the reason he thinks they're accurate. It is tough to get people out. I did everything very methodically. I probably got this out of my music business school too. I was touring with Pure Prairie League and Alison Moore at the time. We were just dove-tailing schedules. There were two other guys in the band who were freelance musicians. So I'd see who was going to be in town, when and then line up everybody's schedules and book three shows that week in town, same week. We'd invite everybody we could 'cause that way, they can't make it on Monday, they might be able to make it Wednesday or Thursday. So, we would do three different clubs. We'd do it that way. Then we'd go away for about six months and then we'd do it again. That's how I built the "buzz" on Pinmonkey.

Q - What kind of a group was Pinmonkey?

A - Pinmonkey was what I call a vocal group. It was much more akin to an Eagles or a Flying Burrito Brothers or maybe even Alabama. But it had a little hard edge to it too.

Q - It seemed everything you touched turned to gold.

A - Well, we could do no wrong for a while. Then the bottom fell out just as quick as it came.

Q - You toured the world with that band, didn't you?

A - Oh yeah. Absolutely. We even did shows in Poland.

Q - So what happened? You didn't have a follow-up hit?

A - I've had artists and people in the record industry, if fact I ran into a couple of guys who used to be at the label in marketing tell me the other night in a bar, "the label really dropped the ball on you guys." I hear that all the time. There are things we could have done better, no doubt. I think our management choice was poor, which I take the blame for that 'cause he still manages Pure Prairie League. We put out a cover of a Cyndi Lauper song called "I Drove All Night". It maybe got to 35. Then we made another record, which would be our third album. Finished it. Put the single out. A friend of mine from Chicago wrote it called "Let's Kill Saturday Night". As it was going up the charts, they pulled the promotion on it. Here's a little lesson in the music business: they pulled our single because radio lists, the play lists are very small, like twenty-two songs or something like that. That's all they play, over and over and over again. I'm talking Country radio, not Classic Rock. Kenny Chesney was coming out with a new single and they needed the spot. Kenny was on the label too. The album was finished. It was "in the can" as they say. We had done the album photo shoot the week before, a very elaborate photo shoot with tour buses and over at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. We were going into a meeting with the head of the label, Joe Galante. Our management office is just down the street from the label. As we always did, we'd all gather in the management office to make sure we're all on the same page before we go into the meeting. Fifteen minutes before we go into the label, got a call that said they weren't going forward with the project and that it was over. Didn't even give us the courtesy of telling us to our face. In fact, I've never talked to the man since. He won't take my calls. If I see him on the street, he runs! (laughs) I don't know why. I just want to thank him for the opportunity. I did e-mail and thank him. He did e-mail me back. It was a good run. I can't say it wasn't hard when we got dropped. I immediately started playing with Pure Prairie League again and haven't looked back. It was a catalyst for me to make my first solo album, "Salt Of The Earth". I'd been recording those songs with the idea of possibly Pinmonkey would record some of them. Even though they're just demos, I put it together myself, released it myself. I got into the Top 5 of XM Satellite Radio. It's great, I have this chart that has Willie Nelson just below me and Ryan Adams just above me. (laughs) So, I got a lot of play on that.

Q - So, The Rattlers led into you touring with Alison Moorer?

A - Pretty much.

Q - She saw you someplace?

A - She was kind of one of the gang. Her sister is Shelby Lynne. She'd been a background singer for her. I was in the start-up of what they call "Americana" music now. That was my bread and butter for the longest time.

Q - How nice it is to hear about a Central New Yorker doing so well in Nashville!

A - Well, I had to do it. All of this wouldn't have been possible without my wife Sarah, who's also from Syracuse. She went to West Geneseee (High School). She came down as a support of me whole-heartedly. Worked her day job when I was getting my career going. Never complained one bit. She'll go out on the road with me once in a while. In Pinmonkey there was three years or so that I was gone 200 to 230 days a year.

Q - How did Pure Prairie League hear about you?

A - I guess my calling card is that I sing too. I sing well. I sing high harmonies as I'm drumming, so I'm kind of a double threat. Kill two birds with one stone or only pay one guy for two jobs. (laughs) I had been working with this guy, Chris Knight, who was an "Americana" artist on Decca Records. His manager knew that I was a singing drummer. Pure Prairie League decided to reform, I think after almost twenty years. They needed a singing drummer. So, he called me and I went and met with the guys. Craig Fuller, who's the leader of the group, has been a hero of mine since I was a kid, from the early Pure Prairie League albums as well as being in Little Feat. I remember seeing Little Feat with Craig performing at the Landmark Theatre (in Syracuse). Now, I count Craig amongst one of my very best friends. I've been playing with him on and off for almost ten years. I just went and had lunch with Mike Reily, the bass player and Craig and then we went over to Soundcheck, which is a rehearsal hall and played a little bit and that was it. I take care of business on the road. I'm learning now that my education at Fredonia was valuable. (laughs) I plan on being in Central New York somewhere this Spring, Summer or Fall (2009) and it could be at the Homer Center For The Arts. (in Homer, New York)

© Gary James. All rights reserved.