April 17, 2020
Author's note: This is my un-edited interview with Richard Bennett from Vintage Guitar Magazine's June 2006 issue. Photos courtesy of Rusty Russell.
Richard Bennett is a noted touring sideman, session veteran, and record producer. As a touring sideman, he performed with Neil Diamond for17 years, and Mark Knopfler for the past decade. As a session player, he has worked with artists ranging from Billy Joel and Barbara Streisand to RodneyCrowell and Vince Gill. He has produced Grammy award winning artists like Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, and Marty Stuart.
Bennett began his career in the bars of Phoenix before being taken under the wing of session man Al Casey in the mid 1960’s. He spent the next 17 years being an L.A. sessioneer, and touring with ‘70’s superstar Neil Diamond. 1985 brought about a move to Nashville, and a change of focus to production. Richard produced seminal country albums like Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town,” and Emmylou Harris and the Nash Rambler’s “At the Ryman.” In 1994, he did his first session for guitar maven Mark Knopfler. Touring with Knopfler reignited his love of playing, and led to his writing and recording the instrumental album “Themes From A Rainy Decade.” Bennett’s most recent work has been recordings with Vince Gill and new country star Miranda Lambert. He is currently cutting an album with his mentor, Al Casey, and is preparing to tour with Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris in support of their soon to be released duets album. Vintage Guitar sat down and spoke with Bennett on his long history in the music business, his humble beginnings in Phoenix, his guitar collection, and his love of hillbilly and Hawaiian music.
VG: What inspired you to pick up the guitar in the first place?
RB: I don’t know, I suppose hillbilly music, really. I came up listening to early ‘50s hillbilly music. Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, and Johnny Horton. All of them around that time, Hank Thompson, Hank Snow.
VG: So was it the lap steel or standard guitar that you started on?
RB: It was guitar, regular Spanish guitar. And of course the hillbilly stars all had guitars hung around their necks. Then there was Elvis on the Dorsey Show, and the Sullivan shows which I saw when I was a kid. That’s when I said; I want to play that instrument.
VG: What age were you when you finally got that guitar?
RB: I got my first guitar when I was eleven. By that time we were living in Phoenix. My folks used to occasionally go down for a weekend to Nogales, which was just over the border. They bought me a little Mexican guitar, which I still have hanging up on the wall.
VG: Who was your first teacher?
RB: Forrest Skaggs. He was the kingpin, western bandleader, in Phoenix from the late ‘40s on through the ‘50s. By the time that I had started taking lessons, in ’62, he had curtailed down to only playing weekends. Through the ‘50s he used to have a Saturday night barn dance show in Phoenix called the Arizona Hayride. It was held at the boxing ring, and they had the nerve to call it Madison Square Garden. It was the home to the big hillbilly stars of the day. Whenever they were in Phoenix, or near the Phoenix area, they came and played the Hayride. In his store, he had the walls lined with 8x10 glossies, all of them autographed, from George Jones to Johnny Horton, Tex Ritter, Eddie Dean, and Ricky Nelson. I remember a friend of mine from grade school was taking lessons there before I got a guitar, he said, oh man, you got to go down and see this place, he’s got pictures of Ricky Nelson, and all that stuff up there. So I went in there with my guitar and my Mom, a couple of days after I got the guitar, and there it all was. I knew that was the right place to be taking lessons. Skaggs was also a great Hawaiian guitar player, and knew Sol Hoopii, and Dick McIntire. He was living on the west coast in the ‘30s and 40s. There was a mass migration of Hawaiians coming to Hollywood, because Hawaiian music was huge. And they were there, making movies and making records. So he knew all of them. I suppose that was where my love of Hawaiian music came from. I still play Dick Mcintire style Hawaiian guitar.
VG: What was your first professional gig?
RB: Well I think it was probably with Skaggs. Because he was working weekends, if he felt that you showed some promise, he would drag you along on a gig. He’d let you play a few tunes, and if you were ok, then he might take you out on other jobs. Shortly after that, I got a little weekend gig at a place called Mac and Marg’s Snake Inn, which was right near the slaughterhouse in South Phoenix. It was a horrible place. All of the rough necks would go in there, and it was every horror you could imagine. I was thrilled to be there, I couldn’t even drive yet. My parents would drive me down, dump me off, and come back and get me at 1 o’clock.
VG: How old were you?
RB: I was probably 15 then. Fights would break out with cue sticks and awful stuff. People really on the fringe of society. My parents bless them, allowed me to go do that, and it was the greatest thing. Six bucks a night, and I was thrilled to get it.
VG: What kind of music were you playing?
RB: In that place, it was country music. I was the kid; the next youngest guy was probably 40. So it wasn’t even country music of the ‘60s, it was country music of their youth. ‘40s and ‘50s country music. I grew up playing that, and Hawaiian music. I had the weirdest upbringing. I just didn’t come up playing rock ‘n’ roll like everyone else did.
VG: What gear were you using at this time?
RB: I had just got a guitar that was made in California for a couple years called Bartell, and a little Fender student model steel guitar. I would play steel on some tunes.Shortly after that I got a Fender 400 pedal steel guitar, and kind of learned to play it out there on the gig. I did that gig at the Snake Inn for about a year. It was great; I’ll never forget it. But it was a horrible place.
VG: After the Snake Inn, what came next?
RB: Just a series of marginally higher classed gigs. I played a few cocktail lounges, but mainly country gigs, all of them great experiences.
VG: What was the next break?
RB: Really the big break was that my teacher Forrest Skaggs had taught a guitar player by the name of Al Casey about 15 years earlier. Al Casey at that point in the ‘60s was a first call L.A. session man. Unbeknownst to me, I was a huge fan of Al Casey even before I knew the name, or who he was. He played on “The Fool,” by Sanford Clark, and “Endless Sleep,” by Jody Reynolds. Those were wonderful records. I remember not being able to wait until they played those songs on the radio. So after a bit of time taking lessons with Skaggs, the name Al Casey came up, and kept coming up. It turned out that Al’s folks still lived in Phoenix, even though he had moved to the west coast. Al would come to town at least once a year. I met Al through Skaggs, and Al kind of took me under his wing. And that was the biggest break of all. I spent my summer vacation in 1968 out there with Al in Hollywood, and got to meet all the guys, James Burton and Joe Osborn, Hal Blaine, all of them, because he had a music store at the time. I was the kid, and they were so good to me. By the time I graduated from High School, and moved to L.A. with the firm intention of getting into studio work, One, I had a place to go to, to work in the store and teach, and two, I knew all the guys. The studio thing kind of fell together fairly quickly for me. I was getting tired of country music, I didn’t like what it was sounding like anymore and was losing interest. At that point I really threw myself into pop music. That was the bulk of what was being done there, though there was still quite a few country dates at the time.
VG: What year did you move to Los Angeles?
RB: I moved out there for good in the summer of 1969.
VG: And when do you do your first session?
RB: Actually it was during that summer of ’68 when I was just tagging along to sessions with Al Casey. It was like a bad “B”movie; there were 3 guitar players booked for a record date, and only 2 showed up. They handed me a guitar, and there I was on my first Hollywood session. I was thrown into the deep end. Things just kind of fell together. It wasn’t that I was that good, but I was very single minded. That’s what I wanted to do, be a session guitar player.
VG: When you moved to L.A. what were the guitars you had at the time?
RB: I had a ’65 Custom Esquire and an Ampeg amp, a Fender 400 Pedal Steel, a ‘30s Duolian. Then I started getting things I thought I would need. This was from watching other session players and Al. I got a Japanese gut-string guitar, because you need a gut-string, and then whatever I could get my hands on. I didn’t have a lot of stuff, but began being aware of putting a kit together. In those days, there was no such thing as only being an acoustic guitar player, or an electric guitar player, you had to play everything. You had to be a rhythm guitar player, and you had to be a lead guitar player. Whatever else you could have a bit of a strum on, if it was a ukulele, or a Hawaiian guitar, tiple, banjo, whatever it was, you took it all with you. You would make use of it. If they needed a tenor banjo, and you had the tenor banjo, you were a hero, even if you couldn’t play it that well. The important thing was to get the idea across. You got known as a multi-instrumentalist, which is something I learned from Al as well. To this day, I carry weird stuff, and play odd ethnic instruments. They all come in handy.
VG: Your ’65Telecaster has a bender, tell me about it.
RB: It’s actually a Custom Esquire that I had a neck pickup added, and the headstock logo changed. I later had the bender installed by Dave Evans. He calls it a “pull string.”
VG: Have you done much bender playing on record?
RB: Not a lot.I played some bender work on a cut called “Teardrops,” for an artist I produced named George Ducas
VG: In the late 1960s, was there already cartage in existence?
RB: It was just starting. Percussionists had cartage, harpists had cartage. Other than that, everyone just loaded up his or her car trunks. They all drove Cadillacs, not necessarily because they loved them, but because they had the biggest trunks. You could get 8 or 9 guitars and a little Princeton amp, or something stuffed in the boot. That’s how it was, and of course everyone was scrambling for the closest parking place, which was Barney Kessell’s favorite line. When asked what was the hardest thing about studio work, he said finding a good parking spot. So when I came in I was still hauling my own stuff around. I think by ’71, I had my own cartage trunk.
VG: Tell us how your session playing progressed.
RB: At that point, I was a pretty established session player. I was one of the young kids coming up with Larry Carlton, and Dean Parks. A drummer friend of mine named Dennis St. John, had gotten a call to go out and do some gigs with Neil Diamond. At first he didn’t want to, he was doing a fair bit of session work. He had recently moved to L.A. from Atlanta with bassist Emory Gordy. They had done a lot of recording in Atlanta, and were establishing themselves in Hollywood. They kept calling him for the Neil thing, and he ended up doing a few weekends, and really liked it. After a couple of months, he pulled Neil’s sleeve, and said I’ve got a group of musicians that I work with a rhythm section, and I think its time you improve your band. That was in late 1970. Neil came down to a session we were doing, said hi, and we met him. That was it, there was no audition or anything, we just went to work, and started rehearsals. It’s amazing how I have just fallen into things. Off we went. I believe our first gigs were March or April of ’71 with Neil. I immediately began recording with him. I guess because I was the most established of the band as far as having done sessions, even though those guys had done far more than I had back in Atlanta. I was sort of a little more on my way in Hollywood at that time. So I started playing on his records, and shortly thereafter everybody else did as well.
VG: What was the first Neil Diamond record you played on?
RB: The first album that I played on was called “Moods.” That album had songs like ”Song Sung Blue,” and “Play Me.” I played on all of his records up thru ’87. It was a great association. I learned so much from him. About putting songs together, putting arrangements together, putting records together. Neil took a long-term lease on what used to be the Liberty Records studio in West Hollywood. We used it to rehearse, and to get some tunes together to record. Often he would come in with a chord sketch or maybe a bit of a melody. We would work these things, and I learned about working sections of a song, and how to tear a tune apart, and putting it back together in different ways. Neil is a master at that. I learned a lot from him. I also learned a lot about being on tour, and what it means to be on stage, your focus, and how to present yourself. It was a great finishing school working with Neil, and we ended up writing a handful of tunes together, one of them a pretty big hit called “Forever in Blue Jeans.” He was very patient with my crap ideas. I think the world of him.
VG: What were you using gear-wise at that time?
RB: My touring rig with Neil was a Yamaha SG 2000, various acoustics, a tiple, Fender 400 pedal steel, and a silver face Fender Twin.
VG: What was one of your favorite sessions of the 1970’s?
RB: One that stands out is playing on the cut “Captain Jack,” from Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”album. I overdubbed Danelectro six string bass on the chorus of the song, doubling the guitar line. It really gave the line a lot more punch. This was at a time when no one was really using that instrument anymore.
VG: In the early ‘80s, you played on some of Rodney Crowell’s, and Rosanne Cash’s records.
RB: That was through Emory Gordy, who was playing with Rodney. They had both played in Emmylou’s Hot Band. I toured some with both Rodney and Rosanne as part of the Cherry Bombs. At that time, the Cherry Bombs had kind of a rotating guitar chair, with either myself, Albert Lee, or Vince Gill playing with them depending on who was available. Playing on their records led me to my first sessions in Nashville, which was about 1982. I soon began flying to Nashville a week at a time to do sessions for Emory, Tony Brown, and Jimmy Bowen. I liked the way they cut records, because it was the way we used to cut records in Hollywood. It was six or seven guys, sitting in a room, making a record. Los Angeles was already becoming very piece-meal, and very keyboard oriented. These sessions made me start to consider moving to Nashville. I guess the event that really got me to move was working on a Steve Earle record. Steve was about to make the “Guitar Town” record and he wanted me involved in it. He said why don’t you just move to Nashville, and it was that snap of a decision. So I moved to town in ’85, did the“Guitar Town” album, and began establishing myself as a session player here in Nashville.
VG: And you played the classic line to “Guitar Town.”
RB: Yes, I played it on that same Danelectro six string bass. That album really opened a lot of doors for me both in session playing and production. The main reason I moved to Nashville was because I was antsy to produce records. That album was a good coming out party for me.
VG: How did you finally end up leaving Neil?
RB: When I started producing records, I had deadlines to keep, and I couldn’t take off for a month to play some shows. They ended up getting Hadley Hockensmith to fill in for me a couple times, and then it just evolved into being his gig. Never was fired, never had to quit, it was great. A while later, I got a large package from Neil, I ripped into it, and it was all of my stage clothes.
VG: Who were some of the artists you produced after Steve Earle?
RB: I produced records on Marty Stuart, and Emmylou Harris in the early ‘90s. I was very proud of Emmy’s “Nash Ramblers” and “Bluebird” albums.
VG: Did you play on the albums you produced?
RB: Yes. A lot of people don’t like to play and produce at the same time, but I don’t mind doing it. As a musician, when you are on the floor, you have a pretty good sense of whether the take is happening. Not always, there are those times when you listen down to it and its crap, but most of the times your instinct is correct.
VG: Do you still work with Emmylou?
RB: I have off and on again. I played on a cut on the “Wrecking Ball” album, and played on the Mark Knopfler/Emmylou Harris duets album coming out in April. We might be doing a tour for that record. I love working with Emmy, she has been working with Buddy Miller, who is a great player. But every now and again I end up on something with Emmy. I cherish that working relationship and friendship.
VG: How did you start working with Mark Knopfler?
RB: Well, much of that is due to songwriter Paul Kennerley. Mark had started spending time here, initially because of Chet Atkins, and the Straits thing had finally been packed up in the attic. He had done some globe hopping; doing some recording in Ireland, and Louisiana, he was just hopping around trying things out. He stopped here in Nashville, and Paul Kennerley recommended me, as did producer Chuck Ainlay, and steel guitarist Paul Franklin. Mark was not looking for a bunch of fancy licks, just for a good feel, and the right thing, not fancy. He was a bit concerned about the fact that I had played with Neil Diamond, and also that I was a“session” guy. We cut a few sides, and that was it. Then several months later, Chuck called again to book some more sessions with Mark. I was the only player out of that first batch that returned. At that point Chad Cromwell, and Glenn Worf came in. I thought of all the people from the first session, that I was the least likely to be called back. Anyway, he and I hit it off well. We just fit together musically, personally. I know how to be a good second banana. I’m pleased to do it; I’ve done it all my life.
VG: How much direction did Mark give you on your parts?
RB: Next to none. I think back in the Straits days he was pretty hands-on. I think he has let go a lot on his solo records. I think he was at a point in his life where he felt secure enough to let go. It became more of; let's see what you can give. Sometimes he will give a little direction, such as think about a certain era, or a specific guitar. Which is helpful stuff. It’s very flattering really.
VG: So those sessions became the “Golden Heart” album. Tell me about the opening line to “Rudiger.”
RB: That was my old Gretsch model 65 from the late ‘30s. We had been playing it down, and I tried that line on one of the takes, and he loved it. That was one of the first sessions I played on with him, and it really helped set the tone for our work together.
VG: After recording “Golden Heart,” did you go back to producing?
RB: Yes, I produced a couple of albums that I was very proud of that did nothing at radio. An artist named Kim Richey, another was an album I did with George Ducas. I was getting very frustrated. In the meantime, I had really let my playing take a backseat through ten years chasing record production. I was no longer even thinking of myself as a guitar player first. So when the “Golden Heart” tour happened, it really made me realize 1. That I wasn’t ready to let go of being a musician, and 2. How completely crap I had become. I was there on stage with one of the great, living musicians, and I was just struggling at every turn. It was a very difficult tour for me, but Mark never said, “boo” about it. I did a lot of serious self-examination on that tour. When that tour was over, I set about really pulling myself up by the bootstraps as a musician. For the first time since I was a kid, I seriously began practicing again, wanting to learn again, and improve myself. I had a great role model in Mark, and I hadn’t had a role model in a long time. Most of my role models were dead. All of a sudden, here was a contemporary that I was really looking up to. It was a re-awakening of wanting to be a good guitar player, instead of just sloughing it off as something I did.
VG: What material did you use to practice with?
RB: Chord scale books. It was like going to the gym. It helped my playing to become cleaner. I also dipped back into the Mickey Baker books. I also started writing what became the “Themes From A Rainy Decade” album. I wanted to do something that wasn’t just your typical guitar wank, but actual songs. Most modern guitar records are terribly impressive for the first listen or so, but you can’t hum any of it. I listen to Tony Mattola, Al Caiola, and had always listened to Chet. Tony in particular was just a stunning guitar player. Also, Hank and the Shadows, and thought, who’s doing that now, no one.
VG: So you continued to play with Mark up to his most recent album, “Shangri La.”
RB: Yes, I played on all his solo albums and some soundtracks. We recorded “Shangri La” at the Shangri La studio in Zuma beach. That was The Band’s hangout on the west coast. Mark had a great idea to use fewer instruments on this record. We all limited the number of guitars we used on the album. For instance, we used Mark’s ’53 Gibson Southerner Jumbo for all of the acoustic tracks on the album. I used a ’56 Gretsch 6120, a Fender Knopfler Strat, a ’64 Jazzmaster, and a National. That was pretty much it.
VG: How much pre-production did you do for the “Shangri La’ tour?
RB: We rehearsed for about 3 weeks. 2 weeks of which were really nuts and bolts everyone re-learning the tunes. Then, we did a third week on a sound stage to do lights and get the set together. For the first tour back in ’96 we rehearsed for about 6 weeks.
VG: Did you have freedom to play however you wanted on the Dire Straits songs, or were you required to play the parts like the record?
RB: A bit of both. I did the things that I felt were important markers. On some songs, like “Brothers in Arms,” I play a 12-string picking part that isn’t on the record. And on other songs, we have returned to the original arrangements. On “Sultans of Swing,” we go back down to a 4 piece, and really copy the parts from the original record. On “Money for Nothing,” I play cowbell. We try to honor the records.
VG: What was your set up for this last tour with Mark?
RB: ’54 Tele, Knopfler Strat, Martin 12-string, Martin OM-28, Flatiron Bouzouki, my old Gretsch model 65, Mark brought out one of his ’57 Gretsch 6120’s for me to play, a late ‘20s National, Mark’s ’54 Stratocaster, and a ’54 tribute Strat. I used a volume pedal, Hot Cake overdrive, Dunlop tremolo, Boss delay, and a pair of Vox AC 30’s. I only used one though; the other was a back up.
VG: What have you been up to since the Knopfler tour?
RB: After finishing the tour in August, I got called to play on some sessions for Vince Gill. We ended up cutting around 28 sides, in about a month. He had been stockpiling material for a while. He is such a lyrical player. I also played on Rodney Crowell’s new record, “The Outsider,” and a new country artist by the name of Miranda Lambert. I am also beginning another instrumental record for myself. There is of course the upcoming Mark and Emmylou tour, and hope to do some recording with Mark later in the year.
For complete discography and productions, visit www.Richard-Bennett.com