Scott Sharrard is a singer/songwriter and kick-ass guitar player who fronts his own Brickyard Band. As a longtime member of the Gregg Allman Band, Sharrard has been called “one of the best guitarists in the country” and “Gregg Allman’s secret weapon.” He and his band were asked to play at after-parties in New York City during the Allman Brothers two-week March stand at the Beacon Theater. When not on tour with Allman, Sharrard plays with the Brickyard Band, with Jay Collins’ Kings County Band or in CKS, a power trio with Randy Ciarlante on drums, and Bruce Katz on keys. Upstate music fans can hear Sharrard and his Brickyard Band’s classic rock and roll sound on Friday, November 15 at the Falcon in Marlboro, NY.
How did you get started in music?
My dad’s a guitarist and singer/songwriter and for me, music was always the number one thing. I started playing guitar at 10, and my inspiration was actually two movies: My parents took me to see Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll and Monterey Pop, the same year. I took away a pretty healthy love for Chuck Berry, Keith Richard, Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding. To this day, those guys are pretty much the template for everything I do. So I got lucky that year — I got a guitar, put pictures of those guys on my wall and that’s pretty much been my mission ever since.
Where did you live as a kid?
In my family, we were kind of like gypsies. I was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan and I lived outside of Detroit until I was seven. But then my family moved to Pennsylvania for a few years and then to other places in the Midwest, and finally to Milwaukee, where I started my career.
How did you get started?
I started playing in front of audiences when I was 14, for junior high school dances. I had a band and we would play quite a bit of material off The Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore East and we would also play Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies in its entirety. A lot of kids would just kind of sit there scratching their heads.
When I was 15 or 16, I started playing in Milwaukee blues clubs, where I got great mentoring from people like Buddy Miles, Hubert Sumlin, and Pinetop Perkins. I was also mentored by some guys you never heard about who played blues and soul music, like Harvey Scales and Willie Higgins. So I played and toured in all their bands. By day, I went to the High School of the Arts in Milwaukee, where I learned about jazz and contemporary music. So basically, I was shaped by the Midwest.
Playing with Hubert Sumlin at 15, sounds like you were a musical prodigy.
I don’t really believe in the whole concept of someone being a prodigy, or in labeling people who are artists as geniuses. It’s just another way of saying that a musician is doggedly obsessed with pursuing a sound in their head. For me, I was absolutely obsessed with finding what I was hearing and extracting it and that just leads into constant practice and listening. It’s characteristic of every good, working musician. So the gifted thing, the prodigy thing — calling someone that is kind of a cheap shot at their effort. Because at the end of the day, it’s a journeyman’s trade. Let’s face it: hitting it out of the park or creating a great artistic statement, that’s a stroke of luck. Everything else is day to day — the next show, practice, check out the next record, play with the next guy, read a book, go see a movie, look at a painting and hope the inspiration comes. You can’t manufacture that. But the thing you can manufacture is the practice and the work. And when I say practice, I don’t mean in a music theory way, I mean like there’s a lot of people with different methods, but dedication is what it takes. And I’ve been dedicated since I was a small kid. So I just try to get better, that’s all I can do. That’s the only way to do it.
That’s a pretty humble attitude.
Let’s face it, we’re musicians. If God is touching anybody, I think he’s touching Gandhi or Martin Luther King. This is a gig and at its best, it’s a spiritual conduit. But it’s not going to save anybody. At the same time, you have to be really dedicated to the craft and pray that your inspiration strikes a synergy in somebody else. A lot of guys could play better than I could when I was a kid, but they didn’t give a damn about the music that I would give anything to play. I would say that I’m a fan first. It will just always be that way for me. I think that many of the musicians I admire have that philosophy. Duane Allman, for example –he was a musical historian. And I was the same way from a very early age.
What music did you really want to play?
When I was coming up in high school in the middle and late ‘90s, most people were into either rap or grunge and everyone was trying to get into digital. But I was deeply obsessed with blues, soul, and R&B — that was my wheelhouse. I would go through entire record bins when I was 15 or 16, savagely looking for Bobby Womack records and Magic Sam records. That stuff wasn’t even being reissued on CD but I was hearing about it from guys I was playing with who were 50 or 60 years old. I’d run over to their houses and make tapes and I’d be driving around in my car with other kids and playing this stuff and they were like ‘wow, what is this?’ This was before the internet and you had to work to find that stuff. But there was something about that time that worked in my favor. My band mate Moses Patrou and I are the same age and he was living in Madison, Wisconsin when I was living in Milwaukee. We didn’t meet until we came to NYC, but we knew all the same old guys and we were both doing the same thing. We always talk about how there was something about that pursuit of those albums. You had to find it then. And when I found Donny Hathaway Live —it now sounds absurd now when you can buy it on iTunes – but it took me 3 or 4 years to find it. When I found a copy of that record, it was like unearthing a tomb. And when I got it, I listened to it thousands of times and it was as great as everyone told me it was. Because it was such a hard pursuit and took such dedication, I had to learn to play every note. I like to think that I got a lot of my passion for that style of music from that. Now, every artist coming up from Alicia Keys to Maroon 5 all listened to Donny Hathaway. But they weren’t going through crates looking for Donny Hathaway like we were, they’re finding it on CD. Once we found stuff, it led to a certain work ethic, it was like a precious object and it made us study it twice as hard.
What do you remember about Hubert Sumlin?
Hubert’s playing, especially on the early Howlin’ Wolf records, he had this sort of swing to his playing — like on “Hidden Charms,” that solo just swings so hard. It’s like if Charlie Christian was playing on the south side of Chicago. He had a beautiful and very unique touch. And Hubert was a lovely guy. I only actually played with him a couple of times at jam sessions in Milwaukee when I was 16 or 17, but I got to see him play in tiny clubs many times. He really took a liking to my playing and he used to invite me on fishing trips, but although I looked up to him greatly, it’s one of my great regrets that I never took him up on that. But honestly, at the time I was chasing girls and trying to get gigs with other people – I was a teenager living an adult’s life. Another regret is that we didn’t actually reconnect before he passed away, although there were a couple of occasions where we almost did. I wish I had spent more time playing with him, but I spent plenty of time sitting at the lip of the stage when my brain tissue was still soft, especially absorbing his right hand technique and how he would pull at the strings. I got to play with Pinetop Perkins a little bit more than Hubert. He was also around back in the ‘90s in Milwaukee, which was a really special blues scene at that time. We had this club, The Up and Under, and I swear it was magic all the time and I was down there every week. But as soon as I graduated, I moved to New York City and have been here now for almost 16 years.
What was that transition like for you?
It was bizarre. One day, I was headlining a concert with my own band, The Chesterfield Kings, in front of 2,000 people in a park in Milwaukee. We were ready to take off. The next day, I left that band to move to New York City and within two months, I was a temp in an office building filing for a living. I went from being the toast of the town in Milwaukee, this up-and-coming guy, to being shuttled down to an office clerk.
Why did you do that?
I wanted to be better and I knew that the only way that was going to happen was if I had my ass beaten severely by life. I knew that I had it too good in Milwaukee and I needed to learn more about music. And New York delivered at all levels and gave me a pretty good beating. And I soldiered through and worked for three years as a file clerk at the Carlisle Hotel. But I was having some surreal experiences. I met Ahmet Ertegun a couple of times, and would go up to his office at Atlantic Records. He said he thought I was really talented and he would give me advice, try to help me, get me a short gig with some label and then I’d go back to working at the fucking hotel. I did that for about five years and finally I just got craftier.
What do you mean?
I had been trying to do my own thing, and I was obsessed with the Chesterfields, my first band. Back in Milwaukee, it was actually called the Chesterfield Kings and four of the guys were older musicians in their 40s. The fifth guy was Sean Dixon, who was the drummer, a great multi-instrumentalist and my songwriting partner. Sean and I moved to NY together, shortened the name to the Chesterfields and put that band together here. We spent a few years writing and trying to get signed, and we had one really great record independently financed by investors that I’m very proud of called Henry Street Soul that came out in 2000 or 2001. We were like a 10 or 12-piece soul group, kind of like Tower of Power. But it didn’t happen for that band so I started doing a lot more sideman work. Then through the balance of teaching guitar, doing sideman work and working on my own with engineer Charlie Martinez in a project studio upstate in Cold Spring, I produced my first two solo albums. The third one, Ante Up, we did in Cleveland at a studio that gave us free studio time. I just soldiered through it all and kept plugging away at it.
So you learned to make your way in the business?
When I met Ahmet, when I was 21 years old, he predicted what happened to the music business. He told me, ‘These kids running the music business now, they’re going to drive it into the ground.’ He also said to look at the technology and how right he was! The kids who were running Atlantic and all those other labels back in the ‘90s, they could have been playing X-Box for all they cared. They just wanted to be rich CEOs like their dads and look what they did. Ahmet was a real record man. He found tricks so he could sign artists. Now you watch the Grammys and you realize how incredible irrelevant those people are to what’s actually going on. And it’s finally reached that place where except for the performance, everything else is just a business card. Even the albums are just a business card. There’s not much revenue in anything except playing live. You have to tour to make a living. I think that’s great for artists like myself because I thrive on that, I always have. And I know that myself and my band and my crew – we can deliver because we learned it the hard way and we do it the old-fashioned way. I know that we have dedication to our craft and I hope that will help us reach a larger audience. That’s all we can do. We’ve been doing it that way for 15 years and every time the goal seems to get a little bit closer.
When did you feel confident enough to quit your day job?
I quit that job about 11 or 12 years ago. Dave Chappelle said his dad asked him when he was 18 or 19 what he wanted to do for a living. And he said, ‘Well dad, you’re a schoolteacher. If I can figure out how to make what you make in the next few years, would it be ok with you?’ and his dad said yeah, if you can do that. And sure enough, he did. And it was the same for me. Within a year of leaving, I was making twice what I was making on the stupid job. Talking to all the old guys, it’s the same mindset you’ll find in a guy who plays in a Broadway pit band or a guy who tours with Shakira or a guy who plays in the Allman Brothers. With musicians, it comes down to listening to your heart, and knowing there’s something in you that makes you disproportionately good at your craft. Finding a way to navigate that in the real world is extremely difficult. But some of us are just a little less well-advised and a little more damaged than others and are usually the ones who end up having a fulltime career.
How did you get together with Gregg Allman?
I was playing in Jay Collins’ band in the city, and Jay was Gregg’s music director for quite a few years. Gregg’s band wanted to make a change in the guitar chair and Jay was really fighting for me. Finally the opportunity came up and it was very last minute. I was in Brooklyn and had to get my shit together and get out to Camden NJ and sit in with the Allman Brothers. That was sort of my audition. The first time I met Gregg was right before I went on stage in front of like 5,000 people to play a couple of songs with the Allman Brothers. That was also the first time I met Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks and everyone else in the band. And the irony of that was that for a short period of time in my childhood, I lived in PA and it was the exact venue where I saw the Allman Brothers play when I was 11 or 12 years old. I remember looking out at the audience before going onstage and seeing kids who were like 12 years old in tie-dyed t-shirts and they were just like me back then. And I thought, ‘Now I’m going to go out and play with these guys. How crazy is that?’ After the gig, Gregg said, ‘I really enjoyed playing with you.’ The next thing I knew, I was at his house and then I was in his band. It’s been almost five years.
What has that five years been like?
Getting to play guitar behind him is like getting to play with Frank Sinatra. He’s one of the great vocalists of his generation and he’s still got it. He hasn’t changed a single key since he was 18. Especially now that he’s gotten through his health problems, his instrument has such a beautiful tone. He’s just killing and I’m really excited for him because I think Low Country Blues brought his solo career back to the front. He’s been writing a lot, he’s very invigorated and I think he’s going to take his solo career to another level again. The band is great — Jerry Jemmott on bass and Bruce Katz on keys — they were on those records that I was checking out as a teenager! Ronnie Earl is one of my top 10 favorite guitarists of all time and I spent countless hours practicing to his records that Bruce played on. And Jerry played with Aretha and Wilson Pickett on all those great Atlantic soul albums, and Cornell Dupree, another one of my all time favorite guitar players. So when I joined, it was like being in a band with three legendary giants. It was very exciting to be playing with them.
Didn’t you live for a time in the Hudson Valley?
Yes, for the last two years actually. I lived in Saugerties for one year and in Woodstock for one year. My band mates in the Gregg Allman Band, Bruce Katz and Jay Colllins, live up there and I was also occasionally playing at the Ramble with Levon Helm and actually got to sit in for Larry Campbell. My own band opened for Levon, as did the CKS Band and Jay Collins’ band —and I was in on a couple of different recording sessions with Levon there. My wife and I had been living in Brooklyn and wanted a change of pace, something new, and I love the Hudson Valley. Our son Jack is about 14 months old now and we moved back to NYC in April and live in Harlem. Being in the city, I’m getting much more work at this stage of my career. But we really want to return up there at some point, it was really a great experience. I still get to play up there pretty frequently at Club Helsinki, the Falcon, the Bearsville Theater and also at Keegan Ales, another place I really love playing.
Is your wife a musician?
My wife is a pastry chef and she has her own company. She graduated from the French Culinary Institute and worked in New York City for people like Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse and Jacques Torres and then at Bread Alone in Boiceville for a couple of years when we lived up there in the Valley. Her company is called Crosstown Sweets
(www.crosstownsweets.com). She makes jams with pesticide free fruit from the Hudson Valley. She sells them at stores up in the Valley, also down here at Harlem Shambles and she’s hoping to expand this year. She’s also planning to hook up with some small micro-gardens here in Harlem to make jams with fruit sourced in New York City. Her business is obviously very much inspired by our time living up there and getting to know some of the farmers at the farmers market. I’m proud that the name Crosstown Sweets was inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic.
Tell me about the Brickyard Band and your new record.
I started with a core trio. My previous studio record Ante Up was a live-in-the-studio record with my trio at the time, Jeff Hanley on bass and Diego Voglino on drums. That was five or six years ago that we released that record. I already knew but had more recently started to write music with Moses Patrou, a great singer/songwriter who co-writes with me and is also a great drummer and keyboard player. I decided it would be cool to have a band with two drummers like the Allman Brothers, but also like Traffic, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs, and Little Feat. I love that sound of two drummers or drums and percussion and also having multiple lead vocalists, and Moses is an incredible singer. We also had a fifth member, Ben Stivers, who played lead organ and electric piano on the record. We can cover a lot of ground between all of us — we have two lead singers, two songwriters, two drummers, two keyboard players, bass player and guitar player. When we got together and made the record, we actually had never played in that particular format before. I co-produced the record with our sound engineer, Charlie Martinez, who has engineered all my solo albums. Charlie works for Donald Fagen and Steely Dan, but we go back 10 or 15 years working together. I booked time at Applehead Recording in Woodstock, got the guys together and most of the record was done in about three days, live in the studio. Then we came back to NY and had Ian Hendrickson-Smith from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings come in and do the horn arrangements. We added strings on a couple of songs and did a few overdubs and that’s basically the record. The band and the record are in the spirit of what I like to call real rock and roll. We have a lot of different stylistic feels, but the sound of the band is sort of what you find on classic albums where style is irrelevant. It’s more about soul, first and foremost, with the personalities of the players shining through. And for us in the Brickyard Band, there’s always the aspect of shaking your ass, finding the groove. If it’s real rock and roll, you can dance to it. I think that’s been lost in rock and roll for 20 or 30 years and I’d like to see that come back. Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin —they were all basically playing blues and soul. And even if they stretched out with a folk track or did some experimentation in the studio — put strings on things — it only came after that. As players, we’ve all come from that world and played with older musicians, some of whom were the architects of that sound. I learned from Levon and Gregg and when I was a kid from Buddy Miles, who loved and played all kinds of music and didn’t have any boundaries. But at the end of the day, their hearts beat to black music —soul, R&B, blues: that’s their bedrock. And that’s where we’re grounded. And we’re trying to bring back that music. The spirit of the band is that we all have that goal, that vision. We recently had our New York City CD release party at Rockwood Music Hall. We had a great crowd, and we played a great show.
You write nearly all the songs on your CDs. Do you have a writing process?
It’s a feel thing but first and foremost, writing music is based on the music that you already know — you’re only the sum of your parts. I’ve spent my whole life memorizing every song that I heard that I liked or had to learn for a job, so there’s a whole catalogue of music always brewing in my brain. Those are my tools. The other half of it is pure inspiration. On my first few solo albums, I played most of the instruments –bass, drums, everything. I haven’t done that in years but I used to be full-on dedicated, like I wanted to be Stevie Wonder or Prince for the longest time. That’s all I wanted to do. There was a project studio upstate where I used to go with Charlie Martinez and just play all the instruments. I did that for years and with my first two albums—Dawnbreaker and Analog/Monologue. As a result, whenever I get inspired, I hear the whole thing. I compare it to a radio station, it’s like a song comes on in my head and it’s just there. Sometimes it’s just a riff or a hook and like a song on the radio, I listen to it. But it’s a song that already exists in my head. Then you chase it down, you investigate it. Sometimes it takes a day, sometimes it takes weeks. I have a song that I just wrote for the CKS album that I’m really excited about that sort of developed over a week’s time. But when I first heard it in my head, I was convinced it was an old “5” Royales song. They were this incredible R&B group from the ‘50s and ‘60s that was hugely influential in soul. I swear I heard this whole song in my head and I thought, ‘Oh that’s a “5” Royales tune.’ And it’s not at all. But it was totally in my head, in terms of the hook and the groove. So I wrote the verses and now I got a tune out of it. So it’s totally random, but random based on the fact that because I have so much music rolling around in my head, I have tools to work with.
So what’s next for you?
The Gregg Allman Band is not going out again until June, but in the meantime I’m hoping that Gregg and I can get together and do some more work on his songs and do some more writing together. We’ve got tentative plans for that right now. There will be more tours in the fall and the winter. I’m excited that Gregg has been singing one of my songs from the new record called “Endless Road.” We rehearsed it for a few days and did some demos of it and it was the thrill of my life to have him sing one of my tunes. I hope he ends up cutting it because I kind of wrote the song about being a musician and being dedicated to your vision and how hard that is and what the life is like. He took the song and rewrote the first and third verse from his perspective and I think it’s a really piece of biography. But we’ll have to see where he goes with it. I’d love to hear him sing it on a record.
I’m also really excited about my project with Bruce Katz and Randy Ciarlante, which we call the CKS Band. When I play with those guys I have to hang on for dear life, they hit the stage at maximum output and it doesn’t stop. Randy is an amazing drummer and singer, and Bruce is just incredible on organ and piano. So we’re an organ trio but we play rock, soul and blues. We’ve got a booking agent now and I think we’re going to play some festivals this summer, and we’re going to be doing a Ramble soon. We’re also getting ready to do a Kickstarter campaign so we can make a record, hopefully this spring. We have a bunch of material for it —I’ve written a few songs for it, Randy’s got a couple of tunes, we’ve got some nice covers — and we have lined up some special guests. I don’t want to give up the ghost on that yet until we have everything locked down but there are a few spectacular names in the hat. It’s really a side project for all of us, but it’s a great band with a really full sound.
Photos by Jim Rice. www.jamesricephotography.com