Richard Bennett
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Richard Bennett

Richard Bennett, shown here rehearsing with drummer (and recording artist) Phil Lee, has spent his career playing guitar for a number of artists. He has just released the first solo album of his career.
Photo: Amber Arnold, Staff

TENNESSEEAN
Nashville, Tennessee, USA
July 17, 2004

Known for guitar solos, Bennett goes solo for a change

by Peter Cooper, Staff Writer

Richard Bennett worked for decades to make sure nobody knew who he was.

That's not to say he didn't make a name and reputation for himself. It's just that the name could signify so many different things that it ended up signifying little in particular.

"Richard Bennett" was the guy playing buttoned-down Los Angeles sessions with Peggy Lee. "Richard Bennett" was Neil Diamond's lead guitarist, and the guy who co-wrote Forever in Blue Jeans. His guitar work was the low, rumbling twang on Steve Earle's Guitar Town, or it was the choogling acoustic rhythm on Rodney Crowell's Stars on the Water, or it was a thousand other things on a thousand other stages and sessions. Richard Bennett was (and is) an integral part of Mark Knopfler's band.

"It's a bit like musical whiplash, and I never myself knew who I was," said Bennett, sitting in the basement music room of his Nashville home, amidst gorgeous old guitars and ancient albums that are played too often to grow dusty. "As a studio player, you take pride in being a jack of all trades. I think I've only recently come to shake hands with who I really am, and this new Themes From a Rainy Decade album (Bennett's first solo release) is the first time I've been able to show that to other people."

Which begs the question: "Who, then, are you, Mr. Bennett?"

"I want to be the Al Caiola of the new millennium," he answers.

The thing is, he's serious. Caiola was a top, New York-based session man who released albums of melodic, loungy, eminently hummable instrumental music. His guitar licks weren't meant to stagger, but rather to delight.

"Things I used to sneer at as a kid, these middle-of-the-road things, I've come to embrace now as great songs, great arrangements and great recordings. That's what I want to do. I'm a melodic guitar player, and I'm perfectly happy with that."

Bennett wasn't always happy with that. As a young gun session player in Los Angeles (he first worked professionally at age 17), he recalls "just wanting to be in Pink Floyd" at the same time he was making laid-back recordings with Peggy Lee, Liberace, Andy Williams and The Partridge Family. Throughout his recording career, he always has sought to bring edge and snarl, and since his 1985 relocation to Nashville he has played standout parts with Earle, Emmylou Harris and other luminaries: "If there's a great guitar lick on a Nashville record, there's a good chance Richard was the originator," Knopfler said.

Yet Themes From a Rainy Decade is not edgy or propulsive or anything of the sort. That doesn't mean it's dull, or that it ignores rock instrumental influences such as Duane Eddy or The Ventures. But it's meant as a pleasing, back porch Merlot of an album, not a barroom whiskey shot.

"I'm sort of over loud music and banging away on things," Bennett said. "I'm over people bludgeoning their instruments, and I was so into it for so long. I just like music now. Well-played, interesting music.

"Most guitar albums are just jamming, and they bore the (expletive) out of me. The ones that didn't were people like Tony Mottola, Chet Atkins and Duane Eddy. Now, why is it that those worked and the mass of the others didn't? It's because they started with proper, melodic songs."

Bennett moved to Nashville with hopes of becoming a full-time producer. After producing acclaimed albums on Earle, Harris, Marty Stuart and others, he felt that his guitar acumen was slipping, and he re-focused. He doesn't see Rainy Decade as a profitable career move - though he would like it if some of the songs find their way into motion picture soundtracks - and he'll continue to play sessions in which his playing has little to do with Al Caiola.

But if the instrumental album doesn't signal a major life change, it does offer a long-delayed introduction to the music-buying public. It's a hello and a handshake, from the new Al Ciaola.

Bennett bits

  • The diversity of Richard Bennett's recording credits is staggering. He is on albums by artists including Kim Carnes, David Cassidy, Chubby Checker, Rodney Crowell, Neil Diamond, Steve Earle, The Everly Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Billy Joel, Mark Knopfler, Johnny Mathis, Ringo Starr, Barbra Streisand and Trisha Yearwood.

  • Now in his 50s, Bennett carries himself with a professorial aura. It wasn't always that way: As a 19-year-old, he joined Neil Diamond's band and was the young, agitating element in an otherwise mellow group. "What I brought to it was ignorance and arrogance, I suppose," Bennett said. "I was wanting to be in Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin or something like that, and I brought a bit of swagger. I was a bit of a bad boy, and that somehow worked. Neil and I got on well, though. He took me under his wing, like a big brother would."

  • Bennett's biggest hit as a songwriter is Forever in Blue Jeans, recorded by Diamond.

  • His stinging electric guitar kickoff to Emmylou Harris' Heaven Only Knows (from her Bennett-produced Bluebird album) was the first sound heard on The Sopranos' season-opening episode this year.

  • He played for Rodney Crowell in the Cherry Bombs band, and he is a part of the new Notorious Cherry Bombs' album (which includes Crowell, Vince Gill and Tony Brown and will be released later this month). "I love his playing," Gill said. "He's learned, and continues to teach, the great lesson of 'Say more with less."'

  • Bennett and Mark Knopfler are the only guitarists on Knopfler's just-completed Shangri-La album, due for release on Sept. 27.

Getting there

Richard Bennett performs two album-release shows in the coming days, spotlighting material on his Themes From a Rainy Decade album. He's at Tower Records' West End location this afternoon at 5 (no cover charge), and at Billy Block's Western Beat show Tuesday night at the Exit/In, 2208 Elliston Place. (Show starts at 7 p.m., Bennett is on at 9, and the cover charge is $5). Exit/In: 321-3340.