ACM Drummer Of The Year Fred Eltringham Backs Up The Stars

Rob Monk/Rhythm Magazine via Getty Images
Fred Eltringham photographed at the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham on Oct. 29, 2014. 

When Nashville drummer Fred Eltringham shows up for a session with Brett Eldredge, Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert, his equipment includes over a dozen tambourines, chains, pots, a broiler pan -- everything, you might say, but the kitchen sink.

And since his traveling junkyard includes a metal wash tub, you could argue that he brings the sink, too.

That oddball collection of makeshift instruments paid off this year with a trophy. The Academy of Country Music will name him drummer of the year at the ACM Awards at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on Aug. 22.

"I was kind of in shock," says Eltringham, recalling that he was notified of the victory prior to a Sheryl Crow show in England. "I don't win awards and stuff like that."

Eltringham can no longer say that. The trophy takes a figurative place alongside the ultimate award -- a string of singles that feature his percussion. The material varies from the propulsive backbeats in Underwood's "Dirty Laundry" and Craig Campbell's "See You Try" to the subtle, laidback brush work on Kacey Musgraves' "Merry Go 'Round" and Devin Dawson's "Asking for a Friend." That willingness to go "small" is key for session players, and his ability to do what's appropriate for a particular song -- bringing a new, quirky sound on one track or fading into the woodwork on another ballad -- is what keeps producers calling him.

"His heart shows in every track," says producer Shane McAnally (Walker Hayes, Musgraves). "It's amazing a drummer can have that much heart. He pays attention to the song. It's not one size fits all."

Eltringham's setup doesn't seem to fit anyone but him. His standard kit as Crow's road drummer is modest -- three toms, a snare, kick drum and three cymbals -- and instead of attacking with his entire arm, he gets most of his action from the elbow.

"I do not have good technique," he says. "I sit high, and I set my stuff up down low. My snare was higher back in the day. It has morphed -- some of it is from me going to the studio and trying to create a different sound for the snare. I would adjust the height of the drum or my seat to get a different kind of feel or sound out of it, so that crossed into the live thing, too. I found this different, sort of comfortable way."

Eltringham has been tinkering with the drums since he started playing at age 7 as one of five kids in a makeshift family band. They wrote their own material and recorded it at home, so he has been listening to himself on playback for most of his life.

A stint at the Berklee College of Music in Boston expanded his knowledge of the instrument. Other students -- drummers who were destined to play with Paul McCartney, Prince and Stevie Wonder -- compelled him to step up his game.

"There were these guys that I would see playing in the cafeteria at Berklee just blowing my mind," he says. "It forced me to really get my stuff together."

Berklee also required music theory. Learning chord structures and compositional skill may not seem like prerequisites for banging on skins -- or pots and pans -- but understanding the musical framework he was trying to accompany was invaluable to his playing.

"It's training your ear to listen to where the song is going or where it's not going -- how to help the song flow in the right direction and make you feel something," he says. "You want it to feel great for the lyric and the vocal to shine. That's my job."

He worked for a time with the power-pop band Gigolo Aunts, and touring with The Wallflowers in 1997 launched a friendship that led him to join the Los Angeles-based group when Mario Calire left in 2003. That association proved valuable in Nashville's studio scene.

"People always want that 'One Headlight' groove, which is like four on the floor, and a real kind of soulful thing," says Eltringham.

It helped, too, that he toured with the Dixie Chicks and The Wreckers. They convinced him that Nashville would be good for his family and provide plenty of work opportunities. But he never expected that would include country sessions. In a previous era, producers were reluctant to hire road musicians, with the assumption that playing songs in a live setting is different from composing music in the studio. But now that country tours regularly play arenas -- and stadiums -- Eltringham sees the overlap of the two as a benefit.

"One inspires the other," he says. "If somebody says, 'We really want a live feel to this song,' you can think about what it's going to feel like live and approach it that way. Then you figure out what works, from studio tracks -- like, a certain snare sound may not work for the live situation."

Producer Frank Liddell (Lambert, Eli Young Band) was the first to hire Eltringham for a Nashville studio date after seeing him play a David Nail showcase. When he took part in the sessions for Musgraves' Same Trailer Different Park, Eltringham's datebook filled up.

"He has such good taste," says producer Luke Laird (Musgraves, Steve Moakler). "He's not worried about showing off. He just plays the right thing."

Which is why Eltringham is always hauling around appliances and kitchen utensils -- prepared to find just the right sound to enhance the story he's supporting.

"I'll go to Goodwill or Target and just buy things," he says. "I don't know what made me start doing that. I would just see this stuff and go, 'That looks like it might sound cool.' "

"ACM drummer of the year" sounds pretty cool, too.