Leaving ‘The Wreckage’ Behind: Tom Hambridge Packs Up for the Big Time in Nashville

Excerpt From:
Merrimack Valley Sunday
Vol 12 / No 2
Sunday, October 4, 1998

Arts & Leisure
Leaving ‘The Wreckage’ Behind
Tom Hambridge Packs Up for the Big Time in Nashville
By Chuck Ginsberg

Tom Hambridge’s “final” Newburyport gig is Oct. 11.

Six years to the day from his debut, he says goodbye to Sundays at The Grof, co-hosts Parker Wheeler and Fly Amero, and the groupies who listen avidly, sitting, standing, leaning, or dancing, right up until last call.

It ain’t about the booze; it’s all about the music.  Tommy Hambridge is too.

They were just getting started, Fly Amero recalls, and Hambridge, “had a spectacular reputation.”

Amero called up the “busiest guy in the world” and told him “we have this really cool Sunday thing going on.”

Hambridge came.  “It worked, we clicked, we hit it off immediately.”

The “wonderful player” who became a close personal friend “brought some serious credibility to this gig in terms of other people realizing it was here,” adds Parker Wheeler.

The feeling is decidedly mutual.  Hambridge, who has never had a real job, but once came dangerously close, refuses to close the door.

“I love playing with Parker and Fly,” he declares.  “They’re brilliant artists, why I keep coming back every week.  I love The Grog, that whole scene.  I get to play with different musicians ... friends who are great musicians ... every Sunday.”

His maniacal efforts not to miss a Sunday are legendary.

“Ask Parker,” he says, laughing, thought deadly serious.  “I’ll be in Denver Saturday at 11, fly back, come right from the airport to make the gig.  I’ll play New York City the night before, drive all day to The Grog. I want to be there.”

All the Little Successes

While peers struggle, this music “lifer” is leaving a secure, lucrative, “cool Boston” scene where the phone never stops ringing.  His skills as drummer, singer, record producer, and songwriter are in constant deman.  In the 1980s, right out of Boston’s Berklee College of Music, he became Roy Buchanan’s lead singer-drummer, backed Chuck Berry, Brook Benton, Bo Diddley, and the Motown groups.  “Anything with an ‘s’ on it,” he explains, “Martha and the Vandellas, The Drifters, The Coasters, The Marvelettes, The Shirelles.”

More recently, he has toured with Patty Larkin, and Jonatha Brooke through the U.S. and Europe.

Last year, he backed up Carly Simon and Jimmy Buffett at Bill Clinton’s 51st birthday bash.  Just “Hillary, Chelsea, Bill Clinton, and some of his friends,” like Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen.  The CD Hambrdige produced for rising star Susan Tedeschi is on the charts, practically guaranteeing Hambridge years of residuals and name recognition in the industry.

The songs he wrote for the CD are also on the charts, cutting wide swathes, domestically and beyond.  They get constant play on WBOS, KISS 108, and WAAF in Boston, and on New York City morning drive-time radio.  One song, “Mad About You,” was featured on network TV in the Robert DeNiro movie, “Witness to the Mob.”

Locally, he and his band, The Wreckage, have garnered numerous Boston Music Awards for playing and songwriting.  They have four CDs and Hambridge is working on another.  He is proud of the band, the memories, and the friendships.

Why Leave?

Living is good and so is The Grog.  Why, then, is Hambridge loading wife Chris, daughter Rachel, and the cats, into a van, destination Nashville?  Sure it’s the big time, but every waiter, cook, and dishwasher there is a songwriter.  The glut of musicians means $30 for a live gig, and, often, a four-year wait to get it.  Studio jobs are locked up by players who’ve already paid their dues.  Records are made by huge labels with humungous budgets and in-house producers.

There are several reasons.  One of the main ones is his Boston success.  The pace has quickened considerably in the last 18 years, but Hambridge always planned “eventually to go to New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville, where the record companies are, where the business is.

“Why not be where they’re doing it everyday? On the way there, I got tied in with my own band ... developed a following.  The longer I stayed, the harder it would be for me to leave.  With all the little success I have going on right now, maybe this would be the only chance to go.”

Nashville is a chance to sequester himself, too.  Often his own worst enemy, Hambridge is easily seduced into spreading himself too thing.  He wants to play music, and when someone asks, it is too often, “wow, way cool,” and off to another recording session. Produce my CD?  “Sure, I have some ideas.”  An important gig?  “Ten new tunes? I’ll learn them this weekend.”

In theory, Nashville is the escape hatch.

“Initially, I’ll try to focus on getting some guy to play my music, produce my record, getting the record company interested in my songs.  That’s going to last as long as I can hold out, before my family is starving and I have to get on a bus and do four weeks on tour to make some money.”

Chris is impressed with the beauty of Nashville and the people.  Really excited about the move, she’s pretty sure it isn’t “forever.”  Both of them are excited, too, about the possibility of buying a house where prices are rising but still manageable.  It was, in fact, their Medford landlord’s eviction notice that gave added impetus to the Southern adventure.

Drumming On Everything

Born in Jamestown, N.Y., the youngest of four children, Hambridge attended a different school every year until the fifth grade.  His father, a trouble-shooter for the Dairy Queen chain, finally tired of airports and annual uprootings, and bought his own little store in Buffalo.

At age 5, Hambridge’s parents grew weary of his constant banging (“I beat on everything”) and bought him a set of toy drums.  Quickly demolishing that, he moved up to a full kit.  By the third grade, he was performing professionally with a band of high school kids, and it’s been bands ever since.

A three-sport captain in high school, he made time for jazz bands, jazz fusion bands, and rock bands.  Every Wednesday, after practice, he borrowed his dad’s car and played a gig in downtown Buffalo until 1 or 2 in the morning.  It was not a completely misspent youth.  He loved drummer Buddy Rich: “a guy who has the chops” and Ringo Starr: “Nobody plays a song better than Ringo.”  He “nailed” Peter Noone’s Herman’s Hermits sound as an adult because he’d scoped it out at age 7.  The same with Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, and Del Shannon.  He or his siblings had played them incessantly.

“I always wanted to play college ball.  That was a big thing,” he recalls.  But he’s thankful he still has his faculties and extremities in good order.  To avoid going “nuts,” he settled on Berklee College of Music, a small school, a small scholarship, and no big-time football program.

His parents love it because they thought that “inevitably, I’d be making music the rest of my life.”  Despite all that, he missed football and contemplated a transfer, a road he now realizes was best not taken.

Berklee was four years of playing in bands “all over.”  Suddenly, he’d graduated.

Hambridge had worked in his father’s Dairy Queen, but, he’d never had another job.

“I got really spooked out.  Wow!  Now, I’m done. Life has got to be good to me; I’ve got this degree.”  Hambridge saw a phone number on TV to call about selling “Lazy Boy chairs or beds.”  He sat impatiently during the interview, hardly hearing the sales pitch for “this new world of work.”

Back home in Allston, Chris, his high school sweetheart, then girlfriend and now wife, said, “What are you doing?”  The phone rang and she answered.  It was an audition to play with blues guitarist Roy Buchanan.

“It was like God looked down and said ‘What are you doing?”  I never called the (Lazy Boy chair) guy back.”  That was his first big name gig and it led to more.

Hambridge constantly meets musicians who used to play music before they got married, or played until they had to get a real job.  He is blunt.  “I call myself a lifer.  You meet people who say ‘I’ve been struggling in this business for years, but it’s all I do.’  It’s in their blood, that’s what they do, and they can’t change.”

Chris understood.  “I knew he was a musician and married him anyway. You have to do what you enjoy,” she says.

Fortunately, making a living has never been a problem.  It has not always been easy.  There are the constant separations.  Christ has gone on some of the trips, like the one to New Orleans.  But the tours are long, evenings spent in lonely hotel rooms writing songs.  It’s tough, too, being away from the family.  Europe for six weeks just before Rachel’s birth; the U.S. for five weeks, when Rachel was only 2 months old.

A supportive wife helps.  “My wife and I have this relationship,” he begins, emotion cracking in his voice, “Chris knows this is what I do and this is how I support my family.”

He also does not go out just to go out.  “It has to be very, very creative musically, things that would be good for us,” he says.

Jonatha Brooke, for example, is on MCA, a big label.  “It’s an amazing gig.  A lot of drummers in the world want to play with her, and it’s done very correctly, very professionally.”  It’s done right financially, too, and that’s sometimes hard to come by.

Remembering the Legends

Rock legend memories trip off Hambridge’s tongue.  The Wreckage recently opened for Jerry Lee Lewis.  Lewis opened for Roy Orbison, James Brown, Chuck Berry, and Carl Perkins, when Hambridge played with them.  He loves the music and the musicians.  Opening for Leon Russell, he went out to watch the set, just wanting to hand with Russell.  With the highlights, however, comes reality.  Roy Buchanan is special, “the greatest guitar player I ever played with, or ever will in this lifetime ... just absolutely scary.”

The mysterious circumstances of Buchanan’s death reluctantly accepted, he says, “I loved him dearly. He’s gone and I miss him.” Hambridge played his last concert a week before Buchanan’s death.  He also opened for Roy Orbison three nights before Orbison died an did Brook Benton’s last gig.

Next Stage

Life is full of passages, and Tom Hambridge is embarking on another one.  He has not forgotten The Grog and the musicians he’s played with there.  George Leh is one.  “When George comes in, wow, I hear that voice and go, oh my gosh, what a voice.”  Amyl Justin is another.  Toni Lynn Washington is “just brilliant.”  Susan Tedeschi is “amazing.”  The list goes on.

Nashville may not be ready for the way he wants to make music, “too corporate, or too something.”  He may be back.  If not to stay, certainly to visit and sit in.  Fly Amero, however, is emphatic about the direction of Hambridge’s future, secure in the knowledge that they will play together again, if not at The Grog, then in Chicago, or San Francisco.

As for cracking the big time in Nashville, “It’s just a questions of how quickly people can understand what amazing tools he has,” Amero says.  “Tommy’s a great songwriter.  He’s not what you’d call a drummer.  He’s a musician ... everything that Tommy does is musical.  There are great drummers who can play fantastic grooves and really make the band rock, and lift right off the stage.  Tommy does all that, but he’s more.  When he plays he’s thinking arrangement all the time so everything has its context, everything goes from one stage to the next dynamically.

“That’s the beauty of Tommy.  That’s why you can’t put a price on his head.  That’s why he’s irreplaceable.”  Parker and Fly understand that Tommy has to do what Tommy has to do.  Newburyport has two more Sundays to be able to say, “I knew him when...”