He’s the top piano man in a guitar town, a musician of such adaptability and situational awareness that he’s been working steadily for superstars for decades. That’s gone so well in fact, that Matt Rollings overlooked, sidestepped, ignored and otherwise neglected that seemingly obvious idea of making recordings, until now. “People ask me, how did you decide to make a record after 30 years?” he says. “And my answer is that I didn’t; the record decided to make me.”
The story begins with a happenstance encounter with a fascinating elder musician (an identity best not spoiled here as it starts off our conversation in Episode 143 of The String). And it ends with Matt Rollings Mosaic, an 11-song album made in a series of sessions at Sound Emporium in Nashville with guest vocalists collected as colleagues and friends along the way and over the years, including Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson and Willie’s son Lukas. Some younger roots talent lends voices as well, including Molly Tuttle and The War & Treaty. One signature track pairs Alison Krauss (with whom Rollings has toured for years) with Vince Gill on the ballad “Stay,” one of several songs Rollings co-wrote. Hearing a grand piano’s plangent strings in the foreground of vocal music is a rarity in guitar-driven Americana music, and this mid-August release makes us crave more.
And it begs one of the key questions I had for Rollings when we got together over Zoom. What has it been like being the leading piano player in a city geared around guitar-driven country music? “It’s interesting. The period that I came up playing sessions, the late 80s and all through the 90s, was actually a really great time for piano on country records,” he says. “I got a lot of intros, a lot of piano-driven ballads, like Trisha Yearwood and Kathy Mattea. Also, the real country artists in the 90s, there was a period where a lot of them would do a western swing song. So, I got to adapt my bebop stuff into western swing, which became a signature for me.”
There’s nary a country star of that era who doesn’t have Matt Rollings on their recordings, and the musician was named Pianist of the Year by the Academy of Country Music ten times. But he’s also played with Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Billy Joel and Metallica, so he’s a man of range. One of the most interesting sequences of our talk had me wondering if being that adaptable and that involved in daily sessions of so many artists with such a mission of service to their songs actually made it harder to hear one’s own music, helping to explain the 30 year gap between his MCA Masters Series jazz record Balconies and the new Mosaic.
“One hundred percent. That’s been one of the big blocks to being an artist,” he said. “I have become by necessity, and I think I’m suited to it, such a chameleon. Which session players do. I’ve developed the ability to sound authentic in a lot of different styles, and it gets in the way. I’m at a time in my life when I’m doing less sessions. So it’s allowed me to step into me a bit more.”
In the conversation posted here, we talk about Matt’s original jazz heroes, the origins of his lifelong relationship with Lyle Lovett and his collaboration with drummer Jay Bellerose. Asked what’s next (off mic), Matt told me he’s about to produce his second album for Blues Traveler and he’s got two more albums in mind – a trio project and a solo piano opus – that will get started soon.