TERRE HAUTE —
People who diligently work to make others shine are a rare breed.
Ideally, their talent, delivered in humble anonymity, eventually gets recognized. Sometimes, the credit comes. Sometimes, it doesn’t.
The 2002 film, “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” epitomizes the humble soul of a behind-the-scenes, role-playing craftsman. The documentary describes the lives of a dozen studio musicians who performed the distinct and crucial guitar, bass, keyboards, horns and percussion sounds on dozens of Top 40 singles recorded by now legendary singers in the 1960s and ’70s at fabled Motown Records in Detroit. Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye became household names. Few Americans know Joe Messina, Eddie Willis or Benny Benjamin.
It wasn’t until Motown’s final years in Detroit that session musicians such as Messina, Willis and Benjamin even got a credit on album jackets. Yet, those unmentioned virtuosos, who nicknamed themselves the Funk Brothers, played on more No. 1 hits than The Beatles, Elvis, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys combined.
In one poignant clip in the film, elderly Funk Brothers keyboardist Joe Hunter says, “We wonder, ‘Will anyone ever know who we are or what we did?’”
Some of the great, unheralded studio aces of a generation ago influenced J.T. Corenflos, as he practiced his guitar while growing up in Terre Haute. He heard veterans such as Memphis guitarist Reggie Young deftly pluck classic riffs behind Elvis Presley’s voice.
Today, Corenflos plays memorable notes on recordings by icons and rising stars on Music Row in Nashville, Tenn. Country music fans know those singers — Kenny Chesney, Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson, Rascal Flatts, Martina McBride, Brooks and Dunn and others. Meanwhile, Corenflos is best known inside music circles as one of a select handful of guitarists whose phone rings when an artist wants to record an album or single.
“I’ve had a lot of young players in Nashville tell me they grew up trying to learn licks on records I’ve played on,” Corenflos said last week, “and that’s pretty cool, because I was that kid once.”
Indeed, since the 1990s, nearly 100 songs featuring Corenflos’ guitar work have topped the Billboard Country charts. His face doesn’t grace those album covers. His credit comes on the inside cover, where a CD’s instrumentalists are listed in the fine print.
He’s low profile, but not forgotten.
Last Sunday, the Academy of Country Music handed out its 2013 awards in a dazzling show at Las Vegas, televised on CBS. Young singer Luke Bryan got Entertainer of the Year. Corenflos has played guitar on all of his albums. Eric Church won Album of the Year for “Chief.” Corenflos strummed chords and shredded notes on that one, too.
A few weeks earlier, the ACM also issued “off-camera” awards for musicians who perform outside the limelight. Corenflos received Guitarist of the Year for the first time in his career, which began in 1982 when he left Terre Haute for Nashville at age 18. He’d been nominated 10 consecutive years for that ACM honor, but had never won.
“Finally,” Corenflos said, with a chuckle, by telephone from Nashville last week.
Millions of television viewers weren’t watching when he found out, but the moment was special nonetheless.
On a lunch break from a recording session, Corenflos walked out to his pickup truck to check messages on his cellphone. “I had four or five texts that all started with, ‘Congratulations,’” he recalled. “And I said, ‘Congratulations for what?’”
Then he opened the text from Jacob, his 15-year-old son, who was informing his dad that he was the ACM Guitarist of the Year. After a decade of nominations, he held no expectations, especially with two former winners on the 2013 list — Brent Mason (11 ACMs) and Tom Bukovac (two).
Typically modest, Corenflos said, “Every year, with the other guys on the list, anybody could’ve won.”
This time, though, it was him, and others appreciate the work behind his award. That legion includes Church, whose “Chief” album won not only an ACM but also a Grammy nomination.
“J.T. is that one kind of musician who understands and sees a song’s destination in the studio,” Church said in a statement to the Tribune-Star last week. “He plays exactly what needs to be played to help the song make its journey. It’s always enough; it’s never too much. In short, he is one of the best.”
That creative journey unfolded with Church’s single “Creepin’” as they rehearsed songs for the “Chief” album. Church repeats the title word scores of times on the tongue-in-cheek, eerie track. As they prepped in the studio, Church and Corenflos did some musical sparring with the word, mimicking the other’s sounds with guitar and voice. “We were just kind of going back and forth,” Corenflos said. “I’d play a lick and he’d sing it back to me. Then he’d sing one, and I’d play it back. That went on for 10 minutes.”
Such intuition, coupled with Corenflos’ easy-going demeanor, appeals to artists. He reminds young guitarists of the need for people skills.
“It’s almost like any other business — everybody’s good,” he said, “but who do [recording artists] want to see sitting in that chair?”
Last week, it was songwriter Bobby Braddock. Like a session musician, Braddock may be unknown to Average Joes and Janes listening to the radio, but his resume rings bells. His 13 No. 1 hits, spread over four decades, include George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and Billy Currington’s “People Are Crazy.” Braddock, a Country Music Hall of Famer, needed to cut a demo of his latest songs and sought Corenflos’ guitar work.
Corenflos comes armed with a trunk stocked with a dozen guitars, built for sound not flash. There’s a “parts guitar,” blended from a 1956 Fender Esquire neck and a Telecaster body, customized 28 years ago to fit Corenflos. He’s got a Gretsch 6120, a Gibson 335, and a ’73 Les Paul Deluxe, among others. By now, he knows which instrument packs the sound the singer seeks. And, of course, Corenflos can then produce that tone, masterfully.
One project, under way since last summer, has put Corenflos on the other side of the recording process. The 49-year-old compiled his first solo album. All of the songs are original instrumentals, crafted with fellow session musicians. He plans to release it independently, once he gets a website built. The working title for the album fits perfectly, just like his session performances…
“Somewhere Under the Radar.”
Asked if he’d have to reconsider that after winning the ACM, Corenflos just laughed.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.