Mark Bennett: Terre Haute native J.T. Corenflos returning to perform in symphony's holiday concert

Courtesy Marc RogersEncore performance: Terre Haute native and Nashville session guitarist J.T. Corenflos, shown performing with the Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra in 2017, returns to his hometown for the THSO’s “Celebrate the Holidays” concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Tilson Music Hall. Corenflos won the Academy of Country Music Guitarist of the Year award in 2013.

The sounds flowing from J.T. Corenflos’ guitar routinely come from his imagination, rather than specific notes on a page.

It’s called improvisation. A musician’s ability to play ear-pleasing passages based on intuition remains a mystery, Columbia University researchers acknowledged in a 2018 study. Still, practice enhances that ability in a performer’s brain, the scientists concluded.

Corenflos grew up watching that magic happen at home. Guitars were always around. That often led to jam sessions by his dad, Jerry, and fellow Terre Haute musicians. Young J.T. learned the process.

Four decades later, Corenflos is one of the American recording industry’s best improvisational guitarists. When recording artists go into the studio in Nashville, Corenflos is often their first choice to handle the guitar work on an album or single. Most turn him loose to improvise on their songs.

He’ll display that gift during the Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra’s “Celebrate the Holidays” concert at 7:30 p.m. in Tilson Auditorium. Backed by 80 stellar symphony musicians, Corenflos will be joined by fellow guests Sylvia McNair, a Grammy-winning opera singer, and mandolin virtuoso Solly Burton. It’s an encore performance for Corenflos and Burton, who also headlined the symphony’s Christmastime concert in 2017.

Landing Corenflos as a guest artist was a multi-year project involving symphony conductor David Bowden and Hauteans who knew the guitarist before he left town for Nashville as a teenager in 1982. Once Corenflos said yes and found an opening in his busy session schedule, Bowden sent him the scores — notated sheet music — and recordings of the symphony’s holiday songs. Corenflos listened to the recordings at his Tennessee home, sketched out ideas “like I would on a regular Nashville session,” and brought his musical road map to Terre Haute.

Corenflos’ creativity impressed Bowden, who’s directed trained musicians for more than 30 years.

“I knew [improvisation] was his gift,” Bowden said. “I expected him to be really good. I expected him to be fabulous. He was even better than that.

“He was literally in the moment deciding what he was going to play,” Bowden added. “And when we got to the concert, it went to an even higher level.”

Corenflos appreciated that freedom. “David said, ‘If you’re hearing something and want to embellish and add on, have at it,’” he said.

That’s Corenflos’ life. He’s crafted unforgettable guitar riffs for recordings by Luke Bryan, Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Martina McBride, Sheryl Crow, Bob Seger, the Doobie Brothers, Loretta Lynn, Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flatts and many others. The Academy of Country Music named Corenflos its Guitarist of the Year in 2012, and he’s been nominated for that same honor 12 other times.

His job entails conjuring those guitar lines that anchor the artists’ songs. “A lot of times, they just play it [for the studio musicians] and go, ‘There you go, boys. Just do your thing,’” Corenflos explained.

On Saturday night, he’ll perform alongside Burton, a Graysville native whose deft touch on the mandolin is well-known around the Wabash Valley. Embellishing and improvising aren’t new to Burton, either. “Solly is amazing,” Bowden said. “He has such a comprehensive sense about how music works and how his instrument fits into that.”

After their 2017 symphony performance, Corenflos saw many familiar faces in a meet-and-greet session. The packed-house audience included lots of newcomers to a classical music concert.

“I was surprised how many people showed up — people you would never expect to see in a symphony hall,” Corenflos said.

It was Corenflos’ first public performance in his hometown since his high school days, playing in Terre Haute bands in clubs, festivals, frat parties, teen dances, lodges, bars, bean dinners and ice cream socials. That homecoming led to Corenflos reconnecting with former back-in-the-day band mates Darrell Pruitt and Jess Carter at his home studio in Tennessee.

That combo — Hazariah, the name of a fictional planet — even recorded two new original songs. “Dirt Track Friday Night” details the small-town racing atmosphere. “41/40 Crossroads USA” is “kind of a tribute to the hometown,” Corenflos said. Carter wrote the lyrics. Corenflos created the music. He’s hoping to release the songs through online streaming platforms in the near future.

His scheduled opened up a bit for such activities as a result of coping with a chronic respiratory ailment. Corenflos scaled back his Nashville session work slightly. Yet, the 56-year-old remains in demand. He spent a week in Key West, recording with George Strait on the country star’s 2019 “Honky Tonk Time Machine” album.

“He’s, like, the coolest,” Corenflos said of Strait. “His scratch vocals sound like a finished record. It sounds like a hit as soon as you start playing.”

Dozens of recording artists would, no doubt, say the same about Corenflos’ guitar improvisations.

Saturday’s symphony audience will get a taste of that skill, spicing up holiday favorites.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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