N E W A L B U M // C O M I N G S O O N
Rob McNelley never set out to become one of Nashville's top session musicians… but he always planned on being a songwriter. Long before artists like Kacey Musgraves, Lady Antebellum and Delbert McClinton hired the award-winning guitarist to play on their albums, McNelley was busy making music of his own, carving out a sound influenced by a lifelong love of electric blues, R&B and roadhouse rock & roll. Years later, those influences come back to the forefront on his full-length solo album,The New RMC, which showcases McNelley not only as a world-class picker, but also a vocalist, songwriter, arranger, co-producer and bandleader. "I started out writing songs, and I never stopped doing that," he explains. "When people began hiring me to play guitar, I said, 'Ok, I'll definitely take those gigs,' but I mostly wanted to write. I've always cared way more about songs than flashy guitar parts." He sure knows his way around a guitar, though. As a session musician, McNelley has landed a string of high-profile gigs and awards — including "Guitarist of the Year" from the Academy of Country Music in 2014 — by focusing on rhythmic riffs that dart in and out of each song, never crowding the melody. He describes the approach as "finding cracks in the music, then throwing a hook into those empty spaces." As a songwriter, McNelley takes a similar approach. The New RMC may be a guitar-heavy rock & roll album, but it isn't just for guitar nerds. The emphasis here is on McNelley's vocals, lyrics and writing, with his fretwork tying the package together. It's the best of multiple worlds
ACM GUITAR PLAYER OF THE YEAR
"Growing up around a band that toured with acts such as the Allman Brothers, Charlie Daniels and the Marshall Tucker Band, McNelley had an early appreciation for country music, especially that of Willie Nelson because, as McNelley says, “my first guitar looked like his.” Growing up, McNelley was also influenced by the pop music of the day: the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. According to McNelley, “I learned every Beatles’ song and all the Stones stuff I could get my hands on.” From there, McNelley developed a deep love for the blues and dove headfirst into the music of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix."
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McNelley grew up in the 1980s, when artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Thorogood and the Stray Cats were some of the only mainstream acts drawing influence from American blues music. For inspiration, McNelley wound up looking backwards, too. He became a huge fan of the Rolling Stones, and an even bigger fan of the blues artists they covered. He listened to Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. He worshipped the guitar parts on James Brown's albums. "I was always playing that kind of bluesy stuff on guitar, even before I discovered that kind of music," says McNelley, who began strumming his first chords at age 8, after his father — a country musician whose own band toured with groups like the Allman Brothers and Charlie Daniels — bought him a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar.
"That sound was just popping out of me somehow. When I started to hear some similar stuff on Howlin' Wolf records, I thought, 'Oh, this has happened before. I'm not weird. It does exist." Anything funky or rhythmic would just resonate with me immediately. It was like I found a long-lost brother, and we'd discovered that we both do the same things."
McNelley eventually moved to Nashville, where he landed a job as Delbert McClinton's guitarist. He toured with the Grammy-winning blues musician for years, often doubling as McClinton's opening act, too. Back home in Nashville, groups like Lady Antebellum began hiring McNelley to play on their multi-platinum albums. Other artists followed, from Bob Seger to Buddy Guy and Rascal Flatts. It is fun work, not to mention a good living… but McNelley feels like there’s more creative ground to cover.
"I love doing those sessions," he says, "and I plan on doing them for many more years… but I just want to do more than that. When I wrote 'Til Then,' I realized it was a statement about where I'm at in my life. The song starts off being about a boy who's trapped in a well. Nobody knows he's down there. He's kind of just dreaming, going to bed at night, looking up at the stars and saying 'I hope to get back to ground level again.' I think that feeling is why I'm making this record. I've accomplished a lot in the session world and gained a lot of respect, which I am proud of. A lot of people are happy just to do that, and I could be… but something keeps driving me to make this music. Something keeps driving me to do both."
Filled with bluesy love songs, southern rockers and articulate tunes that shine a light on the ups and downs of modern American culture, The New RMC proves McNelley is a triple threat: a songwriter, vocalist and lead guitarist who knows how to bring the heart and emotion of a song to the surface. Yes, he's still one of Nashville's most popular guitar players, but McNelley has just as much charisma behind the microphone as he does in front of the amplifier.
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