After reportedly playing on over a thousand records, Brent Mason has got his sound dialed in. And it’s a good thing, as he’s a session man who relies on reliability. But that’s not all Mason strives for when he enters his “office”.
“There are times when I try hard not to sound like me,” he says. “I end up in so many different types of situations, and I really do need to be a chameleon. I straddle the line between retaining what I do and not wanting to always sound like Brent Mason.”
That’s a tall order, considering Mason has made a career of sounding distinctly like himself across records bearing the names of artists like George Strait, Alan Jackson, Shania Twain, Zac Brown and dozens more.
“Sometimes I’ll put the Telecaster down,” he says, “And I’ll grab a Gretsch, ES-335 or even a Les Paul. I intentionally won’t grab the Tele, and that’ll inspire me to play a lick I might not have thought of if I did. I like to grab a guitar that will inspire me to play something differently. But even that’s based on the artist. If it’s George Strait, it’s the Tele. But if it’s more R&B-sounding, I may go for the ES-335.”
If you’re privy to Mason’s chicken-pickin’ ways, said Tele should be familiar. But if you’re just logging on, the story of how he acquired his primer gray ’67 Fender Tele should be interesting.
Mason instantly perks up when asked about the guitar: “I knew it was special, but not right away,” he says. “I originally grabbed another Tele when I went into the store that day with Don Kelley [Nashville bandleader known for his lengthy residency at Robert’s Western World]; it was Don who bought the gray one, and I grabbed a mustard-colored one. And that evening, we were playing a club, and I grabbed Don’s gray one and immediately said, ‘Man, I wish I’d bought this one.’
“Luckily,” Mason says, “Don was known for trading guitars, so I traded him the mustard-colored one for the primer gray one. There’s just something about the sound of that guitar; I think it’s the swamp ash, which is kinda perforated. It must have been floating around in some swamp water, and when they dried it out, it gave it a certain acoustic quality that’s fatter sounding with extra thump.”
Tele in hand, Mason established himself as a premier session player within the Nashville circuit. And sure, he’s had his solo moments, with Hot Wired (1997) checking in as one for the books – especially if you were the type who spent their childhood enamored with twangy instrumental country music in an era when boy bands reigned supreme. Still, the solo life never appealed to Brent Mason; no, it’s long been the session life for him.
“Session players don’t get the credit they deserve,” he says. “You’ve gotta be able to turn on a dime. But there’s a real gray area about how sessions are credited, and some of the signature licks session players come up with are ones people won’t know they wrote. You can try and formulate a lawsuit, but that will be the last session you ever do.”
And when asked what the secret to making it as a session player is, Mason says: “It’s not about you,” he says. “You’re there to support the record. Sometimes, it’s doing something profound; other times, it’s doing the obvious.
“But most of all, It’s about maintaining the element of surprise while giving them what they want; meaning, when it’s time to grab that Tele and sound like Brent Mason, I do that. Being able to make those decisions might just be what lengthens your career.”