Kenny Malone, premier drummer for top Nashville names, dies at 83

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Kenny Malone, premier drummer for top Nashville names, dies at 83
Malone played on recordings by scores of country, folk, pop and rock artists.

by Bill Friskics-Warren

NASHVILLE (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Kenny Malone, a prolific Nashville session drummer whose skittering snare rhythms haunted Dolly Parton’s No. 1 country hit “Jolene” in 1973 and whose cocktail-jazz groove anchored Crystal Gayle’s crossover smash “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” in 1977, died at a hospital here Thursday. He was 83.

A friend and collaborator, Dave Pomeroy, said the cause was COVID-19.

A versatile and imaginative percussionist, Malone played on recordings by scores of country, folk, pop and rock artists, including John Prine and Charley Pride (both of whom also died of complications of COVID-19 during the pandemic) as well as Alison Krauss, Guy Clark, Kenny Rogers, Ray Charles, Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings and Bela Fleck, among many others.

His impeccably timed cymbal work and rimshots particularly propelled Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away,” a Top 10 pop hit in 1973. And the stylistic reach he commanded was impressive, from the down-home atmospherics of Parton’s “Jolene” to the countrypolitan sophistication of Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.”

“I need versatility and the opportunity to play many different styles,” Malone said in a 1985 interview with Modern Drummer magazine. “In recording, if I’m not careful, I start to feel stale, or I feel that there isn’t much room for expansion and growth.”

On two occasions, he said, he briefly stopped doing session work and played only live with a jazz quartet. (With Pomeroy, a bassist, he later established the quintet Tone Patrol, a respected Nashville ensemble that mixed jazz and world music.)

To keep his approach fresh when he returned to the studio for good, Malone immersed himself in painting and began working no more than two recording sessions a day, as opposed to the usual three or four.

He also devised a Conga-derived hand-drumming technique and invented a clay drum called an “og” and a hand-held shaker consisting of metal and wood.

Something of a mystic, Malone heard music everywhere, and exulted in it. “Music is in everything, not just the instruments we play,” he told Modern Drummer. “The way that chords, melody and rhythm work together mirrors our emotions. Everything we hear forms a visual image or an attitude of a place, a time or an environment.”

In a biography of Malone for, musician Eugene Chadbourne elaborated on this philosophy, writing, “He is the drummer who, upon hearing that a song’s lyrics described a woman slitting a man’s throat, told the producer to hang tough a moment while he fetched a different cymbal from his van, one that had just the right ‘scream’ for the job.”

Kenneth Morton Malone was born Aug. 4, 1938, in Denver. His parents, Harry and Minnie (Springstun) Malone, owned a flower shop.

Malone started playing the drums at age 5. “The day I decided I wanted to be a drummer was the day I heard Dixieland music,” he said in “Rhythm Makers: The Drumming Legends of Nashville in Their Own Words” (2005), by Tony Artimisi. “I think it was the Firehouse Five back in, like, 1943. My mom and dad got me a drum for Christmas. That started everything.”

Four years later he was playing with a marching band sponsored by the police department and becoming conversant in jazz and classical music.

“My first idol was Gene Krupa,” he said in “Rhythm Makers.” “I saw Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich do a drum battle in Denver with Jazz at the Philharmonic with Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz and all these wonderful players. I was just hooked forever.”

Malone enlisted in the Navy at 17 and toured with bands there, eventually becoming director of the percussion department of the Naval School of Music in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

He spent 14 years in the Navy before deciding to move to Nashville with his family in 1970 to make a go of it as a studio musician. His first recording session was with rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins.

Malone married Corena Quillen, who is known as Janie, in 1958. In addition to her, he is survived by two daughters, Teresa Rich and Karen Powers; a sister, Jeanette Scarpello; five grandsons; four granddaughters; and many great-grandchildren. (Another daughter, Laura Pugh, died in 2009, and a son, Kenneth Jr., died in 2018.)

His musical gifts notwithstanding, Malone at first had to adjust to Nashville’s recording methods.

“I was back there playing away, and the producer said, ‘What in the hell are you doing?’ ” he told Modern Drummer. “I didn’t know you could overdub, so I was playing all of it at once — tambourines, you name it. I literally had to come down to one hand and one foot. I had to unlearn everything as far as technical stuff. There was a whole different feel in recording.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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