There are many reasons why an artist or record producer in Nashville would give drummer Kenny Malone a call for a session. In fact, there probably are as many good reasons to hire this drummer as there have been sessions to feature him since the '70s, a list that goes on about as long as the unedited version of the "Theme From Shaft." But some general observations would be that if a session involves music that is uncompromising and lacks commercial glitz, then Malone would be a good drummer to ring. If the music is unadulterated country, untainted by touch-ups with the disco airbrush or L.A. country-rock air hose, then, again, Malone is the man. The more creativity a session requires, the more reasons to call Kenny Malone. Just the sound he gets out of the drums is something that cannot be imitated, and once again there are plenty of reasons for that. He has developed his own completely individualistic approach to drumming which could stand out in any field, including the exceedingly fussy world of jazz drummers.
As an aspect of the country scene, Kenny Malone is downright startling, especially for listeners ignorant enough to think country & western session playing is a by-the-book chore executed by non-thinking hacks. Frequently, Malone will create a drum track using only one stick, leaving his other hand free to create a different set of tones which have been acquired partially through his mastery of conga drums. He was a favorite of the great country producer Owen Bradley, working on many of Bradley's famous three-track productions done in his barn: one track each for singer, backup, and strings. Malone continued to record regularly through the '90s and into the new millennium, appearing on discs by the likes of banjo whiz Bela Fleck, who no doubt admires the drummer's solid bebop chops, and singer and fiddler Alison Krauss, who is probably as just as wild about his authentic down-home feel. Most of all, there is Malone's imagination, capable of making a simple wooden "tick" from the rim effectively embellish the entire tale a country singer is telling. 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 has just the right "scream" for the job.
Malone was raised in Denver, CO, and served in the Navy band in Washington, D.C. He eventually became head of the percussion department at the Armed Forces School of Music, before relocating to Tennessee in 1970. He was a hit on the Nashville scene almost immediately, thanks to an innovative style that was always just as closely wrapped up in the meaning of the songs as the throat-slitting cymbal search would indicate. His involvement with the material set a standard for a so-called "musical" drummer in the Nashville studios. There was never time for long, concentrated studies of the material, either -- the Nashville session scene is known for players who are remarkably quick studies. Malone is thought to be one of most recorded drummers in Nashville history, although the lack of complete information on many of the city's sessions over the years makes determining such a fact something of an impossibility. If one comes across a list of 200 records featuring Malone, be sure of one thing: that is an incomplete list, perhaps not even a half of the total. He has played on some of the biggest hit records in country, including Crystal Gayle's "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue," Dobie Gray's "Drift Away," and Michael Johnson's "Bluer Than Blue." In the mid-'80s, he was a founder of the group Tone Patrol, also featuring bassist Dave Pomeroy and percussionist Sam Bacco. This group is one of the main outlets for Malone's modern jazz interests, and has not been exactly highly in demand in the supremely un-jazzy Nashville. The group released two albums, however, and for years enjoyed a status as the only modern jazz group in town.
The popularity of the heavily jazz influenced "new acoustic" genre in the '90s, with artists such as Fleck, violinist Mark O'Connor, bassist Edgar Meyer, and dobro player Jerry Douglas, wound up justifying this creative aspect of Malone's playing on a commercial level as well. He became practically the required percussionist to play on these types of sessions, starting with a series of seminal new grass outings with the New Grass Revival and the IIIrd Time Out. The balance problems between a drum set and acoustic instruments fazeth Malone not. He'll play a clay pot if that blends better, or hit the snare drum with just his fingertips. "He hits anything that's lying around," one of his employers said of Malone, perhaps not meaning that he smacks the session's producer. On a session with old-time maestro Doc Watson, Malone is credited with just playing "things." Considering this, it is no surprise that he is a designer and builder of instruments, a hobby he first got into out of frustration when a light-fingered Louie made off with his favorite set of drums. He often works on instrument building with Bacco, with whom he has developed the "Shak-ka," a versatile wood and metal shaker, and an original clay drum called the "Og." The latter monstrosity is a 59 pound double-headed, tuned, hand drum, and no, Malone didn't get to play it when he did a session for Garth Brooks. Malone is also highly in demand on the Christian recording scene, a genre that helps pay the light bills in the Nashville studios.