Man behind the music
J.T. Corenflos backs many top-name stars
By Mark Bennett
Inside a Nashville recording
studio, J.T. Corenflos sits with an electric guitar in his lap,
waiting to play lead on country star Trace Adkins' song "Rough
Just before the session starts, the producer, Trey Bruce, makes
a request of Corenflos.
"He said, 'Man, I just want you to come up with some funky,
country kind of lick to start this song,'" Corenflos recalled.
"So I just fished around for a few minutes, and that's what
we came up with."
"Rough and Ready" turned into a hit single, anchored
by the peppy, string-bending intro Corenflos created on the spot.
That track was part of an album, "Comin' On Strong,"
that became Adkins' first million-seller since his debut CD also
went platinum eight years earlier. Corenflos' virtuosity is all
over each of its 11 songs.
It's nothing new for this 41-year-old, who grew up in Terre Haute
watching his dad, Jerry, perform country music. Chances are,
anyone who listens to country radio for more than a few minutes
will hear Corenflos' work. He's one of an elite handful of Nashville
"session" guitarists the big-names call first when
they're recording a song or an album.
The artists whose music features Corenflos' playing
reads like a Billboard Top 40 list Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson,
Kenny Chesney, Sara Evans, Martina McBride, Rascal Flatts, Brooks
and Dunn, Alabama, Kenny Rogers, George Jones, Hank Williams
Jr., Dierks Bentley, Terri Clark and Adkins. But if a performer
from other genres comes to Music City to record, Corenflos can
easily handle that too. He's played on CDs by rock and pop singers
Bob Seger, Jewel, Jessica Simpson, Richard Marx and Dobie Gray.
And almost always, those stars keep calling Corenflos back.
"They say there's nobody in the music world they'd rather
work with," Jerry said of his son. "Time is money in
that world, and you've got to be fast with the music and the
In fact, Music Row - a Nashville music insiders publication -
has listed Corenflos among the top five session guitarists in
each of the past five years, reaching as high as No. 2.
"I'm pretty pleased actually, and surprised, that things
have got as busy as they are, and that I've got to work on the
big records I've got to work on," Corenflos said in a telephone
interview between sessions. "I'm just thankful and grateful."
It's precisely the lifestyle Corenflos sought when he left Terre
Haute for Nashville early in the spring of 1982. He was 18 and
had just completed the credits he'd need to graduate later that
year from Terre Haute North Vigo High School. Corenflos visited
that Tennessee mecca a few months before with a Terre Haute-born
Nashville veteran Marc Rogers.
"Marc asked me if I just wanted to tag along and check it
out a bit," Corenflos said.
He was hooked.
Despite his youth, Corenflos quickly got an offer from country
singer Jean Shepherd to join her band and tour and play the Grand
Ole Opry. He accepted and came back to Terre Haute just long
enough to pick up his high school diploma at North's commencement
that May. Corenflos wound up spending a year and a half with
Shepherd's group. That gig led to a seven-year stint as Joe Stampley's
lead guitarist. Then when Stampley took a six-month break, Corenflos
used that time to develop some contacts for session work. And
he's been at it ever since.
Notes more famous than their
The role of a session musician almost mirrors those old BASF
chemical commercials - they aren't the stars on the covers of
those CDs, but they make the stars' CDs better.
For them, there is no roar of the crowd. Their audience is a
producer, the engineers and the rest of the studio crew. And
their only public exposure comes when their names are listed
on album credits. But most also don't spend months on the road,
living from a suitcase in hotel after hotel. The musicians who
back these artists on tour are often a different collection from
those who play on their hit records. Corenflos, for example,
just built a new home just outside Nashville, where he, his wife
Lori and their 7-year-old son Jacob live.
"It's a rather small
community [of people]," Corenflos' Terre Haute friend John
Ford said of session players. "They know each other well.
But outside of Nashville, not many people know them. It's almost
like the people behind the old Motown sound. In a way, a lot
of them want it that way. They like being able to come home and
sleep in their own bed at night."
Ford, a bass player, got a sampling of that life years ago, when
he spent three months in Nashville, rooming on the couch of Corenflos'
apartment. They'd performed together since Ford was 18 and Corenflos
was 15. Even then, Corenflos' talent was obvious.
"He's been incredible since the first time I saw him play.
And the reason isn't hard to figure," said Ford, who now
does desktop computer work at Indiana State University. "When
other kids were out playing baseball, he was practicing the guitar."
Drums and amps and microphones from his dad's band surrounded
J.T. as a kid. At age 3, he was drumming. By 4, he'd learned
the string instruments.
"The equipment was in the house, and he just picked it up,"
Jerry said. "I got him started and showed him a few chords,
and he just took it and ran with it."
As a teenager, local bands put Corenflos' skills to use. Ford
remembers J.T. was 15 when their band got a week-long gig in
a nightspot along Terre Haute's Sixth Avenue. On the first night,
their under-age prodigy had just finished a fabulous solo when
the lead singer blurted out, "That's J.T. Corenflos on guitar.
He's just 15 years old," Ford recalled. "And J.T. shot
him a look like, 'What are you doing?' And J.T. had to spend
the rest of the week [playing] from the kitchen."
Ready for any
Corenflos isn't playing in kitchens now. He has his own rig of
guitar equipment, which a Nashville company hauls from studio
to studio for him.
"I've got a big trunk that they call a coffin that I keep
13 guitars in," he explained. "I've just got racks
full of amps and several speakers. Because in a session you don't
know. On one song, they might want a Fender Telecaster. And the
next one, they might want it to sound like The Byrds, so they
want an electric 12-string. The next one, they may want a gut-string
on it. So you never know. You've got to have it all there."
He works independently. Producers' assistants call him to play
for a certain artist or on a demo a songwriter will pitch to
a big-time singer. Those jobs, like his guitar sounds, can be
very different too. And, thanks to his dad's advice, J.T. deals
with it well.
"Obviously, the more versatile you are, the more doors open
work-wise. He really stressed that," Corenflos said of his
father, who is 65 and works as a carpenter foreman at ISU. "Plus,
to me, that keeps it from getting boring musically. Even my session
schedule these days is that way. I might have a Martina McBride
record on Monday. And Tuesday might be a Dr. Pepper commercial
that's supposed to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughn. And then Wednesday
might be Gretchen Wilson, and Thursday might be Bob Seger. So
it's mixed up every day, but that's the way I like it."
In a typical recording day for Corenflos, an artist strums and
sings the basic song for the musicians. Then a session leader
writes out a "number chart" of the chords. That's when
the real work begins for the session guys.
"As far as the different licks and parts and stuff, we come
up with those ourselves," Corenflos said. "The producer
or the artist might have a few ideas, and they might hum or sing
a little lick they're hearing somewhere. But that's all different
every day too. Some people are very specific about the parts
they want, and they've got it all mapped out and ready to go,
and they'll sort of micromanage the project. And then other times,
they'll just play the song, and I'll ask them what kind of guitar
thing they're hearing, and they'll say, 'Just go in there and
play what J.T. Corenflos would play if he was playing on this
Seeing stars early
Corenflos gets a unique view of these stars and the folks who
hope to be stars. With the latter, he admits he can't always
tell who'll hit it big.
"I've seen it go both ways," Corenflos said. "I've
had people I've worked with that I thought were just amazing,
and I thought, 'Man, this person is going to be the next Elvis
or something.' And then nothing will happen. And then other times,
I've recorded with people and I thought it was OK, but nothing
that really knocked me out. And then the next thing I know, they're
selling five million albums, and you're watching them on the
But with Chesney and Wilson, Corenflos' instinct was true.
Corenflos met Chesney when "he was just this little writer
guy over at Opryland Music," a Nashville publishing firm.
J.T. played guitar on demos for Chesney, who didn't have a record
"And even back then, I could tell," Corenflos said.
"And it's not necessarily that Kenny's a great singer. But
he could make you believe what he was singing. And that seems
to be the thing that kind of separates a true artist that people
And Corenflos knew Wilson long before her "Redneck Woman"
drew a Grammy nomination this year.
"I'd pass her going in and out of demo studios. I'd just
get finished playing on a track and she'd be coming in to sing
it," Corenflos recalled. "The fact that she was sort
of a studio singer, that sort of puts her in the same club with
studio musicians. And we all knew how good she was. Like everybody
inside the business thought, 'This girl should be famous. Why
isn't she famous?'"
As for Corenflos, his fame comes inside the Nashville industry.
As Chesney's publicist Holly Gleason said, "He is amazing."
Corenflos' most recent work outside the shadows of session performances
came in an early '90s stint as the lead guitarist for country
band Palomino Road. One of their big songs was a George Jones
tune "Why, Baby, Why."
Corenflos, though, is quite satisfied now. On a Monday this month,
he played on a demo for a writer who had to pitch his song to
Tim McGraw the next morning. To give such writers a chance, Corenflos'
playing must be flawless, catchy and creative.
"That's part of the gig, I guess," Corenflos said.
"Oddly enough, I really don't feel it as pressure. To me,
it's almost like the sport of it, just to see how good you can
do on it."
Mark Bennett can be
reached by telephone at 1-800-783-8742, Option 6, Ext. 377, by
e-mail at email@example.com