Man behind the music
Session guitarist 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 and Ready."

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 licks."

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 names
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 request
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 song.'"

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 'Leno Show.'"

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 contract.

"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 relate to."

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

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