Unsung heroes: session musicians are given their own Hall of Fame

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The Independent Culture

Session musicians are to the recording industry much what screenwriters are to Hollywood: the backbone of a huge artistic and commercial enterprise who never quite get the attention and respect they deserve. That, though, may be about to change thanks to a new museum, the Musicians Hall of Fame, which has just opened in the country music capital of Nashville.

Unlike the other musical halls of fame that have sprung up around the United States, this one is not about celebrating a genre, or honouring famous performers, or songwriters. It's about the people who come in and do the magical guitar licks that turn a workmanlike tune into a No 1 hit, the people that producers and engineers know they cannot do without even if the record-buying public has no clue who they are.

Ever wondered who did those choo-bop-bop-bop-bops behind Joni Mitchell on "Big Yellow Taxi"? Or the guitarist who gave a transcendent quality to Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay"? The museum, which opened over the weekend, promises to provide the answers, as its vast warehouse space on the edge of downtown Nashville slowly fills with inductees over the coming months and years.

One immediate inductee is Albert Lee, the 62-year-old British session musician known in the industry as the guitar player's guitar player for his technical virtuosity, especially his speed on his Fender Telecaster, and his ability to enrich any genre from country - he has worked frequently in Nashville's recording studios - to straight rock'n'roll. Lee has worked with Eric Clapton, Bill Wyman and Emmylou Harris, among many others, but his own solo career has never quite taken off the way many of his peers expected.

Some session musicians do eventually have their identities revealed, especially if they go on to enjoy success as performers as singers and songwriters in their own right. It's now fairly widely known, for example, that Clapton was responsible for the guitar work on his friend George Harrison's song "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", and that Ry Cooder played the opening riff on the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women".

Many others, though, have to be content with the adulation of their peers alone. Peter Drake, the guitarist on "Lay Lady Lay", is a perfect example. So is Floyd "Lightnin'" Chance, who played bass for Hank Williams on "Your Cheatin' Heart".

Nashville is an ideal location for the museum because the city - as much as Los Angeles, and arguably more than New York - is a kind of session musicians' haven. Country music may be the engine that drives the local industry, but it also has a thriving scene for alternative country, blues and rock.

Joe Chambers, the composer and guitar store owner who set up the museum, can count on a lot of his friends to fill the place - either as honorees or as visitors. A usually reticent Neil Young was only too happy to participate in a promotional video for him, commenting: "You can see the hood ornament on the car if you go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but if you want to look at the engine and see what's making it go, then you go to the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum."

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