This scholar of sound, like the proverbial fig tree, grew up from barren soil...
"I'm from Grover Hill, which is a little town in Ohio. It was a farming community. Y’know, there wasn't that much music around there. It's not exactly the place where you would get into music," Brent explains with a laugh.
But, rooted in music, he managed to thrive. "My family played, both my mom and dad. Dad showed me how to play guitar, and part of the time I was in a little family band.” which included brother Randy Mason, who went on to become an accomplished musician in his own right. “When I first started playing, it was just fooling around on this old Spanish guitar I got from my grandmother. I took a table knife and I played slide guitar to a Ray Charles record," he reminisces. "The first song I ever played... I think it was, I'm going to guess it might have been something by Merle Travis. Like, ‘Nine Pound Hammer.’ I was six, seven years old."
His break into music though first required crossing a lot of rocky ground. He was laid off from his job in a tool factory and was later forced to live off of food stamps for a time. He was to rise above it however, as Nashville called out to him.
"I didn't go to college but I was wanting to make the beeline towards Nashville. Mom knew a steel guitar player, Paul Franklin, and she corresponded with his ex-wife a little bit in Nashville. I had done some recordings so Mom sent them to Paul. There wasn’t MySpace, and you couldn’t send audio files and all that kind of stuff. I mean now you can be out in the middle of Minnesota and connect with someone in Nashville or Los Angeles and send them a YouTube video. It was just very remote back then. Paul was playing with Mel Tillis, they loved my tapes so much that they were playing them on the bus," Brent recalls.
"My mom had inherited a little money and she helped me get started in Nashville. Paul Franklin took me around to some sessions, y'know, to see what it was like. He kinda took me under his wing and his brother-in-law Gregg Galbraith who was a session player from back in the 60's and 70's, a guitar player, had made calls for me. I finally got into a club called Stagecoach Lounge, it was '83, and I played in that club for 6 or 7 more years. It ended up being a club where we were one of the hottest bands. Other people would hear about it and come and listen to us play. We had, at the time, Neal Schon from Journey, we had George Benson, who at the time was on the top of the charts, and Mark Knopfler from Dire Straights. Got to be a real buzz around town about this place."
It was a buzz that was to reach out to some important ears. Ears that liked what they heard from young Brent. "Chet Atkins came in and heard me. You always hear those things about Chet Atkins, how he helped young guitarists, well that’s what happened to me. It's all true. He called me the next morning, I was in my duplex in Madison, and he said, “I'd like you to play on my next record, you available next week?' I was trying to act cool, but I was a nervous wreck. I was looking at my calendar and it looked like a total snowstorm. I was going, 'Hmm, yeah. Yeah, I think I can work that in.' I had nothing going on.
From this point on Brent describes his successes as a domino effect, each one tipping inexorably into another to bring him to where he is today.
"I went out and I played on this album, Stay Tuned, which was a compilation of guitarists with Chet Atkins, George Benson, people like Larry Carlton, Steve Lukather who was with Toto, Earl Klugh, just all kinds of guitar players. I played like two with Martin Knopfler and Chet on that album. It won a Grammy. That kind of started me off. The phones started ringing and I started playing on records. Gave me a little boost and a name. I remember going into a record store, looking for my name, and there I was."
Stars weren't always so quick to notice him he says, recalling with fondness a memory from the days of his youth. "I'll tell you this. My Dad took me to this place called Bucklake Ranch in Indiana where they had concerts. I went along with him and we saw Faron Young. Then he took me to see Jerry Reed. I loved Jerry Reed, went through a phase of listening to him all the time. So my dad took me to see him. I got right up against the little limo that he was in. That was a pretty good moment for me because I never got close to anybody like that. I was only probably like seven years old, eight years old, something like that."
"I was going to say something, but I didn't know what to say, I was so nervous. I couldn't even speak, looking at Jerry Reed in the back seat. Then the window came right up and he drove off. I don't think he did it on purpose, he was talking to his manager or something,” he concludes.
Meeting big names in music was destined to become a family tradition it turns out, though the next generation of Masons wasn’t quite as aware of the honor as the former. "I was doing this Shania Twain record. Biff Watson who’s a guitar player, was going to bring his daughter. She wanted to come in and meet Shania. I have a daughter, Zoe, she's fifteen now, but at the time she was eight, seven, something like that. Zoe was coming for lunch and I said, 'Do you wanna come down to the thing?' I didn’t think she knew who Shania was, and she came to lunch and there was Shania with her arms out. Zoe went 'AHHHH!' and I thought, 'Wow, I never knew she was a fan of hers' and she buzzed right by Shania and leaped on her German Shepard guard dog, which she always travels with. She was excited to see the dog, and went right on around Shania."
Speaking of the current generation, the Guru has this bit of wisdom to share with eager musicians-to-be... "I didn’t do it, but I would say try and go to a music school, get involved with some sort of a college. Get the proper education. I know that’s not fun but really study. Get some kind of academic education as far as reading music. I read music a little bit now, but I sweated blood so much when I got really hot in my recording career and then to be plunged into a thing where they’d written out symphonic charts. If you’re in Los Angeles or New York, you’re gonna read your part. Whether it’s a commercial or a jingle, they’re gonna write out your part. In Nashville we don’t do that. I like Nashville coz it’s real creative--you can just come up with your own licks."
He continues, "Really hone in on what you do if you’re a guitarist, or pianist, or drummer, or whatever. Listen very carefully to different kinds of music, depending on what you want to do. Everybody has their own influences. If you listen to Jeff Beck or Chet Atkins on guitar, listen to that and study different styles and then out of that come up with your own style. Find your own identification with your instrument. Be identifiable with it. There’s always that point when you feel like you get good, but then you’re gonna start hanging with the big dogs. You go to a another level when you come here, that’s what I did I got to the point where I’d learned all I was going to learn in my area and I needed to come be around a bunch of professional guys to show me the ropes. It’s going to be a rough road."
The rough road has smoothed for this man from humble beginnings, for it's been said that if you hear a musical recording that has the sweet sound of a guitarist coaxing the utmost from it... it's likely to be Brent Mason, who has the most recording credits of any guitarist in history, more than doubling the previous title holder.
When a session artist is mentioned, you can bet the conversation will lead to Brent, who with his unique, recognizable sound is the go to guy for anything from country to grunge to rock. If there is a gui-tar involved, he can lick it.
The guitar with which Brent perfected his trademark sound was purchased with all the paint stripped off from a long gone music shop in South Nashville. He then modified it to his own specifications. This guitar inspired the creation and marketing of a Gibson guitar designed by Brent. He and Brian Wampler also invented their own distortion box, a culmination of the best qualities from the many distortion boxes he's acquired over the years, as well as a new pedal called Hot Wired.
Brent Mason’s musical branches may now lift high, waving in the breeze of achievement and laden with the fruits of his undisputed genius, but he still reaches all the way to the ground with a down to earth humility. If the meek shall inherit the earth one might say he's already acquired his acreage in the land of music to which so many make their pilgrimage.