I write about country music. Mostly.

A Sideman’s Life: Guitarist’s Dream Comes True…At Lightning Speed

Within a month after moving to Nashville, guitarist Chalmers Croft (or “CC” as his famous boss calls him) landed a spot in country star Chris Janson’s touring band. Like scores of other young hopefuls, Chalmers arrived in Music City with big dreams and plenty of talent. But unlike so many others, his rise to sideman in a big country act happened at almost lightning speed.

One might observe it is nothing short of a fairytale.

Chalmers and his wife, Jen, were newlyweds living and working in their home state of North Carolina but making regular trips to Nashville. Chalmers was just six years old when he started picking a guitar, first learning from his dad who was a church musician for many years. Sadly, his dad passed away when Chalmers was 14 years old.

After his father’s passing, Chalmers pursued guitar more seriously as a “legacy and honor.” He served as lead guitarist at his church during high school and went on to pursue a music education afterwards while honing his chops in various groups.

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Touring guitarist Chalmers “CC” Croft’s go-to instrument for the chicken-pickin’ style required on many of Chris Janson’s songs is his beloved blue Fender Telecaster named Jenny Loo in honor of his wife.

A job offer in Tennessee for Jen signaled it was time for the young guitarist to reach for the next level. So they packed up their belongings, including two acoustic guitars Chalmers inherited from his dad (a Taylor Dreadnought 710 and a James Goodall Concert Series), and headed for Nashville in February of 2015.

A few weeks later Chalmers spotted an ad on Nashville Gig Finder about a lead guitar spot in an unnamed act’s band. Something told him it was a good opportunity and he quickly turned in an application. Within a few hours he got a call to come for an audition that afternoon. 

Meanwhile Janson’s song Buy Me A Boat was on the rise to #1, a great story well documented by the Washington Post. But when Chalmers walked into the audition he was unfamiliar with the artist’s music. “Luckily, my specialty is my ear,” he explains. “If I can hear something I can play it almost instantly.”

As the band warmed up with a few songs, Chalmers got in the groove. Then the mystery artist arrived. “Chris walked in with his wife (Kelly Lynn Janson who is also his manager) and he started jamming,” recalls Chalmers. “Fortunately, he liked my style of playing.”

Twenty four hours later Chalmers was on stage with Chris Janson in front of almost 30K fans at Country Thunder in Florence, AZ. “Life went from zero to 120 overnight,” acknowledges Chalmers.

Appearances on Conan, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, the Today show and more high profile TV shows soon followed. And Janson landed opening gigs for Toby Keith, Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton before embarking on his own headlining tour in 2016.

(I was lucky to see the band’s rousing performance Tuesday night at the Mississippi Valley Fair in Davenport, IA, and caught up with Chalmers after sound check that afternoon.)

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Drummer Justin Johnson (left) and bassist Nathan Gehri had been on tour with Chris Janson for only 3 days when I met them in Davenport. I enjoyed chatting with them and hope to see them play again soon!

Success as a touring sideman demands more than good musicianship. “When you are on a bus with people for 21 days a month, it is as important to get along as being a versatile musician and helping improve the artist’s sound as a whole,” Chalmers says. He makes an effort to get to know other tour members and their likes and pet peeves. “You have to learn to gel,” he says.

Chalmers has zeroed in on a routine that keeps him “healthy and happy” while on the road. “Our tour manager is really good about making sure we have daily personal time,” he says.

Chalmers relies on Bible study, including weekly Skype sessions with a group of church friends back in Nashville, to help keep his faith alive.

Daily phone calls with Jen keep him connected to his bride. He tries not to smother her with music talk. “I have an unusual job and I get a lot of attention and I have to be mindful of that. When I talk to her, I want it to be about her,” he says. Smart guy!

Physical health is also important. The tour arranges for catered meals but he also brings along his favorite nutritious staples like oatmeal, fruit and veggies. And he hits a local gym for daily workouts with the other band members.

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Chalmers “CC” Croft shows his sideman’s (half) manicure.

“When I feel good, I can be more productive,” says Chalmers, who routinely practices his guitar skills, including the bluegrass style he learned growing up back in North Carolina.  (Fun fact: Chalmers wears acrylic nails on his right hand because his style requires long nails and his break easily.)

Although I’ve heard the term many times, I asked Chalmers to define chicken-pickin’:

“It is a twangy, clucking, staccato sound that is achieved by a snapping and plucking guitar technique that involves the simultaneous use of thumb pick and fingers, or flat pick and fingers,” Chalmers replies.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member James Burton is often credited with inventing the technique, explains Chalmers. And it was popularized by Nashville studio great Brent Mason on many recordings in the 90s country era.

That all sounds about perfect for someone like Chalmers whose sights were set on landing a big country gig. “I moved to Nashville and my dream came true,” he says.

Likewise, this was a dream come true story for a fan like me to write. I thank Chalmers Croft for allowing me some time during his busy tour life. If you like this post, please consider tapping the follow button here on Karen Loves Country or follow me at Facebook or Twitter. Thanks for reading!

The photo at the top of the post was contributed by Chalmers Croft and taken by a crew member during Luke Bryan’s Farm Tour last year.  All other photos were taken by me, Karen Bernick.

 #chickenpickin’  #tourlife  #sideman #guitar

 

 

 

 

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