By Rick Kelly
Used with permission of CMA Close Up News Service.
"There"s thirteen-hundred and fifty-two guitar pickers in Nashville, and they can pick more notes than the number of ants on a Tennessee anthill."
This line from the Lovin' Spoonful's 1960 hit "Nashville Cats" says a great deal about the esteem that Nashville's elite session musicians are held in by the music community. The players who shape the vast majority of the sounds that emanate from the city's recording studios are unique.
Instrumentalists in other genres and other recording centers are handed a score with parts written precisely for them. Every measure is mapped out in standard notation for them to play. Nashville's studio musicians rely on a kind of shorthand known as the Nashville number system, which gives a basic framework of the song structure and leaves the nuance of the music in the capable hands of the players.
No player in Nashville is more capable than Glen Duncan. A multi-instrumentalist who specializes in fiddle, Duncan's discography contains more album titles than some people's entire CD collections.
Duncan is a 20-year veteran and his list of credits is testament to his incredible versatility and musical diversity. He has appeared on the albums of modern Country superstars Kenny Chesney, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and Shania Twain, as well as Country legends Waylon Jennings, George Jones and Tammy Wynette. His talents have been sought by artists from divergent ends of the musical spectrum, including Dire Straits founder Mark Knopfler, Celtic folk legends The Chieftains and Texas songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Duncan's first love is bluegrass music and he's played with the giants of bluegrass from Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs to Doyle Lawson and Josh Graves.
Duncan's musical journey began in Columbus, Ind. where he was born into a musical family. His father played with local bands and there were frequent jam sessions in the Duncan home. By age 7, Duncan was playing lap steel guitar, inspired by seeing steel legend Buddy Emmons play with Ray Price. Duncan learned quickly and developed the extremely disciplined practice habits that he maintains today. He was becoming quite adept at guitar and lap steel when he happened to hear Earl Scruggs' recording of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."
"When I heard Earl Scruggs, I was bitten by the bug and just knew I had to have a banjo," Duncan said. "It was in the late '60s and I was about 12-years-old when Earl's banjo instruction book came out and I thought it was the greatest thing that ever was."
Duncan got a banjo, and learned quickly under the tutelage of a community of local bluegrass musicians who had settled in southern Indiana to be close to Bean Blossom where Monroe had a music park and campground.
By the time Duncan was 14, he had added piano and organ to his arsenal of musical instruments and his musical interests had widened to include the rock scene of late 1960s.
"I started playing guitar and piano in rock bands with guys my age and a bit older than me before I was old enough to drive," he said. "I was really into the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed and Beggars Banquet and The Band's second (self-titled) album. And then the Bob Dylan Nashville Skyline album came out, and all those records really inspired me a lot." When not playing rock music with his friends, Duncan was playing Country and bluegrass music with his father and the musicians he'd met.
It was at Bean Blossom just a few years later when Duncan was struck by musical lightning when he heard Kenny Baker playing fiddle with Bill Monroe.
"Oh man, all of a sudden, I wanted to play that thing real bad. I had to have a fiddle," Duncan said. "When I saw Kenny Baker - the sound of what he was doing had such a tone, elegance and such style. Around the same time I saw Vassar Clements on television. Those two things convinced me that nothing existed for me now except the fiddle."