Sixty years, hundreds of percussion instruments: Native American musician Jim Brock drums up memories
Editor's note: This episode of Amplifier originally aired in June 2021.
Amplifier is a biweekly podcast, not a full-length documentary. If it were the latter, we could easily dedicate a few hours to the work of Jim Brock, the Charlotte music veteran who has been heralded by various publications as one of the best drummers alive.
Between performing at the White House for President Bill Clinton and logging six decades of music (with hundreds of percussion instruments) with Grammy Award winners like Janis Ian, Kathy Mattea and The Eagles’ Joe Walsh, Brock has made North Carolina his home and has found space for his Native American heritage.
“Trying to be the best has never been in my thoughts. I play music because that’s the gift I was given. … My favorite drummers are the ones that are basically invisible until they’re asked to step up, until it’s their turn.”– Jim Brock, Charlotte music veteran and drummer
On his music upbringing:
I grew up in a small Ohio town of about 14,000 people. It was a farming community with lots of pigs and lots of corn (laughing). I must have been 10 years old when my parents brought me to the Fayette County Fair, and there was a band playing called Ivan and the Sabers. That’s really the first time I experienced drums live. Of course, I’d seen them on television, but it’s different. I left that county fair not the same. I knew from then on that that was what I was supposed to do. And I’ve never looked back on it.
My folks finally got me a snare drum and cymbal from Sears. I remember when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and they’re rolling the case through the streets with the drummers playing, I went upstairs and learned the drum part. I still remember it to this day.
Drumming was like another arm for me. It was just part of me. Music has always taken care of me. When other kids my age were having paper routes and mowing lawns, I was playing with bands at the local roller rink making far more money than mowing grass. Even if I got hired by somebody to play someplace that sold alcohol, all the way up to my teens my parents would take me and sit there all night long drinking coffee and then load me up and take me home.
People would always say to my mom, “How can you stand the drums?” And she would say, “If I can hear the drums, I know where he is.”
On moving to Charlotte, North Carolina:
First time I came to Charlotte was in 1974, and the place they took me to was The Double Door Inn. That was my introduction to Charlotte. And then later on in 1977, some people wanted me to play in Charlotte, so I decided to make the move. Plus the winters of Ohio drove me away.
When I got here, the group I was going to play with immediately broke up (laughing). My dad was an auto mechanic, so I grew up in his shop, and I was a good mechanic, so I took a job as an auto mechanic at a local gas station. I did that for three or four months. I put posters up in a music store and got a call to play with a pair that did blues.
I remember putting brakes on this guy’s car, and I finished the brake job and laid my wrenches down on the floor and said, “That’s it.” I walked out, left my tools and said, “I’m either going to do it (be a professional musician) or not.” I didn’t have a fall-back plan because fall-back plans make you fall back. I had to stick it out, and I did.
On playing on thousands of recordings and wide-ranging genres over the decades:
Of course there are styles of music that I prefer over others, but it’s all great music. That’s as long as it’s done with heart and not just to copy what’s happening now to make that paycheck. People like Janis Ian, Kathy Mattea, Joan Baez and the Indigo Girls — they do their thing with heart, and they believe in it so strongly, and that’s what I like. I don’t care what the groove is, if it’s a country shuffle or a Latin tune. If it’s done with heart, it’s beautiful to me.
On his Native American heritage:
My dad (of Native descent from Ani-Kituhwa-gi) didn’t raise us on Native American culture, even though he did instill great things in us. Growing up, he saw some (discriminatory) stuff that wasn’t so great. I go back through a lot of my ancestors, and they were murdered.
But I tell people that the Native heritage pops up into my sound more than anything, and I know it does because it resonates with me. I have a feeling that a lot of that is why I got the gift (of drumming) to start with. That’s why it was handed to me. A lot of things I do are primal. What I get from playing is so fulfilling and such a spiritual thing for me.
There’s not a huge Native population here in Charlotte that is organized. There used to be powwows around here, but there hasn’t been in a number of years. I’m not sure why. I wish there was more Native awareness because gosh, where did Waxhaw and other Charlotte-area places get their names, right?
On the Charlotte music community:
Charlotte has always been a very creative community, not just in music but in art in general. There are incredible things going on in this community right now. I’ve always said, I firmly believe this, that the best in Charlotte are the best anywhere in the world. There are some amazing musicians in Charlotte.
Music featured in this #WFAEAmplifier chat:
Joan Baez - “The Maker” (feat. Jim Brock’s drumming)
Joe Walsh - “It’s All Right” (feat. Jim Brock’s drumming)
Kathy Mattea - “Callin’ My Name” (feat. Jim Brock’s drumming)
Jim Brock feat. Mel Lewis - “Banana Ragg”
Jim Brock - “Shootin’ the Breeze”
Janis Ian - “What About the Love?” (feat. Jim Brock’s drumming)
Jim Brock - “Para Los Que Oyen”
Jim Brock - “Awakenings”
Jim Brock - “San Marcos Pass”
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