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Interview with Chris Nole, May 2020
Interview with Chris Nole, image 1
Usually when I proof-read sheet music for artists and composers, I’m already familiar with their music because I’ve reviewed their recordings. Chris Nole contacted me in 2016 about working on some sheet music with him and we’ve done a broad range of cover tunes, hymns, and some original pieces. I have to admit, rather sheepishly, that I had no idea of who I was working with! Based in Nashville since 1987, Chris has been a life-long musician, playing in bands, touring and recording with John Denver, Faith Hill, Travis Tritt, and many others. He’s a composer, a singer-songwriter and a producer - and one heck of a nice guy! I’ve been listening to his recordings - especially last year’s Piano Blues - and will be reviewing most, if not all, of them. Here is the interview we did in late-May 2020:

KP: Hey Chris! How are things in Nashville?

CN: Hey Kathy. The past few months have been very different – like we’ve never seen before. But now as I write this, towards the end of May 2020, I do believe we are on the way back. Music is the heart and soul of this town, and we’ve been silent since the middle of March. But we are stirring now, and I am optimistic about safely opening up here and across the country.

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Click on album cover to go
to Kathy's review.
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KP: I really hope you’re right about that! Pretty scary stuff!

We’ve been working on your piano sheet music for about four years now, but I really didn’t know much about your career. It has been so much fun discovering what an amazing and varied career you’ve had so far. I’ve also been listening to a lot of your albums and your most recent release, Piano Blues (2019) is my favorite. Tell us about it.

CN: Well, thank you very much Kathy. And yes, you and I have been working together for years now - you are the ‘quality control’ of my notated sheet music! I really appreciate all of your input and expertise the past few years with my transcribed piano arrangements. I have to mention that I am getting a great response from piano players around the world with the sheet music. In 2019, my arrangement of "Amazing Grace" (that you proofed and whipped into shape) won an award on the popular sheet music site SheetMusicPlus.com. Pretty cool, huh?

KP: Absolutely! Congratulations on the award - SheetMusicPlus.com is a big deal!!!

CN: Piano Blues is my most recent album release. Being I wrote, recorded, and produced the twelve-song project one tune at a time (in between all of my other projects), it took me a few years to complete. The challenge for me was showcasing the piano as a blues instrument with as many varied feels, tempos, and styles as I could convincingly perform …all without straying from traditional blues. I was able to include my renditions of New Orleans blues, Chicago blues, Boogie, Slow 12/8 blues, along with other blues styles and grooves on this project. Some of the tunes started out as just noodling around with tempos and feels – but as a ‘song man’ I am a stickler for form and symmetry, so eventually I had to shape them into arrangements that made sense to me.

KP: I was blown away when I first listened to Piano Blues, and the more I listen, the more I love it! Who are the other artists on the album?

CN: I had a great line up of accomplished musicians that helped me out on eleven of the twelve tracks. Appearing on the record are Randy Leago on tenor and bari sax, Pat Bergeson on harmonica, Jon Conley on electric, acoustic, and slide guitar, T.R. Ilian on bass, and Chris Brown on drums. All of these guys are stars in their own right; they definitely added the much needed support to the tracks.

KP: How many albums have you released under your own name?

CN: Let’s see, at last count I have nine albums out and about. I have a few earlier releases that are no longer available. I am featured on three other albums as one of the main performers, and I also have a handful of singles currently released (mainly as support to my sheet music arrangements).

KP: What are you working on for your next album?

CN: I just completed a very special project that has not been released yet. It’s kind of top secret at the moment : ) …but I can tell you that each track on this meditative project was especially tuned to uncommon tones and frequencies. Also, each piece was composed with elements of three, six, and nine subtlety featured in the melodies and timing intervals. I know, very mysterious – right? Stay ‘tuned’!

KP: Oooh! I can’t wait!!!

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CN: Also, I am just finishing up another single. This song has been in the works now for a few years. It took me awhile to get the take and form that I was after. But I do believe that I finally got it! It’s an up-tempo boisterous piano boogie song of mine that shows off a hard hittin’ band ensemble of sax, piano, bass, and drums. I plan to release it sometime this summer.

KP: That should be fun, too!

Do you perform your own music often?

CN: Not enough! Ramping up my live performances is on my to-do list. What few shows I had booked for 2020 were of course cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic. I think we’re all looking ahead to 2021. Always the optimist though, I hope to get on a stage this summer and/or fall if any opportunities arise.

KP: So many musicians are in the same boat!

Which years did you play in John Denver’s band?

CN: I was in John’s touring and recording band from February 23, 1994 (at the Fox Theater, Detroit) up until his untimely death on October 12, 1997

KP: I remember being devastated when I heard he died in a plane crash. He had such an amazing voice and always seemed like a truly nice guy. Did you record with him as well?
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Chris with John Denver

CN: I sure did. I was lucky enough to be on some amazing projects with John Denver. I was a part of The Wildlife Concert (recorded on February 22 & 23, 1995 at Sony Music Studios NYC). It was a live album/A&E Television Special. At the time, The Wildlife Concert cable TV special broke all kind of records with ratings and such. It still actually airs occasionally on PBS fund raisers. We also did a live record in Australia (Sing Australia). Another very cool project that I worked on with John was the Grammy-winning album All Aboard. I’m not exactly sure how many album projects that I played on with John – I’m guessing it was six or seven releases.

KP: Did you write any of the songs he recorded?

CN: I wish! I think if John had lived longer, I would definitely have had the chance to pitch him some tunes. John was a great songwriter – he wrote unique songs that reflected his world views, amazing vocals and artistry. I remember the band and John chatting frequently about other songwriters including John Prine, Paul McCartney, and John Lennon to name a few. John was always interested about what was going on with other writers and recording artists.

KP: Like the artists you mentioned, John Denver became a legend. I was so happy when you sent me your solo piano arrangements of “Annie’s Song” and “Sunshine On My Shoulders.” Your arrangements are beautiful and will help to keep his music alive.

You also toured with Faith Hill and Travis Tritt. When was that?

CN: I toured with Faith in ’93 into ’94. She was brand new at the time and taking off like a rocket ship. I performed with her on her debut Grand Ole Opry appearance, her first Late Night with David Letterman, The Tonight Show (with Jay Leno) and also the NBC Morning show. All of it happened very quickly. We also worked together some more a bit in the studio years later. I did The Burning Thunder tour in ’98 with Travis Tritt.

KP: Do you still tour with either of them?

CN: I don’t. I had an offer to return to Travis’s band years ago, but I was too busy at the time. I watch him perform on TV every so often – and I get his Instagram feed! Faith has been using her husband Tim McGraw’s band now when she performs live because they mostly do shows and tours together. I have always been a big fan of Faith’s and would jump in on a gig if she ever needed some keys!

KP: Did you record with them, too?

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Touring with Travis Tritt 1998
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With Faith Hill
CN: I performed in an awesome TV special with Travis call CMT All Access – we killed it that night. If you can find any clips of the show on YouTube – check it out. With Faith, I recorded three or four songs with her awhile back. The songs were for a communications company advertising campaign. She brought the star power - and I wrote and produced the songs for the project.

KP: I read that you also do production work for other artists. Has that been on hold lately, too?

CN: Yes, for the past two months, everything has been on hold due to the pandemic. But we are starting to come back to life here in Nashville. In normal times, I do a lot of studio work for clients around the world from my home studio. On occasion, I still get to record with the full live band in one of the many top recording studios here in Nashville – but this set up seems to have taken a back seat to online collaborating. It’s really hard to beat a great band playing together in the same room with an ace audio engineer capturing it all. But sorry to say, this happens less frequently than it used to.

KP: Do you also teach piano?

CN: I once taught beginners (to intermediate) at a Wurlitzer organ store in Deptford NJ when I was just out of high school. That was a strange experience for me at the time. I think my mind was focused on busting loose and getting onto the stage – so after a year or two of teaching, that’s what I did.

Now, so many years later, I am finally creating a video course that will be designed to teach popular genres, methods, and tricks of the professional touring and session player pianist. I’m pretty excited about this. It is a huge undertaking – and I want to do it right. I’ve been checking out what’s available in the online piano lessons universe …and I think there is plenty of room for what my course will offer. The ‘Pro Piano’ prospective niche audience may be smaller – but this is my expertise and this is what I have to contribute.

KP: That sounds really great!
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With The Oak Ridge Boys 2010
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At Carnegie Hall 2007

Have any of the songs you’ve written been recorded by other artists?

CN: I’ve had songs recorded by many Indie artists; I’ve had a few placements in major television shows (and, of course, Faith recorded the three songs that I wrote for the advertising campaign that I mentioned earlier). I must say that most of the luck that I’ve had with one of my songs (to date), is with a song that I recorded and released myself. It’s been streamed many millions of times on Pandora Internet Radio – it is a piano instrumental of mine called “Provenance” from Songs of the Wide Horizon (2002). That song really encouraged me to pursue my solo piano efforts. With that said, I still do write singer/songwriter type songs with some very talented co-writers here in Nashville, though I write these types of songs less than I used to.

KP: I’m listening to “Provenance” right now, and it is gorgeous!

Let’s look back a bit on your earlier life. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

CN: I was born in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, grew up in South Jersey, and re-located to Nashville in 1987.

KP: Is any of your family musical?

CN: Yes, I would say so. I had an Uncle Tony in Vegas who had a pretty good career as an entertainer (pianist/vocalist) in the 60s and 70s. Both of my brothers play music also. Brother Mike is a great bass player and could handle a drum kit quite well, too. So yes, I think music is a part of our family.

KP: When did you start playing the piano?

CN: Age nine. It was a Wednesday afternoon at 3pm when I had my very first piano lesson. I walked just up the block to Mrs. Klodnicki’s house and got started!

KP: How long did you take piano lessons?

CN: A few years in the neighborhood – then a few more years with a more advanced teacher. I’d say maybe 5 or 6 years.

KP: Were you encouraged to compose or improvise by your teachers?

CN: No, not really. It was all about reading music back then.

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KP: When did you write or compose your first song?

CN: Back then, we called it ‘making something up’, but yes, I remember writing a short piano piece when I was around twelve or thirteen years old. I remember this because I played my brand new masterpiece for a neighbor kid friend of mine at his house where they had a piano. For some reason he did not believe that I wrote it. The song had a lot of flat thirds in the melody – so I guess I had a blues touch way back then!

KP: Interesting! When did you start playing professionally?

CN: If I remember correctly, sometime back in 1981. I was offered a full time gig, six nights a week, playing the Lakeview Inn in Almonesson, New Jersey with singers Jack Burress and Marti Carroll. The venue was kind of a country music honky-tonk dance hall. Many songs in the set list that we were covering at that time were by recording artists that I would eventually perform with later in my career – who knew?!

KP: The various twists and turns in life can be truly amazing!

Who were some of your favorite musicians when you were growing up?

CN: Wow – I have many - for different reasons, of course. For straight up genius, chord voicings, and harmony would be Brain Wilson (Beach Boys). For vocals tones, blends, and storied lyrics would be The Eagles. For the fullest, funkiest solo piano sound in the world would be Dr. John. For soul and groove would be Bill Withers. For the ability to eloquently put your heart, dreams, and hope into a song – John Denver. For straight up Rock & Roll Piano would be Johnnie Johnson (Chuck Berry). I could go on and on – from Miles Davis to Billy Powell (Lynyrd Skynyrd). I have a very long list : )

KP: I do, too!

Which instruments do you play besides piano and keyboards?

CN: I used to play guitar as a second instrument. But when I moved to Guitar Town (Nashville) in 1987, I put down the guitar and focused exclusively on keys. I’d say “smart move” considering the guitar stars here.

KP: With such a varied career, who and what are some of the influences on your music?

CN: One on one, John Denver taught me the power of soft notes – whether played on your instrument or sung with your voice. Up until that time I was playing with loud electric bands. Looking back, there was too much muddled competition on stage with volume – not always good for the quality of the music. Travis Tritt always hit the stage with ‘no apologies’ – I love that. That could be the key to success – stop doubting what you do. Yes, absolutely keep working everyday to be better – but do not doubt what you have to offer. Besides the one on one influences, listening to recorded music was always magical for me. I’ve spent countless hours analyzing and learning from so many great musicians and artists. I still do. It’s always fun to stumble upon something where your hands move just a little bit different creating a sound or lick that you never hit before – after decades of playing! Hopefully this never stops. Listen, and listen again.

KP: Excellent advice! What has been your most exciting musical experience to date?

CN: There have been many! I would start with the world travel with John Denver – it was mind boggling and changed my life for the better. From Vietnam (and all around Southeast Asia), to Australia, throughout Europe and the UK, and all across the USA. To see so many countries, peoples, and cultures while performing such great music really had a big impact on my musical world view. Another amazing experience was the show that I performed at Carnegie Hall in 2007 as one of the three featured artists on stage. Pete Huttlinger, Mollie Weaver, and I performed as a trio (with added accompanying bassist extraordinaire Byron House). It was a big deal! The night went off really well - we had the support of so many people …and yes, Mom was there! With all of that in the rear view mirror now, I must say that today, whatever I may be working on, either in the studio or on stage – the opportunity to be creative and entertaining is still an immense thrill for me. This keeps me stoked about always moving forward and trying to up the game. I firmly believe that one of the secrets of life is getting up each morning (or hopefully most mornings!) being excited about something.
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At Carnegie Hall with Mollie Weaver 2007

KP: Yes!!! Is there anything else you’d like to “talk” about?

CN: Thank you for the fun chat, Kathy. I appreciate the questions and conversation. You and I have a lot more sheet music to work on, so you’ll be hearing from me soon about that! Anyone who might want to learn more about me and my music, please visit my website (chrisnole.com) – drop me a note and say “HI” – I’d love to hear from you.

KP: I have a new Artist Page for you on MainlyPiano.com and will be reviewing more of your albums as we go. It’s been a real pleasure getting to know you better, Chris!!! Thanks for taking the time!
Kathy Parsons
May 2020