Lady Antebellum MD and Keyboardist, Jonathon Long, Shares How to Become the In-Demand Musician. There are many avenues a musician may choose to achieve success. Some take the traditional studies route and some can’t read a note but can play anything they hear. So what is the right path for you? ThatsMyGig.com caught up with Jonathon Long to find out how his classical training has helped him along his journey in landing the roll as Music Director and Keyboardist for one of country music’s hottest trios of all time… Lady Antebellum. Jonathon shares his success story, how he nearly chose another career path outside of music, and how to balance a healthy family life with the schedule of a touring musician. Find out how you can get one-on-one advice from Jonathon HERE.
By: Tim Rencken
TMG: We understand you started studying music at the Blair School of Music when you were quite young. How did that program influence you and your development as a young musician?
JONATHON: Yes, I started studying classical piano at the age of 7 at Blair- under Ms. Elizabeth Cormier. I was that kid that had private lessons one day, group lessons another, and then music history/theory another. It was very intensive there for a while- practicing up to 4 hours a day at times, when preparing for a concert or competition. I learned SO much in those early years. Although I don’t use it all the time these days, I became a pretty intense ‘reader’. I remember at one time I was accompanying a cellist on an Elgar Concerto, reading the orchestral reduction – nuts – pretty sure I couldn’t do that anymore! Ha! I also played percussion all through high school in band and credit a lot of where I am today as a player to that foundation in rhythm and feel. Anyway, I’m a big advocate of learning things the old school way: the theory, the history, etc. HOWEVER, I know more people in the ‘biz’ that just picked up an instrument and went for it, so there’s more than one way to arrive at the same destination!
TMG: You mentioned at the recent Belmont University/CMAedu event, your first major gig with Sara Evans came from a recommendation by a professor at Belmont. In what other ways did Belmont University help you in your music career?
JONATHON: Yes, Sara’s band leader and bassist, Matt Evans, ended up calling Keith Mason, with Music Technology, looking for recently graduated keyboard players to audition. I was one of 9 I believe. Anyway, I ended up getting it, and stayed with Sara for 7 years! What I tell everyone about what I got from Belmont is two fold. The history and theory stuff was a bit of an extension of what I had been doing at Blair for 11 years. But what I benefited most from at Belmont was exposure to, and performing, different styles of music and networking. While at Belmont I played in several jazz bands as both a piano player and the synth guy, a rock band, a pop band, a country band, and as an accompanist for choral groups, etc. Being a well rounded musician has always been important to me. The other huge benefit to me was the networking. In the Lady Antebellum family there are 7 or 8 people that went to Belmont, several of us were there at the same time! I won’t go so far as to say “It’s all about who you know” but it doesn’t hurt!
TMG: Are there any mistakes you have seen others make in college that can prevent them from gaining meaningful employment down the road?
JONATHON: I’d just like to reiterate the importance of being well rounded. Sit in your dorm and jam all night by yourself to your favorite records, but also play in local clubs with different bands: all kinds of music. WRITE music, READ music. Be flexible and have fun!
TMG: College aged musicians can often have difficulty finding paying gigs and can end up working for free regularly. When and how should a young musician start asking for compensation?
JONATHON: If someone is asking you to perform outside of a school related event, then there should be SOME sort of compensation at all times. Most of my experience in college was with bands, so we all split the money from club shows, parties, etc.: evenly. Unless you are just bored out of your mind, then driving in a van 12 hours one way to play at someone’s Church, yes it happened, should equal some cash. You have to value yourself as a musician and what you can do, but be careful not to price yourself out of work! It’s just a personal decision folks have to make.
TMG: We have heard that you didn’t grow up listening to country music and you still don’t listen to it that much. What do you primarily listen to?
JONATHON: My story is that I grew up literally 5 minutes from the Grand Ole Opry house in Nashville. I never stepped foot inside until the first time I performed there! I listen to all sorts of things, a lot of R&B, Motown, funk, blues, but also classic rock, pop, and some cultural stuff, like latin jazz and Nuevo Americano.
TMG: How have your musical influences affected the way you play music, both country and non-country?
JONATHON: I have always been a fan of Bruce Hornsby and I do hear some of that in my playing. I’m not sure where I picked up my “go-to” voicings and such, but I’m sure they are a slight product of growing up in the 80’s, and also… there’s some occasional jazz in there. This will sound crazy, but certain situations actually call for “voice leading”, Bach- just go listen to Bach!
TMG: As musical director of Lady Antebellum, what additional roles do you take on that the other side musicians typically do not?
JONATHON: Every gig under the sun is different. With Lady A, the artists are very hands on. Dave Haywood is a multi-instrumentalist and plays on every song of the show. So he comes in to rehearsals with lots of ideas that we’ll incorporate. My job is to really think about intros, arrangements, endings and transitions. I am a big advocate of not having a ton of dead time during the show. There are opportunities to let the listeners ‘rest’ for a minute, but I’ve seen some shows where the artist talked for several minutes between every… single… song. That’s too much. I’m heavily involved with some of the backing tracks we use, our silent count ins, click track, etc. I also start each song at the appropriate time. I’m responsible for any “audibles” that may come our way. I have to communicate with band, crew and artists, all at different times as appropriate, if we’re going to go off set list. In addition to all of the ‘on stage’ responsibilities, I mainly just communicate between band and artists, management about logistics, etc.
TMG: Some of your credits include “composer” on Lady A’s “We Own The Night”. How did you start writing with the group?
JONATHON: We have a set of instruments back stage in our dressing room to warm up or practice or jam, or whatever. I don’t remember exactly how it all started… but we, the band guys, were just playing around with something one day before a show, and Charles walked in and started singing a melody. I’ve been fortunate to have co-written 3 cuts with Lady A. A very fun and unexpected thing!
TMG: Have you been involved in other songwriting projects?
JONATHON: I’ve recently been trying to be more proactive with my writing, setting up writing appointments, etc. Although, since writing is not my PRIMARY focus, I don’t ever want to get into forced creativity. Although that’s always part of any gig at times I suppose. I’m always writing down things that strike me as good lyrics or melodic material, but I’m not a fan of just sitting in a room trying to write a ‘hit’ when you don’t really have anything to say. But that’s just me! In Nashville, everything is a co-write. Just get with a buddy and share ideas… could turn into something cool!
TMG: Do you ever play other instruments besides keys on the road or in the studio?
JONATHON: On the road I play Piano, electric piano, synth, B3, sometimes harmonica, accordion and some percussion. I guess percussion is the only thing that I’ve ever really played out of the “keys” family. I’ve picked up some guitar, but not well enough to play in front of others! I will say, if you’re a keys guy, you’ll be much more marketable if you can play guitar, or perc., or spoons. Yes, I did that on stage once in front of 15K people… don’t ask.
TMG: How did your deal as a Yamaha artist come about?
JONATHON: I’ve had great relationships with Yamaha, Roland and Korg over the years. I think initially I probably reached out to them about some new gear that was coming out or something, and the relationship just grew from there. There’s also several trade shows, NAMM, etc., where you can meet great people for cool companies.
TMG: How are you able to balance tour life and family life?
JONATHON: Well it’s not always the easiest! I’m married to an amazing woman and we have two little girls currently, age 6 and 4. I’d say the best thing you can do is just to communicate! We are lucky enough to live in an age where Skype or FaceTime or whatever is usually easily accessible, and you can actually video chat with your family no matter where you are! Take time to talk to your wife every day. If you don’t have cell service then try to get wifi. I’d also say that it is very important that when you ARE home, BE there. When I’m home, I like to take the kids to school, help with homework, etc. I will say that the first couple of days back from being on the road is always a transition. Our family gets up very early for school, 5:45am! That is NOT what musicians do best! Haha.
TMG: What advice would you give to aspiring touring musicians who have children?
JONATHON: Again, just BE there when you are home. Be involved in your kids lives when on the road and home. Ask about how their day went, and keep up with who their friends are, etc. Touring with a country group, I’m never usually gone for more than 3 weeks at a time, at worst. So that helps as well.
TMG: Do you have a ‘starving artist’ story or perhaps a time you recall- when you second-guessed music as a career?
JONATHON: Absolutely. Sara Evans was going to take a bit of a break and I was re-thinking music. I had actually enrolled at MTSU to study something totally different, and while in the parking lot to register my car for campus, I got a call from Dave Haywood… whom I had just met doing a random van gig to Wisconsin the weekend prior. He said he had a side project that they were going to try out and he’d like me to play in the band. Lady A was born, not long after that they had a record deal, and when the time was right, I made the switch over to Lady A full time. Had that call come two weeks later after I payed for school… I might not be playing piano today.
TMG: Tell us about the moment when you realized you ‘made it’ as a professional musician, when was this and what project were you working on?
JONATHON: I guess the coolest thing I’ve ever done is perform at the Grammy’s. I’ve been fortunate enough to do that twice. To be on the same stage as literal music royalty is an amazing experience! I’d say either that, or when touring takes you to foreign countries that you know you likely would have never visited had it not been for music.
TMG: Share your “3 steps to success” for aspiring musicians.
1. Never stop learning. Be well rounded. Learn montunos or a prelude and fugue. Listen to different styles of music. Also study and check out other art forms. You might be surprised how they will influence you!
2. Be in the right place at the right time. Networking IS important. Gigs will come to you based on people you met at a bar. You don’t have to drink if that’s not your thing, but music and musicians are by and large a social people, so hang out after the gig and say hey to others. You might be surprised what that connection could bring.
3. Don’t lose self. It’s important to fit in with your band, but it’s just as important to stick out… in the right way. Have a style, physically and musically.
4. I’m adding a 4th: HAVE FUN! If music has become a “job” for you, then you’re doing it wrong.