Musicians Spotlight - Thomas Cain
©2010 By Bronson Herrmuth
Known by so many as the Senior Director, Writer/Publisher Relations for BMI, Thomas Cain is first and foremost a great musician. His instruments are piano, organ and trumpet and he has a Bachelors degree in music education from TSU. He's also a great singer, publisher, producer and songwriter, in addition to having opened shows for such musical greats like Ray Charles, George Benson, Bill Withers, Ramsey Lewis, Donny Hathaway, Dave Brubeck, Melba Moore and Johnny Mathis. As an educator he created a program at Fisk University called T.O.P.S. (Talent on Parade Series) that spawned the Urban Music Conference, a seminar event focusing on the business aspects of music. In 1991, Thomas was honored with the Choice award, and in 1999 he was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. He's written and or performed on jingles for national product campaigns like McDonald's and Oscar Meyer, and performs around Nashville with his group, The Thomas Cain Band. The following is taken from a 30 minute interview in Nashville, August 24, 2010. Meet Thomas Cain.
You can listen to this interview: Part 1 of 3 (2 MB) mp3 Part 2 of 3 (1.8 MB) mp3 Part 3 of 3 (2.3 MB) mp3
Bronson: I've been looking at you on the internet and researching you so I don't know if your ears were burning or not. You've had a heck of a career.
Thomas Cain: (laughing) So that's what that was.
Bronson: How old were you when you started playing music?
Thomas Cain: I was 10 years old. My Grandmother had an old pump organ, you know where you pump the peddles, and the peddles were broken and I took some coat hangers, nails, tied it, wired it all up, and I actually taught myself to play. It was in Athens, Alabama and nobody there but me and that old organ (laughing).
Bronson: You also play trumpet?
Thomas Cain: I was a trumpet player for many years. I studied trumpet from the time I was in Junior High School all the way through college.
Bronson: So you obviously had people in your family that played, there was music around the house?
Thomas Cain: Not immediately around my house but I had cousins that were just phenomenal musicians. My cousin Dewayne Figg played in the Nashville Symphony Orchestra for years, he was an oboe player and my cousin Henry Bass played clarinet and he was just phenomenal. I mean they were just brilliant players.
Bronson: A few years back you were inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.
Thomas Cain: The Alabama Music Hall of Fame, that's right man. Fun, fun, it was a lot of fun.
Bronson: That had to be a huge honor.
Thomas Cain: Well it was wonderful I must say to be a part of that especially when it's from your home state. You leave and you kind of forget how important where you come from is. It was great and I've been going to the Alabama Hall of Fame induction ceremonies ever since too. Just came from one this year down in Montgomery, Alabama, it was really great. That's where all the great music was, you know set around Muscle Shoals.
Bronson: You actually graduated from TSU with a Bachelors degree in music education. You've also come up with some programs.
Thomas Cain: I've done a lot of stuff, starting with going into the hood teaching little kids how to play the piano. I did that for 3 years through the Metro Parks system. I just eventually came from that and came right into the music business in 1976 full time and this is all I've done since.
Bronson: You perform as a trio?
Thomas Cain: I have a quartet, depending on how the money is (laughing), sometimes it's a trio. (laughing) People call me, I go out of town and go all over the area around here playing. It's so great, I just love it.
Bronson: Besides the piano, trumpet, organ, do you play any other instruments or are those the 3 you specialize in?
Thomas Cain: I sing, that's my other instrument, that's it.
Bronson: What was it like opening for Ray Charles?
Thomas Cain: Oh my God man that was incredible. We were at Vanderbilt University and it was just totally amazing because I've always loved his piano playing. To be able to be on the same stage with Ray Charles was just like the absolute.
Bronson: You've played with a lot of great artists.
Thomas Cain: Just being around Nashville and different parts of the south, I've had a chance to be an opening act for all of the great players, from George Benson, to Donny Hathaway, to Bill Withers, and people like Ramsey Lewis, and on and on. It's just been a fulfilling thing to be in front of a huge audience and just perform.
Bronson: I know you're also a publisher, a producer, and a songwriter. I know you've done a lot of jingles for some big companies and been in the studio a lot. So how do you feel, do you have a preference for playing in the studio and live?
Thomas Cain: Well it's a different animal. You know for a while there, that's how I made my living. I'd be doing sessions 10, 2, and 6, and sometimes 10 at night, and I was doing that for years. I did that even when I had my publishing business to keep myself from going into debt or borrowing more money, I used sessions and doing jingles and singing background, playing gigs, I used that as my seed money. As a result of that, playing in the studio is a real controlled environment, pretty much controlled. You have some leverage to kinda go here or go over there because a lot of the songwriters mainly, especially if you're doing a demo session, they really want you to come up with a signature lick, signature something on the piano in my case. Playing live you have a totally different animal where you can just explore in areas that you've never been before and that's the difference to me and it's a beautiful thing too.
Bronson: Somebody coming to town, somebody new to town or that's been here for a while trying to get established. You got any advise for them how they might take their music and songs and playing to another level? What they might do to give themselves a better shot?
Thomas Cain: Well I think that the first thing a writer should understand is the market that they're trying to get in to. For example if you really want to separate fact from fantasy, this is a very Country based market. There's some other spinoffs, like Gospel music is pretty big around Nashville, elements of Jazz music is pretty big but it's certainly not, from an economic point of view, there's no comparison to what's happening in Country music. Country music's been around for such a long time, it's so well entrenched and it has the great support system at radio. The radio at Country music is a huge marketplace. I think anybody that's coming into Nashville, they first of all should know that they are going to be competing with all of the hit songwriters around town and they just need to be prepared for that. They need to be prepared to get disappointed about things and they need to develop a really tough skin. I strongly suggest they do what I used to do and people still do. Go into the Bluebird Cafes and the Douglas Corners, the 12 & Porters, and listening to what people are writing. Studying the radio, I mean I studied the radio. Then you know just being available, showing up. I think most of the time when you show up for an event, something usually happens. You know you meet somebody or you press flesh with somebody, shake hands with somebody, you get to know somebody that may change your life. I know they did for me. I met a lot of people in those kind of situations that really changed my life.
Bronson: Who do you think helped you the most in Nashville getting established, if you had to put it down to someone? There's always somebody who helps us, you know? Somebody always comes through there when you needed them, right there in the beginning. Who really gave you your start you think as a player?
Thomas Cain: The one person that I probably owe all of it too is Bob Beckham. He was the president of Combine Music. He actually gave me the key to the building and we could come and go anytime we wanted to. 2, 3 o'clock in the morning people would be over there writing and doing something.
Bronson: Isn't that exciting? Pete Drake did that for me.
Thomas Cain: It was totally incredible. I was just so thrilled to be in a building where people like Kris Kristofferson, Tony Joe White, Larry Gatlin, Bob Morrison, Bob DiPiero, John Scott Sherrill. All of these great songwriters they were in this building. These were guys I used to hang with. I used to travel with Tony Joe and play in his band. It was just amazing, it was a melting pot of people coming from all over the country and putting down roots in Nashville. That's another thing I think that if somebody's interested in coming into this city, you're really going to have to put down your roots here. There's really no other way I can think of, there may be some cases where somebody lived outside of Nashville, but if you want to be a player man you have to be on the scene all the time. It's 24/7 and there is no other way I know to do it, I mean that's just my formula.
Bronson: Is there anybody that you've always wanted to play with that you haven't played with yet? Any artist that you just always wanted to share the stage with or write a song with?
Thomas Cain: Man I tell you that's a good question. There's probably a whole bunch of people that I have admired. Certainly I love the music of Bill Withers you know, I just love his songwriting. That would be somebody I would really like to write a song with, just because his upbringing I guess was similar to mine. Actually when I played a show with him, I spent the next day at his hotel and we went to get something to eat and I just kind of followed him around and he was very receptive to me doing that. This was back at the Exit Inn when he did a show there. What a great guy and what a great mind too man because he knows how to put it together. He knows how to take where he actually came from, the earthiness of where he came from. I mean those are true stories about, "Grandma's hands used to clap in church on Sunday Morning", just really visually great and that's one guy that I really admired his songwriting. Most of his songs I would think, seemingly, most of his songs were written 100%, he wrote a lot of his songs by himself which is a feat in itself, (laughing) to write a hit by yourself.
Bronson: Do you have any events or shows coming up? Any gigs coming up on the books that people might want to know about, to come see you?
Thomas Cain: I'm playing all the time man and of late I have been playing a lot of private parties, a lot of private gigs. These people tend to have no problem spending money, a lot of it is repeat work. That's been really good, has been the real sustaining side of my livelihood. A lot of the club dates, the economy has really changed the face of a lot of things. I feel really fortunate that I'm able to play as much as I am playing now. Yeah, and I have my new CD out. I did that live in BB Kings club here in Nashville.
Bronson: Oh really, what's that called?
Thomas Cain: It's called "The Love Of A Woman". I actually titled it a song that I wrote with two guys here in Nashville. We had this song that was on Diamond Rio's record, their "I Believe" album. I like the song so much because it blends Country music and R&B music together and I have played it live and people just seem to really respond to that song so I decided I would call my album, "The Love Of A Woman". And you know there's no greater love than that (laughing).
Bronson: (laughing) Yeah, I'm with you on that one. Thomas, I really appreciate you doing this man. It was so good to see you too.
Thomas Cain: Thank you Bronson, thank you so much.
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