Doug Sisemore: His Story on Music Row’s History written by Autumn Marie Buysse
Doug Sisemore is far too humble when you consider everything he’s accomplished—he’s played keyboard in Reba McEntire’s band for over two decades, produced a Grammy-winning album, and now serves as Reba’s bandleader as well as music director for Reba, Brooks & Dunn Together in Las Vegas. Listening to jazz at Americano Coffee Lounge, I got to chat with Doug about his extensive career and how he’s noticed the music industry changing over the past few decades. Doug grew up in Chattanooga, about two hours from Nashville, where he started his career as many have: playing in local bands with his friends. While he grew up working with a lot of talented musicians, information about the current music scene was hard to come by at the time. He remembers driving all over town just to find a copy of Rolling Stone. Nowadays though, the amazing wealth of information available has made it easier than ever for musicians to improve their craft and collaborate internationally. For example, Doug applauds technology for making videos of master classes available to everyone, everywhere. Technology has also made recording more feasible than ever, since with computers, it can now be done anywhere. “Bagpipes can be recorded in Ireland, drums can be recorded in Africa.” However, increased accessibility to information does have a downside. Doug remembers that when The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan , everyone tuned in. Now, everyone has their own playlists and ways of enjoying music. Doug wonders if it’s even possible to have universally uniting events like that anymore, since there’s no longer a singular outlet that everyone pays attention to, or information that everyone is a party to.
As Doug says, music is “just something you do.” However, supporting oneself financially as a musician has always been an issue, because as a true artist or musician, you don’t want to have to follow a commercial path. As a signed artist, you have to compromise and work within the guidelines set by labels and radio stations. Doug believes that the good ones are the ones who “figure out how to do great stuff within those parameters.” Writing outside the lines can be wonderful, but most people won’t get it (outside of the artist themselves and their small following). Doug compares a musician trying to make a living to a salmon swimming upstream. “You’re fighting against all the crazy people who want to be a musician too.” With more and more musicians moving to Nashville every single day, the constant competition is a reality, but if music is what your heart’s telling you to do, Doug says you have to figure out a way to do it.
As the decades have passed, the artist middle class is growing. A few decades ago, it cost labels about $1,000 to produce a demo, around $3,000 for a master, and anywhere from $75,000 to $100,000 to record an album. With the demise of physical sales, labels have been forced to constrict their production budgets, which has unfortunately hurt recording studios. A lot of acts can’t afford to rent out studios anymore, but with laptops’ recording abilities, an entire album
can be produced in a modest home studio. Developments like this have bolstered the artist middle class. Doug has been working with country legend Reba McEntire for decades. When I asked him about Reba, he commended the star saying, “She’s a professional, she’s not a diva and she’s never going to be one . . . She sets the bar, and there’s no excuse to not set yours at the same.” He started off as her utility player (working out arrangements for the show, playing the bells and
whistles, singing backgrounds, etc.). That learning experience was a plus when he started producing later in his career. Recently, he composed music for her ABC sitcom Malibu Country, and last year he won a Grammy and Dove award for Best Roots Gospel Album for co-producing Reba’s 32nd studio album Sing It Now: Songs of Faith & Hope.
I asked Doug about what makes country music special, and he believes that it’s country music’s longevity. Even if you only have one big hit, your fans will still be coming to your shows and cheering you on at the Opry 20 years later.