Drum Softly and Carry Two Big Sticks: A Conversation with West Virginia's Go-To Drummer

Jun 23, 2017

From West Virginia Public Broadcasting and A Change of Tune, this is 30 Days of #WVmusic, the interview series celebrating the folks who make the West Virginia music scene wild and wonderful.  

And today's interview is with the Huntington drummer with the best seat in the house, keeping time for William Matheny and Tyler Childers. This... is Rod Elkins.

Rod Elkins can be seen (and heard) on tour with William Matheny & the Strange Constellations and Tyler Childers. Hear more #WVmusic on A Change of Tune, airing Saturday nights at 10 on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Connect with A Change of Tune on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. And for more #WVmusic chats, make sure to go to wvpublic.org/wvmusic and subscribe to our RSS / podcast feeds.

Rod Elkins performing with Tyler Childers.
Credit S. Childers Photography

Interview Highlights

On beginning in music:

I’ve been into music pretty much my entire life. My dad has a band, The Elkins Brothers Band, and ever since I was a little kid, I’d go and watch him play. Mostly at the Milton Fire House or various VFWs, and I would just sit there, swinging my legs. It’s always been around, and I can never think of a time it wasn’t. I started playing drums in the 6th grade, enrolled in band at school and started playing in his band.

I always thought the drums were the coolest instrument on the planet. Every drummer my dad had, they were just cool dudes. I loved to be around them and loved watching them, and I thought it was the best instrument in the band. My dad’s a guitar player, kind of picked that up naturally. He would put one in my hand, teach me a few things, I would download songs off Napster when I came home from school and learn them.

He was really nurturing. I used to teach at Route 60 Music and people would tell me how they bought their kids electronic drum sets because they didn’t want to hear it. I always thought about how my mom and dad gave me a couple of hours to make as much noise as I wanted, but at like 8pm, if it wasn’t done… [laughing]!

On what he listened to growing up:

The classic country, outlaw stuff. My dad is a huge Waylon Jennings fan. I always thought he sounded like him when he sang.

I had a Fisher-Price record player, and I remember as a kid, I was just crawling across the floor, maybe 4- or 5-years-old, I took the Fisher-Price record off and waddled over to a stack of my dad’s records and pulled it out, and it was Creedence Clearwater Revival, one of the greatest hits records, “Down on the Corner,” was the first song. I was pretty hooked after that.

Rod Elkins as a Marshall University drummer.
Credit Courtesy of the artist

On his jazz studies at Marshall University inform his Americana/rock drumming:

I always wanted to do music in college. I wanted to go to college because not many people in my family went to college. Me and my sisters did. My dad didn’t go; my mom went to beauty school. Staying in town just made sense.

I got really bored with just doing classical performance with symphonic band and percussion ensembles. Not that I don’t like the music or anything, but at the time, I was just really out of it and not really enjoying it. I think I was the only drum set major at the time in jazz studies. I took a little break and came back in 2012 and finished three years ago this December.

It helped playing with different groups, playing something you just got a week ago. Reading, making charts. Sometimes if we want to play a song now, the fastest way for me to learn it is if I jot it down on a piece of paper and chart it out. I got to see a lot of great drummers being in school. We had great faculty, and they would always bring great people in. It was really inspirational seeing them play.

On his favorite drummers:

Levon [Helm], for sure. I’ll never forget… me and Craig Burletic. I was in the music library, and I was supposed to be doing something but I wasn’t actively doing anything, and [Craig] comes in and says, “Dude, you got to stop what you’re doing and listen to this.” And I think it was the Rock of Ages video of The Band doing “Don’t Do It.” It was lifechanging, the way he played, the nuances and the sound he got out of the drums. That and Steve Gadd. I always wanted to play like Steve Gadd ‘cause that guy’s perfect.

Rod Elkins performing at The V-Club in Huntington, WV.
Credit Melissa Stillwell

On what it means to be a drummer in the band:

Drummer is the bus, that’s what I always thought, and the bass player drives that bus. It’s a team effort, something to lean on. A good drummer doesn’t get in the way of the song. It’s a nice blanket for soloists or singers to lean on and to stay out of the way. That’s always a goal in my head when I play. I feel like I’m naturally strong, and I have to work hard at the drums to stay out of the way. I constantly worry that I’m too loud.

On his first bands playing in the #WVmusic scene:

I was playing in a VFW band called 60 East. I played guitar and sang. It was pretty good, right out of high school. James [Barker] and Craig Burletic had a rock band and a drummer who was moving away. I was late for a math class, and I didn’t go because I was late, I was getting coffee and [Craig] said, “You have to play in my band. I talked to James, and we don’t want anyone else. We want you.” I just wanted to do this original music. That was the first thing with Huntington music… Deadbeats & Barkers.

That transformed into like 68 consecutive Sundays at Shamrocks. [Shamrocks owner Ian Thornton] gave us a shot, and I think [Deadbeats & Barkers] already had the Sunday gig when they asked me to play. We dove right in, and it was great. That period… I understand why they call it the good old days. I met Bud Carroll for the first time, Doug Woodward, The Demon Beat. Anybody and everybody would come on Sundays. Sometimes it would be so special. We’d play a set, take a break and then anybody who’d want to jam could jam. I think I quit my job at Amazon because of Sundays because I had to be at work on 8 on Monday morning.

On joining up with Tyler Childers:

It was kind of a joke at first. Jack Browning, a good buddy of ours who lives in L.A. now, thought, “Y’all should play together and be the Food Stamps.” Tyler Childers opened for us at Shoops, and he sang and it was beautiful, everybody was shocked. I’ll never forget after the show I said, “Man, you’re great, you’ve got great songs. You want to party?” His response was, “Man, I’m 18 and 45 minutes from home, I think I need to go.”

We kept crossing paths, and then the joke came back around, and it was one of our friend’s birthday parties where we finally did it. A little bit later, we were goofing around playing covers, and I took the initiative to put our name in the hat for a music festival in Cincinnati. We went to Bud’s and cut some demos. We got in, and it was the first time we played Tyler’s songs, and we’ve been doing it ever since.

Bud Carroll, Rod Elkins, William Matheny, Adam Meisterhans and Ian Thornton backstage before their June 2016 Mountain Stage.
Credit Josh Saul

On playing with William Matheny:

Nothing short of magical. I love that guy to death. It’s kind of hard to place when I first met William because once I did, it’s like he’s been in my life forever, it’s like he’s always been there. He probably knows better than I do. I filled in for Bud [since] Bud was playing drums. I can’t remember why he couldn’t play, but I learned the songs, and after those strings of dates it was like, “Would you like to be in this band? We can put Bud back on guitar.” [Billy’s] songs are great, he’s a great person, a true bandleader. I’m fortunate enough to play with the two best songwriters in West Virginia. It’s been nothing short of great, I don’t know how I did it. I’ve been really fortunate to hang in there with some of the best.

Music featured in this #WVmusic chat:

Rod Elkins- “DonDon”

Tyler Childers and The Foodstamps- “Feathered Indians”

Rod Elkins- “PanGan-Anini”

William Matheny & the Strange Constellations- “Living Half to Death”

Support for 30 Days of #WVmusic is provided by Kin Ship Goods, proud supporter of DIY music and the arts. Locally shipped worldwide at kinshipgoods.com.