In an exclusive Q&A with Renée Ward, Lee Turner who plays keyboard, piano, accordion and acoustic guitar for Darius Rucker on his worldwide tour, shares the benefits of earning money in his teen years through music and offers tips to young adults today who seek inspiration in their present job/career hunt.
Lee Turner has also performed with a long list of top tier artists to include Blake Shelton, Hank Williams Jr., Kenny Rodgers, Big and Rich, Lee Ann Rimes, Trace Adkins, Wynonna, Randy Owen, Cowboy Troy, Bo Bice and many more.
This is another in a series of articles about the “first jobs” of successful people, their words of wisdom for young adults, and reflects the value of work early in life. This interview edited for length and clarity.
Renée Ward: Tell me about jobs you held during your teen years. Did you make money through music?
Lee Turner: I did. Being a musician is pretty much all I have ever done. I started playing trumpet when I was very young.
By the age of 16, I was already playing in a high school rock band, performing at proms and dances. Then it progressed to when I was old enough to drive, joining a 50s and 60s band, and going and playing in bars, much to my mother’s chagrin. [laughter] But, it was a way to musically grow some more and also make some more money. I grew up with a single mother. Times were lean growing up and if I wanted something extra, I needed to work for it.
RW: Why did those venues higher you at such a young age?
LT: They hired me because I was good. I was good at what I did. I was fun to be around. I was a nice person. Character has a lot to do with being hired for a job and not being hired for a job. If you are not a pleasant person to deal with, you are probably not going to be hired. Personality goes a long way in being hired in music. You could be the best player but if you are a jerk, you probably won’t be hired.
RW: What are signs of being a jerk?
LT: Simple things like showing up late, being unprepared, coping an attitude, having a bad attitude, not caring. I think that would cover it.
RW: So what got you interested in music at such an early age?
LT: Playing trumpet became very easy to me so I moved over to piano. There was an old keyboard in my high school band room that the school let me play.
I performed a song at a talent show, realized people loved it, and it was fun for me. It felt very natural for me to perform and be in front of people. I was very relaxed. After that, I had no desire to do anything else.
RW: Where do you think the passion for music came from?
LT: I am not sure. Music has always been there for me. So maybe there were times where I felt lonely, or felt something was missing–music was always there for me. I am a lover of music, all different types. I’ve played country, rock, reggae and classical jazz. My tastes are very diverse.
RW: Did you have any formal training?
LT: I did. I went to the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where I studied trumpet performance for two years. I got my degree in Music Education. When I graduated, I decided that I did not want to be a band director.
Teaching is great. Working with children and passing knowledge on is a wonderful thing. However, I wanted to travel, see the world, and see what I could do before “settling down” to teach.
Throughout college, I played Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights in different bars, clubs, and venues. On Sunday mornings, I would play trumpet in church. All this with my schoolwork and practicing. It was a lot of music all the time.
RW: Did you have a mentor?
LT: No. [laughs] I floated through on my own, figuring out what worked and what didn’t.
RW: This is going to be very easy for you to answer. How your early years working in music prepared you for what you are doing now?
LT: Well, when I graduated college, I decided to move to Nashville, TN. I knew one person down here. That person was in the music industry and we were able to go to showcases and CD release parties and network. All my knowledge from growing up in music, performing music, and studying music led me to land great jobs in Nashville. With my skills in different styles, I had a wealth of resources I could pull from. I also acquired great social skills from working in my early years and you need that in the music business.
RW: How did you hear about additional gigs? How did you find those opportunities? What did you do?
LT: I knew when I came to Nashville that I wanted to play for some country music artists. I was going to give it a couple of months. If it did not work out, I would move back to Wisconsin and teach music. What I did was network. I got to know people. I handed out business cards to let people know I was interested in working with them. I got an audition for my first job. It was as Musical Director for an artist on Asylum Records for three and a half years.
That led to playing a lot on the road, getting to know other musicians playing different festivals with different artists on the same bill. Then I started playing for different people on different record labels. This was all word of mouth.
When things dried up a little bit, I listened for auditions and went in and I got the audition. It just kept rolling over and over. Finally, through the network of people that I have, people knew that I always wanted a better gig or better money. When jobs became available, the phone would ring and they would ask me to audition or come play. If I could and if I could make it work, I would.
It is such a whimsical way to live and every time I was thinking, I have to get a real job, this is not going to work, the phone would ring. I am serious it was so funny. I just keep going from one to another. I keep thinking in the back of my mind when plan B is going to kick in. Luckily enough, I have been playing professionally for country music artists for 19 years. I also owned and ran a studio in Nashville, TN that was going so great that I wanted to stay home.
I got this call for a gig with this guy named Darius Rucker who is in Hootie & the Blowfish. He was going to go country. That was eight years ago. I went to the audition, kicked butt, got the gig. Eight years later, it has been the best gig of my life. I am in a position where we are working less and I am able to stay home more and build the studio back up. It is a wonderful thing. I am finally at a salary and position where I am able to really enjoy everything that I have worked for up to this point.
The wonderful thing about that is going to school for music, I have learned all the different instruments, at least how to play them, make a noise on them, and teach them. That relates great in the studio, because I am able to pick up a guitar. I am able to pick up drums, even though I am not the best player.
I am able to speak my mind and describe what sound I am looking for or what genre or what style is needed for the song that is being recorded. All these things, from playing, from studying, just really do help me in what I do now. Now it is just so easy and fun.
I started the studio probably 12 years ago. I took about a four year hiatus from it and I am just reopening this month as 2Twenty2 Studios. It is my life being under control again. Here artists can come produce, record their own music and pull from my experiences as a music educator, arranger, performer and singer, to produce a product that competes in today’s market.
RW: What advice would you give teenagers or other young adults who are just now embarking on their first careers or jobs in the workplace?
LT: I would definitely say embrace what it is that you are going to work hard at and strive for it. If it is music, learn about music; learn about the history of music. Learn how to play your instrument, learn how to play your instrument well. Learn how to perform your instrument, every aspect of it. I do not think you can do a job or a career well if you do not know everything about it. I would also say use your natural talents.
Early on, I learned I had a natural talent for music. It came easy to me. Nevertheless, I had a professor in college say it is great to have natural talent but it will only get you so far. The person that is working harder will someday surpass you. You have to work hard at it and keep working hard. Any time you are thinking that you are doing okay, you should still be studying and growing and learning. That should never stop throughout your whole life.
RW: What would you say to employers that are reluctant to give a young person a working opportunity like you had?
LT: I do not know how to answer that one because music is a young person’s game and I find it– I am kind of on the other side right now. Being a musician does not mean that you get to play the typical musician card. You got to take care of yourself, you got to be healthy. Otherwise, you are just going to end up being the guy that doesn’t look good on stage and nobody will hire you.
Are you a young adult trying to determine what direction to take your job hunting but don’t know how? Start with uncovering your interests. Take the Association for Career and Technical Education’s Career Clusters Interest Survey.