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  • By Alan Richard


Matt Rollings and Lyle Lovett (photo by Michael Wilson)

If you’ve listened to music from the past 25 years, you’ve likely heard Matt Rollings’ stylish and soulful piano, his pristine work as a producer, or seen him on stage with some of music’s best.

Rollings’ extensive work with Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Mark Knopfler—and appearances on more than 1,200 studio recordings over the past three decades—make him one of the most prominent musicians of his generation.

Now he’s released Mosaic, only his second solo album. It’s a set of sublime performances with some of his best-known musical friends.

Rollings also has kept busy co-producing and arranging Willie Nelson’s newest album, That’s Life, with Nashville veteran Buddy Cannon, released in March. On the record, Nelson sounds in fuller and better-rested voice than he has in years.

“He was so hungry to make music,” Rollings told SoulCountry. “He sang this during the pandemic. And he nailed it, in my opinion.”

Working with Willie

Indeed, Nelson sings with convincing heartache on classics like “Cottage for Sale” and lesser-known gems like the folksy “Lonesome Road.”

Rollings’ big-band arrangements dovetail with Nelson’s restrained vocals, short solos on his guitar, Trigger, Mickey Raphael’s country-blues harmonica, and a duet with Diana Krall, “I Won’t Dance.”

It’s actually Nelson’s second collection of Frank Sinatra songs. Rollings shared a Grammy Award in 2018 with Nelson and Cannon for the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album for Nelson’s album, My Way, and for the 2016 collection, Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin.

Studio veteran Ed Cherney recorded the music for Willie’s newest album at Capitol Records Studio B in Hollywood, where Sinatra often recorded, Rollings said. Cherney shares those two Grammys for Nelson’s albums.

On the My Way sessions, Rollings played Nat King Cole’s New York Steinway piano at the studio. Unfortunately, the recordings were Cherney’s last before he passed away in October 2019.

Buddy Cannon, Willie Nelson and Matt Rollings

“He didn’t get to mix the record,” Rollings said. “He recorded and mixed the first two Willie records that Buddy and I did but didn’t get to mix the third one.”

Instead, That’s Life was mixed by Al Schmitt, who’d done the same for many of Sinatra’s records, joined by studio wizard Niko Bolas.

“The stars aligned somehow to make it really special,” Rollings said of Nelson’s latest album. “To me more than anything, it’s the songs. Those are some of my favorite pieces of music of all time.”

How Mosaic began

During a few days’ break from touring with Krauss, Rollings met his wife and son on the California coast for a short getaway. The couple left their son with his grandparents in Marin County and drove up the coast to Nick’s Cove, a little seafood place on Tomales Bay, near Marshall.

As they waited for a table, the couple walked onto the nearby pier and wandered into a boathouse. Inside, an older man with a sketch pad in his hands sat at a long table by a wood-burning stove.

Curiously, there was an old upright piano in the boathouse. Rollings’ wife hit the keys to see if it worked.

“‘Oh, you gonna play me something?’,” the man with the sketch pad said, looking up.

There was no bench, so Rollings stood at the piano and started tickling on a ragtime tune.

The man lit up, Rollings recalled. “He said, ‘I‘ve written two songs in my life and Johnny Cash recorded one. It’s called ‘A Cup of Coffee’.”

It was Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, traveling folk-singer companion of Woody Guthrie and others, and now 90 years old, who’s lived in Marshall for decades.

Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Matt Rollings

“We spent an hour in the boathouse with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and he tells all these stories,” Rollings said.

Bellerose had played drums on Ramblin’ Jack’s 2009 blues album, produced by Joe Henry and winner itself of a Grammy Award.

“I had this super-strong feeling that I was supposed to make some music with him,” Rollings said.

But the timing never seemed right. Then Rollings’ wife had an idea, “like a lightning bolt”: He should make a solo album, with guest appearances by Elliott and some of his other favorite performers.

“It absolutely took on a life of its own,” Rollings said of the project.

A career begins

Rollings was a teenage piano prodigy in Phoenix when his buddy, a bass player in community college named Matt McKenzie, got him an audition for J. David Sloan and the Rogues, the “badass” house band at Mr. Lucky’s, the city’s largest honky-tonk.

Rollings landed the gig, but he soon realized the band played only classic country: Merle Haggard, Kitty Wells, Buck Owens and George Strait.

Billy Williams, the band’s guitarist and producer, had lived in Nashville and shared his knowledge of “charts”—the notations many Music City studio musicians use when learning songs for recording sessions.

“Unbeknownst to me, I was learning at 17 how to function in a Nashville recording session,” Rollings said.

Then the group got a strange invitation to play a summer festival with a couple of other American acts—in Luxembourg of all places.

“It was us, a show band from Florida and this guy from Texas,” Rollings said.

That guy was tall, skinny and had weird hair. His name was Lyle Lovett.

“On the set changes, Lyle would come up and just play with his acoustic guitar,” Rollings said. Worried the audience wasn’t paying him much mind, Lovett approached the band about backing him on a few numbers.

“We liked Lyle. He was a sweet guy, and he had these amazing songs, and so we agreed,” Rollings said.

Among the songs the band learned in 1983 were future Lovett’s classics “God Will,” “If I Had a Boat” and many others.

But Rollings had his sights set elsewhere. He took off for New York City to study at the Berklee College of Music’s campus there.

“I’m going to become the greatest jazz pianist of all time,” Rollings recalled of his youthful thinking.

The big break

A year later, Rollings returned to Phoenix to help Lovett record 18 demos with the full band.

After Lovett signed a deal with MCA-Curb Records in Nashville, he called Rollings again. “They’re taking 10 of our demos and they’re making it into my new record,” he recalled Lovett as saying.

“Out of his own pocket, Lyle flew me to Nashville,” Rollings said.

He spent a day overdubbing his piano parts at Treasure Isle Studio under the watch of veteran producer Tony Brown, who’d played piano in Elvis Presley’s band.

“In one take,” Rollings said, “he saw something in me.”

Six months later, Brown called Rollings back to Music City to play on other artists’ demos.

“It dawned on me that these musicians did what I’d just gone to Nashville to do,” Rollings said. “Then I get this check for more than I expected.”

“That made my decision to move to Nashville,” he said.

That was 1986. Rollings recorded demos with Brown and another prominent producer, Jimmy Bowen. “Once Bowen started hiring me, everybody started hiring me,” Rollings said.

For the next two decades, Rollings was all over country records made in Nashville. He played on all of Lovett’s albums until 2003 and toured with him into the 1990s. Then Rollings took some time away after he started producing records himself, returning to work with Lovett for another six or seven years later.

Matt Rollings and Francine Reed

Before he left Phoenix, Rollings had played in a jazz group led by a powerhouse blues and jazz singer named Francine Reed. When Lovett started looking for singers to join his Large Band for subsequent tours, Rollings said he knew just the lady.

Reed became a showstopping contributor to Lovett’s band, concerts and records.

Rollings’ contributions also played a role in the evolution of Lovett’s eclectic sound, incorporating swing, blues and gospel into his East Texas country story-songs.

“I was allowed to insert my own voice into the music,” Rollings said.

Perfect patchwork

While on tour with Alison Krauss in 2017, Rollings and longtime friend and drummer Jay Bellerose started jamming during sound checks. One of the greatest singers of all time, Krauss often didn’t need to warm up.

The jams led to conversations among Rollings and Bellerose doing an album as a duo.

Instead, the project would evolve into Mosaic, with Bellerose (who’s also on the recent Nelson recordings) playing throughout the album.

Recorded mostly at Nashville’s Sound Emporium studios, Mosaic opens with a bluesy, somber, take on Paul Simon’s “Take Me to the Mardi Gras.” Rollings turned to The War and Treaty, the husband-and-wife duo of Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount who steal the show anytime they sing.

Matt Rollings with The War and Treaty

Rollings had met them while playing a Country Music Hall of Fame medallion ceremony. The duo had sung a tribute to the late honoree Dottie West.

“They sang this old song, ‘(Somebody’s Gonna Give You) A Lesson in Leavin’”,” Rollings remembered. “They kind of took my breath away.”

He called Buddy Miller, a friend and one of the world’s best guitarists who’d produced the duo’s first record, and Miller put them in touch.

In searching his extensive music collection for songs for Mosaic, Rollings came across “Mardi Gras,” from the 1973 album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

The song wasn’t like anything The War and Treaty had ever sung, Rollings said, but you can’t tell it by their heartfelt performance on Mosaic. Rollings backs the singers on piano and organ he added later. He recorded a horn section adding a touch of Dixieland jazz, too.

“It’s one of my favorite moments from that whole album,” Rollings said.

Lovett’s soulful vocals and phrasing appear on Johnny Mercer’s “Accentuate the Positive,” a song Rollings said he’s always loved and woke up one morning thinking about.

“I’d never played the intro that way before,” Rollings said. Jack Murphy later added some tuba on that cut and several others.

Rollings asked Willie Nelson to sing on the classic, “Lucky Old Sun,” joined by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

“I’m a huge fan of the Louis Armstrong version” and Aretha Franklin’s, Rollings said. “Willie had sung it. Originally, I was going to have Willie do a song by himself.”

Ramblin’ Jack sings the lead on “If I Had a Boat,” a song Lovett wrote from the perspective of a child. Unlike the exuberant original, Elliott’s sounds like a farewell.

“It’s sort of autobiographical for him,” Rollings said.

New York musician and producer John Leventhal (and Rosanne Cash’s husband) was supposed to add some guitar on “Boat,” but ended up contributing a little finger-picked banjo, Rollings said.

One of the most striking performances on Mosaic is the unlikely cover of The Police’s “Spirits in the Material World” with Nashville singer-songwriter Charlie Greene. Earlier, Rollings had produced an EP for the eclectic singer.

The idea came to Rollings and his wife driving south on U.S. 1 in California when the song came on satellite radio:

“There is no political solution To our troubled evolution Have no faith in constitution There is no bloody revolution.”

Classic performances

“Stay,” a tune Rollings wrote several years ago with Alisan Porter (who since has won NBC’s The Voice) and drummer Drew McKeon, came from Porter’s album Rollings produced back in his L.A. days.

“That song is on her (Porter’s) record as a piano ballad,” said Rollings, whose wife proposed the song for Mosaic. “The only other person I could hear singing that song other than Allison Porter is Alison Krauss.”

For Mosaic, Krauss sang live in the studio, joined by her brother, Viktor Krauss, a veteran bassist who's also played with Lovett. Kristin Wilkinson wrote the strings arrangements and Rollings played organ.

But the song needed a harmony vocal.

“There are very few people who you can put as a harmony singer with Alison Krauss,” Rollings said. “But Vince (Gill) is one person who can do it, and I just called him up. He said, ‘Send it over.’”

Rollings was on tour with Mark Knopfler in the U.K. when he hopped a plane for Scotland to record “When You Loved Me Still” with Irish singer Heidi Talbot and her husband, Scottish fiddler John McCusker, who Rollings knew from Knopfler’s band.

Rollings had sent Talbot the melody earlier. “She came up with this lyric,” he said. “It has a beautiful, tragic, Irish” feel to it.

Scottish accordion master Phil Cunningham played on the session, and Rollings himself overdubbed a bit of cello.

Talbot and McCusker also join Rollings for a beautiful version of Stephen Foster’s “Slumber My Darling.”

“Jay and I cut that song instrumentally,” Rollings said. “Originally, I was going to have Willie sing it.” But Talbot recorded an incredible vocal, he said.

The Blind Boys of Alabama—a group first formed in Talladega in the late 1930s—join Rollings and The War and Treaty for a jazzy take on “Wade in the Water.”

The Blind Boys of Alabama

The album closes with “I’ll Come Knocking,” originally performed by Uncle Walt’s Band, an Austin trio who was a key influence on Lovett, and written by the group’s leader, Walter Hyatt. Lovett covered it on 1998’s Step Inside This House, his double-album tribute to his favorite songwriters.

Uncle Walt’s Band also counted the golden-voiced future country star David Ball and guitarist “Champ” Hood as members. Hood would join Lovett’s band before he passed away in 2001. Hyatt died in the ValuJet airline crash in the Florida Everglades in 1996. (Read more about Hyatt in SoulCountry’s profile of Nashville songwriting legend Marshall Chapman.)

Rollings had played on Hyatt’s King Tears, a cabaret-style album produced by Lovett and Billy Williams. “I knew Walter from those days of just being around Lyle,” Rollings said.

He asked Lukas Nelson, Willie’s son and a serious artist in his own right, to sing Hyatt’s “Knocking” on Mosaic.

“That one, we couldn’t do that live. Jay and I cut that track, (then) I was in L.A. for the Grammys” and recorded Lukas Nelson’s vocal at an old friend’s studio, Rollings said.

Lukas Nelson, Matt Rollings and musician Greg Collins

Around the globe

Rollings marvels at his own career and all he’s learned traveling the world with musicians. Are there moments that stand out for him?

“Standing on a stage in Mumbai, India, with Mark Knopfler in front of 20,000 people on a parade ground and looking out as far as I can see—and everyone is singing all the words to what we’re playing,” Rollings said.

He recalls shows with Knopfler and getting “to play ‘Brothers in Arms’ and to look at these people crying … who had literally lost brothers and sisters” in war, he said. “It’s hard to overstate how humbling an experience that was,” he said.

With Knopfler, he played every European country, places in the East and Australia and New Zealand multiple times. “Mark is when I got to travel the world,” Rollings said.

And with jazz guitarist Larry Carlton, Rollings toured Japan and some of Europe.

Those experiences taught him “that we were not the center of the world and to meet people who had a much more open view about humanity,” Rollings said. “It really helped me to be a better human.”

During the pandemic, Rollings teamed with friends Amy Grant, Keb' Mo' and Trisha Yearwood on a lovely version of "America the Beautiful" to benefit the Nashville Symphony. (See video below.)

Next up, there will be more records with major artists (which he can’t discuss yet). And he plans a solo ecord of his own.

“My life is an example of having stuff showing up I would never have imagined. I’m happy to be as close to the present as I can be,” Rollings said. “I’m learning to trust it.”

A sampling of Matt Rollings’ appearances:

When many music fans list some of their performances, especially in country music, Rollings likely appears them. (See a long list of highlights at the end of this story.)

He’s played on more than two dozen George Strait albums. He’s produced several records for Mary Chapin Carpenter, and his piano figures strongly on her coffeehouse-country classic, Come On, Come On.

For Beth Nielsen Chapman’s near-perfect album Sand and Water, produced by Rodney Crowell and released after Nielsen-Chapman’s husband’s death of cancer in his forties, Rollings co-wrote the stirring “Color of Roses” that leads off the album with serenity and aplomb.

With Lyle Lovett:

Lyle Lovett, 1986, piano, synthesizer

Pontiac, 1987, piano, synthesizer

Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, 1989, piano, organ

Joshua Judges Ruth, 1992, piano, organ

The Road to Ensenada, 1996, piano

Live in Texas, 1999, piano

Dr. T & the Women Soundtrack, 2000, composer, piano

Smile, 2003, producer, piano

My Baby Don’t Tolerate, 2003, piano

It’s Not Big, It’s Large, 2007, piano

Natural Forces, 2009, piano

Release Me, 2012, piano

With Mary Chapin Carpenter:

Shooting Straight in the Dark, 1990, piano

Come On, Come On, 1992, piano

Stones in the Road, 1994, piano

Between Here and Gone, 2004, producer, piano, keyboards

The Calling, producer, accordion, piano, organ

The Age of Miracles, 2010, producer, piano, organ

Ashes and Roses, producer, 2012, piano, organ

Songs from the Movie, 2014, producer, piano

For other artists:

Waylon Jennings, A Man Called Hoss, 1987 piano

Patty Loveless, Honky Tonk Angel, 1988, keyboards

Reba McEntire, Reba, 1988, piano, synthesizer

Tanya Tucker, Tennessee Woman, 1990, keyboards

Trisha Yearwood, 1991, piano

Larry Carlton, Kid Gloves, 1992, keyboards, composer

Wynonna Judd, Wynonna, 1992, keyboards

George Strait, Easy Come, Easy Go, 1993, piano

Wynonna Judd, Tell Me Why, 1993, keyboards

Vince Gill, When Love Finds You, 1994, piano

Linda Ronstadt, Winter Light, 1994, piano

Carlene Carter, Little Acts of Treason, 1995, piano

George Jones and Tammy Wynette, One, 1995, keyboards

Dolly Parton, Something Special, 1995, piano, organ

Russ Taff, Winds of Change, 1995, piano

George Strait, Blue Clear Sky, 1996, piano

Randy Travis, Full Circle, 1996, piano

Mark Knopfler, Golden Heart, 1996, piano

Marty Stuart, Honky Tonkin’s What I Do Best, 1996, piano, organ

Neil Diamond, In My Lifetime, 1996, musician

Bad Company, Stories Told & Untold, 1996, piano

Roberta Flack, Christmas Album, 1997, composer

Tim McGraw, Everywhere, 1997, piano

Edwin McCain, Misguided Roses, producer, piano, organ, composer

Melissa Manchester, Joy, 1998, producer, piano, organ, composer

Take 6, So Cool, 1998, composer

The Chicks, Wide Open Spaces, 1998, piano, organ

Alison Krauss, Forget About It, 1999, piano

Keith Urban, 1999, producer, organ, composer, background vocals

Bette Midler, Bette, 2000, composer

Billy Joel, The Greatest Hits Collection Vols. 1, 2 and 3, 2000, piano

Lonestar, I’m Already There, 2001, piano

Isaac Freeman (of the Fairfield Four), Beautiful Stars, 2002, guest artist

The Chieftains, Down the Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions, 2002, piano, dobro

Faith Hill, Cry, 2002, piano

Livin’, Laughin’, Lovin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers, various artists, 2003, piano

Carrie Underwood, Some Hearts, 2005, piano

George Strait, Somewhere Down in Texas, 2005, piano, synethsizer

Oleta Adams, Christmas Time with Oleta, 2006, composer

George Strait, It Just Comes Natural, 2006, piano, synthesizer, organ

Real Live Roadrunning, Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris, 2006, keyboards

Meat Loaf, It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, 2006, piano

George Strait, Troubadour, 2008, piano, organ

Mark Knopfler, Get Lucky, 2009, keyboards

Boyz II Men, Love, 2009, keyboards

Buddy and Julie Miller, Written in Chalk, 2009, piano

Kris Kristofferson, Feeling Mortal, 2013, keyboards

Edie Brickell and Steve Martin, Love Has Come for You, 2013, piano, accordion

Jimmy Webb, Still Within the Sound of My Voice, 2013, piano, organ, synthesizer

The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Rockin’ Rudolph, 2015, piano

Alison Krauss, Windy City, 2017, piano

Blues Traveler, Hurry Up & Hang Around, 2018, producer, piano, accordion

Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars, 2019, piano

Jimmy Buffett, Songs You Don’t Know By Heart, 2020, accordion

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