TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — One category on Rankin Elementary School report cards in the late 1960s proved prophetic for one of teacher Marsha Stewart’s second-graders.
“There’s a phrase on the cards that says, ‘Works and plays well with others,'” Stewart recalled. “And that was Jerry.”
“Jerry” was a polite, quiet, often-smiling boy who sat in her classroom’s front row, liked to think, listened intently “and then reached a goal because he stuck to it,” she said. “All those things were great in the second grade, and they’re great now.”
Today, the 54-year-old Terre Haute native is known on Music Row in Nashville, Tennessee, as J.T. Corenflos — a premier session guitarist whose virtuosity graces recordings by a who’s who of country and rock music, from Alan Jackson to Luke Bryan, Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Bob Seger, Don Henley, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, George Jones, Darius Rucker, Martina McBride and hundreds of others, dating back to the 1980s.
Turns out, Corenflos does indeed work and play well with others.
Those Nashville stars know Corenflos well. He’s probably on every singer and songwriter’s speed dial.
By contrast, the general public doesn’t know Corenflos’ name so well, even though they’ve heard his guitar work. A concert at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2 in Tilson Auditorium in Terre Haute should rectify that anonymity, at least in his hometown. Corenflos, joined by Wabash Valley mandolin ace Solly Burton, will perform as guest soloists with the Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra at its annual “Holiday Galaxy” show.
“What we’re trying to do is give an opportunity for the community to see that we have this wonderful, deeply musical person from our fair city. … He’s a star, truly. He’s just an unknown star,” said David Bowden, the symphony’s artistic director and conductor for the past 21 years.
During the last three of those years, Bowden has worked to arrange a concert featuring Corenflos, who grew up in Terre Haute, learned music by watching his dad, played as a teenager in “just about every venue possible,” and then moved to Nashville after earning enough credits to graduate from Terre Haute North Vigo High School. A respiratory ailment prevented Corenflos from doing the show last year.
This year, the timing worked out just right in Corenflos’ schedule. Bowden confirmed the concert late last month, and interest spread fast. “Everybody who hears about it goes wild. They’ll say, ‘What a wonderful thing to do,’ and, “Why do people not know about him?'”
Corenflos’ popularity among recording artists and his anonymous status in the rest of the world are connected. He brings skill, talent, creativity and, perhaps most important, humility to every session. Corenflos aims to enhance the artist’s song, not draw attention to himself. “He doesn’t seek the limelight,” Bowden said.
As country singer and Grammy nominee Eric Church told the Tribune-Star in 2013, “J.T. is that one-of-a-kind musician who understands and sees a song’s destination in the studio. He plays exactly what needs to be played to help the song make its journey. It’s always enough. It’s never too much. In short, he’s one of the best.”
Corenflos will get some limelight in his performance with the symphony next month, along with Burton. The orchestra will accompany the two guest musicians on a string of beloved holiday and Christmas classics, with a few befitting the special homecoming style moment for Corenflos. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d played an “official” public gig in Terre Haute.
“It’s been a long time ago,” he said by phone earlier this month from his home in Tennessee.
Thus, songs such as “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” will hold special meaning. Corenflos and Burton will play in duo a few times, solo on some others, and play in support of the crowd on a sing-along of “Winter Wonderland” and “Frosty the Snowman.” Corenflos will strap on an electric guitar for jams on “Jingle Bell Rock” and a gospel version of “Oh, Holy Night.” Also on the set list, Bowden said, are “Let It Snow,” ”We Three Kings,” ”What Child Is This,” ”Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” ”Angels We Have Heard on High,” ”It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
The audience will hear Corenflos do what usually occurs inside a studio, with the help of Burton and the classical musicians in the symphony. “We basically play what we’ve been given,” Bowden said, “and (J.T.) brings the creativity.”
Corenflos on rare occasions has joined a small ensemble of orchestral musicians at Nashville sessions. Most recently, he played with a string section on the ballad “Waterproof Mascara” by singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow. Still, those collaborations involved only a 16-piece orchestra. The December concert will involve an 80-piece orchestra. He also doesn’t use the same type of scores on sheet music followed by classical performers. By tradition, Nashville session players use a numerical chart, with numbers representing different chords.
“They just want us to play what’s right for the song,” Corenflos said.
And that’s largely what will happen in Tilson Auditorium next Saturday. Corenflos is excited. “It’ll be a surprise and a challenge to me,” he said.
The symphony will be ready. “We establish a nice harmonic framework for him within the orchestra,” Bowden said. “He knows the tunes, and he’ll improvise, and I think that’s a fabulous way to make music.”
Corenflos has possessed that adaptability since his high school days, having grown up in a family familiar with the music world, with his late father, Jerry performing with Terre Haute country bands, and his late mother, Alice, working at Columbia Records. Bassist John Ford remembers forming a Terre Haute band as a 16-year-old with Corenflos, who was just 13. “It was this little kid who wanted to play a bunch of Robin Trower songs, and he just nailed it,” Ford said.
A few years later, Ford was living in Nashville, sleeping on the couches of friends and fellow transplanted Terre Haute musicians Marc Rogers and Corenflos, as they played the clubs on Music Row. Ford recalled outings to see a band fronted by Brent Mason, who, like Corenflos, would become a highly sought-after session guitarist. At one point, Corenflos jammed onstage with Mason’s band. “Those two would play together,” Ford said, “and it was just killer.”
Like Rogers, Corenflos handled guitar in touring bands for country veterans such as Jean Shepard, Joe Stampley and Moe Bandy, as well as the Fantastic Blue Tick Hounds. By 1990, Corenflos decided to end the road trips and focus on musician work right in Nashville, breaking into the studio session circuit while also performing in clubs. His talent led to more artists and aspiring songwriters saying “yes” to hiring him as their session guitarist.
Nearly three decades later, he’s often an integral part of their creative process in those sessions. Some artists enter the studio with specific guitar parts in mind for their songs. Others ask Corenflos to hear the basic track and then improvise. “The (session) players realistically are a little bit a part of the writing process,” Corenflos said. “But we know that, going into that.”
His role isn’t completely unsung. Corenflos won the Academy of Country Music Guitarist of the Year award in 2013, after being one of the five nominees for 10 consecutive years.
Not long after, he began work on a project of his own, a solo album aptly titled, “Somewhere Under the Radar.” It features a dozen instrumental tracks, spotlighting Corenflos’ deft guitar work. The sounds lean toward country, the audience most familiar with his playing, but with flickers of rock, jazz, California surf and blues sprinkled in.
“I didn’t want to get too far away from what people have heard,” Corenflos said. “But I put in a few surprises.” That includes a peppy cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.” Corenflos wrote the other 11 tracks, including some inspired by his hometown, such as “Rankin School Yard” and “Cruisin’ the Bash.”
Nashville Musician magazine album reviewer Roy Montana raved that Corenflos “nails every note with conviction, taste and soul. His playing is reminiscent of so many great guitarists, yet he always manages to sound just like himself and not an imitator.”
That persona is a humble, down-to-earth guy with a unique musical gift. Pairing such a talent alongside another, Burton the mandolinist, for next month’s concert in Terre Haute enthuses Bowden. “There’s a creative genius that marks both of them,” Bowden said, “a joy for life. And that joy will be apparent onstage.
“I imagine they’ll be smiling a lot,” Bowden concluded. He hopes, and expects, the audience will do the same. Bowden would like to see country music fans, who’ve never heard the symphony enjoy their first classical performance in Tilson. The crowd will also include 50 children from the Vigo County School Corp. schools, and their adult chaperones, thanks to a donation by the local 100-Plus Women Who Care.
Symphony newcomers will hear Corenflos and Burton (who performed with the symphony in 2013) front an orchestra that is Indiana’s oldest continually operating professional symphony. The Terre Haute Symphony began in 1926. “We hope people will take the risk of coming to hear (J.T.) play with their own orchestra,” Bowden said. “That will be fun.”
Source: (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star, http://bit.ly/2Ailznn
Information from: Tribune-Star, http://www.tribstar.com
This is an AP-Indiana Exchange story offered by the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star.