“I was learning how to walk in October, finished my chemo in December, and was on the road in March.” This was how Nashville-based drummer and philanthropist Billy Brimblecom summed up 2005 and 2006. He was 28 and enjoying a busy schedule in his hometown of Kansas City, MO, when he was diagnosed with a form of bone cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma. To save his life, his left leg had to be amputated above the knee. An ordeal that would end the career and break the spirit of many drummers barely seemed to slow Billy down. He set his sites on Nashville and moved there in 2009. For a 32-year-old amputee, the safe bet would have been to stay in the city where he grew up, was widely known and loved, had consistent work with some of the region’s biggest acts (including Blackpool Lights, Waterdeep, and multiple tribute bands), and enjoyed a broad network of support. But he felt Nashville calling him and couldn’t ignore it.
Today he is wearing multiple hats (and a computerized prosthetic leg) as a working drummer and the executive director of the Steps of Faith Foundation, and has found new purpose on stage and off. 2014 was busy for Billy, with frequent duties in the drum chair for Nashville-based singer/songwriter Katie Herzig, highlighted by a spring tour and an appearance at South By Southwest. His Nashville resume (which includes The Whistles and the Bells, Matthew Perryman Jones, and Ruby Amanfu) is hard-won, the result of patience, persistence, positivity, and faith. As soon as got there, he knew he had to avoid the obvious routes into music scene.
“If you go to the Honky Tonks on Broadway [Nashville’s iconic row of clubs], there’s some good stuff about it, but some of them are not cool at all. I don’t want to go into a ‘country’ bar and hear a cover band playing AC/DC. I have a bass player friend whose bread and butter is playing on Broadway all the time, three or four nights a week. It’s not good money, but he’s a young single guy, he’s into it. Had I moved here when I was 22, I’d have dove right into that.” Instead, Billy sought out the hidden corners of the city where locals go, where he felt more genuine music was played; places like Tootsie’s, The Basement, and Robert’s Western World where “you can literally buy boots and a burger and a Budweiser, and see really legit traditional country all the time.” Nashville is know as a Country music mecca, but Billy is quick to mention there’s a lot more to it than that. “It became a music town because of the infrastructure that Country built; clubs, studios, etc.,” he says, but he’s found the scene to be rich and diverse.
Although low pay was one of the reasons Billy passed over much of the Broadway scene, he does make exceptions for the right people and the right situations. “I have ‘worked with people’ on pay for live gigs. This has often been with folks I’ve worked with in the studio and I know their budget is low to begin with. I believe in them and think they’d rule with a live band and want to help them. These folks usually don’t think they can ever afford a band that’s worth a crap [for live gigs] and I try to dispel that. And let me be clear—I’m in no way trying to de-value myself, my abilities, my time, or whatever—it’s just about helping people out, and having a clear benefit on my end as well.”
When it comes to networking, Billy stresses the importance of creating relationships and friendships with people, rather than merely being a professional hustler. “I was doing all I could do to reach out to people and carve this thing for myself. I was trying to get together with anybody I could for coffee. Some of them I only saw a couple times and some of them are friends I have to this day. It’s like dating, sometimes it clicks and sometimes it doesn’t. It did result in work and still does, but the best situations I’ve been in have resulted from just becoming friends with people I met organically rather than trying to force it. The things I’ve done the most, work-wise, are the things that came the most naturally.” He also stresses patience, trusting that the relationships you form will result in work. “You move, you need money, you get a job as a server. You meet so-and-so, go through these levels of people who are kind of cool but not good musicians, and eventually you’re in an audition where you connect with this bass player who’s totally legit. He’s connected to this guitar player who’s even more legit and the next thing you know, you have this gig that’s legit. That’s why it just…takes…time.”
When Billy moved to Nashville in 2009, was 32 and had been playing in clubs since he was 16. He had the confidence of a seasoned pro but he soon found himself in some new, challenging scenarios, one of which was an audition for Little Big Town. “It was four songs, I was very prepared. From a drumming standpoint, it was really middle of the road…but it was a bizarre experience.” Even though Billy didn’t get the gig, he didn’t leave the audition empty-handed. “Chris McHugh, the drummer that played on their records, was running the audition and some of the critiques he gave me really improved my playing. There was a song that had a kind of train beat with brushes, and he said he couldn’t hear the notes in between the backbeats. And every song, he would stop me and tell me I was too far on the back end of the click. I had noticed that about my playing sometimes, listening to playbacks of sessions. It did feel a little behind sometimes—too behind, not just like ‘man, that boy plays greasy.’ I realized I had almost always accented the quarter note really hard and leaned so far into it that it pulled me slightly behind. It’s the same thing with the train beat—I was leaning into the backbeat but it’s all about the subdivision. So I started thinking of my hihat or ride patterns as more of a line than a pulse, let the other drums do [the pulse]. I’ve always tried to have a good feel which is why I had that quarter accent all the time (which is occasionally) appropriate, but I think my playing felt better overall after that.”
He counts smoothing some of the edges on his feel as an improvement, but Billy also began to see how the Nashville session scene can favor drumming with no edges at all. “So much of it is paint by numbers, they just hire the guy who can do the thing that the producer can manipulate well [in digital post-production]. I hope for more opportunities to be me.” He’s found some of those opportunities among musicians like vocalist Ruby Amanfu and bassist Dominic John Davis (two of Jack White’s frequent collaborators), who want their music to sound and feel hand-made. “Playing with Ruby, I’d be checking tempos on my phone or whatever and Dominic would say ‘you don’t need to look at the tempo.’” This encouraged Billy to trust his musical instincts, let the right tempos and feels come from the inside out. “They’re coming from the Jack White school, which is just humans in a room making music without computers and software, and that’s the school that I grew up in.”
So how has missing most of his left leg factored into all this playing? Billy is very matter-of-fact about his relearning process, and does not give the impression that quitting was ever an option. “I went from having my foot, ankle and knee to operate the hi-hat, to having my hip [to move his prosthetic leg]. I was afraid that I wouldn’t have a sense of when my foot came off the pedal and I was right. During that time, Blackpool Lights did a short tour in Japan. I had our manager Alex duct-tape my foot to the pedal so it wouldn’t come off. We played the next day and I was looking around for Alex, and this Japanese stagehand comes up to me with a roll of duct tape all wide-eyed. He points to my foot and says ‘Me tape?’ My step-grandfather actually built this thing on my hi-hat pedal, like a box that went over the top of it so my foot couldn’t come out, kind of like a stirrup. I still have that hi-hat but I don’t need to use it anymore.” Keeping his prosthetic foot from slipping off the hihat pedal required better balance and economy of motion overall, so he was also forced to focus on his posture and movement behind the kit. “When I was younger, I had teachers tell me that I’d move around a lot when I played—movement not necessary for playing. So I had to move less to keep the open vs. closed hi-hat sounds from being all herky-jerky. That was pretty tough, I had to sit up straighter and little things like that.”
In 2013, Billy co-founded the Steps of Faith Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides prosthetics to amputees who can’t afford them. “The guy who owns the prosthetic clinic where I’m a patient had been trying to get this non-profit off the ground for years. He and I started talking about working together.” The price tag for Billy’s prosthetic leg was $60,000. His insurance covered half. The other half was raised by his network of friends, family and colleagues rallying around him, putting on benefit concerts and donation drives. “I benefitted from charity when I needed my leg,” he says, and Steps of Faith is his way of paying that charity forward. “We help people who don’t have any insurance or any means to raise that kind of money at all. We buy prosthetic parts at cost and we find practitioners to do the time and labor for free. There’s a peer counseling side to it as well. Obviously it’s close to my heart, and other than losing my leg, it’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do.”
Since Billy and most of his connections are in the music business, and since his story was part of its founding, Steps of Faith cannot help but have a musical soul. One of its board members is Cactus Moser—drummer, bandleader and husband to Wynona Judd. “He and I got connected because he lost his leg in a motorcycle accident—also left leg, above the knee. We got in touch and became fast friends.” Another recent addition to the board is Los Angeles-based TV and film writer Kay Cannon. “She was like ‘We’re gonna raise money doing what we know…comedy and rock n’ roll.’ I want to have a partnership with artists where they’re backing the charity and pitching it from the stage. Early next year, I hope to have an online comp album…I’ve talked to a lot of friends about that so hopefully it’ll come to fruition as a fundraiser soon.”
As Billy steps into 2015, he is resolute and focused on his goals for Steps of Faith. “I feel like my mission right now is to get it fully built and sustainable so that it can operate without me. That may take years…” As for his goals behind the drums, he seems more concerned with the quality of his gigs rather than the quantity. “I played a show with The Whistles and the Bells a few weeks ago. It was for a live radio show, in a big room for a lot of people…it was a really rockin’ gig. There were moments in that show when I got the fix of the drug, the spark that started us in this. It was very fulfilling and really fun. I want to be in more situations like that.” With a laugh, he adds that he’s still not above every drummer’s dream of an arena tour with a major pop act, “like the Katy Perry gig. I would love that—ya know, click, all of the electronics, beat the drums really hard, wear some white suit with lights on it…I’ll do that, I don’t care!” Whether he’s at the helm of a band or a non-profit, whether he eventually lands the proverbial Katy Perry gig or keeps making more down-to-earth music in Nashville, Billy is sure to continue doing good work for good reasons.
To see him play the P.E. teacher (and the drummer) in Katie Herzig’s music video “Drug”, click here.