The inspiring journey of drummer Adam Box
By Stephen Corbett
Photography by Marianne Todd
Witb his place in history as the “Father of Country Music,” Jimmie Rodgers is easily Meridian, Mississippi’s, most historically famous musical figure. But if Rodgers is the father of country music, Martha Eleanor McWilliams Ethridge has been the matriarch of Meridian’s music scene for at least the last 50 years.
When she passed on January 5 at the age of 97, a cornucopia of musicians who were inspired by her, learned from, or were peers with her sons Chris, Tommy and Joey, gathered to celebrate her life by making joyous music in her honor after the funeral.
Among those in attendance was Adam Box, drummer for one of country music’s hottest acts, Brothers Osborne, who took a break during his busy “Dirt Rich” touring schedule to pay his respects. And while his friendship with this matriarch's eldest son, Chris Ethridge, the Flying Burrito Brother who would eventually played bass with Willie Nelson, was a major point in his journey to playing in sold out stadiums across the country, he has been on this path since for as long as he can remember.
“I distinctly remember a drum kit in our carport in our house in Zero, Mississippi,” he says. “I can actually remember playing on them in a highchair. It was my uncle Danny who brought the drums,” Box says. “I still have these flashbacks to that moment in my head.”
Like so many other musicians from the southern United States, Box ended up making his start in the church. It helped that the church he attended with his family each Sunday was one of the more progressive churches in the area – and one filled with musicians.
“We had a reputation as being a hippie church with the long haired guys,” he laughs. “It was really out of the norm to have drums at a church in the '80s – especially around Meridian. The Southern Baptists would always give us flack. There were a lot of guys that had left the bar scene and given up the drugs and alcohol and started playing in church.”
David Boles was the church’s drummer at the time. Boles’ son, Jeff, was also a drummer and next in line for the coveted position.
“He was a little older than me, so naturally he was better,” Box says. “That rivalry made me hungry and made me want to get better. And honestly, being the drummer at that church was the top of the food chain.”
From the time that he could keep a steady beat, Box was allowed to come up and play a few songs during the service. Jeff Boles eventually switched to bass, and Box became the church’s official drummer when he was 15, a position he held for the next few years. Because the church services were televised, he became accustomed to playing in front of people and playing with cameras surrounding him.
“Finally, it became Daniel, the preacher’s son, on guitar. Jeff was on bass, and I was playing drums. My daddy was writing songs for us. We were ahead of the curve of turning secular songs into Christian songs. He was doing things like changing ‘I Shot the Sherriff’ to ‘I Shot the Devil.’ We were reworking Skynyrd songs and covering ‘Carry On, My Wayward Son.’ That’s what he grew up playing, and he was still a hippie at heart, but he wanted these to be Christian songs. We called ourselves the C.O.W.s. The Christians on the Warzone.”
Box never fell out of love with playing Christian-themed music, but as he got older, he began to crave a more aggressive sound. “The first time I heard Metallica’s 'Black Album,' I knew that was it. This is the sound. I listened to it front and back and learned every lick on that album as best as I could.”
From there, he discovered Metallica’s earlier material and was hooked. His first Metallica concert was a pivotal moment.
“I remember walking towards the arena and seeing how massive it was and hearing the crowd scream. It made the hair stand up all over my body. And I thought, ‘I want to do this. I can do this.’ I was determined to make a career out of it and play in places where people wanted to hear music.”
He made the switch from church musician on TV to a metal drummer on the bar scene and convinced his less-than-thrilled parents to let him play in a battle of the bands in Starkville, Mississippi. There, he met the musicians he would play with for the next six years, Absence of Concern, and formed a lifelong friendship with band mate Jon Day Lee, who encouraged Box to write his own lyrics.
The band would become one of the biggest rock bands in Jackson, Mississippi, opening for national acts like Bob Segar, but they were not meant to be the band that Box would see his biggest success with. He returned to Meridian where he took a day job doing flooring. It wasn't long before his next big musical influence showed up.
“Steve Watson is a guitarist who was one of the teachers at Mississippi Music and used to play with Wayne Newton. He asked me if I wanted to play some jazz with him. It was territory I had never been in, but I went along with it. He let me know that he was going to bringing Chris Ethridge with him. I had heard the name, but didn’t really know who he was. Then, Steve told me that Chris had played for everyone. He played with Willie Nelson, and that was huge for me.”
Ethridge, who had been a Los Angeles studio musician during the '60s and '70s, playing with everyone from Linda Ronstadt to Joan Baez, Ry Cooder, The Doors, The Byrds, Bill Withers, Dave Mason and more, saw something special in Box and became a mentor of sorts. It started with Box hanging out and jamming at Ethridge’s house and progressed to Box driving him to gigs before a 3 a.m. breakfast at the Queen City Truck Stop, the city's popular post-gig greasy spoon.
“He’d let me know when Spooner Oldham (Aretha Franklin, Neil Young) was coming to town. My friends didn’t know who these people were. They were hanging out at dance clubs and just thought I was spending my time with this old guy. But he knew everyone, and I knew that he was the best bass player that I knew, and with me being a drummer, we were like two peas in a pod.”
Ethridge’s years in the music business had exposed him to the pitfalls that come with playing in rock bands, and while he encouraged Box’s musical ambitions, he also warned him about the mistakes he’d seen and those he’d made himself.
“I remember sitting in his mother’s house once, holding his platinum album for playing on Willie’s 'Stardust' record. He was reading the paper or something, and just looked up at me and said, ‘You’ll get one of those someday.’ And he made me crazy enough to believe that I could actually do it. He made it personal. I can give him most of the credit for my move to Nashville.”
In 2010, Box made the Nashville move. “So, I got a call from John Osborne saying that he heard I was available and wanted to know if I wanted to fill in for some weekend gigs they had lined up. At first, I was just filling in. Then, I’m on a tour bus. And then they called me to get my information to put me on the direct deposit payroll.”
Those weekend gigs turned into a full-fledged membership in the band and recording on the debut full-length release “Pawn Shop” on EMI Nashville Records. And in an unprecedented move in Nashville, Brothers Osborne recorded the album with their band, and not with studio musicians.
“It’s just happened to be the right time,” T.J. Osborne says. “A lot of artists were starting to change. There’s a new wave of artists – Kacey Musgraves, Chris Stapleton, people like that. Country music listeners were getting kind of burned out on the same thing.”
“We wanted it to feel live,” John Osborne adds. “Studio musicians are precise and good on the fly, but we wanted to take a different direction. And we’re also pretty terrible about not being ourselves.”
The record is in some ways a throwback to the Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings era but still has a foot in modern music, thanks to the brothers' blending of genres and the groove that Box picked up from his years of playing church music, heavy metal and practicing with Ethridge.
“Stay a Little Longer,” the second single from “Pawn Shop,” was nominated for a Grammy for Best Country Duo/Group Performance at the 58th Annual Grammy Awards. In addition to being the band's most successful song to date, it took on a bigger meaning for Box.
“So, last year, Pete (Sternberg) came up to me and handed me a box. I opened it up, and it was a gold record,” Box says. “Even when I get excited, I usually don’t say much or show the emotions, but I was ecstatic to the point where I just couldn’t stop laughing. I thought, 'This is exactly what Chris said I was going to get.' Then I realized that it wasn’t. Then a month ago, it went platinum. I hope it isn’t the last, but I did exactly what he said I would.”
Ethridge, who died on April 23, 2012, didn't live to see the moment, but Box says he knows his mentor was happy.
“Chris’ favorite Willie Nelson song was ‘Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.’ He talked about it over and over and over again, but that’s not why it makes me think of him. The first line of the song is ‘If you would not have fallen, then I would not have found you.’ And if Chris would not have fallen back into Meridian, then I never would’ve met him, and I might not be where I am today.”