Clay Hess is a Grammy award winner who first burst upon the nationalBluegrass music scene as the red-hot flat-picking guitarist with RickySkaggs & Kentucky Thunder, with whom he toured for three years. With his amazing speed and tasty sense of syncopation, Hess has established himself as one of the top flat-pickers in the business.
Clay began playing guitar at age nine after hearing Tony Rice’s landmark recording, ”Manzanita.” From there, Clay’s life was changed because all he did was play his old cheap guitar. Before too long, Clay got his first “real” guitar when his dad bought him a new Martin D18 for his birthday. Clay continued to hone his skills and develop his own style, winning guitar contests along the way, including the Ohio State Guitar Championship in 1995. When he was 19, Clay landed a gig at Dollywood playing guitar with the band True Blue. Fellow musicians began noticing Clay’s talents as a country and bluegrass guitarist, one of them was multi-Grammy Award winning country bluegrass artist Ricky Skaggs.
Eventually Clay left Dollywood to return home to Ohio. While working in construction, he had nearly quit playing altogether when Skaggs called in 1999 and asked him to fill the guitar slot for Kentucky Thunder. Clay thought the call was a joke and hung up the phone. Ricky called a second time and convinced Clay that the ofer was real. Clay spent the next three years performing with Kentucky Thunder. While he was part of the band, the International Bluegrass Music Association awarded Kentucky Thunder their Instrumental Band of the Year Award for both 1999 and 2000. Clay recorded on three projects with Skaggs and was awarded a Grammy for his participation on the project ”Soldier of the Cross.”
After leaving Skaggs’ band, Clay toured with some of Bluegrass and Acoustic music’s elite, including The Mark Newton Band, Mountain Heart and Sierra Hull. Hess largely considers himself a Bluegrass player, although his influences range outside of the genre and include luminaries such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Charlie Parker and Leon Rhodes. The legendary CF Martin guitar company even produced a Clay Hess D-18 signature model guitar.
In 2011, Clay co-produced his solo recording, Rain with Grammy award winning producer and fellow ace musician, Randy Kohrs. The album showcased Clay’s scorching guitar, his exceptional writing, a stellar band and his ridiculously solid and unique vocal talent. Rain won over fans and critics alike and saw chart success at Bluegrass radio, both terrestrial and satellite reaching the #1 spot. The Clay Hess Band is poised to grow their already existing fan base with a great lineup of touring musicians alongside Hess, including Missouri native Irl Hees on bass and vocals, Virginian Zach Gilmer on banjo. Clay’s son, Brennan, on rhythm guitar, and North Carolina native Nick Keen on mandolin and vocals.
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He began working with Oklahoma banjo player Kenny Cantrell the following year, and took several more regional band gigs over the next 10 years. Irl was the original bassist in the Midwest group “Radio Flyer”, and in the late 80′s, Irl began a group called “Down The Road”. The band lasted about 6 years. It was during this time that he joined with several others to produce and record “The Missouri Session”, a CD devoted to showcasing several Midwest bluegrass bands and musicians in a studio setting.
Nick Keen - Mandolin, Vocals
Tone, Taste & Timing, the 3-T’s of music, became Nick Keen’s mantra as he studied his way into the exhilarating player which now has every head turning. Identified as the 2010 Merlefest Mandolin Champion, his tasteful style reflects the various styles of music that influenced him. Yet, his fresh, young perspective remains original. Nick’s melodic playing and solid timing are the reason He was awarded 2010 IBMA Emerging Artist with the Josh Williams Band.
From East Bend, NC, Nick was a quick study from the age of eleven. His explosive talent quickly caught the attention of peers and fans as he played with his father in a Gospel quartet, The Rose of Sharon. Now highly sought as a musician, he toured throughout the southeast with the popular group, Broken Wire.
Adam Steffey said of Nick, “I’m fortunate enough to travel all over the country and get to hear a lot of good music and meet a lot of good musicians.
Nick Keen is one of those musicians. He has the tone, timing, and taste that make his mandolin playing recognizable, but unique. I think that we’re going to be hearing this man’s playing for a long time to come. And, in my opinion that’s a GREAT thing!!”
Brennan Hess – Rhythm Guitar, Vocals
Clay often jokes when introducing the second guitarist on stage, “If you think you’re seeing double, it’s because you are.” Clay’s oldest son, Brennan Hess, has a style very much like his dad’s, though the way he picked it up may not have come about the way one would imagine after having the privilege of growing up with an award-winning guitarist for a parent. Brennan surprised Clay one day when he invited him to pick a little. Clay was unaware that Brennan had been learning and equally as shocking as hearing his son play for the first time was the eery sensation of feeling as though he was seeing a smaller version of himself playing in front of him. “Where did you learn to do that?” was the obvious question once the tune was over. “Duh,” Brennan said. “I have your instructional DVD.” Clay was all too happy to invite Brennan to be a part of The Clay Hess Band and he has since proven himself a valuable vocalist, as well.
Zach Gilmer – Banjo, Vocals
Zach first came on the national scene as the banjo player with Carrie Hassler and Hard Rain, filling the spot vacated by Josh Miller. After going off the bluegrass grid for a while, Zach resurfaced with Sierra Hull and Highway 111, playing banjo, guitar, and singing harmony. It was at this point in time that he and Clay crossed paths for the first time. Zach was the original banjo choice for the band but the timing wasn’t right. Fortunately, for the CHB, when John Meyer departed, the timing was finally right.
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