Feature Stories

From Dallas to Nashville, Bryan Keeling Lives His Dream from Behind His Drum Kit

Bryan Keeling's got a busy day ahead of him, and it's already 7:30 p.m. He’s sitting behind his drum kit in Minneapolis, and his next eight hours will be a marathon practice session with his new band before kicking off a tour. The catch? He has to learn the drum parts for 29 songs by tomorrow, but he isn't fazed.

"Usually after playing through a song twice, I've already got it," he says over the phone, with a genuine tone of ease. “I’m excited to get started.”

Today, Keeling calls Nashville his home. He spent years touring with Shooter Jennings, has played with artists like P!nk and Macy Gray, and his own songwriting has been recognized by Rolling Stone, used on CSI and played on talk shows. He's made a living as a studio musician in both Music City and, before that, in Los Angeles, but it was in Dallas that he got his start as a musician.

Keeling was born in Albuquerque ("The ABQ," if you ask Jesse Pinkman) and moved to Dallas for several years in childhood before moving back to New Mexico. Then he returned to the Big D in ninth grade and attended Hillcrest High School, where he joined nearly every type of music program offered — ensembles, band, jazz groups. By then, he already knew how to play in almost any time signature, and could keep up while drumming along to Rush.

During his summers, Keeling would even get involved with musicals in Addison, where he’d play drums and percussion. He says it requires another level of coordination beyond just being a musician to synchronize yourself with not only other musicians, but actors on a stage. “Your brain has to be super organized for that,” he says with a laugh. “There’s so much going on at once and you have to keep time.”

For his senior year in high school, Keeling auditioned for Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and was accepted. He said this environment pushed him harder than ever before, because he was surrounded by artists who had already proven they were serious about their crafts. And being one of them, he was extra motivated to further his studies.

“Everyone around me could play, and it made me want to practice even more,” he says. “No one there was indifferent or laid-back about their work. We all had to audition, the stakes were already raised.”

It also provided Keeling with relief from one of his biggest issues forming bands. He didn’t have to deal with musicians who were only doing it for their egos, for girls or for fame. “I want to know my bandmates are committed to playing the best they can, not doing just enough to get by,” he says. “I was always trying to improve myself, to make my drumming better.”

Though he was too young to go to clubs during his time in Dallas, he’d often check out jazz bands playing at SMU, or see UNT’s Grammy-winning One O’Clock Lab Band perform in the area. And even though he couldn’t always go see them, he was still influenced by the ‘80s Dallas acts of his time, including Brave Combo, Ten Hands and the New Bohemians. Brandon Aly, drummer and founding member for the New Bos, was a former classmate of Keeling's.

Many of his alumni from Booker T., as well as his college years at Berklee School of Music in Boston, have all ended up proliferating into the national music scene and working with big names ranging from Alanis Morisette to Kanye West to Fiona Apple. "I could spend hours talking about the people I've played with," he says.

Those years spent in Dallas laid the groundwork for the opportunities that came down the road. After his time at Berklee, he pinballed from coast to coast a handful of times to figure out how he wanted to make his living as a drummer. His longest gig was with Jennings' band, with whom the song he wrote, "Bull," would be featured on CSI. Today, his main focus is playing with Nashville's New Black Seven, whose next record is slated to be recorded at Abbey Road — "Definitely a bucket list item right there," he admits.

“Music has saved me,” Keeling says. “So my entire goal is to give back, at this point. To give other people what it gave me, and to continue learning more.”

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Matt Wood
Contact: Matt Wood

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