It’s hard enough to find a paying gig in the music business, but imagine being blessed to have a career for decades where, year after year, you work with the biggest musical artists in the country and pop arenas. That’s how life is for Edgar Struble, who, for well over a decade, has been the music director for major televised awards shows like the Academy of Country Music Awards, the Billboard Music Awards, the American Music Awards, and more. Via phone from his suburban Los Angeles home, the congenial Struble talked to American Songwriter about his job duties and working with some of the biggest stars in the industry, which he will be doing again later this year on both the ACM and Billboard awards.
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“My job as music director is twofold,” Struble said. “The first job is usually to write theme music and bumpers and rejoins; ‘bumpers’ are what you use to go out to commercial. Every time you hear ‘We’ll be right back, folks,’ with music going on underneath, that’s music that I’ve written. Then, coming back in from commercial, those are called ‘rejoins.’ And then, when somebody walks on stage, they generally play them on with a piece of music I’ve written.”
“I write about 25-30 cues for each show,” he continued. “And it’s really like writing songs. Only my songs don’t have words. They have melodies, sometimes several melodies, and they have what might be a chorus and a verse, they have an A section and a B section and sometimes even a C section.”
“Another part of that music director hat is that I’m there during rehearsals, should I be needed for advice or to supervise a rehearsal or to put together a medley. For instance, we arranged a choir for Taylor Swift one year. I would usually write those parts and conduct the choir, but it was interesting because, for that one, Taylor actually sang the parts that she wanted the choir to sing. I took them down and gave them to the choir, but it’s normally something I would write myself. We’ve also done string sections. To do those things that are sometimes unplanned, it requires somebody with a pretty vast understanding of music, of how it relates to television, of the union rules, all that stuff. I’m that guy.”
He’s “that guy” because, in addition to having a music education degree, Struble spent years on the road playing keyboards with a R&B band before working with the late Kenny Rogers and famous friends like Dolly Parton. “I’m a fairly well-rounded musician, I get along with people, I’m not uncomfortable around celebrities, and I have a pretty good working knowledge of television,” he said. “That was all learned around the Kenny Rogers campfire. I was with him for 15 years, first as a band member, then as a band member and music director. I was the guy that was in charge of all his television specials, and we’d do the Tonight Show about every other month, it seemed like. So I got exposed to that process. There’s no place to go to school for this.”
As part of his preparation for the awards productions, he said he makes sure he’s familiar with the music the artists will be performing. “I listen to everything that’s current, I listen to all of the artists that are gonna be on the show. I make sure that I know what their latest record is.” Struble has recorded several albums of his own, in addition to moving into film production. And while it’s a little dated today, his book, Working in the Music Industry, offers sage advice from both him and other industry professionals he interviewed over the years.
Struble said that recent awards shows have been delayed, but he’s looking forward to working on the ACMs and the Billboard show later this year. “They were planned for late May and, of course, like everything else, got postponed. I had just finished all the music for the ACMs and was preparing to go to work on the Billboard music when this COVID stuff popped up. So I have all this music in the computer right now that’s unmixed. The ACMs and Billboard music awards are usually in late spring, so I start writing for them in December or January so I don’t have to work on them last-minute.”
Struble hasn’t forgotten the roots of his career as a teenage band member in western Michigan. “Once in a while I get to perform on an awards show,” he said, “and that’s really the highlight of doing this. For instance, if the producers want to put together a medley and bring in several artists, and the issue is whether to use his band or her band or our band, I’ll just bring in a band of the great studio guys from Nashville, and I get to play in that band. That’s like I’ve died and gone to Heaven for me. I know all those guys from my years in Nashville, and they’re all just so good, they’re just amazing.”
He’s not very involved in the technical end of the productions, but said that, when performers get a bad rap for singing out of tune, it’s usually because of technical issues, and not something that should reflect on the ability of the artist. “Generally it’s monitor problems,” he said. “I practically guarantee you that, if someone’s gotten this far to have a recording contact, it’s pretty doubtful that they can’t sing. But nobody can sing if they can’t hear. You’re at the mercy of whoever’s running the monitors, and you can’t stop a performance on live television to fix it.”
This year’s postponed Billboard awards have yet to be rescheduled, while the ACMs, with Struble at the musical helm, are now slated for September 18th in Nashville.