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September 30, 2020IM -
You don’t often hear a Music City drawl layered on top of a Russian accent, but that’s far from the only way that Nashville picker Ilya Toshinskiy is one-of-a-kind. Born in Obninsk, a small city about an hour south of Moscow, Toshinskiy got his childhood musical start on the classical guitar. He studied with a teacher who also happened to be a bluegrass buff, and soon found himself similarly captivated by the percussive twang of that uniquely American instrument, the banjo, learning classic tunes like “Cumberland Gap” and “Cripple Creek” and eventually forming his own band, Bering Strait.
Bering Strait found its way to the US several times on tour, eventually catching the ear of producer Brent Maher, best known for his work with The Judds. A recording contract and some shiny new work visas led to a transcontinental move and a triumphant entrée into the Nashville scene. It was right around this time that Toshinskiy joined the AFM, signing up with Nashville’s Local 257 and jumping onto several of Maher’s studio projects. “Brent Maher thought I had something new to offer in the studio, so he got me right in,” Toshinskiy recalls. “The first song I recorded on ended up being a No. 1 hit song: Kenny Rogers’ “Buy Me a Rose.” But I actually couldn’t get paid until some visa paperwork was approved, so I was getting these union-rate paychecks, but it all went into escrow. When the visa finally came through, I got a nice little payday.”
Toshinskiy enjoys playing live, but the studio is where he has primarily built his musical career. Banjo isn’t his only instrument: He also plays guitar, mandolin, dobro, bouzouki … really, anything with strings. His chops and versatility have made Toshinskiy a mainstay on bluegrass and country music tracks. Reading through his studio credits is like flipping through a honky-tonk jukebox: Blake Shelton, George Strait, Keith Urban, Brooks & Dunn, and dozens of other chart-toppers. His golden touch has made him a five-time winner of the MusicRow Award for Best Guitar Player (for playing on the most Top 10 Billboard records) as well as a two-time winner of the coveted Academy of Country Music Player of the Year (Specialty Instruments).
Toshinskiy’s high demand as a session player has come to be something of a blessing in the era of COVID-19, where live music remains largely on hiatus but artists are using their time at home to write and record while fans, bored at home, are seeking out new and fun things to listen to. This means that he’s finding himself in the studio “on average, about seven hours a day,” he says, but depending on the project, some weeks he feels like he barely leaves. “[That] doesn’t surprise me,” says Dave Pomeroy, Local 257 president. “Ilya is one of the busiest musicians in Nashville, and he has been since he got here.”
Several years of steady studio work, which Toshinskiy attributes to good relationships with producers combined with the generous and consistent paychecks that come with union-negotiated rates, have allowed him to explore a new business pursuit: real estate investment and development. Two years ago, he bought a piece of land in Berry Hill, a suburb of Nashville, and developed it into five townhomes. His next project is in downtown Nashville. “I find it to be a really nice yin and yang to the music business,” he says. “When you record a song, your royalties start high and then depreciate. With real estate, you have an asset that appreciates.”
Not particularly interested in politics (“I try to just see and understand both sides, always”), Toshinskiy, who came of age as the Soviet Union was falling, does scoff at the idea that organized labor is a harbinger of communism, a charge often levied against unions. Rather, he sees the union as helping to simply level the playing field for musicians. “We can negotiate this rate with the labels and create a good baseline for what we’ll make in the studio. The thought of doing that without the union, where you’re on your own for every job? It would just be really, really hard and I don’t think we’d get the same kind of fair deals,” he says. “And musicians in the studio really do contribute to the creative process and ultimately to the success of these records. We’re not robots, we bring something new and important to every record.”
Ilya Toshinskiy says: “My gear is all over the place. I prefer D’Addario strings, but everything else is different.”