Tim Sergent grew up in Ashland, but has been a musician making a living in Nashville for the last 25 years. He has been a member of Bentley's band for almost eight years now. While Sergent has been known to play the Dobro on occasion, and he will also step up to play the banjo during Bentley's mid-concert bluegrass set, the steel guitar is his instrument of choice.
While growing up in Ashland, Sergent began his life as a musician at a young age.
"Banjo is my first instrument," said Sergent, in a telephone interview with The Herald-Dispatch. "My Dad and Mom could sing. They'd sing at church a lot, and I have no idea why they ended up buying me a banjo. They bought me a little toy banjo, and you could tune it. It had a real head on it, and Dad could play just enough banjo to be able to tune it. He could pick a few things, but he couldn't do a three-finger roll or anything. Mom would sit around and sing Gospel songs and I'd learn how to pick out the melodies. Then, I got into the three-finger (Earl) Scruggs style shortly thereafter and learned how to do that. I'm still learning."
Sergent was well-known as a banjo player back in the day. Yet, while gigging at a local Tri-State country music show years ago, he watched a steel guitar player do his magic and he was hooked.
"I was playing at the Coalton Country Jubilee near Catlettsburg, Kentucky, and there was an old fellow there named Buddy Gearhart, who used to play on the Saturday Night Jamboree in Huntington with Connie Smith and everybody," said Sergent. "Buddy played steel guitar out there, and I was playing guitar, and man, he played pretty. He couldn't play fast or anything, but he played really pretty stuff. I would just stand there and look over his shoulders. Finally I said, 'Man, I got to have me one of those.' So, I ended up getting a steel guitar and he'd show me little bits, here and there."
Sergent would go on to play in many area clubs and local venues back in the day, including in Huntington.
"I did play around Huntington," said Sergent. "Myself and Randall Hackney and Dennis Deere had a band called Quarterhorse. Randall was the lead singer. He just passed away not too long ago. We played around that area a lot. We played country and old rock music, whatever you had to play in the bars back then."
Unlike many musicians who move to Nashville to find work in the music business, when Sergent headed to Music City USA, he already had a job lined up, playing for country artist Larry Brown in 1989.
"It was pretty easy," said Sergent, about making the big decision to move to Nashville. "I knew that was what I wanted to do. And, if that was what I wanted to do, you have to be present to win. So, I moved down here."
After working for Brown, Sergent went on to work with musicians such as Ricky Skaggs, Clay Walker and a high-profile run with the Dixie Chicks. Then, Sergent was hired by singer Pam Tillis, and that led to a multi-year gig with Pam's father, Country Music Hall of Famer Mel Tillis. His next stop would be Dierks Bentley's band.
"I've been working with Dierks for the last seven and a half years," said Sergent. "He called me. I guess he heard I was looking for a gig. Mel was based out of Branson (Missouri), so I had to drive from Nashville to Branson to meet the bus, a seven and a half hour drive just to get on a bus. Dierks called me one day and said, 'Man, my steel player quit. I heard you might be looking for a job.' I said, 'Well, you're right.' He said, 'Well, I travel a lot.' I said, 'I know. I've heard.' I think the first time I got on the bus, I asked the driver, 'How many days have you logged this year?' He said, 'You don't want to know.' I said, 'Yeah, I do.' He said, '316.'
It would be the beginning of a long stretch on the road for Sergent, the weary underside of the music business.
"I think we did 240 shows that year," said Sergent. "We did 41 shows in 45 days, working almost every night. We went 25 days in a row without a break. I've actually been in a hotel room and had to go look at a book of matches or something to figure out what city I'm in. It's like the movie 'Groundhog Day,' man. Every day is exactly the same. The worst part is being gone from my family. My wife and daughter spend a lot of time without me. My daughter is 15, and I watched her grow up in pictures, to quote a good Alabama song."
Still, when the lights go down, and the crowd starts to stir and the band kicks into the first song, that is when all of the traveling pays off.
"That's the best," said Sergent, about the hours spent onstage playing for an audience. "I guess I get paid for playing, but that is the fun part. I've been blessed. It's been a great ride. I've worked with some really great artists. All of them have been great, from Larry Brown all of the way up to Dierks. I haven't had any problems with any of them."