CGHS Alum Jeff Marino Talks Musical Journey, Playing With Darius Rucker, Blake Shelton & More

Photography Provided by ElleJaye Photography & Keith Griner

Jeff Marino has traveled the world playing drums with some of the biggest names in the music industry including Darius Rucker, Blake Shelton, Jo Dee Messina, Allison Moorer and many others. He’ll always point back to Central Indiana, nevertheless, as the place where he not only first discovered his love of musical performance but also his courage to always try new things and meet challenges head-on.

A Center Grove native and lifelong fan of Motown and rock music, Marino expressed interest in joining the school band back in middle school and soon found himself with a pair of drumsticks in his hands.

“I wanted to get into trumpet, but Samantha Fields, the band teacher, apparently thought I wasn’t very good,” Marino recalls. “She had me repeat a few percussion rhythms, and she thought I was good enough to start on that. It was game on at that point.”

By the end of eighth grade Marino was well into private lessons and playing nearly every day, and as a freshman at Center Grove High School (CGHS) he was already exploring musical opportunities outside of school including the Indianapolis Youth Symphony, for which he eventually served as principal percussionist and drumming spots with a few local rock bands.

“Center Grove band was great and I enjoyed it, but it was also important for me to see what was outside of that,” he says. “I wanted to see what else the world had to offer, and my teacher, Kevin Kaiser, at the Drum Center of Indianapolis turned me on to some great opportunities that helped me improve, and that always led me on to something better.”

After graduating from CGHS in 1991, it was off to study drums and percussion at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Marino learned while forging personal and professional relationships during his four years of college that there was more than one way to break into the music industry as a skilled drummer and percussionist.

“Instead of going for a record deal and chasing that for a long time, when I moved to Nashville I ended up going into my career with the mentality that I could have a job playing for whoever, and if one artist doesn’t need me to work for them after a while I can go on to the next guy,” he says. “And Nashville seemed kind of like a little-big city like Indianapolis so it made more sense to me than going out to L.A. or New York.”

A year after graduating, Marino found himself in Nashville networking and seeking out drumming jobs, and a fortuitous meeting during one particular audition led to some long-lasting friendships and good career fortune.

“I met a guy through an audition who is now Blake Shelton’s bass player and band leader,” he explains. “His wife and Blake wrote and sang together. We all became buddies and our circle was just broke kids trying to get into the business, helping each other out when we could. That social circle still exists, and a bunch of us have gone on to succeed which is cool.”

For Marino, that success includes stints behind the drums with Hank Williams III, Phil Vassar, The Warren Brothers and Bo Bice, in addition to Messina, Moorer, Shelton and many more. Since 2008, Marino has toured consistently with country musician Darius Rucker, and he says the job has perhaps been the most enjoyable of his career so far.

“I originally only signed on with Darius for a month, and within a few weeks it turned into this 11-year gig,” he says. “We’ve probably done more than 1,000 shows now, and the best part is that we all just get along. You’re spending 24 hours a day with people when you’re out on tour, and just being a good person is as important as your ability.”

With countless shows and tours under his belt, Marino still reflects often on his early days on the southside of Indy to remind himself that hard work, dedication and preparation can pay off.

“The music business is never kind, and people will tell you at an early age that you can’t do this or that, and you’ll never be good enough to get to a certain level,” he says. “You have to learn to tune it out and keep your eye on what you want to do and not lose focus on that.”