Serving the song Guitarist Sadler Vaden inches closer to spotlight

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When he was 15 years old, Sadler Vaden wrote a 100-word essay on the topic “What Rock and Roll Means to Me.” The 15 contest winners would get a chance to meet Steven Van Zandt, famed as “Little Steven,” right-hand man to Bruce Springsteen and guitarist in The E Street Band.

“Every kid had a chance to jam with him, to talk to him for a minute,” Vaden recalled. “I asked him, do you have any advice for a guy who wants to play guitar for a living? He said, ‘Serve the song,’ and that’s stuck with me forever.”

Vaden, 28, and a former Summerville High School student, has followed that advice into his own version of Little Steven’s career path. In recent years, Vaden has made his living as sideman to two of the best songwriters and band leaders in the Southern rock/Americana music pantheon: Kevn Kinney of veteran rock band Drivin’ N Cryin’ and former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell.

It’s a role Vaden relishes, but one that he may outgrow soon.

“I don’t think he will be a side player for very much longer,” said Kinney, who employed Vaden as the lead guitar player in Drivin’ N Cryin’ for about three years, before Vaden hooked up with Isbell and his band, The 400 Unit. “Sadler is an incredible songwriter and producer. This will be an era when he plays guitar for other people, but he won’t be a side player for the rest of his life.

“Have you heard his stuff? I won’t be surprised if he writes a Katy Perry hit or something like that. He’s got a really great pop sensibility to the stuff he writes.”

Vaden, who was born in Charlotte, grew up in North Myrtle Beach and moved to Summerville when he was 13, traces his love of music to the Farm Aid concert in 1996 at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia. His parents took him to the show, which featured Hootie and the Blowfish, the Beach Boys, Son Volt, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp.

“My dad kept saying, ‘Wait until the big boys come out, pal,’ ” Vaden recalled. “He was talking about Neil Young and Crazy Horse. I still remember my chest rattling from the volume of ‘Hey Hey, My My.’”

Thus inspired, father Chuck Vaden went home and pulled his old guitar out of the closet. He taught Sadler how to play simple versions of “Hey Hey, My My” and “Pink Houses,” and Sadler’s career path was set. He never had to deal with the “turn that guitar down” cliche from his parents, both of whom have passed away.

“My parents were hippies,” Vaden said. “My dad was sort of a blue-collar entrepreneur, and my mom was a waitress and cleaned houses. But they always had people around, and my dad was into rock and roll and a great collection of vinyl. My dad was always like, ‘Turn it up, keep going.’ And that really matters. They really supported my passion, and I had the passion for it when I was really young. By the time I was 13, I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

Vaden’s first break came as a result of his mom, Scarlet. She worked as a waitress at Eva’s Restaurant on Main Street in Summerville, and noticed that Greg Walker, drummer for the band The Blue Dogs, was a frequent customer. After several “my son plays guitar” conversations, Walker called Vaden and invited him to a jam session.

That led to some shows with the Blue Dogs before Vaden formed his own band, Leslie. Vaden dropped out of Summerville High during his junior year to give the band his full attention, working at a pizza joint in Park Circle in North Charleston for a while.

“I don’t condone quitting school,” said Vaden, who made sure to earn his GED. “But for me it was a different path.”

Leslie toured widely and produced an EP in 2009 and an album called “Lord, Have Mercy” in 2011. But it was at about that time that Vaden made a life-changing decision: He’d break up the band and move to Nashville.

“It was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do,” Vaden said. “We did feel at times that we were close (to making it), but we could never really get things going on a touring level ... I felt like, I’m 25, I’ve been in a band since I was 18, it’s time to try something else.”

Vaden first landed the gig with Drivin’ N Cryin’, touring with Kinney’s band and helping produce the “Songs” series of records that summed up the band’s long career.

“Sadler is an old soul, an incredible musician,” Kinney said. “He plays like the 1980s and ’90s never happened, which is really kind of groovy. You don’t get somebody showing off tapping and doing all this other stuff. He’s got a really great musical language that I really appreciate, and I think Jason Isbell will, too.”

Isbell, pursuing his solo career after leaving the Drive-By Truckers, noticed Vaden’s talents and invited him to join his band, The 400 Unit, in March of last year. With Isbell, Vaden has appeared on “Austin City Limits,” “Late Night With David Letterman,” “Live From Lincoln Center” on PBS and other TV shows.

“Jason is great to work with, and it’s been a wonderful ride,” Vaden said.

In between gigs, Vaden works on his own stuff. He produced a solo CD called “Radio Road” in 2012, describing it as “kind of Big Star and a little Tom Petty,” and is working on a new album now. He said he can see himself with sort of a Joe Walsh career: the Eagles’ guitarist also makes his own records, tours on his own and with the band, and plays on other people’s records.

“No. 1 is surviving while doing what I love,” said Vaden, who plans to get married this summer in Charleston to Candice Summers, a College of Charleston graduate. “It’s not all about the money, but if you can balance those things, you can be happy. I just feel fortunate to make ends meet doing what I love to do.”