Twenty-two year-old drumming prodigy Troy James Nalls is debuting in his first major professional gig tonight — in front of a nationally televised audience. Nalls will be the house drummer on a new show, Alter Ego, premiering tonight on Fox. The singing competition features contestants who are there to “reinvent themselves and perform like never before — as their dream avatar,” and provides ‘90s and early-2000s nostalgia featuring Alanis Morissette and Nick Lachey, and hosted by Rocsi Diaz.
The show is a huge break for Nalls, who was born in Austin but raised in Dallas. When Adam Blackstone, the uber-talented bassist, Emmy-nominated musical director, and mastermind behind some of the best live shows of the last decade — who happens to be Nalls’ first cousin — received a last-minute request to find a drummer for Alter Ego, Brian Frasier Moore, another respected industry giant and a mentor to Nalls, suggested Nalls for the job.
“The most important thing they’ve taught me is I didn’t have to be the best player,” Nalls says of Blackstone and Moore, whom he affectionately refers to as his “OG.” “Everyone has talent. It’s more about my character, my professionalism, how I carry myself. Can people stand to be around me for five to six months on the road? What I do away from the drums is often more important than what I can do with them.”
It’s easy to forget Nalls is a 22-year-old college student who loves to play NBA2K in his free time. He began playing various instruments from the age of two, but the drums are his favorite. His parents moved him from Austin to Dallas to immerse him in “Dallas’ culture of music,” he says, and allow him to attend some of the top schools for the arts: Greiner Exploratory Arts Academy and Booker T. Washington High School, home of Erykah Badu, Norah Jones, R.C. Williams (with whom Nalls has previously performed), and more.
“A lot of professional musicians live in Dallas. If Harry Connick Jr. has a concert here, he’s visiting one or both of those schools. If Justin Timberlake has a concert here, his band’s playing somewhere in Deep Ellum after. It’s just a different scene in that way,” says Nalls. Deep Ellum, often heralded as the live music capital of North Texas, served as “training grounds” for Nalls, who says he was able to “soak up knowledge being in the rooms with some greats.”
He dreams of being a musical director like his older cousin, but for the time being, Nalls is always looking for ways to learn more about the industry. When he’s not rehearsing music or playing what he’s paid to play, Nalls is listening to the latest music. In heavy rotation at the moment is Drake’s newest release, Certified Lover Boy; “If I could work with anyone dead or alive, it would be Drake,” he says.
But he also recognizes the importance of turning the music off and being a regular college student. “Music is an outlet for a lot of people. It is for me, but I’m a musician. I hear it all day, I listen to it all day and replay it and study it. So, sometimes I have to make myself step away,” he says.
With his career really taking off, the Austin native hopes to play some shows in his hometown. “I go back because we have family there,” he says. “Austin will always be special to me. I’ll never forget first picking up the drumsticks at Greater Calvary Baptist Church on Berkman Drive.”
I always knew I had opportunities and family support that many don’t have
But first, Nalls wants to finish up his last year at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He took last year off because of COVID-19 — “rather than pay tuition for a year of virtual studies, we … [paid] Moore so that he could mentor and work with him,” says his father, Troy James Nalls, Sr. “We didn’t want school to get in the way of education. And when that opportunity for Alter Ego arose … Troy was next in line. So it all worked out.”
The younger Nalls says he is fully aware of his responsibility to help others the way he’s been helped along in his budding career. “I always knew I had opportunities and family support that many don’t have,” he says. “So I want to mentor others who want to follow in a similar path and just need that support and encouragement.”
For now, he’s enjoying the chance to witness the fruits of his labor. You can watch Nalls in his TV debut tonight at 8 CST on Fox.