Jeremy Tepper – By Products, When a producer isn’t exactly a producer
Editor’s note: A few months back, I made my first visit to New York’s modest, humble, yet quickly-becoming-famous Lakeside Lounge, a bar co-owned by Eric Ambel, who’s profiled elsewhere in this package of articles about producers. Ambel was gone that day, off in Chicago to play a gig with the Yayhoos at Schubas, but over the course of a couple hours and beers, no shortage of other interesting folks dropped by for a spell. It struck me as a fitting coincidence that I could shuffle around the room on this particular evening and talk with Jeremy Tepper, Mark Spencer and Greg Leisz, all of whom have been involved in producing records in some way or another even though none of them would consider themselves producers. Their various roles in the recording process help further define the meaning of the word “producer.”
Not just anyone could have organized the wonder that is Rig Rock Deluxe: A Musical Salute to the American Truck Driver [reviewed on page 77 of this issue]. The project called for someone who had the connections to coordinate a lineup ranging from longtime legends such as Buck Owens, Red Simpson and Del Reeves to relative newcomers such as Kelly Willis, Son Volt and BR5-49. Someone who had previous experience assembling compilations featuring rockin’ country acts. And, perhaps most of all, someone who had that truck-drivin’ spirit in his blood.
This was a job for Diesel Only.
As head honcho of that Brooklyn-based record label (along with partner/engineer Albert Caiati), Jeremy Tepper has established himself as a unique and indispensable cog in the alt-country underground. His two previous Rig Rock series compilations gave East Coast bands such as Go To Blazes, Five Chinese Brothers and his own World Famous Blue Jays some of their first nationwide exposure. His sidelighting work as a free-lance journalist (he wrote the country column for Tower Records’ Pulse! magazine for a year) and part-time booker has helped him keep in touch with no shortage of artists. And his primary “day job” is editor of Street Beat, a music-and-coin-machine trade magazine that caters in part to truck stop juke box operators.
Not surprisingly, Tepper — who is credited as co-executive producer of Rig Rock Deluxe, along with Jake Guralnick of partnering label Upstart Records — was the one who hatched the idea for the project in the first place. “It was originally for Rhino Records and had a much larger budget,” Tepper says, reviewing the history of how the record developed. “Rhino had prepared two lists, one of country legends and one of more contemporary country hitmakers. I was excited about contacting the legends — that list included Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash — but the other side of the list was, like, Alan Jackson, Clint Black and Randy Travis. And I really wanted to include people like Junior Brown and Steve Earle and Bill Kirchen.
“I just got really frustrated because after about six months of working on this project, the only people who had confirmed for it were Buck Owens and Marty Stuart. So those were the two key artists that I brought to Upstart. And I told them, ‘I’d like to finish this project, but I really want to go in a different direction with it.’ And we just hit it off precisely, me and Jake. We were definitely on the same wavelength. So from that point on, I worked really closely with him, in terms of the artist lists and the selection of material and the budgets.”
Tepper doesn’t consider himself a producer in the more traditional, technical sense of the word. “I guess I’m an Eric Ambel apprentice, I’ve been around him enough, and I’ve been around Coyote (Studios), but, no, I’m definitely not the guy you’d want” behind the board, he says. He does, however, receive co-production credits on Rig Rock Deluxe for the opening and closing cuts, which were recorded during this year’s South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin. “We had Albert [Caiati] with us; I guess part of the key for any producer is a good engineer,” Tepper says. “And in fact, for the takes on both of those songs, I was in the studio with the band and not in the control room. So I was more like a cheerleader.
“We cut Truck Drivin’ Man early, with Don Walser, and then he and his band had to go, and Kirchen had to leave. But just as they were all leaving, all the guys in the Skeletons showed up, and [John] Langford showed up, and Rosie Flores was there, David Mansfield showed up. We just threw everyone in the studio, and the rhythm track for Six Days on the Road was just cut live in two takes, right in front of like a whole roomful of beer-swillin’, barbecue-gobblin’ partygoers.”
Next up on the Diesel Only agenda is a compilation of original versions of truck-driving songs to be issued in conjunction with the Nashville-based Country Music Foundation. “These are the actual original landmark truck-driving recordings, starting in the ’30s — many of which have been dormant for years….We sealed the deal over a game at Camden Yards this spring,” Tepper adds with a gleam. Reassuring proof that not all business deals these days are made on the golf course.