THE READING ROOM: Book Goes ‘Behind the Boards’ with Nashville Producers
What makes a great song? The lyrics? The music? Surely, of course, it’s some combination of the two. We sometimes call a song “timeless” because the lyrics express some universal sentiment, and sometimes the “timelessness” of a song, for us, derives from its balance of instrumentation or its chorus awash in blaring horns or its screaming lead solos on the bridge. Yet the one element we often neglect to discuss in conversations about such songs is the production values of the song. The album that is released is very often not quite the same album the artist went into the studio to make. To be sure, the track list may be the same — though that can change in the studio if a producer suggests a different musical direction or finds that one or another song does not fit into the narrative arc of the album — but the album that emerges from the studio has a sound that perhaps the artists only imagined heading into the studio to record. The men and women behind the boards in large ways shape albums and songs we recall as timeless, yet we don’t often wonder, “Who produced this album?”
In Behind the Boards: Nashville, music biographer Jake Brown takes a peek into the lives and studios of 30 Nashville producers, allowing them to tell their own stories as a way of exploring the relationships between artists and producers. In his 50th book — Brown has also written similar books about Nashville songwriters — he interviews a group of producers who’ve been working in Nashville over the past 50 years and who, collectively, have produced over 300 No. 1 hits by country artists, including George Strait, Clint Black, Willie Nelson, Trisha Yearwood, Carrie Underwood, Lori McKenna, the Dixie Chicks, and Vince Gill. In over 600 pages, Brown features conversations and behind-the-board glimpses into the work of, among others, Dave Cobb, Norbert Putnam, Buddy Cannon, Bobby Braddock, James Stroud, Zach Crowell, and Tony Brown. Says Brown, “the book gives you a 3-D look at the recording process.”
Brown started this book in January 2018. “My dog Hannie died in 2018, and I was devastated. Had to pull myself up out of a very severe depression. I started reaching out to producers: Norbert Putnam, Dave Cobb, Jim Ed Norman, Tony Brown; there is a kind of poetry in a way that the book came together,” he recalls.
One of the producers featured in the book, for example, is James Stroud. Brown calls him the “King of ’90s Country,” and after 50 years behind the boards Stroud says he “still feels the same rush of musical mania he first remembered hitting him as a small child when rhythm first captured his ear.” Stroud “discovered Clay Walker, revitalized the careers of John Anderson and Carlene Carter, introduced newcomers Daron Norwood and Tim McGraw, and steered Clint Black, Doug Stone, and Tracy Lawrence to continued success.” If country music had a Mount Rushmore, writes Brown, Stroud’s face would surely be etched on it.
Through some of the stories, Brown demonstrates that not every producer started out behind the boards. Tony Brown started his music career playing with Elvis, but after Elvis’ death became a member of Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, in which Rodney Crowell also played. As Tony Brown recalls, “I started with Emmy Lou, where I got to play on her records because she used her band. Most Nashville producers use session players, but Emmy Lou used her band, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash used their bands too, and I was in those bands both on the road and in the studio. So I got to watch Brian Ahern produce. From there, I joined Rodney Crowell’s band, The Cherry Bombs, and I got to watch Rodney produce Rosanne’s first three albums.” Brown went on to play on Rosanne Cash’s Right or Wrong and Seven Year Ache albums, as well as Crowell’s album, But What Will the Neighbors Think. Realizing he probably wasn’t good enough to be a session player, Brown made the transition from artist to producer when he started working for Jimmy Bowen at MCA Records in the mid-1980s. As Tony Brown tells it, “Well, then in 1983, I get a phone call saying ‘Keep this a secret, but Jimmy Bowen’s taking over MCA, and he wants to interview you.’ So I went to meet with him, and Norro Wilson had let me produce a couple cuts on Steve Wariner. See, back then, I couldn’t produce anybody because I didn’t have a track record, but Norro said ‘Just cut a couple things with me,’ and one of them went No.1. So when I met with Bowen, he said ‘Hey listen, I’m taking over MCA and this is a secret, but I’ve been watching you and think you’re a good A&R guy and think you’ll make a good producer. I’ll train you to be a great producer.’ So I thought, ‘This is the opportunity I’ve been looking for,’ and told him right there ‘Absolutely, I’m in!’, because RCA wouldn’t let me produce anything. So the first thing I did when we got over there was producing Jimmy Buffett when Bowen brought him back to the Nashville division, then brought Steve Wariner over to MCA from RCA and we went in and cut ‘The Weekend’ and some of those big Steve records over there. Then one day Jimmy told me, ‘I produce all the stars, you find me some new stuff,’ so he let me sign Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett and Kelly Willis and Patty Loveless.”
Tony Brown reflects on the role of the producer: “as an A&R person and producer, you just start knowing what a hit sounds like. It’s got to have a hook, either the intro’s a hook or the chorus is usually the hook, that’s when the payoff comes. A producer’s job is to make sure the songs are there, and to make sure you get the performance by the artist, and make sure that the session players come up with the right arrangement.”
Jake Brown includes Dave Cobb in Behind the Boards: Nashville because, he says, he “wanted to showcase him and what he has done to open the ears of country listeners. He’s a bringing what might once have been dismissed or pigeon-holed as alt-country into the mainstream.” Brown writes in the book, “Dave Cobb could be on the cusp of being officially declared the Rick Rubin of his generation. With a catalog already eclectic and revered enough to qualify, and an ear that has been able to perfectly tune an artist to their desired sound in the studio across multiple genres and backdrops, from country radio to cartoon themes to the silver screen, Dave Cobb’s age as a record producer is one of the most exciting to come along this Millennium. Tackling many of the most conceptually-complex albums to hit radio in the past 10 years, including Sturgill Simpson’s Grammy Award Best Americana Album trophy holder for Metamodern Sounds in Country Music; and Jason Isbell’s The Nashville Sound, which took home the same honor; his wild run of career-making success with Chris Stapleton that began with their vintage update to “Tennessee Whiskey” and the Best Country Album Grammy winner Traveller that launched both Stapleton and Cobb into the stratosphere.”
Brown offers a glimpse into Cobb’s production style in this excerpt from Behind the Boards: Nashville about the production of Isbell’s 2017 album The Nashville Sound:
We didn’t do ANY Pre-production on that album, I HATE pre-production! I think its evil shit. Pre-production is only good if you have a super-limited budget and you can only go in the studio for a certain amount of time, then I think that is totally applicable and right. But I would rather see somebody set up in their garage and record all the writing, then to see somebody save up and go in the studio one day, because I think the first time you play something is the best. The intent is there, the excitement is there, and any great songwriter is not excited about playing a song they wrote 10 years ago, they’re excited about the new part they just came up with in the studio. So being able to capture the moment of inspiration and the moment of invention is everything, and that’s why I hate pre-production, because I used to do it. You’d go in and work out this cool bass part, drum part and a feel, and then get in the studio and you forgot it, and then we’d have to listen to the demos, like “Right there, yeah, we’re not getting it quite the same now … ” That’s very frustrating to me.
I also love working super quick. One of my heroes Glyn Johns, I always heard he worked super quick. I like moving on, I’m not someone whose going to look at everything and start dissecting it. I like a feel, and if the feel’s good, move on, and being able to write stuff in the studio and capture it is amazing! It’s like “You’re done!” and onto the next thing, keep the inspiration going, never slow it down. That’s how I was able to make records in 2 weeks, I never stretch out the creative part, when it’s there, we got it, NEXT!”
The role of the producer and the process of production can be summed up in the words of the great producer Buddy Cannon: “[I]f you find a great song and put it out there in a room full of great musicians, something good’s going to happen.”
The greatest shortcoming in the book is the lack of attention to women producers in Nashville. A very short list could include Gail Davies, Wendy Waldman, Alison Krauss, Tamara Saviano, Marshall Chapman, and Brandi Carlile, and this only touches the surface, for their numbers continue to grow. Brown admits that the challenges of this kind of project include finding producers available to be a part of it, and he has already started making his list of producers for his sequel, which he says will include women producers. If you love country music and want to discover how your favorite country song was made, Brown’s mammoth book provides an excellent starting point for those behind-the-scenes looks.