Tim McGraw will never forget the first time he appeared at Nashville’s annual Country Music Fan Fair, where thousands of fans gathered in mid-June to meet their favorite artists and enjoy label showcases. McGraw, a newcomer, had not yet graduated to “artist booth” or “performance” status, so he was primarily an attendee. He blended so well into the crowd that a security guard mistook him for part of the crew and instructed him to clean up after a group of patrons who left their lunch trash on a table. He did as he was told. A year later, McGraw had a booth, a line of admirers and a near-catfight between female fans struggling to be first for his autograph.
His self-titled debut, released in April 1993, barely dented the charts. His second effort, Not a Moment Too Soon, volleyed him to the top, thanks to a lightweight hit single, “Indian Outlaw.” The tune could have ended his career as quickly as it had started, but McGraw followed it with material that offered more depth and dimension. Today, his six-album catalog, which includes a greatest hits package, totals over 25 million albums sold, with 21 Top 10 singles — 15 of them reaching Number One. His new project, Set This Circus Down, shipped Platinum in April.
McGraw was determined to go the extra mile with the entire package. In addition to ensuring that fans would get the highest-quality songs, he also included a 25-page booklet in the CD. “I wanted the fans to feel that they owned a part of this album,” he says. “They are a part of the theme, a part of the entire project, and the feel of the liner notes is like reading a book.” Remembering his own excitement as a youth when buying records, he adds, “Sometimes reading the album cover was as much fun as listening to the music.”
Even the concept came naturally. “Once we recorded ‘Set This Circus Down,’ I knew it would be the title,” he says. “Everything fell into place after that.” That “everything” included hiring an illustrator to convey the concept of touring-band-as-carnival for the album’s cover art. The booklet offers lyrics, thoughts and behind-the-scenes photos.
Integral to creating Set This Circus Down are Byron Gallimore and James Stroud, who have produced McGraw since his first album. You could call Gallimore and Stroud the most influential production team in Nashville, but they’re too modest to accept such accolades. You could describe them as workaholics, but they make what they do — producing, engineering, recording and, for one of them, running a record label — sound like so much fun that it’s almost a mistake to call it work. You could say that they’re responsible for a large percentage of the hit records currently on the charts, but they’ll reply that it’s all because of the artists. You could even tell them that they have remarkable intuition and musical instincts, or use trendy words like “synergy,” but they’d contradict that by telling you that they’re “a hillbilly and a redneck; just some old farmer and a half-assed drummer who don’t know shit!” Better to let the facts speak for themselves.
Byron Gallimore is currently Nashville’s top producer. His productions have sold over 30 million albums, he produced 15 of the top 75 country albums on the Billboard charts, and his resumé includes everyone from Randy Travis to Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. He is also a key figure at the music Website Tonos.com. A guitarist and songwriter, he grew up in Puryear, Tenn., played in rock ‘n’ roll bands, graduated with an engineering degree from Murray State University, in Kentucky, moved home and became a farmer. Winning the Music City Song Festival changed all that, however. Gallimore relocated to Nashville and began his career as a recording artist, songwriter and producer. He also had an eye for recognizing talent, as he did one night in a club called, appropriately, Diamond In the Rough. There he saw a youngster named Tim McGraw and was convinced the newly signed singer was a superstar waiting to happen. “I watched him do six songs, and he was phenomenal,” Gallimore recalls. “I wanted to produce him, but Curb Records [McGraw’s label] wouldn’t let me. So I went to James, and he was kind enough to go listen to Tim.”
James Stroud, who has run DreamWorks Records’ Nashville office since August 1997, is also legendary in Nashville circles. His productions have sold over 50 million albums. He headed Giant Records’ Nashville office in the 1990s and has produced a veritable who’s who of country artists: John Anderson, Clint Black, Toby Keith, Tracy Lawrence, Clay Walker, and non-country acts including the Neville Brothers and Melissa Etheridge. A studio drummer for pop and R&B recordings in Los Angeles and Muscle Shoals, Stroud’s credits include Paul Simon, Bob Seger, Gladys Knight & The Pips and Dionne Warwick. Moving to Nashville led him to country sessions, then his production breakthrough, Dorothy Moore’s 1978 hit, “Misty Blue.” Stroud spent the ’80s enjoying success as an independent publisher, staff producer, A&R executive, VP of Capitol Records/Nashville, then Giant and now DreamWorks.
“I went to Tim’s showcase,” he says, “and what hit me hard was his passion for what he wanted to do. We went to Mike Curb, and the deal was done. We were able to make a record, and it was the first time Byron and I, who had been friends for quite a while, had the chance to work together.”
In 1997, with Everywhere, McGraw began joining Gallimore and Stroud in co-production. “Tim has so many great ideas, so it’s a shared thing,” says Gallimore. “It works out to everyone’s advantage. When you have a career with this much success and you’ve worked together since the beginning, there is a tendency to get slack or ‘same-y.’ The combination of James and me, plus Tim’s creativity — it’s been a fresh shot to have him sit in and bring the extra magic we needed midway into his recording career.”
“The great thing is that we do this in such a friendly way,” says Stroud. “There are no disagreements. We truly have fun, and it’s amazing that the three of us can do that each time and come out with something we’re all happy with. Early on, Byron and I saw that there was something special we could bring to the table as producers. We’re a good combination. He has great ears and is a great player. He knows, tonally, how to make things great. My side of the expertise is in rhythm and structure on the tracks, so it’s the best of both worlds, and we never step on each other’s toes.”
Nashville’s record-making process is markedly different from that of other music cities. Music Row — the area that houses the business side of country music — makes it possible to walk from office to office, label to label. Gallimore and Stroud agree that the intimacy offered by this closely knit sector would be unimaginable in New York or Los Angeles. Nashville’s inner circles are in contact on a weekly, if not daily, basis, and the relationships formed continue outside of the studios and executive suites. “Part of it is Nashville, you’re right,” Gallimore agrees. “Being here does make a difference.” Stroud adds, “It’s a totally unique situation. We’re like family. If I didn’t see Byron and we didn’t golf together, I’d have withdrawals!”
Unlike other genres where follow-up albums can be years — and a fortune — in the making, the moment a country artist completes one project, managers, label personnel, producers, publishers and the artist — who usually spends the majority of his or her time on the road — begin searching for songs for the next album. For Gallimore and Stroud, it’s a never-ending cycle that includes the aforementioned parties and the staff of Gallimore Productions, where his wife, Missi, and the entire team — including his son and mother-in-law — are always looking and listening. An artist of McGraw’s magnitude, however, has an advantage: Publishers already have material on hold to pitch, and top songwriters write specifically with McGraw in mind. It’s not unusual for the individuals involved in a Tim McGraw album to listen to thousands of songs, carefully whittling down the choices to several hundred for McGraw to sample. “You work with an artist and learn his parameters, then leave a little room on both sides,” says Gallimore. “So after we’ve picked out a batch, Tim listens to them and picks. He might also find songs on his own. On this album, ‘Angry All the Time’ was something he brought, and ‘Forget About Us’ was pitched to him directly by [its songwriter] Mark Collie. One thing I must say about Tim: He’ll kick a song out in a minute if he doesn’t want to do it, and he doesn’t pass on hits, which is a lot of the key to his success. He has the ear.”
Set This Circus Down was cut primarily in Nashville at Ocean Way Studio by engineer Julian King (see this issue’s “Mix Masters” column on page 38) with additional work done at Emerald in Nashville and in L.A. with engineer John Paterno. The album was mixed at Record One in Los Angeles by Mike Shipley (who is on the charts with the current Aerosmith album, too) and mastered by Doug Sax. Gallimore also brought in assistant engineers/Pro Tools specialists Erik Lutkins and Dennis Davis to help out.
“We cut the first five things at Sony Studios, in Los Angeles, because Faith [Hill, McGraw’s wife] was there and Tim wanted to be with her,” says Gallimore. “That was in early spring 2000. We kept two of those sides. In late summer, we began work in Nashville for two months and wound everything up around October. The album took about six months from beginning to end.”
[Byron Gallimore] knows, tonally, how to make things great. My side of the expertise is in rhythm and structure on the tracks, so it’s the best of both worlds, and we never step on each other’s toes.
— James Stroud
Between sessions, McGraw kept up his hectic tour itinerary. While this might seem to compromise consistency and go against the grain of traditional recording methods, Stroud says the effect was “just the opposite. It’s more consistent for Tim to do some roadwork, then come in and record. It keeps him on top of the game vocally, because he’s singing every night and it makes his voice stronger. He can also try some new songs out live and work on the vocals, arrangements and ideas he wants to use in the studio. So it’s consistent as long as the team — Byron and I — are covering his back. He can come in, be an artist and producer and stay excited.
“It’s different from the rock world, where they’re holed up in the studio at one week per song. We cut one song in a three-hour session, go back to overdub, change things, add instruments. Tracking sessions are critical, so you’ve got to catch the artists when they’re in town, and so when they do come in, it’s fresh and fun.”
McGraw’s schedule generally allows for cutting six or seven songs per touring break. Many of his vocals are done in three takes, sometimes four. “Tim likes to get in his shell, light the candles and just get into the song,” says Gallimore. “When he’s in that groove, he’ll absolutely kill you. He hits that spot, and sometimes it happens in just a few takes. There are always vocal comps, but there are instances where it’s all the way, front to back. On this album, he was spectacular. He re-sang ‘Forget About Us,’ because he listened to the rough and felt he’d not done the presentation on it. It’s like he’s living the songs, and he does a phenomenal job of relaying the emotions.”
When McGraw is absent, Gallimore and Stroud work in what Stroud describes as “a tag-team process.” Being musicians, he agrees, gives them an edge in what they listen for and how they know when it’s right. “Byron listens to the mixes a certain way,” says Stroud. “He’s so keen on pitch and tonal qualities. He can hear a fly at 1,000 yards! The word for Byron is ‘precise.’ He allows me to sit back and listen to the groove, rhythm, syncopation and make sure the feel is the best it can be. He listens differently than I do, but it all boils down to a wonderful mix that we have, and Tim comes in as the soul.”
“Yes, he is that,” Gallimore agrees, “but from our perspective, as musicians, what James and I are doing could still work if only one of us was a musician. We both have backgrounds in the publishing and writing aspects, but it would be very difficult for me to produce if I didn’t know how to play. I’d be paralyzed. Being able to speak the lingo with the musicians is critical.”
“Absolutely,” Stroud continues, “because we can answer questions and interpret suggestions. Another element is that I engineered for 10 years, Byron still engineers, and we can walk up to the console during the tracking, mixing or overdubbing, make our own changes and at the same time not bother the engineer who may be working on something else. So there is a lot of expertise and knowledge that we bring to projects, and that combination is unbeatable. Byron is great and I’m okay, and together we’re great!”
“People may call engineers ‘knob-twisters,’” says Gallimore, “but we don’t let stuff slip past us, and I wouldn’t take anything for that experience. A lot of variables go into the records we’re making.”
“Even though we do co-produce artists and always use a process we feel comfortable with, we still evolve with each project,” says Stroud. “Byron and I also make sure that we keep our productions individual. Look at his success with Faith and Jessica Andrews. Those are his. Yes, Jessica is on DreamWorks and so Byron works for us with that, and I’m the label head or A&R person and he’s the producer, but he works his music individually. So when we do come together, it’s even more of an event for us.”
With their encyclopedic knowledge of all things technical and musical, they carefully define their roles within the context of every album. “Byron and I have talked about this a million times,” says Stroud. “Our job is to keep the artists between the ditches and not let them crash. If a record needs input, that’s where we step in. We let the musicians play what they feel. We set the stage, as producers, to make the artist’s record, because if we make our record, everything we cut will sound the same, and we’ll all be in trouble.”
This leaves plenty of room for McGraw to experiment. “Tim brings in an idea of what he wants as an entire album, and he brings something new every time,” says Gallimore. “He has a picture in his mind of what he wants the album to be. With ‘Angry All the Time,’ for example, he did a different version of anything we’d ever heard him do, with much more attitude. He always brings a new piece of himself to the table.”
“In a session, he’ll sing out a lick or a melody, standing in front of us, and it’s something Byron and I wouldn’t have come up with,” Stroud adds. “Tim has an innocence about him and he feels safe with us, so he can make suggestions that we can interpret to the musicians. He’s a true creative producer with ideas in the rough, and they always work out great. He has a vision, he comes in knowing how to pick songs, how to hear a hit song in a demo, how the record should be, how to bend melodies in ways that only he knows how to do. He takes it beyond being a singer and an artist.
“The difference between his first album and all the others is that, after the first album, we listened to Tim McGraw. When he was able to say, ‘Here’s what I’m going to do. The first one didn’t work and here’s what I want,’ in my view, that was the biggest change his music took from the first album to all of these.”
“The other thing is that Tim had never been in the studio when he made his first album,” Gallimore remarks, “so he was getting acquainted with microphones, how to sing. He’d listen back and hate the way he sounded, so he’d try something different. It was almost a learning experience for all of us to figure out what to do. Now he’s a pro who knows exactly what he wants.”
While radio, media, market researchers, the industry and even the artists try to define what country music is in 2001, McGraw — who has outsold most and, with Faith Hill, was one of 2000’s largest-grossing touring acts — has basically not strayed from the genre. The furthest he’s gone has been string-laden ballads or the roots-rock Springsteen flavor of “Forget About Us.” “Tim is such a fan of different genres of music,” says Stroud, and while it’s highly unlikely — they hope and laugh — that the real Tim Shady will please stand up, “He will throw an influence at you,” says Gallimore, “Tim sings so ‘country,’ and anything he sings sounds like Tim McGraw, so we can go as far as we want with him and it still works.”
To capture the warmth and body of McGraw’s voice, the recording team used tube microphones exclusively: “We usually use more [Neumann] 47s, but this time the majority were [Neumann] 67s,” Gallimore notes. “It depends on the sound and the song. The 47 is a little bigger, and Tim has a rich low-mid area in his voice.” A Tube-Tech mono compressor was used on the vocals, which were also variously channeled through Neve, API and Focusrite preamps. “It’s all vintage gear, even the console at Ocean Way [a Neve 8078]. It’s old gear that sounds really good,” Gallimore says. At Record One, the project was mixed on an SSL 8000 G-Plus console.
Rather than limit themselves within the boundaries of what does or does not make a country album, Stroud says they simply focused on making a Tim McGraw album, meaning, “He is more than one genre. It is country. It is edgy. It is also touching, emotional, passionate music made by the best players in the world and a country stylist who goes beyond our market.”
While McGraw’s career, like that of any artist, hinges on the success or failure of each album, Gallimore and Stroud are safe and secure within the broad scope of their careers. Or are they? “Every time I go into the studio, whoever I’m working with, I feel the pressure,” says Stroud. “The more success you have, the more pressure there is. I have never seen Byron or Tim go in to cut something with anything different in their attitude or process throughout the entire time I’ve known them. The fun factor is in the record, and as long as we have that, the pressure takes care of itself. Yes, there are responsibilities and yes, we want to make the best records we can, but Tim gets better naturally. Byron gets better every time we make a record. I get better. It’s because of the process: You throw out the bad, keep the good, and the best part is the fun and passion. It’s simple, really: Every once in a while, between golf games and laughing, Byron and I make a record — and that’s why it works!”