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Classic Tracks: Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Junior’s Farm”

Mix’s May 2015 issue included a feature story on the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum exhibit titled “Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats,” which documents a sort of Golden Age, from 1968-74, when a slew of outside artists “discovered” the benefits of recording in Nashville. Taking advantage of Music City’s embarrassment of riches—studios, musicians, producers, engineers—stars such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joan Baez, Simon and Garfunkel, and others migrated to Music City, and then told their friends about their successful experiences recording there, and then they told their friends, and then they told their friends…

However, when Paul McCartney and Wings traveled to Nashville in ’74, it was apparently not with any particular intention of recording there. They had been offered lodging in the home of songwriter Curly “Junior” Putman (the composer of the classic song “Green, Green Grass of Home,” among others). The McCartneys and the other Wings musicians planned to settle in for six weeks on Putman’s farm near Lebanon, Tenn., where they would rehearse for the Wings Over America tour, and keep a low profile.

“Their accommodations had been arranged through Buddy Killen, president of Tree Publishing at that time,” explains engineer Ernie Winfrey, who provided some details about McCartney’s Nashville stay for our “Nashville Cats” feature. “Buddy sent Curly to the tropics for an expenses-paid holiday, and the McCartney entourage moved in. Buddy acted as host and guide for them and, being the businessman he was, made sure they knew he had a recording studio if the mood should strike them to fool around in one.”

Winfrey had worked frequently with Killen at Woodland Studios and moved over to the Sound Shop when Killen opened that studio in 1971. The engineer says he was surprised and nervous when the McCartneys just walked into Sound Shop one evening and sat down. “I had no idea what to expect, but between takes, they chatted with Buddy and myself, and I quickly felt much at ease,” he says. “They said they felt very comfortable in the studio and made arrangements with Buddy to block out the next two weeks for themselves.”

That was the beginning of what became a couple of career-defining weeks for Winfrey. He engineered all of the McCartney and Wings sessions, which he explains would start the same way each night: “They would arrive anywhere from 6 to 7 in the evening. The Sound Shop at that time only had one studio, and the limo would take them to the back. Their presence in Nashville was not supposed to be common knowledge, but you know how things are; of course, somehow the word got out, and every night the studio was surrounded by people. There was no way we could keep them away.

“Paul and Linda would get out of their limo and walk through the crowd, and Paul would sign autographs as he went, moving very slowly. He said he had learned the tricks of working a crowd from being in The Beatles, and you don’t want to make any fast moves. He said, ‘You don’t want to look like you want to run to get away from them, or they’ll tear you to pieces.’ So he had that method down. He was just polite to the crowds, and he’s just a pleasant person to be around. I guess that’s why people still love him so much. He’s a real sweet guy.”

The group tracked about a song a day in Sound Shop, and Winfrey found McCartney equally nice to work with in the studio—a gentle but firm leader. “He encouraged a certain amount of input from me,” Winfrey recalls. “Paul knew exactly what he was looking for, and he would correct someone if he thought they were not playing what they should. Gently, he would say, ‘Why don’t you try it like this?’ And on occasion, he would go back to the drum kit and sit down and show Geoff Britton what he was looking for on the drums, for example. He was always in command of the sessions.”

Sound Shop Studio, circa 1974, included a large tracking room that was paneled with pecky cypress, a porous material that builders would dredge from the bottom of the Mississippi. The wood was expensive, but popular with studio owners for its absorptive properties and natural look.

“It was kind of a dead-sounding room,” Winfrey says. “We had an area in the back of the studio that was raised and had oak flooring, and that’s where we would put the drums for a brighter sound.”

More forward in the room were the rest of the musicians: guitarists Jimmy McCulloch and Denny Laine, Linda McCartney playing percussion, and Paul McCartney playing his Hofner bass and singing lead. “Paul liked to stand in the front of the room, right in front of the [control room] glass,” Winfrey says. “He would be turned to the side, so he could glance to his left and see me, or look to his right and see all the musicians.”

The band worked on several songs this way in Sound Shop, including a few that had been started in the UK (“Wide Prairie,” “Hey Diddle,” “Bridge on the River Suite”) and new songs that started their lives in Nashville: “Eloise,” “Send Me the Heart,” “Sally G,” and the last song they made in Sound Shop, the 1974 single “Junior’s Farm.”

“Alan Crowder, their road manager, pulled me aside and, very seriously, asked me if we could record rock ’n’ roll here in Nashville,” Winfrey says. “[‘Junior’s Farm’] is the result of that question.”

“Junior’s Farm” is, of course, a whimsical tribute to the place where the band was housed during its Nashville stay. Released as a single in October 1974, with “Sally G” as the B-side, the song features driving rhythms, with electric guitar parts that totally wail but are totally Wings. The lyrics are full of strange characters: the “poker man,” an eskimo and a sea lion, etc. Winfrey says that the song had been written and rehearsed out at the farm, so the band was ready to record live when they brought the tune to the studio.

Winfrey recorded McCartney and Wings to 3M tape on a Studer A27, 24-track machine. His console back then was an MCI. Forty years on, Winfrey acknowledges that he’s somewhat foggy on some of the details, but he knows that McCartney’s vocal microphone would have been a Neumann U 67 or U 87. “We had an abundance of Neumann mics. We had a couple of U 47s also, but we would have used a 67 or 87 on Paul,” he says.

Winfrey doesn’t recall precisely what his drum-miking scheme was during that period, but he says they did sometimes use their Neumann mics on drums—kick and overheads, for example—as well as Shure dynamics. He doesn’t think he used any room mics, however.

“We weren’t necessarily concerned with a room mic, because we close-miked all the instruments and there would be leakage from one to another,” he says. “We always got a big fat room sound there without the need for room mics. And we made quite a few hit records that way.”

McCartney’s bass was taken 100 percent direct; he didn’t bring a bass amp to the session. Winfrey recalls that Sound Shop had a number of amps available, and he offered any and all to McCartney, but the former Beatle declined.

Laine and McCulloch’s guitar amps were miked up with Shure SM57s. “Jimmy McCulloch, the lead guitar player, really got to shine on this song,” Winfrey says. “Denny was also playing some really nice electric rhythm guitar. When the band goes into the cut-time feel on the end section, you’ll notice the track gets real ballsy. Paul had me speed the tape up to overdub his bass at that point and, played back at normal speed, the track really fattens up.”

The other main overdubs on “Junior’s Farm” were the backing vocals, sung by Paul and Linda McCartney, and Denny Laine. “I would take one of the 67s or 87s and make it multidirectional, and they would gather around it,” Winfrey says.

When tracking was complete, Winfrey created rough mixes for the McCartneys to take with them. He doesn’t know exactly what bits may have been nipped or tucked later at Abbey Road, or where those mixes ended up, but he definitely knows where the safeties are:

“They left the safeties and never asked for them all this time, so when Mike [Bradley] sold Sound Shop in 2008, he called me and asked if I would like to have them,” Winfrey says. “So I have the 16-track safeties of all the things they cut—”Junior’s Farm,” “Sally G,” all of it. And as a matter of fact, I got to take them to an analog studio here in Nashville and run them through the console, and they still sound great. They have not lost any noticeable quality whatsoever.” A testament to the soundness of 1970s 3M tape!

Winfrey’s treasures also include a piece of an intro that he saved, which includes McCartney saying, “Are you ready, Ern?” before counting off.

Winfrey continued to work at the Sound Shop until 1992, when he developed some health problems. Like many music and audio pros, Winfrey never had any health insurance, so when he was diagnosed with a heart ailment, he had to take a day job that provided benefits, which allowed him to get lifesaving surgery. Thankfully, treatment was successful, and he still lives in Nashville.

He didn’t see Paul McCartney again until this past October, when the superstar performed at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. “He came through a couple of years ago, but I didn’t see him then. But this time, some people I know on Facebook, as a matter of fact, were instrumental in getting me to his folks and getting me the opportunity to see him again,” Winfrey says.

The song “Junior’s Farm” became one of McCartney and Wings’ biggest hits, rising to Number 3 on Billboard’s pop chart. Released as a single in ’74, it also appears on the remastered Wings album Venus and Mars, which came out in 2014.

The song is also notable because it was McCartney’s last release on the Apple label. And today it stands as a beloved rock ’n’ roll milestone from a special time in the history of the home of country music.