You've had quite a career, playing on some big records. What's kept you in Nashville?
It's just like anything else, a series of decisions. When I moved back from L.A. in 1990, in my mind I had quit playing sessions. I had a band with a couple of hits on the radio and I thought that was where my career was going. That fell completely apart with the advent of grunge music, and I found myself back in Nashville twiddling my thumbs. I was kind of green on country music, not a country musician at all. But I was lucky enough to fall into that rock niche that was here in Nashville. Records in Nashville at that time were embracing techniques from rock music, so it was a great fit. A few key producers took me under their wing, and I was off and running.
Nashville in the mid-'90s was booming. What was that like?
All of a sudden, it was money, money, money. As with any boom, quality control became something of an issue. There was just a lot of money being made. And our business was being remade and cemented. You find the nuggets of gold, but most of it was hurried-up product. Hurried-up product selling a lot of units.
I love Nashville, and since I was raised here, I think I can speak about it candidly. It's like you can insult your own family, but if anyone else does…Money and power blinds everybody. When you have that kind of infusion of capital, it attracts a lot of people. And at that time, a lot of talent looked at Nashville as a place to land. So I think the overall effect was that it helped solidify the town as more than a stepchild of both coasts. There's always been a perception problem with Nashville as bare feet and cowboy hats, but it no longer feels like a stepchild. It is solid here. The talent base is stunning.
Everyone talks about the players. What's your take on the recording scene?
It's kind of the last bastion of live tracking. The music that is made here still, by and large, depends on interaction. Talk about the “X” factor. That's where stuff happens that you can't manufacture in small bedroom recording studios. There's something about collaboration in music, historically. Music is a language, and when one person is talking to himself, it can be brilliant, but it's not going to have the same effect as people exchanging ideas. Rubbing shoulders.
You've been quoted over the years as being rather nonchalant about technology.
I think at first we're all enamored of the power of DAWs. You're a sound god, and the euphoria of not having to make a decision at the moment is great — we all missed stuff when we were analog-bound. But music is still about an idea, and the most direct way to articulate that idea. You can't be precious about the process. Certain music needs a clarity and a dance mentality, getting into the grid side of music. If that communicates it the best way, that's the way to go. Other types of music, once you go down that avenue, you take some of the humanity and some of the qualities out that can strip the soul out of the music. I think imperfection is absolutely as viable as the grid. No one size fits all.
The beauty of the process is that everybody develops their own way of getting there. That's how the great recordists of the past did it. Nobody taught them, and they were blindly groping. We can still blindly grope, we just have too many decisions on the way there! [Laughs]
Yet I also understand that you like a good room and a clean sound.
Sound is a relationship in a space, and the room is like a fifth member of the band. Sometimes we forget to utilize that. I've always felt more comfortable in those funky studios, and I like recording in a lot of different places. Obviously, McBride [John, owner of Blackbird Studios, Huff's frequent home] has, without a shadow of a doubt, the greatest facilities in Nashville. John is a good friend of mine, and he says to me, “Why are you recording at XYZ?” But he understands that it's important that you move around a bit. I did the last Keith Urban record, and Keith likes to work in spaces that are a little bit dodgy. He enjoys the edginess of that type of environment, patching things together with chewing gum and rope. It brings out a different kind of mentality in making the record. Musicians play a little different in that setting; it's a little less professional, you're kind of hanging on for dear life. It's the idea of using a space as something that's more than just an inanimate object. It's adopting it into the process itself.
So you know how to make a record; what's your take on distribution?
I think we've been educated for a good period of time that we musicians do what we do and the business does what it does. Now we've started to realize that this thing we've done is not generating the income it once was. The pie is getting smaller. I think we have to get out of this idea that mass distribution is what we're aiming for. It's viable distribution. Finding an audience, targeting it and setting our sights into a realistic financial goal from that.
Manage your expectations. That doesn't mean to set your set sights low. I think in America we are taught that bigger is better. Bigger is just bigger. I think you have to remember what defines better and go for better.