Producer, mixer, recording engineer, studio owner, musician, songwriter… Mickey Jack Cones is a hands-on dynamo, with copious enthusiasm and creative ideas; the technical expertise to make things happen; and a proven track record of contributing whatever is necessary to take artists including Dustin Lynch, Joe Nichols, Jason Aldean, Trace Adkins, Kellie Pickler and others to the top. Here, the Texas native shares the benefit of his experience building a hitmaking career in Music City.
What were things like for you when you first came to Nashville?
I moved here in ’96 and started engineering for David Malloy’s publishing company. I moved here to be a producer. I had been in bands since I was a kid, and I thought, “I’ve been perfecting my craft for years. I’m going to show them what I know.”
But I learned quickly at that company, where I was nose to nose with some of the top musicians in Nashville, that I had a lot to learn about etiquette in the studio and relationships. I was saying, “No, play this,” and grabbing guitars and being too bossy.
On some of the big records you’ve done you were the recording engineer, or the mixer and backing singer. These days, do you only take projects where you’re the producer?
Last year I had three Number Ones in 12 months, and that was a pivotal time for me. After that, the phone calls were more like: “Whatever you did on that, we want you to do that for us.” So rarely at this point am I throwing on just the engineering hat, or just a background vocal or guitar-playing hat. But when I’m producing, that’s the extra bang for the buck that people get.
That said, if it’s best for somebody else to mix, I will go that route. If it’s better with somebody else singing background, I’ll go that route. But for example, on the Dustin Lynch record [Where It’s At], I played 95 percent of the guitar solos and sang 95 percent of the backgrounds, and I mixed it. It’s not because I had to, but sometimes when you’re in the studio, it allows more experimentation if the background singer’s not on the clock.
What are some of your favorite Nashville studios?
I’ve been in some of the great rooms—Sound Kitchen, Sound Stage, Ocean Way, Blackbird. And I would mention OmniSound, too. They have a great API console; the drums sound really tight. But in 2009 David Malloy called me and said, “Do you want to buy Westwood Studios?”
I said, “No, I don’t want to be a studio owner,” but still we looked at it. It’s a log cabin on the outskirts of Berry Hill. It’s a legendary studio: Blake Chancey produced the Dixie Chicks there, and Buddy Cannon had done Kenny Chesney. But it needed a lot of work. It’s got a great sounding tracking room, but it’s rustic. And I have kind of a Type-A personality; I like things to be clean and tight. I said, “We better get a good deal, because we’re going to put a lot of money into it.”
We ended up buying it and we brought in Marti Frederiksen, who is an incredible producer/writer/publisher. We had the studio together for four years, and then I bought them out.
What work did you do Westwood?
We updated the control room with a more contemporary vibe, but we kept the tracking room’s rustic vibe. You get nice diffusion from the logs. That’s a very unique sound for drums, strings and horns, but it’s not so unique where you can’t dial in any sound you need.
The studio came with a 48-channel Neve V Series, but after two years we were getting killed by the maintenance and electricity costs. We replaced it with an SSL AWS900+. It’s transparent but it’s got the flippable E and G EQs. You have 24 channels that all have pre’s. It fit our needs.
What are some of the albums you’ve made in your studio?
I’ve made quite a few at Westwood. All of the Dustin Lynch and Joe Nichols songs that I produced were recorded and mixed here. I’m also going in to cut sides on Trace Adkins next week.
How do you know whether a project is right for you?
It really has to be soulful to me. I don’t mean it has to sound like Marvin Gaye. Hank Williams was soulful. They have to believe in themselves and have emotion behind it. If somebody has all that and they have talent, and if we’re in agreement about songs, it’s like the stars align. That’s what happened with the Dustin Lynch record, and now he has his first Number One. I love it when that stuff happens.