Last month, I highlighted the Lyric Street label's successful run of hit releases that were produced by new or unproven producers. Well, that isn't the only label opening the doors to fresh production talent. Besides Lyric Street, five other labels that have scored big with new producers come to mind: majors Universal South, Mercury, RCA, Arista and Capitol.
“I think it is very exciting for country music that there is a new wave of producers infusing new energy into the music,” says Nicole Cochran of the Sessions Agency, a production-coordination firm that handles many of the up-and-coming crowd in Nashville. “It shows a great amount of courage on both the labels' part and the artists' to take this leap of faith. But we are seeing that the risks are being well-rewarded with chart and sales success.”
Chris Cagel's Number One Capitol Records hit, “I Breathe In, I Breathe Out,” was produced by newcomer Chris Lindsey, while Frank Rogers' first production was Brad Paisley, who went to the top of the charts with his first single — “He Didn't Have to Be” — and some of the follow-up singles on the way to selling a million records.
Jimmy Ritchey's first production was for the new act Tommy Shane Stiener. Steiner went to Number 2 with his debut single, “What If She's an Angel.” As a result of his success straight-out-of-the-box, RCA and Joe Galante have handed Ritchey another act, Clay Walker, with whom he is completing an album.
Bobby Terry is one of the most creative young producers coming up through the ranks. He recently scored a hit with Mercury recording artist Anthony Smith, thanks to his innovative production of “If That Ain't Country.” It was Smith's first CD, first single and Terry's first production.
Brent Rowan, one of Music Row's most successful session guitarists, recently joined the ranks of successful new producers with his production of Universal South's debut act, Joe Nichols. Nichols' first single, “The Impossible,” peaked at Number 3 in Billboard. When the project (which Rowan had developed and initially signed to the now-defunct Giant) was brought to Universal South label heads and producers Tony Brown and Tim DuBois, Rowan expressed that he wanted to see the production through to the end on his own. Having worked with Rowan in the studio for years, Brown and DuBois felt comfortable taking a chance on him.
“When Brent brought the project to us,” says Brown, “he really stressed to Tim and me that he wanted to produce it by himself. As a guitarist, Brent has played on everything from Alan Jackson to Shania Twain and everything in between. He has played enough hit licks that made records hits that Tim and I just looked at each other and said, ‘Sure, why not?’ Most records in Nashville are cut on the floor and not written out. Once you're in a session, the producer is almost the liaison between the artist and the band anyway. Usually, there is a guy in the band that sort of leads the band, and Brent is usually that person. Brent ran everything by us, so we were involved anyway as A&R people.
“Brent knows all about layering and how to keep things simple,” Brown continues. “Most musicians, when given a shot to produce a record, will load things up with layers and layers of tracks and overdubs. I thought that really spoke well of Brent's experience: that he actually cut a record on Joe Nichols that represented the artist, and not Brent as a producer. His production of this record is just perfect. I'm really glad that the first project he did was a success.”
Rowan notes, “As a player, I've been in the unique position of working with the best producers in the world, including Mutt Lange, Tony Brown, Barry Beckett and David Foster. It's like being an actor for the world's greatest movie directors. You kind of get a sense of, ‘If I ever direct a movie, I want to try it this way.’”
That said, Rowan quickly realized that production was more involved than session work: “It is one thing to play on something for six hours and go home, but when you sign up to produce something, you are living with that artist or band for a few months. It's important to me to know who they are and how hard they are willing to work and get something unique across. Joe [Nichols] was really the first person I ran across who I felt like, ‘This is worth the effort and I'm going to go to the mat for this.’ If I ever only produce one record, I'm going to produce it the way the artist sounds the best and the songs sound the best.
“I have enjoyed producing even more than I thought I would,” Rowan continues. “I love artists and I love songs. It's much more than licks to me. It's the whole package.”
For country music — or any music — to evolve, however, industry focus shouldn't purely be on creating hits for radio. It should pay attention to and draw from those who are creating great music in more specialized or cutting-edge fields or genres. Country radio has drawn from rock, pop and hip hop, but the Americana world has increasingly been a fertile ground to provide a certain kind of integrity and flavor to developing music.
Universal South recording artist Allison Moorer is regarded as one of Nashville's finest vocalists and an artist who, like her sister Shelby Lynne, has stayed true to her artistic muse. To help her realize her latest music undertaking, Moorer and Tony Brown tapped R.S. Field, a producer who has earned quite a list of critically acclaimed production credits — including Billy Joe Shaver's brilliant Tramp on Your Street — but had never done a major-label Music Row project. The resulting album, Miss Fortune, is a classic blend of great American music, beginning with country and taking in elements as disparate as '60s Dusty Springfield, early Elton John and Band-era Dylan.
“Allison pretty much tapped me to do the project with her. We had a few meetings with Tony, and I think he liked what I had to say,” says Field, whose production credits since have included Todd Snider, Sonny Landreth and Billy Joe Shaver. “Tony was very nice and desirous of helping her get on disc what she had in her head.”
Field, who is used to working within the confines of indie-production budgets, appreciated the extra flexibility that a major-label budget afforded him. “Allison and I worked as a team,” Field explains. “It was really cool, because I had more resources than I usually have, and I got to spend a lot of time with it. I think, unlike a lot of Music Row projects, the artist got to experiment a lot and try different things. I got to work with strings and horns, which was kind of a first for me.”
Brown was a fan of Field's previous work and was excited when Moorer brought the producer's name up for the project. “I've loved his Webb Wilder records, as well as the Shaver record,” he says. “His production of Sonny Landreth was one of my favorite records. When I asked Allison who she wanted to talk to, she said, ‘What about Bobby Field?’ I said, ‘You know what? I've never worked with him, and I love his work.’
“[Field] wrote me this letter on how he envisioned this record being. After reading the letter, I thought, ‘I'd trust this guy with anything. The album turned out exactly the way he described it, too.”
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