During the past year, it's become clear that certain major labels on Music Row are taking more of a chance on new production talent, and many of the resulting projects have become “bona-fied” (as they say inO Brother, Where Art Thou?) successes. In fact, six labels (Universal South, Lyric Street, Mercury, RCA, Capitol and Arista) have benefited greatly from stepping out and rolling the dice with new or unproven producers. Over the next couple of months, we will hear from these producers and the labels that worked with them.
Several of the biggest country music success stories this past year have been on Disney's Lyric Street label, including Aaron Tippin, Kevin Denny and, most notably, Rascal Flatts. All of these were with first-time major-label producers.
Doug Howard, Lyric Street's senior VP of A&R, remembers what it was like to start out doing entry-level gigs and the importance of having someone give him a chance. When Howard left his gig as VP and general manager of Polygram Music Nashville to help Lyric Street president Randy Goodman get the label up and running, they felt it was important to marry artists with production talent that was fresh with ideas and hungry to do whatever necessary to make a project work.
“In the same manner that someone hired me at a publishing company and gave me a job as a plugger and provided me the opportunity to prove myself, I really feel that when someone walks in the door with a viable act they've been developing, they deserve that first shot, unless they prove to me that they just can't do it,” says Howard. “I think with that comes a loyalty, a hunger and a work ethic. I've felt that so many of the new producers, in trying to establish themselves, are hungry. They see an opportunity, and they really step up to the plate.”
Rascal Flatts, which was developed by accomplished session engineer Marty Williams and co-produced by Williams and Mark Bright, went Platinum with their self-titled debut album and generated multiple hits (“Prayin' for Daylight” and “This Everyday Love”), while their latest album, Melt, has gone to the top of the charts. The first single, “These Days,” peaked at Number 2.
Prior to Rascal Flatts, Williams had never produced a project for a label, but his instinct and willingness to initially develop the band on his own paid off. Bright, on the other hand, scored big as producer for Blackhawk's big records a few years ago, and his experience helped Williams with some of the production gig's nuances.
“After about nine months of working with the band, I decided I wanted to bring in Mark Bright, who was my publishing partner and who I had been engineering for a lot in the past,” says Williams. “Mark worked through Tim Dubois getting Blackhawk signed and getting those records out, so I was really appreciative of his leadership role, showing me the ropes about how to interact with record labels as a producer.”
For Williams, whose previous project perspective has been that of an engineer, the responsibility of producing has taken on a new meaning. “I think producing is a lot harder work than a lot of people who don't do it think it is,” he says. “There's a lot of down-in-the-grind kind of work, working with budgets and picking out the right songs. I really have learned to appreciate great writers and songs much more.”
Biff Watson has long been one of Nashville's top A-list acoustic guitar session players. Lyric Street gave Watson a crack at producing Aaron Tippin and the result was the Number One smash, “Kiss This,” which he co-produced with engineer Mike Bradley. “I had played on most of Aaron's albums,” Watson says. “I had expressed my real desire to get into production full time to him, and he obviously took it back to the label. I'm really happy that happened.
“I was going more with just my gut about how the album and that particular song needed to sound,” he continues. “I knew Aaron was so country to begin with that we could rock up a track and the country essence of it was still going to come through. I had in my mind a Springsteen/Mellancamp-ish kind of approach on Aaron. I also wanted to bring him down from that higher vocal register that he had been doing in the past and getting down to more of the meat of his voice, which we accomplished.
“Mike [Bradley] is a great engineer, and he has a good sense of song, as well. I've worked with him quite a bit as a player in the studio, and we always have had a good rapport with each other.”
Watson is already working with Lyric Street on more projects, including Sonya Isaacs and the brother/sister team Joshua and Shi-anne.
Leigh Reynolds worked on the road with Connie Smith and Reba McEntire, as well as working for years doing sessions. Reynolds initially got interested in production while he was with McEntire back in the late '70s. But it wasn't until recently that Reynolds finally got his production break with an artist named Kevin Denny. Denny's debut CD has earned critical raves and commercial success, even yielding a couple of hit singles (“That's Just Jesse” and “Cadillac Tears”).
Reynolds happened upon Denny about three years ago at a singer/songwriter “guitar pull” that took place in a friend's barn outside of Nashville. “I heard him sing about eight bars and I was on the floor,” he says. “It was like, ‘My God, where did you come from?’ And the thing that really nails me with Kevin is that there was so much heart and soul. That night, I said to him, ‘Man, if you want to go after this, trust me and I won't stop until we're there.’ And that's kind of where it started.”
As a result of Denny's success, Lyric Street signed Reynolds to produce another new artist, Brian McComas.
“I started trying to produce just a few years after I got to Nashville, but it was a slow go,” says Reynolds. “People say that Nashville is a tight club, but I don't think that anyone is shutting a door, as much as everyone has their blinders on just trying to do their best work. People have families to take care of, and you find yourself reaching a point in this business where you let work consume you, and all of a sudden, you're never looking up — you're just working. Meanwhile, labels get comfortable with certain producers, just like certain producers get comfortable with certain engineers and musicians. I think it's just a process that happens.”
Doug Howard knows that Nashville is full of talented people who could do great things if given a chance, and so far, his instincts about creating opportunities for new producers have paid off beautifully. One experience that fueled his resolve in that area happened while he was running Polygram Music in Nashville.
“I had a couple of experiences where a record was made and when I talked to the artist after the fact, I said, ‘Not to butt in, but this really doesn't sound like it was inspired.’ This artist said, ‘Well, it really wasn't.’ I said, ‘Well, what exactly happened?’ And the artist said that the guy who was involved producing the record basically slept through half of the tracking sessions and, at one point, when the artist made a suggestion, the producer hit the talkback button and said, ‘How many records have you made? Maybe you need to read my bio. Why don't you stay out there and do what you do and let me do what I do.’ It was the artist's first record and it totally broke his heart. From that point on, it didn't feel like it was his record anymore. That made such an impression on me that when I got here at Lyric Street, I said, ‘This is not how it is going to be done. This is not why I came to Nashville.’”
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