I recently got a call from Jim Jordan, who manages StarstruckStudios, Reba McEntire and Narvel Blackstock's entertainment industrycompound that offers world-class recording and broadcastingservices. One of the things that always struck me about Starstruckwas how it was so self-contained with its studios and office space,which houses publishing, management and even a record label — TimDubois and Tony Brown's Universal South.
The last time Jim and I hooked up was when he generously offeredspace at Starstruck for many of us in the community to hold a wake inmemory of our friend and mastering legend Denny Purcell. BMI alsopitched in to supply food and drinks. It was a special night and astatement of how so many in this community really pull together. I'llnever forget it.
Jim recently gave me a buzz to catch me up on what was going on atStarstruck. It was evident that so much was going on, I had to headdown and see what was happening. Upon arriving, I caught up with DollyParton and John Guess, who were checking out Guess' mix of a duet thatParton had penned and just recorded with Kenny Rogers called“Undercover.” It was the first time they had recordedtogether since their huge '80s hit, “Islands In theStream.” “Undercover,” which was recorded at theSound Kitchen, was mixed at Starstruck's room The Pond.
“I don't even know that they'll release it as a single; I'dimagine they will! Kenny's clawing at my door everyday saying weare!” Parton says with a laugh. “But anyhow,‘Undercover’ is about undercover lovers. Just risquéenough to be playful and cute. It was good to sing and work with Kennyagain, and, of course, John engineered and co-produced it.”
Guess had also just worked with Parton, mixing her patriotic albumproduced by Tony Smith and Kent Wells, For God and Country.“I'm sick of John now! I want a divorce!” Parton jokes.“We've been together night and day now for weeks! But seriouslythough, John's great.”
Before we parted, we also talked about Parton's tribute album calledJust Because I'm a Woman: Songs of Dolly Parton, which featurescontributions by a number of female artists, including Alison Krauss,Melissa Etheridge, Norah Jones, Joan Osborne, Shelby Lynne, MindySmith, Emmylou Harris, Shania Twain with Alison Krauss and UnionStation, Kasey Chambers, Sinéad O'Connor, Allison Moorer andMe'Shell N'dedgéOcello, as well as a new recording of the titletrack by Parton. The album features fresh, new versions of many ofParton's all-time classics (“Coat of Many Colors,” “9to 5,” “Jolene,” “Two Doors Down,” etc.),as well as interpretations of some of her best recent material,including “The Grass Is Blue,” “Little Sparrow”and “Dagger Through the Heart.”
“A lot of the girls produced their own tracks and just brought'em in,” says Parton. “There is a new artist named MindySmith whose version of ‘Jolene’ is spectacular, and that'sgonna be the first single off of it. And then they're releasing mysingle, ‘Just Because I'm a Woman’ because a lot of thegirls sing toward the end of that. So that's a lot goin' on, which isfine. You know me, I've always got a lot goin' on!”
While I was there, I got to hang with Buddy Cannon and some of thestudio players (John Hobbs, keyboards; Eddie Bayers, drums) who weretaking a break from working on Kenny Chesney's next album. Cannon alsoproduced (with Norro Wilson) Reba McEntire's latest Universal album atStarstruck, Room to Breathe. “We cut the whole album inthree days,” says Cannon, adding that they tacked on an extrasession for a duet with Vince Gill called “It Just Has to be ThisWay.” Other tracks that Cannon, Beyer and Hobbs pointed out assession highlights were “If I Had Any Sense Left At All,”“Senses” and “Moving Oleta,” which Hobbs sayswas, “an incredibly emotional song. We were all sitting aroundsobbing. It was that sad. It is really great.”
Of McEntire's song-selecting, Cannon adds, “I think that shepicks songs that move her emotionally. Even though she's listened tothe songs probably 100 times each or more, the lyrics still get herwhen she listens to them. She really connects with the songemotionally, and you know when you hear her singing, she's there. Youknow, the players can feel it and we can feel it in the controlroom.”
Concerning McEntire's vocal performances, Cannon says that“She got in there and nailed all the vocals on the tracking days,no vocal overdub days — not one! A few of the songs are scratchvocals, and a couple of them she didn't even sing any additional passeson 'em. I told her she screwed our whole plan up,” Cannon sayswith a laugh. “She got us five days off schedule by not having todo any vocal overdubs! I had to move everything up a week!”
The session team enjoyed the production chemistry between Wilson andCannon. “They have a really great, really balanced relationshipthat works great,” enthuses Hobbs. “Norro's an old pianoplayer and a really fine musician in his own right. He hangs with themusicians. He has a set of headphones and his own station on the floorout during the sessions and he keeps the excitement up. He's theroaming ambassador of goodwill and keeps everybody loose and makes hismusical suggestions. Buddy's the nuts-and-bolts guy. He's in thecontrol room listening hard and deciding if we need to go for anothertake, and doing the fix-its when we select a take.”
Cannon was also producing the next Chesney album at Starstruck.While I was there, I spent some time listening to a new track withChesney, Cannon and engineer Billy Sherrill in The Gallery controlroom.
“We've cut about seven songs,” says Cannon. “We'rejust trying to take it a step further from where we were and keep itgeared toward his audience. Kenny is so connected with his audience andit's something to see when you see him playing for them. It's a prettybig audience these days.”
After hanging out with Cannon, I spent some time with Jim Jordan whotook me around the studio. Both of Starstruck's recording studios— The Gallery (which is the primary tracking room) and The Pond(the main mixing room) — share a common machine room that housestwo 32-input/64-output Pro Tools|HD systems, two Sony 3348 digitalmultitracks, two Mitsubishi 880 digital multitracks and two Studer A827analog multitracks with Dolby SR. Comprehensive audio and machinecontrol patching allow easy access to any of these formats.
The Pond control room is virtually identical to The Gallery controlroom in design, dimension and technology. Featuring an SSL 9072 JSeries console and the same complement of outboard equipment, The Ponddiffers only in decor and design of the studio space. One feature ofStarstruck concerns the facility's impressive machine room, whichoffers an assortment of well-maintained analog and the latest digitalgear. The machine room also contains the SSL power supplies andcomputers, and the air is cooled and filtered by three separateair-conditioning systems. Audio Precision test equipment is used forcalibration and alignment, ensuring that all of the studio's gear isperforming to its maximum potential.
While we were checking out the machine room, we began discussingsurround and the need for labels to stay on top of their multitrackassets. “When I first came here, it was all 3348, 2-inch and alittle bit of Mitsubishi 32-track digital and we haven't gotten rid ofanything, so we still have a complete machine complement,” sayJordan. “Having everything centralized in the machine room makesit really easy to do transfers. I'm hoping down the line the labelswill wise up and realize that there are masters here that are coreassets, and anything on 1-inch dig, you're gonna be lucky in five yearsto find a machine that'll run well enough to play it back.
“I'm seeing more and more [masters] released for SACD or DVD-Asurround, and for that you're going to have to go back to themultitracks,” says Jordan. “I think the sooner the labelscan migrate their data off the dead formats into Pro Tools or something— broadcast .WAV or whatever they decide they want to be thestandard — I think it'd be smart to get it off before all themachines disappear! We have two of everything, it's like Noah's Ark:two 9Ks, two Pro Tools rigs, two Mitsubishi x880s, two 3348s, twoStuder 827s. So we're in a pretty good position to do thetransfers.”
One of the marks of a good studio, though, isn't its gear, but theawareness that you have to have personnel who are committed to makingthe experience a problem-free and creative one. “This is a greatfacility, but I think the staff is key. We've done a lot to try toretain people rather than run on interns,” says Jordan. “Ithink a lot of places see an intern as a free warm body, which I don'tthink is what internships should be about. You're supposed to bementoring; people did it for me, so I'd like to do it for people. Buton the other hand, having a staff that doesn't change every couple ofmonths and that knows the drill is something that our clients reallyappreciate. There isn't a new face every time they walk in thedoor.”
“Gear minus talent equals zero. Just because you have an 02Ror a Pro Tools rig doesn't make you a recording studio! It's alwaysbeen people and we're very pleased with ours. Recording studiosare a service business, so we always try to keep that in mind. I mean,that's the deal: just try to make the clients feel at home, and have astaff who knows what they're doing — people they can trust sothey don't leave at night and worry about what's happening with theirfiles.
“We like to get a good feel goin', and people come in with thegoal of getting two songs on a given day and they'll walk out withfour. With Reba, I think we did about 11 songs in three days, and theywere just killer tracks,” enthuses Jordan. “I always likeit when they get more than they came in to get. That's a nice feeling,when everyone's smiling and leaves early. Then we know everything wascool.”
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