From left: Fats Kaplin, Phil Lee, Richard Bennett and George
Bradfute at Tone Chaparral
A few miles northeast of Nashville in the hills of Madison is a sprawling low rancher that was once the residence of country legend Jim Reeves. This is Tone Chaparral Studio, the hideout and workplace of a person some people know as the Tone Chaperone (aka George Bradfute).
It's part-studio, part-creative workshop, part-“boy house,” packed with all kinds of instruments, amps and a collection of nutty toys, models and arcane vinyl albums like Switched-On Buck (a Moog album of Buck Owens music), Two Beers and Everybody Sings and tons of Enoch Light. “It's like bottom-feeders paradise,” muses Bradfute, as he plays “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady on a violin.
People don't come to Tone Chaparral looking for a studio loaded with a lots of state-of-the-art gear or even sought-after arcane vintage gear. They come for Bradfute's uncanny instinct to set a great vibe (in an already incredibly vibe-y place) and know-how to capture the resulting sparks.
Bradfute first moved to Nashville in 1985 from Memphis, where he was one of that city's top guitarists. He quickly made a name for himself in Nashville as the go-to guy for great custom guitar work at the legendary Gruhn's Guitar Shop, and he even developed a unique line of his own limited-run electric guitars called Rearviews, which were showcased in Guitar Player magazine.
One of Bradfute's passions in Memphis was spending many hours working in the studio, primarily Greg Morrow and James Craft's Crosstown Recorders. It wasn't long after arriving in Nashville that he put together his own recording setup and a steady flow of artists started knocking on his door.
“When I first moved up here, I brought a TEAC 2340 tape recorder,” he says. “Little did I know that everybody in Nashville was a songwriter, and I immediately began doing song demos in my apartment.” Later, he acquired a TEAC 80-8 half-inch 8-track machine and a TEAC 90-16 1-inch 16-track.
Eventually, Bradfute expanded into a house in East Nashville to accommodate the accelerating recording activity that was coming to his door, including projects for David Mead, Bob Bradley, Tommy Womack, Collin Wade Monk, Jason Ringenberg, Royal Wade Kimes, Richard Bennett, Lifeboy, Sonny George and the Legendary Shack Shakers. Another artist who gravitated to Bradfute's digs in East Nashville was Phil Lee, whose debut solo album, The Mighty King of Love, earned loads of critical praise for its smartly humorous, rough-and-tumble, singer/songwriter roots rock.
Not only was Bradfute adept at handling engineering and production chores, he was also an extremely versatile musician. “George can play any instrument any way you want to play it; he's fantastic,” Lee enthuses. “If you need an English rock bloke from the '60s or '70s, wave a wand and he's that guy. By the same token, if you need a 70-year-old sax player sitting in the lobby of the union waiting for the call, he's that guy, too. He can play anything he puts his hands on and knows every one of the right knobs to turn.”
During the first stages in making that album, Lee brought over Richard Bennett. Bennett, a top-notch producer (Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Marty Stuart, etc.) and journeyman guitarist (Mark Knopfler, Neil Diamond), not only fell in love with the whole sensibility of Bradfute and his place, but he also took on producing the rest of Lee's album, as well as his next one at Chaparral.
“Working with Richard and George is like being on an expedition with Lewis and Clark — they've got ‘the maps,’ those two,” exclaims Lee. “They're quite a team and they're very creative and patient.”
Bradfute moved to his Madison location in 2000 and the business followed, with artists ranging from Garth Brooks to Steve Earle to Danny Davis (Nashville Brass), Todd Snider and Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, whose album Rock 'n' Roll City was a Grammy finalist.
Bradfute's current setup includes a Nuendo system and the Alesis HD24, though he'll still fire up the 1-inch 16-track when occasions dictate.
Bennett, who cut his new solo album, Themes From a Rainy Decade, with Bradfute at Chaparral, comments, “I do sessions all the time in these studios with all the best gear, and the stuff sounds tinny and hard and small. But at George's scene — with his Russian and Chinese mics and his little Mackie board and rack of guitar stomp boxes — somehow everything sounds big and real. Why is that? Everything goes through the George filter.”
Lee describes Bennett's Themes From a Rainy Decade as Ray Conniff meets the classic English band The Shadows. That's a pretty good description, but it's much better than that. Each elegant track is like some great timeless theme for a classic movie. Bennett not only acknowledges that sensibility, he is also quick to talk about classic easy-listening music and that genre's giants.
“Funny enough, in the very early stages of this, I kind of got George turned on to this Command Records binge,” says Bennett. “He wasn't hip to Command Records or old late-'50s Ray Conniff records — not the things with all the syrup-y backing and singers, but the really incredible arrangements and swinging instrumental recordings he did earlier. I then turned him on to Bert Kaempfert and Tommy Mottola. All of a sudden, it opened up a new world for George. Without targeting anything — like ‘Let's make this sound like Bert Kaempfert’ — we were just kind of in that frame of mind, so when I started pulling these tunes out, all of a sudden he knew they were coming from a certain context and he knew how to approach them sonically.”
Both Bennett and Lee are looking forward to returning to Tone Chaparral. In the meantime, Bradfute co-produced two albums with former Jason & The Scorchers lead singer/songwriter Jason Ringenberg: Empire Builders and a children's album called A Day At the Farm With Farmer Jason, both for the Yep Roc label. Bradfute also just finished Kimes' latest album, Cowboy Cool.
“It's Nashville contemporary country with traditional Western cowboy music and some real funky stuff thrown in,” says Bradfute of the Cowboy Cool release. “There is a great cowboy western story song called ‘The White Horse’ and another song that sounds like Sly & The Family Stone meets country called ‘Wild Love.’”
In closing, Lee offered this sentiment about Bradfute and the Tone Chaparral: “Besides being the perfect place to record, I wouldn't make a record anywhere else or with anyone else. If he ever moves back to his hometown, Richard Bennett and I will either lay down in front of the truck or have to move down to the Peabody Hotel in Memphis.”
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