The dynamic trio at Blackbird Studios (L-R): Vince Gill, John Hobbs and Justin Niebank.
Photo: Peter Cooper
I get to listen while I write. Right now, I'm hearing Tom T. Hall singing “The Girl Who Read the Same Book All the Time.” In a few minutes, I'm going to switch over to a mix of Todd Snider songs because I love his songs and because I'm a week away from playing bass with Snider on some tour dates. I'm not very good at fakery or improvisation when it comes to the bass, so I have to make sure all the changes are burned into my brain. Train wrecks are good subjects for country songs, bad subjects for bands and a couple of errant notes from my Carolina blue Waterstone can wreck the best of bands. I have too much respect and affection for Snider — I produced an odds 'n' sods record for him, I've played and sung on three of his albums, and we've written some songs together — to hang him too far out to dry in concert. Plus, we're playing casino gigs and I don't want to get fired and lose my shot at the blackjack tables.
In any case, please excuse the name-dropping. (I've heard Grammy-winning Nashvillian Jim Lauderdale say, “Name dropping is rude. I was just having a discussion about that with Judge Lance Ito.”) This is supposed to be something of an introduction, though, and I'm pleased to say that I'm writing to you from my home in East Nashville, less than 20 minutes from the homes of Hall, Snider, Emmylou Harris, Duane Eddy, Nanci Griffith, George Jones, Kim Carnes, Guy Clark and just about every major figure in the contemporary country world. In this column, which I'm taking over from the hypertalented Rick Clark, I will bring you news and opinions from my fine town.
I do all sorts of things around here, including writing about music for The Tennessean newspaper, teaching country music history at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music, playing fretted instruments, singing, writing songs, recording demos in my home studio and recording albums in better studios. I know just enough to be dangerous, but I have chosen a peaceful path. I moved to Nashville from South Carolina, mostly because you never see John Prine at the Target store in Spartanburg. I used to teach middle school, but I'm feeling much better now.
And I thought I'd tell you about the recent talk I had with Vince Gill, John Hobbs and Justin Niebank, the three fellows who co-produced Gill's four-disc These Days album, Nashville's entry into the 50th Grammy Awards' all-genre Best Album category, and winner as Best Country Album.
“I never felt like music had to be a good idea,” Gill says, referring to his notion of recording 43 songs of new material, divvied up into four, genre-linked discs. There's a classic country-sounding disc, one of bluegrass, one of rocked-up material and one that is full of melodic ballads. The project's length and breadth allowed the producers and musicians to experiment in ways that are unusual for a major-label contemporary country project.
“Because we wanted every song to have its own character, we tended to change and move around most of the mics, so there was never a dull moment,” says Niebank, a remarkable engineer, producer and mixer who has worked on projects for Gill, Keith Urban, John Mellencamp and plenty of others. Niebank, Gill and Hobbs tracked and mixed the project at Nashville's Blackbird Studios (www.blackbirdstudio.com). “The only exception was Vince's vocal chain: We stayed with a great-sounding Neumann U47 through a Daking preamp into an ADL compressor. But when we got to Vince's guitar overdubs, we tailored the guitar, amp and mic setup to each individual song and part.”
The men tried to stick to a schedule that involved cutting rhythm tracks in the morning and layering instruments and vocals in the afternoon. The goal, which wasn't always achieved, was to record and mix a song a day, in time to enjoy the 5 o'clock margaritas made by Gill's guitar tech, Benny Garcia.
Hobbs is Gill's keyboard player and bandleader, and when he's not playing with Gill he's an A-list session player. He says that the atypical nature of These Days spurred the producers to think of instruments and recording scenarios in different ways. Major-label country projects tend to be geared toward a specific sound because country radio can be sonically homogenous. With four distinctive discs, though, homogeneity was an enemy. Gill, Niebank and Hobbs were determined that Gill's lead guitar would be featured throughout, and so the decision was made to eschew stereo piano, for the most part.
“The standard way to do a piano here is stereo, with a lot of echo, so that it sounds mighty and big,” Hobbs says. “But because of the huge frequency span, it can cover up a lot of stuff. When I'm tracking, I usually try to find ranges and parts to play that don't occupy too much space. But a lot of times on this record, we used mono piano. It freaked me out to play parts that I wouldn't ordinarily get to play. It was like having a different voice. And Studio A at Blackbird has a great Wurlitzer and a great '73 Rhodes suitcase model. So I got to play some classic-sounding keyboards.”
All the experimentation helped Gill to find one sound he'd been seeking for years: Eric Clapton's Bluesbreakers-era tone had long been a mystery even to Gill, who has played alongside Clapton at several shows and in the studio.
“He'd play the Strat in the middle position and get that tone,” Gill says of Clapton's sound. “I tried to play there, but it didn't do what he was doing. But a friend had given me a 1959 Bassman amp, and we plugged the Strat into that amp when we were looking for guitar tones on this record. I plugged in, played it in the middle position, and went, ‘Hey, found it!’”
Most of These Days was recorded on a Neve 8078 console, into Pro Tools, with API, Shadow Hills, Universal Audio and Daking mic pre's to augment the console. For instruments, the producers used an array of ribbon mics from Coles, RCA, AEA, Royer and Beyer. Guitar tones were generally captured through classic mics facing classic amps, but there were occasions when Niebank used the Focusrite Liquid Channel to find unusual tones. Engineers (Niebank is quick to credit assistant Drew Bollman) took care to keep the original band balance from the Neve intact throughout the overdub and mixing process; otherwise, mixing the 43 songs would have been a time-waste and a logistical nightmare.
“The mix was done through Blackbird's SSL 9000K, but it was a hybrid mix, using the balances we created in Pro Tools, splitting out groups through the console,” Niebank says. “This helped make the best use of our time, but also retained our original creative instincts.” These Days was roundly ignored by country radio, but it received the best reviews of Gill's career. “Yeah, but we had to make four times as much music to get the same attention,” Gill says jokingly. “I figure, ‘Sure, it's easy for you, Kanye: You only have to make one record at a time.’”
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