The modern country music establishment in Nashville — meaning since Hank Williams died in 1952 — can be traced back to a triumvirate of producers who made the country music industry what it is today. The production approaches of Owen Bradley, Chet Atkins and Billy Sherrill set standards that haven't changed much since the trio's heyday from the 1950s to the 1980s. Bradley and Atkins have both passed away in the past several years, and Sherrill retired in the late 1980s. But not before he made dozens of landmark, career- and genre-defining hit records for Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Barbara Mandrell, Tanya Tucker, Johnny Paycheck, Janie Fricke, Charley Rich and many others. “Stand by Your Man,” which Sherrill wrote and produced for Wynette, is all over the cultural landscape, from its use in the Blues Brothers' classic film to Nancy Reagan's reference to it in defining marriage.
Sherrill was born in 1936 in Alabama, not far from Muscle Shoals, where he and his best friend, Tom Stafford, did demo recordings in a room upstairs from the drug store Stafford's father ran. The son of an evangelical preacher, Sherrill played piano at church weddings and funerals, as well as saxophone in the high school band. But he was lured by the sounds of R&B and rock 'n' roll, and was soon playing in bands throughout the mid-South. By the time Sherrill got to Nashville, in the late 1950s, Atkins and Bradley had established recording protocols that were already deeply entrenched. Sherrill viewed both men as role models, but he also brought his own ideas to the table; he ushered in a lush, highly produced sound that brought many new listeners to country music, and he is credited with bringing in the auteur approach to making records: He wrote, played, produced, engineered and served as an executive for a major label (Epic). Writing the songs his artists cut or owning part of the publishing earned him serious enmity from Nashville's elite songwriting community. But if you look at the business today, there are few producers in country music — or in most other genres — who don't follow that practice to some degree.
Sherrill has come out of retirement to cut a gospel album with George Jones, scheduled for release later this year. His career, from his early days in Nashville until this much-anticipated comeback, has been, as he puts it, “quite a ride.”
When you were growing up in Alabama, you learned piano and played a lot of church music, but then you got hooked on jazz and R&B as a sax player. What caused that shift?
Starvation. Do you realize what a Southern Baptist evangelist makes a year? I'm not talking about Jim Bakker. My dad was being paid in cabbages and pigs, milk and fruit. There wasn't a whole lot of money in church music, but there was some in rock 'n' roll.
What were your earliest recording experiences like in Alabama?
You can't really call them sessions. Everyone was learning as we went along — the engineers, the producers and the musicians. We were just mostly doing demos, never really master sessions. Just an old Ampex recorder and no sound at all, really. This was before they built the studio in Muscle Shoals.
You came to Nashville by accident — a royalty check in the mail you weren't expecting. What was the Nashville music scene like at the time in terms of making records?
I was playing for $30 or $40 a week in a square dance band in Alabama, and I had sent a song I had written to Tree Music up in Nashville. Never knew what happened to it until I get this check for $4,000 in the mail! It seems Bob Beckham [then a recording artist but destined to become one of Nashville's music publishing moguls] cut it as a B-side. I figured I was in the wrong place, and I headed up to Nashville. Me and a few friends started a demo studio in the Cumberland Lodge [now the site of the National Life building in downtown Nashville] — Bill Cooner was the money man, and he put up $10,000 to build the studio; Doug Warren was the starry-eyed singer type; and me. [Sun Records and Sun Studios owner] Sam Phillips was looking to put a studio in Nashville, he saw ours and he bought it. Everyone else left, but I hung around and started learning.
The studio had a huge tracking room, about the size of a basketball court, with really high ceilings. Sam had hired guys to glue insulation to the ceiling, and they were working up on scaffolds. One of them got high from the glue and rolled off and fell down 20 feet. The place had the Memphis touch of Sun — wooden louvers on the walls that could be opened and closed to change the room's sound. The studio had a live echo chamber that was the size of half a basketball court, which Sam had shellac painted on the walls to give it that shiny sound. We also had some EMT plates. Sam hired me to be a mixer, at $55 a week, and I did that while also doing a regular rock band gig in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, with [FAME Studios owner] Rick Hall. It was a helluva time, wonderful. We had all kinds of music we were recording and playing. We lived in this dream world where we could sleep till 3 p.m. every day. When the sessions were over for the night, I would stay at the studio and record stuff with me playing all the parts. [Sun's Nashville facility would become Monument Studios later in the 1960s, when Monument Records owner and Roy Orbison producer Fred Foster bought it.]
When you went to work for Epic in 1962, you began to develop a production style. Did it run up against the conventional Nashville way of doing things? Were you incorporating production styles from different styles of music?
I was low man on the totem pole. They sent artists down to my office that no one else could do anything with. They didn't want to drop them, so they figured, give the new guy a shot. In terms of production, I was stealing from everyone — Chet, Owen, Phil Spector. If you asked me who was the greatest producer around, I would say there was Owen Bradley, and then there was everyone else. He cut stuff 50 years ago that sounds like it was recorded yesterday. I was in awe of Owen and Chet. But I couldn't just walk up to Chet Atkins. It was like walking up to the President of the United States. I was shy. I was a kind of loner. I wasn't part of that Nashville society of the music business. And [all these] years later, I'm still a loner.
David Houston was the artist you first clicked with, and it was an early example of you writing the song and producing the record.
What got everyone's attention was “Almost Persuaded” [co-written by Sherrill], which we did as a B-side for David [in 1966]. Back then, selling 30,000 albums was amazing; 25,000 albums got you to Number One. I get this call at Epic from a distributor, Comstock, in Atlanta. Guy says, “Send down 10,000 copies of the record.” I'm wondering, “Is this some kind of mistake? Isn't this a country record?” Later that afternoon, he calls back and says, “Better make that 20,000.” That song stayed at Number One for 13 weeks, and it sold 250,000 copies. [The song won the Grammy™ the next year for Best Country & Western Song and has since become a standard, covered by dozens of artists including Louis Armstrong, Etta James and Louis Prima.]
In Nashville, nothing succeeds like success.
I guess. After that, no one ever mentioned budgets to me.
But that went against the Nashville way, too — the division of roles of producer and songwriter. Did you catch heat for that?
That was kind of a conflict. I had gotten wind that the songwriters were annoyed by it. One guy says to me, “You got a lock on this now — you write the song and you're a VP at Columbia Records and you record it.” I said I would only record it if it was the best song. But it still bothered me. So I called up [Columbia Records president] Clive Davis and said, “I'm coming to New York, I want to talk to you.” I walked in his office and told him about the feedback I was getting in Nashville, how people said what I was doing wasn't fair. And Clive said to me — and I will never forget this — he says, “Who am I?” I said, “You're the president of Columbia Records.” He says, “Can I fire you?” I said, “Yes, you can.” He said, “Do want to get in trouble with me?” I said, “No way.” Then he said, “So get back down to Nashville and keep doing what you're doing and making hit records.”
What was that first meeting with Tammy Wynette like in 1966?
She came to the office, and my secretary told me a girl was here to see me. I was thinking, “Oh, man, it's 4 o'clock,” and I was ready to get out of there. I actually forgot she was there and I went to leave, and an hour later she was still sitting there. Her real name was Virginia Pugh. So, I invited her in. She had a weird little demo tape that was pretty mediocre. She did have a different type of voice, but the song wasn't very good. I told her, leave your number. If I ever get the right song, I'll call you. I could see the hope draining out of her. She told me I was her last stop, that she had to go back home the next day.
So she went back to the Anchor Motel, where she was staying with her two kids. I felt bad, but the song just wasn't there. Meanwhile, I was trying to pick up a master recording to a Fuzzy Owen song called “Apartment #9.” I wanted it, but they were saying, “We think this is gonna be a hit, and we're not giving it out to anyone.” They were kind of smart-ass about it, and that rubbed me the wrong way. I thought, I bet Virginia could sing this one. So I called her at the Anchor Motel and told her, “I have this song I want you to record tomorrow night.” She says, “Please don't joke with me.” I told her I wasn't joking. She showed up at daylight the next morning to learn the song. We went into the studio [the Quonset Hut, Owen Bradley's old studio that had become part of Columbia Records] and cut it. And I tell you, when she sang the first line, [musicians] Jerry Kennedy looked at me and Bob Moore looked at Buddy Harman and we all went apeshit. This was a great voice.
How did your productions evolve over time?
The sound got lusher. I liked the way violins sound on a love song. I don't want to hear a [pedal] steel on a love song. My records were smoother-sounding than a lot of people wanted on a country record. That's why a lot of them crossed over to pop.
What were you like working in the studio? You were bringing in some non-traditional approaches to Nashville records. How did the musicians and engineers react?
I knew what I wanted to hear, and [the musicians] knew what they wanted to play. Sometimes, it happened to be the same thing. But there was always mutual respect. I worked mostly at the Quonset Hut, because that was Columbia's studio and there were union rules in those days. The engineers were staffers and they were union, and I could not touch the board. It took two engineers to run a session — one on the board and another to run the machines. Also, you couldn't overdub. The A.F. of M. laws wouldn't let us. If I finished a track and decided I wished I had a harp on it, I would have had to go back and pay all the musicians all over again. So, I did a lot of cheating in those days. But the engineers were good — guys like Selby Cofeen and Ron Reynolds — and I learned from them. I knew what they knew and they knew what I knew, so we got along.
Did you like working at the Hut?
Oh, yes. It was a place where the guys didn't have to lock themselves into a little world of earphones. They could hear each other play without them. But in the '60s, earphones suddenly came in like the plague — the first 30 minutes of a session were now taken up by guys asking the engineer to turn them up and turn the drums down. One day, I just blew up and told everyone to take the damned 'phones off. I said, “Trust me, if it sounds good to me, that's all that matters.” There were other studios around, but most were owned by labels and every label had to use their own studio.
How did you get together with George Jones?
He fell in love with Tammy Wynette. Unfortunately, he was still married at the time, and on another record label. I signed him to Columbia.
That must have made for interesting sessions when they did all those great duet records. How did you record them?
It did increase my scotch intake some. We started out trying to record the vocals together, but George drove Tammy crazy with his phrasing. He never, ever did it the same way twice. He could make a five-syllable word out of “church.” Finally, Tammy said, “Record George and let me listen to it, and then do my vocal after we get his on tape.” Tammy was a very quick study. With George, I don't think he had ever been truly “produced” before. Pappy Dailey was listed as the producer before me, but the musicians really produced those records. Pappy owned the record label. What I thought about George's voice, and I told him, was, “You whine too much. You've got a good range, let's mellow you out.” He has an unbelievable low, bass-type voice that, when it's on tape, sounds amazing. I wanted more of that, and we used more ballads to get it.
How involved were you in choosing equipment like microphones? Did you have preferences for each artist?
Not at all. The engineers did it. I really didn't know one from the other. I just knew what sounded good. I liked the big [large-diaphragm] microphones. But we'd try a few till we found one that sounded good, and stayed with it for years.
You stayed with Columbia's studios for a long time, but did you consider going elsewhere to record country or anything else?
I did the Staple Singers in a Chicago church. This was in the late 1960s, and the riots were going on. Pop Staples was a cool guy. He called and asked when I was coming in. He said, “Go straight to the hotel. I'll pick you up. You're not riding around Chicago by yourself.” I also recorded James Taylor in New York for a duet with George [Jones], and I did one Janie Fricke record in Muscle Shoals. But, otherwise, it was always Nashville. That city simply has everything you need to make a good record.
Country music has had an obsession with youth lately, with artists like LeAnn Rimes and Billy Gilman. But you worked with the first teenage superstar, Tanya Tucker. What was that like?
Tanya was 13 years old when we did “Delta Dawn.” But she grew up real fast. She was young, but not a kid, if you know what I mean. We knew “Delta Dawn” was going to be a hit, and we had to get an album together real fast. But the publishers were sending me kids' songs. I had to convince them I wanted grown-up songs for her. We were doing pretty gothic stuff — “What's Your Mama's Name,” that sort of thing. She could sing that very convincingly. Nashville thought I was getting a little too blue with her, too adult. But her voice did the talking for her. She was very good, always sure of herself. She was never nervous about anything. And her vibrato tore me up. It reminded me of Kitty Wells.
You were a VP and an executive producer for Columbia through much of the 1980s, but you slowed it down during that period. Did you retire, or did you just get tired?
I got tired of it. I burned out. The way I look at it, if you're a record producer and you dread going into the studio with George Jones, then it's time to stop and smell the roses. It wasn't the actual making of records, but doing the same thing all the time that got to me. The title meant nothing to me. Clive gave it to me, and I said thanks and just went back to making records. But when I was making records, the whole thing felt like a 25-year vacation.
How do you feel about how the recording process has changed?
I never paid attention to the transition from analog to digital. All I knew was that there was a little less hiss and it sounded a little cleaner. But there were some things I didn't care for about the way making records had changed. I got a call from [producer] Norro Wilson a few months ago, and he wanted me to help out on a Lorrie Morgan track of a song I had written. I got to the studio, and the drummer worked on the drum sounds for nearly an hour. Same on the guitar sounds. I couldn't stand it. There's no reason to take an hour to get drum sounds. It's like killing a fly with a sledgehammer. And radio's gonna roll it all off at 4,000 cycles anyway. I was wired and bored at the same time. The whole recording process has gotten kind of gratuitous. I had done a session with Johnny Paycheck years ago, and I never even went to the studio. I had a line run up to my office. I told him, “You know the songs, just sing them.” I'd call down to the engineer and tell him to turn up [steel player] Pete Drake a little or something like that.
The new project you're working on is a George Jones gospel album. How does it feel to be back in the producer's seat?
I did it because George is comfortable with me, and I'm comfortable with him. And it'll be nice working with The Statlers and The Jordanaires again. But it's pretty cut-and-dried. If the right thing came along, I'd jump out of my chair in a heartbeat. But seldom do I hear anything like that. Tim McGraw's “Please Remember Me” — I had to pull over to the side when I heard that one. But there's not many like there used to be. Right now, I've got a boat in Panama City [Fla.] and a boat in Nashville. I've turned doing nothing into an art form.
Dan Daley is a Nashville-based writer.