To put together our “30 People Who Shaped Sound” feature, we phoned top producers, engineers and artists to get their personal observations on what makes each of our Big 30 so great. There was a lot more to say than we had room for in print. Here’s an extended version of producer Tony Brown’s appreciation of Nashville powerhouse Jimmy Bowen.
How did you first begin working with Jimmy Bowen?
I came to Nashville as a gospel musician and then ended up playing with Elvis, and that segued into country music, playing with Emmylou Harris and the Cherry Bombs with Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash. And then I decided I should get a real job [laughs] so I got a job at RCA. While I was there, I signed Alabama, which gave me notoriety at the time, and I got a call from Bowen through my attorney that he was planning to go to MCA and wanted to know if I would be interested in being his vice president of A&R.
To me, Bowen was a big producer, a star. It was a real thrill to get that opportunity. So it turned out I did get that job, and it totally changed my life. I’m frightened to even think if I hadn’t made that decision what my life would be like today. But I took that job, and it he groomed me into being a producer.
What did you learn from him?
One of the most important things I learned from him was time management: being able to do several projects at once and knowing which ones don’t demand that you have to be present. There are some things you don’t necessarily have to be there for, and some things you do.
Also, Bowen got ridiculed for flying musicians in from L.A.: Leland Sklar or Russ Kunkel or whoever, and I was always fascinated. I’m the kind of guy who all my life read the back of album covers, so to get a chance to work with Leland Sklar or Russ Kunkel would probably never had been possible if I hadn’t worked with Bowen. I asked him how you deal with being ridiculed; Nashville is an old-school kind of place, and people think you’re being disloyal if you use musicians from somewhere else when there are ample musicians in Nashville. He said, “If I fly in a specific musician, whether it’s a drummer or a guitar player, it’s because I think they’re the person that’s perfect for the project. You can’t put a price on creativity, so why would you limit yourself? If you really think you need Russ Kunkel on a project, why would you not hire him?”
That, for me, opened a door. As long as I had a reason to fly in an engineer or whoever, I realized that Bowen put creativity first and foremost. I’m a loyal Nashville Tennessean. I always try to use local mastering places and stuff like that, unless an artist feels strongly about using someone out of town like Doug Sax or Bob Ludwig. But Bowen always says “It’s the artist’s record, not your record.”
I learned a lot of things about the art of being a producer. As much as there is to having song sense or eclectic taste, you have to remember who you’re working for. You’re the liaison between the artist and the label.
I’ve heard that Bowen was a huge force in introducing digital in Nashville.
No one in this town ever approached recording the way Bowen did. He’s started using digital Nashville way ahead of L.A. or New York. A lot of rock ’n’ roll artists and producers loved analog, but Bowen’s theory was that eventually it would all go that way, and we see that it did.
What are some specific productions that show Bowen’s greatness as a producer?
To me, Hank Jr. Family Tradition and all those records, are as timeless as Patsy Cline and Brenda Lee. Those are the records that made Hank Jr. the superstar he became. Hank was around town for years making records, and no one took him seriously. Bowen made records that sonically were amazing, and he pulled songs out of Hank Jr. that no one would have believed he could write. Those records changed a lot of people’s lives in terms of his approach—the freedom of it, like blind faith. He had blind faith, as opposed to playing it safe and those records were really amazing. And then there were the Conway Twitty records he recorded. He turned Conway into a major country superstar. But the Hank Jr. records—I wanted to know where he cut them, who played on it, who engineered it.
What did Bowen give you as a mentor?
As a mentor, he changed my life by teaching me to be strong. Everybody thought he was full of himself because he was so confident, but he taught me you have to believe in yourself. When I wanted to sign Steve Earle, for example, he said “I can’t understand a word he says, but if you can cut one thing where I can understand him and make me like him, I’ll consider it.” And I did, and he said, “T! That’s what I’m talking about right there!” And Steve Earle became big. If you look at my discography, I think Steve Earle means as much in the history of my career as George Strait or Vince Gill does. I don’t think any other label head in town would have been quite as supportive as Bowen. Bowen was supportive, but he also challenged me.