A new, first-of-its-kind book Behind the Boards: Nashville (Baker & Taylor) pulls back the curtain on the Music Row hit-making machine that is the recording studio. The new book explores the in-depth relationships between artists and producers while revealing the compelling stories behind some of the biggest hits to come out of Music City. Behind the Boards: Nashville is the 50th book by award-winning, Nashville-based music biographer Jake Brown (Nashville Songwriter series). Fans are able to stream the music while they read as this 600-page book gives Country music listeners a look at how the soundtracks of their lives were created in the studio from start to finish. Collectively, the book features over 300 #1 hits by Country’s biggest stars.
Jake Brown talks about his new book 'Behind the Boards: Nashville'
The author's 50th book is a collection from some of country music's top producers who share rarely-heard stories from…
“I’m proud this is my 50th published book, as we endeavored to gather the largest collection ever of Country Music’s superstar producers in one conversation for fans over 600 pages chronicling both how they first found their way to Nashville and into the recording studio, how Country music’s biggest stars work in the studio behind the scenes, and pull back the curtain on specifically how literally hundreds of their Greatest Hits were brought to life in the studio. It’s a love-letter to my home town that I couldn’t be more proud of!” -Author Jake Brown
Loved the beautiful dedication to Little Hannie.
Thank you, I miss him every day. This book truly pulled me out of a DEEP depression over his passing, but this book is a love letter both to my late best dog buddy and my hometown, Nashville, where I’ve lived the past 18 years.
For new readers, what drew you to write from the perspective of the people behind the artists?
My mom took me, my brother Josh and my aunt Heather to see Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet tour when I was 11, we had side-of-stage seats and I watched everything happening back stage with the roadies, the techs, the sound board, the guitars being changed out, it was all fascinating to me more than what was happening on stage, and that was really my “a-ha” moment I wanted to work in the music business when I grew up. I never planned to be a book writer, it kind of happened accidentally, I was working for a record label right out of college and started writing copy for their catalog titles, press releases, etc and it just expanded from there. I met a literary agent through that who suggested I try to write a book, and we sold the Suge Knight memoir to Amber Books, who gave me my start. Another big early foot in the door moment was when I had the opportunity to write books with Ann and Nancy Wilson & Heart in 2007 and in 2009 with Lemmy Kilmister and Motorhead. So I was lucky to have 10 years along with the Tupac Shakur estate authorizing a “TUPAC: in the Studio” book, and that IN THE STUDIO book series is a trade-marked of mine that took off early on too with books on Dr. Dre: in the Studio and Rick Rubin: in the Studio, which really molded my niche of writing books about record-making process from the point of view of the producers, engineers, band members, etc in the studio but with these really fascinating back-stories either about how they first began playing with sound as a kid and then found their path into the studio, it followed the same in this book. It’s been a fascinating specialty to have as a music biographer because, although nowhere NEAR the people I work with on the book side, I’m a published songwriter and producer in my own right on the rock/electronic side, so I have a first-hand week-in-and-out understanding of how the record production process works that helps me translate it to the reader in a hopefully pretty accessible narrative. I also like to make sure I interweave quotes from the stars these producers work with throughout the books so you get as what I like to call 3-D a look at the record-making process as possible throughout each chapter.
Many times the people whose roles are behind the scenes, here behind the boards, don’t want to talk about themselves. How are you able to draw out their stories?
Luck. I have been lucky my entire career in that respect over the past 20 years. I think in part because I’ve been fortunate to focus in depth on some of the more unsung and under appreciated pillars of this business, from the drummers in my BEYOND THE BEATS rock drummers series, for instance, the first book featured the same format of chapter-length profiles and stories behind their greatest beats w drummers from Motley Crue, Metallica, Aerosmith, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Journey, Bon Jovi, Smashing Pumpkins, Guns N Roses, Jane’s Addiction and Kenny Aronoff, whose memoir I also co-wrote. So that template is also my approach to the two books in the NASHVILLE SONGWRITER book series, and has been for BEHIND THE BOARDS: NASHVILLE. There’s actually two volumes of Behind the Boards (ed. note: Behind the Boards II) that interviews all the great rock and metal producers like Bones Howe, Jack Douglas, Eddie Kramer, Hugh Padgham, Bob Ezrin, Butch Vig and on and on through nearly 40 producers in the first two books. Those came out in 2012 and 2014, and then I planned on doing this volume but got the Joe Satriani memoir Strange Beautiful Music, so it was put on hold a few years. I’m happy I waited because I was largely a rock and hip hop book author until the Nashville Songwriter series — Vol 1 came out in 2014 and Vol 2 in 2018, and there’s 60 of Music Row’s biggest songwriters between those 2 volumes — and it sort of established my name with country music readers. So it was good training for the lead-up to this book because some of those same songwriters — like Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, Ross Copperman, Luke Laird, Zach Crowell, Chris DeStefano, Jesse Frasure, and Jimmy Robbins — were all in NS II, and Don Cook and Bobby Braddock are in the upcoming Nashville Songwriter III book, which hits stores in fall 2021 with 30 more legendary songwriters.
So this book was really special to me as well because we had true royalty within its pages, like Dann Huff, Tony Brown, James Stroud, Byron Gallimore, Norbert Putnam, Jim Ed Norman, Josh Leo, Paul Worley, and Ray Baker, and the great Buddy Cannon, and bridged into the latest generation of country music fans with Dave Cobb, Michael Knox, Frank Rogers, Joey Moi, Jeff and Jody Stevens, Ray Riddle, Frank Liddell, and a real treat was having country superstar Clint Black join the project, along with Taylor Swift producer Nathan Chapman, and Nashville’s greatest mixer Justin Niebank. So 30 producers and 600 pages in total, so I feel like in some important ways the Nashville Songwriter books were important training for the understanding of how the behind-the-scenes machinery of the Nashville hit-making system works, from the songwriters to the publishers to the producers, to the old and new school of session bands and track guys who produce much of the finished production in the demo process or during writing sessions. It happens every way, and over the course of 300 # 1s, you get the stories behind many of Country’s greatest hits by its signature superstar artists and acts.
How has the role of the producer evolved with technology advancements?
Well, with the advent of digital technology, even if they prefer the sonics of analog, most every producer in this book anyway — who represent the majority of country’s major players — have had to to keep up with the times. Country has always produced hits fast, sometimes 3, 4 in an afternoon with an A-list session band, so that inherent expediency of the process hasn’t changed, but it has made it much more competitive due to the generation of “bedroom producers” who learned to produce on a laptop, and the desire of many of the artists/stars who record today that want that urban flavor has produced a number of co-production teaming like Dann Huff and Jesse Frasure on Thomas Rhett for instance, or Keith Urban and Justin Niebank, who can do it all. There’s lots more examples, Joey Moi programs most all of Florida/Georgia Line’s hits digitally, i.e. with no live drummers, so its definitely been a non-negotiable change that most any relevant country music producer has had to stay up with the times, and that’s largely been at the stars’ they work with’s insistence. There’s been a pretty good hybrid established by now though, as for instance, Michael Knox talks about getting Jason Aldean demos with programming that he replaces with his own guys, and maybe only on the chorus with live drums on verses, etc. There’s lots of variations on that, but its definitely become a hybrid of programmed and live as country fans want to hear both elements within the soundscapes of today’s country hits.
What changes do you see coming from these past few months, where artists and their teams have had to be very creative in producing music during the quarantine?
Not many long term, because Country Music is a live touring business, so eventually bands will have to hit the road. In the interim, there have been plenty of inspiring songs like Kacey Musgraves’ “Rainbow” and new # 1s hitting the Billboard US Hot Country Songs and US Country Airplay charts, but you may see more virtual concerts, etc. Nashville — as an example having artists play the Grand Ole Opry every week to an empty theatre but live televised crowd — has done its best to maintain its traditions while adjusting to this horrible time for our business, but it really needs to rev back up live-wise to see the rest of the industry shocked back fully to life, in my opinion anyway J based on the industry folks I talk to.
For fans, can you take us along on the start to finish, the process from concept to lyrics to sound to production?
My Nashville Songwriter book series documents this very process, taking readers inside the writer’s room and the songwriter’s mind even before the song idea gets to the writing room, as it often begins on a ride into town that day or on a writer’s retreat and equally as commonly in the writer’s rooms on Music Row during co-writes between many of the producer/co-writers in this book, from Ross Copperman or Shane McAnally or Josh Osborne or Jesse Frasure or Zach Crowell or Ray Riddle or Luke Laird, Jimmy Robbins, etc, where they might come in with a musical idea and it just blooms to life in the writing room with co-writers. It happens every way you can imagine, and then once that demo is fleshed out — if its one of the latter mentioned producer/writers or say Chris DeStefano, who can bring in a nearly finished song instrumentally — it then goes into the hands of their publishers, often from there out to the song pluggers for these big country stars and bands then once they’re put on hold, into the hands of the producers to begin crafting for studio production. From there, per some of the approaches we’ve touched on here, either the artist comes in with their own notes and creative expansions, or if they’re a co-writer, already have that pretty fleshed out and head into vocal production from there. Some vocalists in this book sing live off the floor with the band during tracking, like Miranda Lambert, others let the session band if it’s a brand new recording with no demo elements included, get their bed tracks done, and then the star will work one-on-one with the producer getting the keeper vocal takes so they can comp a master, then it goes to mixing, often with someone like Justin Niebank putting the final touches on it sonically, and out the door to the label and then radio and into the hands of the fans. That’s the best overview I can provide short-hand, but the book gives you obviously a much more in-depth look at that full process over the course of 300 # 1 hits.
How did you choose which producers to interview in this, your 50th book, “Behind the Boards: Nashville”?
The ambition was to have as definitive an anthology as had been assembled to date, and I think we accomplished that, of collecting all of these legendary country producers in one book for the first time together recounting their personal back stories as well as the stories behind their greatest hits in the studio, and the behind-the-scenes of how the artists they work with really work in the studio — from little personal ways of recording that might be unique to that star to the way these hits are actually assembled in the studio, etc from front to back, per your question above. We were extremely fortunate to have such a royal collection of talented producers who ALL deserve the spotlight of their own individual chapters to tell their own stories in depth, vs. being rushed. We really took our time writing this book, 2 years in fact, over multiple conversations with many of the producers to make sure we got everything exactly right to their liking, from Michael Knox and Nathan Chapman and Dave Cobb and Paul Worley and other producers who were very hands-on with their own reviews, we really wanted to make sure everyone was 100% happy with their chapters, and I am proud of the finished product for that reason as much as any other.
What are the key qualities an artist looks for when choosing a producer?
They vary, but based on a lot of the long-term working relationships we’ve touched on in this interview — Luke Bryan and Jeff/Jody Stevens, Jason Aldean and Michael Knox, Kenny Chesney and Buddy Cannon, Tim McGraw and Byron Gallimore, and more — there’s an indescribable trust that develops and encompasses I’m sure many of its own internal reasons why an artist and producer see eye to eye and stay working together over to many albums. Its certainly the initial special something that producer saw in the artist to take a chance on them in the first place when the artist was an unknown entity, other times its things that producer is willing to let the artist try in the studio when others wouldn’t — Keith Urban and Dann Huff are definitely a good example of that. Then there’s certainly then the efficiency with which many of these producers can run a session, often by having spent years on the other side of the board as a live session player, so they know how to communicate an artist’s ideas to a live session band on the spot, and often by example with Paul Worley — who always played guitar on the records he produced — or James Stroud or Norbert Putnam or Joey Moi and Florida Georgia Line, or Nathan Chapman with Taylor Swift where he could build full instrumentals around any acoustic guitar/vocal song she brought in newly written, or Frank Rogers being so musically involved in the making of the Brad Paisley records he produced for years, so that is absolutely an asset ANY producer should try to have, at the recommendation of many in this book, is to A.) be able to play an instrument, and B.) be able to communicate with the session band as musically as possible through your own first-hand understanding of music as both a player and producer.
On the flip side, what qualities will a producer look for before deciding to work with an artist?
GREAT question, because its very much a theme again throughout this book, and broader country. A lot of the answers overlap what I covered above, but for say someone like Kenny Chesney or Tim McGraw — both of whom had CLEAR visions for their careers from the jump, or ESPECIALLY in the case of someone like Clint Black, who worked with James Stroud for the first few albums before taking the production reigns himself in the later 90s through date — it’s the truly inclusive partnership that artist felt with the producer in chasing the artist’s vision in the beginning and then seeing it throughout its various creative evolutions throughout these amazing, long-term career working relationships, many that span a quarter-century or more. Another consistent one I found throughout this book was that producer’s willingness to adapt to stylistic shifts in the popular trends at country radio, or to push the cutting edge ahead of when radio — or a record label — might have been ready to try something new. Having the weight of a producer’s backing when an artist wants to make a stylistic shift has a TITANIC impact on making it happen, because the artist sees that producer is putting their career on the line too, so there’s really an important partnership quality to the trust between artist and producer that is consistently tested throughout a long career, and being on the same page seems to be a key throughout.
More artists are choosing to produce their own songs. One positive may be having more control over the final product. What, if any, challenges might develop when an artist wears all the ‘hats’?
Well, “CO-PRODUCE” to be fair, there’s always either a co-producer like Buddy Cannon with Kenny Chesney or Tim McGraw and Byron Gallimore, but then there’s others like Luke Bryan who weighs in for sure but leaves the producing to Jeff and Jody Stevens in official credit, but they’ve worked together 15 years. Some of these guys, like Michael Knox, have been with their artists like Jason Aldean for 15 years too, i.e. their whole career, and there’s just such a deep respect and creative trust at work that its inspiring and inspires great songs every time out. It becomes intuitive for them in many cases, and its really rare and unique to country compared to other music genres I’ve written in where artists jump around to working with a lot of different producers, its EXTREMELY common, but in Country, equally as common to have these kinds of long-term collaborations — George Strait and Tony Brown, over 40 # 1s and 22 years together, or Frank Liddell and Miranda Lambert, who worked together for about 15 years, or Frank Rogers and Brad Paisley. Now, you do have producers like Ross Copperman, Luke Laird, Chris DeStefano, Nathan Chapman and Zach Crowell, who can produce an entire song from the ground up as multi-instrumentalists by themselves! These are all AMAZINGLY talented players in the process.
You quote Buddy Cannon, “capturing the emotion of the song has been everything”. Two people can listen to the same song and connect in completely different ways. How does a producer find that ‘middle’ ground for a song, keeping true to the lyrics, but keeping an open mind so the song can reach the masses?
Interesting question, it seems like a combination of how the demo guides the song’s recording, what the artist hears as important within the production, and what the producer KNOWS needs to be there for it to be accessible at radio. That combination, of course with other factors added in depending on the specific song, but country artists for the most part — even if they’re pushing boundaries like Dave Cobb and Chris Stapleton or Shooter Jennings or Jason Isbell or Sturgill Simpson in his catalog’s case — know they’re making records with the intention of having as many people hear them as possible. Bear in mind the finality of that product too because then the artist has to go out and promote it live for months on end live on stage to different crowds night after night, so many producers — like Don Cook with Brooks & Dunn for instance or Michael Knox with Jason Aldean — describe their production headspace as one where they produce FROM THE AUDIENCE so that when the band plays that radio hit live, the audience really feels like they’re hearing exactly what they did on record replicated perfectly live from a performance and sonic perspective. There’s a real art to that part of it, and of course, so many others that a producer has to balance in the context of how many different hats they wear at once when producing a hit record or album.
One very emotional song that stands out is Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)”. Producer James Stroud, “…I knew I only had a couple of passes that were going to be fresh, and didn’t want this thing to start to sound stale and unemotional. I wanted musicians crying, because 9/11 was rough, and it meant so much to all of us, and that’s what I tried to do as a producer was put that emotion and confidence that we were playing the song for the country, and sort of give it some resolve. We were pissed off, and were coming! Then he became a hero to a lot of troops … “ At first Keith (who wrote the song with his own father, who lost an eye while in the Army, in mind) did not want to perform it live because it was so emotional. He did after both President Bush and the Commandant from the Marines asked him to sing it for the troops. The result, in capturing this historic time in America, is a tribute to the relationship between producer and artist. What are some other challenges in producing songs based on true events?
That’s more in the delivery of the lyric, they would say, and I imagine the sense of nostalgia the instrumental accompaniment evokes. That song became an anthem for the times and soldiers needed an artist like Toby Keith with the courage to write, and then record a song like that one, and James Stroud talks in his chapter about the importance of that General motivating Toby to understand the sense of duty he had to record it for his country. The same can be said of other anthems of our times within country, but that’s a pretty profound example, although there’s other examples in this book of important songs within artist’s careers that almost didn’t get made were it not for the artist — or producer — pushing the other to get it down on tape in the first place. Its definitely a give and a take.
Stripping back the original lyrics and then adding each step, each layer, to fully bring a song to life. How does a producer prepare to work with an artist?
PRE-PRODUCTION. An essential part of the recording process where those steps are each fleshed out — from the session band learning the song, Paul Worley talks about the importance of this part of his process with Lady A or The Band Perry or Dixie Chicks, etc — to making sure all the drum tuning and room tuning is done, that all the sonics of the session are in order as far as where mics are placed on or around instruments — including room mics — that the songs are rehearsed, that the artist knows what they want to do with the song vocally when they come in, even if they go through 30 takes to get there or 3, all of that and more happens in PRE-PRODUCTION. Vital step to most producers’ recording processes.
Many times an artist will release a remix. Are these remixes ever recorded with the original production?
Not often, Justin Niebank spoke to that in his interview as he’s a MASTER mixer, maybe the best set of ears in the business period, it was a real honor to have his participation in this book. Its not exactly a remix, but Justin cut his teeth recording BLUES records in Chicago in the 80s before he made his way to Nashville, and actually recorded that legendary Eric Clapton 1986 slow version of “After Midnight,” and he talked about that extensively, as did guys like Jody Stevens and Ray Riddle, who co-produced all of country rapper Big Smo’s biggest hits, so they all did remixes in the Hip Hop spirit, but within Country, its common too as a post-production/pre-release extra to have as something extra for fans for sure, labels almost insist on it for major artists.
Reflecting on all these great stories from behind the boards, what common elements do you find in each successful pairing, artist and producer?
Its varying combinations of everything we’ve touched on above with some common overarching themes: TRUST is huge; knowing the fundamentals of an artist’s sound on record that are stuck to while still being willing to take new chances when the times call for it; PICKING GREAT SONGS! This is probably the # 1 job of a producer, to PICK GREAT SONGS. Michael Knox and Tony Brown both talk about listening to between 2000 and 3000 songs for Jason Aldean and George Strait before settling on a final 15 or 20, its an incredibly methodical process that requires that special ear to recognize potential or sure-fire hits, put them immediately on hold once you do so another artist’s producer or label doesn’t grab them up first, the list just goes on and on. Its all in the 600 pages of BEHIND THE BOARDS: NASHVILLE! J
For new artists and new producers, what advice do you hope they take away from the stories?
An education on what it takes to produce records in Nashville, uniquely to any other genre of music, because it is. Inspiration that its possible and an education on both how to get your own foot in the door, the tool-set you MUST have once you get there, and through the examples, wisdom and guidance of these amazing legendary producers, a road-map on how to hopefully have a similarly-successful longevity as a producer in the business of Country Music.
Thanks for your time!