Excerpted from Producing Country: The Inside Story of the Great Recordings by Michael Jarrett. Published by © Wesleyan University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
Capturing the Performance, 1927-1949
Very soon after 1877, the invention that Edison called a phonograph articulated in such a way as to serve the interests of corporate capital; which is to say, technologies for recording and reproducing sound worked to the distinct advantage of newly formed record companies— not musicians. Entertainment companies, in the guise of their designees, artists and repertoire (A&R) men, managed musical production by controlling all facets of preproduction.
Cutting tracks to disc allowed A&R men only limited control of the production phase of record-making. Hence, they don’t talk much about time spent in studios, because production happened outside that space. Early producers were tasked with choosing who (artists) and what (repertoire) to record. They crafted deals more than they crafted sounds. They functioned as agents of “artificial selection,” in a Darwinian sense of the term. However invisible (or inaudible) the manifestations of their control may have been, in seeking to ensure the survival and profitability of corporate interests, A&R men profoundly shaped, even defined, country music. They were mediating figures, standing between artist and record company, artist and technology, and artist and public.
Interviewed in his Hollywood office in 1959, Ralph Peer (1892–1960) informed Lillian Borgeson that the recording sessions he supervised back in the 1920s yielded nothing more than movable pieces in a complex financial game. Records weren’t end products, packaged goods, or software necessary for newfangled hardware. And they sure weren’t timeless treasures. They were a means to accruing copyright royalties. That’s where the real money lay.
As a young man hired to produce “race records,” Peer had learned this lesson well. The money he made for the General Phonograph Company’s OKeh label could have filled a caravan of red wheelbarrows. In 1923, when Peer and Atlanta businessman Polk Brockman scored a hit recording with Fiddlin’ John Carson, they initiated what would later become known as “country music.” Peer called it “hillbilly” music. Years later, when Borgeson pressed him to recall the “hillbillies” he’d recorded, Peer responded, “Oh, I tried so hard to forget them.”
Presumably, Peer wasn’t referring to Jimmie Rodgers or to the Carter Family—unforgettable “discoveries” of his 1927 recording expedition to Bristol, Tennessee. But it’s a safe bet he didn’t want to talk about country music’s patriarchs. His fondest memories undoubtedly revolved around the deal he struck with the Victor Talking Machine Company and any number of talented hillbillies. Compared to the strip-mining techniques favored by other A&R men, where songs were bought outright for measly sums of cash, Peer employed an approach to American song that country scholar Richard Peterson, in Creating Country Music (1997), labeled “deep-shaft mining.” At OKeh Records Peer’s salary was sixteen thousand dollars a year; not bad for the mid-1920s. At Victor he managed to strike an even better deal. He agreed to work for free! In return, the company allowed Peer to copyright—technically, to hold the “mechanical rights” on—all the music he recorded. Victor obviously knew the Copyright Law of 1909. Every record manufactured earned its copyright owner two cents. Victor reasonably assumed that sales of hillbilly records wouldn’t amount to much. They didn’t figure on a paradigm shift: Peer using his deal to institute a new regime (Southern Music), one that would forever change American music.
Peer paid musicians a fifty-dollar performance fee for each side recorded, and he offered two contracts. The first guaranteed “royalties.” Artists received a half-cent for every record sold (while Peer pocketed a cent and a half). The second contract appointed Peer as the artist’s exclusive manager. In no time Peer was a wealthy man and gatekeeper to an industry.
Various, RCA Country Legends: The Bristol sessions, Vo.. 1 (original recordings, 1927; compilation, 2002, RCA) and “A Satisfied Mind” (1954)
Even before there was a term “producer,” the producer was the A&R guy who brought the material to the session. There’d be an engineer, but the producer was sort of an executive scout who selected the material, unlike in rock where the producer is, generally, coming from more of an engineering direction; he creates sounds. The term “to produce” in Nashville is more to select the material and match it with the artist.
He was a genius, that Ralph Peer, and he was an angel to me. For some reason, he liked me because I would get in my car and go coast to coast and work with distributers and listen to disc jockeys and get to the one-stops. That reminded him of when he was on the road for RCA and how he picked up Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family and others. He deplored the people in his office in New York. He wouldn’t even go into the office, didn’t even have an office where he had his headquarters in the Brill Building. He said, “Got all these people in there, and nothing’s happening. You’re the only guy I know of that’s out there on the road scratching the way I used to. Come on up and have lunch with me at my house.”
He had a place on about 59th, off of Hollywood Boulevard. I went up there. A butler came to the door. I couldn’t understand why Peer was interested in me, except he says, “I would like to have my people in New York learn something from you, about what you’re doing and how you’re able to operate when you don’t have any money.”
Eventually, he offered me a hundred dollars a week to be a song scout. I said, “Mr. Peer, I appreciate that, but I’m your competitor. I have my own publishing company. If I find a song, I’m not going to give it to you.”
“No, here’s what I have in mind,” he said. “I want my people to see how you function. When you get a song that’s a hit, I want you to give me the sheet-music selling rights, and I want you to give me the rights to the song for publishing outside the United States and Canada. I’ll take it for the rest of the world. I’ve got twenty-six branches around the world.”
I said, “That sounds like a gift on the ground to me.” At that time, when we were starting Starday [Records], that was a lot of damn money. I took him up on it. When I’d go to New York, I’d kind of headquarter in his offices, and tell his people what I was doing.
We came up with a song called “A Satisfied Mind” [written by Joe “Red” Hayes and Jack Rhodes]. Peer was quick—got about five or six pop records out there in New York. Any record that he got from it, he got half the money on it. He sold about twenty-two thousand sheet-music copies on it, and then he had the rights for the rest of the world. He was real happy with his association with me. We did well with that song.
It got recorded by Red Hayes down in Texas. I was traveling through … I got to Midland City in Texas on my way back to California, and I saw Red there. He played that song for me, and I said, “I’ve got to have it.”
He said, “Well, you can’t have it unless I make the first record on it.” I sent him down to Pappy [Daily] in Houston, and Red made the first record on it. We didn’t sell very many, but it got up to that station in Springfield, Missouri [KWTO]. Porter Wagoner heard it, and Red Foley heard it, and Jean Shepard heard it, and all three of them cut it in one week. We had mailed out copies, and they had heard the copy of our record on Starday. They loved the song, and so they all jumped in and recorded it.
Peer could see when [performing-rights organization] ASCAP [the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] almost committed suicide by taking everything off the air [in the 1942–1944 musicians’ strike, protesting radio broadcasting recorded music]. That gave rise to BMI [Broadcast Music, Inc.]. And even though he was probably on the board for ASCAP, he became one of the early founders of BMI. He was that kind of an entrepreneur. He knew what had to be done. For a guy like him to go down and tie up those tunes from Cuba and from Mexico, “Amapola” and “Green Eyes” and all that stuff. That Kansas City, red-headed Swede was one smart dude. Ralph Peer was a music man.
Later on, I discontinued it [the publishing arrangement with Peer] when I started doing business with the Hill and Range people. But we were always on a friendly basis, and I always considered Ralph Peer an angel to me.
Peer made a speech down here [in Nashville] to the Country Music Association. It must have been about ’51 or ’52. He worked for RCA, you know. He ran their publishing company, and he signed songwriters. He saw potential where they didn’t.
I remember one article I read. He said, “I started the race business. I started the hillbilly business.” And he was right. He did. He told how he did it. It’s interesting. Up to when he came along, people would just record the same songs over and over. Well, he had a publishing company. So he’d ask the artist, “What songs do you want to do?” They’d come in and sing “Ol’ Joe Clark” again and all that stuff. He’d say, “Now, you’ve got to write some songs. Maybe you’ve got to change. You’ve got to give me something fresh and different.” He did that. He was at Columbia [OKeh], while he did that over there too. He’s responsible for country and for rhythm and blues, maybe, because of that.
All music mentioned in this chapter on pre-tape production was originally recorded direct to discs that were, typically, made of lacquer (also referred to as “acetate”). Then, through a multistep process that derived metal parts from the lacquer or master recording, 78-rpm discs were stamped or pressed. That means all historical albums that include tracks recorded before 1950 are compilations. To create these albums, reissue producers work from materials that are as close to the master disc as possible.
Various, Roots n’ Blues: The Retrospective 1925–1950 (compilation, 1992, Columbia/ Legacy)
From the late ’20s to the late ’40s, the recording process was a direct-to-disc process. They [engineers] cut acetates; there were no tapes. Once the acetates were cut, they made impressions, and they got metal parts from the impressions, because the metal parts are much more durable. It was a more simplistic way of recording. There was just one microphone. Even Benny Goodman and the big bands in the ’30s recorded with only one microphone, an overhead mike. Someone came in here last year, and they turned down working in the studio because it didn’t have a ninety-six-track capability! I was reduced to hysterics. That’s all really bullshit. My God, we used to record the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, with one mike.
Those guys in the ’20s and ’30s were out there. They were documentarians. They had an ear for talent. They would set up the equipment, they would cut the tracks, and then onto the next person. Some guys were tremendously musical as producers.
Art Satherley went back and forth between country music and blues, and so did Tommy Rockwell, Don Law, and Frank Walker. It seems that none of them had a real specialization. In other words, they were all expected to record and to find rural gospel artists and blues artists, on the one hand, and white string bands on the other hand. They were very selective, and the selectivity was really occasioned by what they thought would sell. To my mind that’s the way producers are supposed to be.
When you acquire acetates, where do you get them?
We [Columbia/Legacy] have a huge archive back east at a place called Iron Mountain, which is about a hundred miles north of New York City. That’s where all the assets of this company are: metal parts that were recorded in the ’20s and ’30s; acetates from the late ’30s up to 1948, when we started to use tape; and all the tapes. They’re stored at this huge facility that looks like something out of James Bond. It’s the most incredible thing you’ve ever seen in your life. That’s where they were. They have a whole storage system.
There’s a regular procedure that producers go through. Once we decide that we’re going to do a project, then I do the research for the sides that I want or, generally, everything the guy recorded. We put in a request. There’s a whole methodology that we employ. It goes to the studio in New York. Then it goes up to the facility, Iron Mountain. They search it, and they get the stuff. And then I have it.
I did a thing called The Retrospective, which is a four-cd set. All the ’20s, ’30s stuff that we found—except for some of the very late ’30s blues stuff, around ’39, which were on acetate—everything was on metal parts. So the metal parts varied in quality. Some of them looked magnificent and hadn’t been played since 1926 or ’7. You put them on, and they were terrible. Others looked awful. They were stained, looked like they were ready to be thrown out. You’d play them, and they would be absolutely perfect. There was no rhyme or reason. We had no formula. We had to take every single track individually and set up for each track individually. In other words, we couldn’t make a setup that would work for all the things that we were doing. It was just impossible. Obviously, that compounded our work.
My Engineer Said I Was Hallucinating
Bill Monroe, The Essential Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys 1945–1949 (compilation, 1992, Columbia/Legacy)
The project was my idea. Luckily, I found the original acetates that were recorded at the sessions in the ’40s. They were in dreadful shape. There were a lot of tapes that had been done over the years, rechanneled stereo and all kinds of crappy endeavors. I destroyed those things and threw them away. As I said, we’d found the original acetates. They were beat up and scratched. We worked hard to clean them up and get them to where I felt they were really proper.
I remastered the thing three different times, because it was not quite right till the end, and then, of course, it was right. My engineer said I was hallucinating. I was hearing things. He locked me out of the studio at a point. He claimed I was giving him a nervous breakdown.
I said, “Well, I don’t know what to tell you. All I know is that it just does not sound the way I want it to.”
In the end it came out very well. I found so many unissued alternate takes. I know Bill was very happy. He went on Nashville television, TNN, with the box and said that he felt it was the nicest thing that anyone had ever done for him, for his career. Unsolicited, he sent me an autographed picture saying, “Dear Larry, thanks for a great job.” I understand, from a friend of mine, who was his manager for many years, that he saw Monroe do that maybe four or five times in twenty-five years. So I was very proud. I was very happy that I could give it to him before he passed away.
Bob Wills, The Essential Bob Wills 1935–1947 (compilation, 1992, Columbia Legacy)
That’s the thing that’s most intriguing to me about country performers as opposed to rock ’n’ roll performers. And I don’t mean this to be disparaging at all toward rock ’n’ roll performers, but country guys were nailing this stuff in one to three takes. You listen to Bob Wills lacquers from the ’30s and ’40s [supervised by Don Law]. It’s pretty much—for all intents and purposes—the band producing themselves. When [guitarist] Eldon Shamblin blows a solo, the whole band stops. You hear them laugh, and then they kick up the next take. And like [Wills’s band] the Texas Playboys, many country musicians were, number one, in essence producing themselves and, number two, nailing stuff in two or three takes.
In the earlier days, when people were recording to lacquer or to fulltrack mono tape, I really do believe that, not just in Don Law’s case, but with most producers, it was much more in an A&R capacity than in a producer’s capacity. They let the groups be themselves more. Outside of certain miking techniques, which I’m sure was more the engineer’s responsibility than the producer’s, I can’t hear the producer. I could be wrong about that. Maybe Don Law was sitting there saying, “No, no, no, I don’t want that to sound like that. I want the mike over there.” But I’m going to bet that most of the time the engineer was doing that. Certainly, once you start hitting the mid-to-late ’50s and, especially, the early ’60s, you can hear producers’ trademarks all over the place. That’s not so much the case in the ’30s and ’40s. People weren’t picking producers. Producers were pretty much assigned, or the producers were picking which artists they were going to work with.
Could be his name, but Don Law (1902–1982) illustrates early record production—as a rule. He recalls any number of film directors from Hollywood’s studio era: professionals not considered auteurs.
Law immigrated to the States in 1924. By the end of the Depression, he was supervising recording sessions for the American Record Corporation, working with another pioneering A&R man, “Uncle” Art Satherley. When Satherley retired in 1952, Law was appointed head of Columbia’s country division. During the ’50s and ’60s, he produced a full roster of country legends: Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, Flatt & Scruggs, Jimmy Dean, Ray Price, Johnny Horton, Marty Robbins, and the Statler Brothers.
Gene Autry, The Essential Gene Autry (1933–1946) (compilation, 1992, Columbia/Legacy)
Don Law Jr.
My father came from a formal English background. He was a member of the London Choral Society. He had two uncles who had been knighted. He came over [in 1924], and through family connections, he was given a job in the import-export steel business. He worked in New York. After the steel market collapsed, he decided, “I’m going to go south.”
He went down to Georgia, and he hooked up with a White Russian friend of the family. With backing, they started a large sheep ranch. The sheep got hit by some disease. My father described riding from dawn till dusk, doing an operation on these sheep—trying to save them and being unable to. He said it was catastrophic. So the White Russian friend went down to Brazil.
My father said, “I’m going to go see what cowboys are about.” He got on the bus and went to Dallas. He really had no idea what he was going to do. He went to work for Brunswick, who made bowling balls and phonograph records. They were bought by the American Record Corporation [in 1931]. There, he started working with another Englishman named Art Satherley, and he worked his way into doing field recordings. Then arc took over Columbia , whose home base was Bridgeport, Connecticut. That was before they were bought by CBS [in 1938]. My father and Satherley did the early recordings of Gene Autry—“Back in the Saddle Again” and the first recording of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”—and a lot of the early Carter Family stuff.
Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings (1936–1937) (compilation, 1990, Columbia/Legacy)
Don Law made all of the Robert Johnson recordings; he was Robert Johnson’s producer. He had nothing to do with the LPs [issued 1961, 1970]. The guy responsible for the LPs was a guy who was a staff producer at Columbia Records in the ’60s, named Frank Driggs. He was one of the premier jazz reissue guys. It was his idea to reissue the Robert Johnson stuff. He did the two LPs, and of course he worked for John Hammond Sr. Hammond was the consummate Robert Johnson freak. So he had Hammond’s full support. By that time, Law was strictly doing country music and nothing else.
Don Law Jr.
I always imagine my father as an oddity early on; it certainly wasn’t what he was used to in England. It was very different than anything he had been exposed to, and it fascinated him. It was kind of like what happened later in the ’60s with the British blues musicians who picked up on American blues and then changed the blues form and changed popular music forever. There was a little bit of that same fascination for him, I’m sure, as an Englishman.
But I think who he signed and what he recorded was a function of if he really liked what he heard. In the beginning, he did a lot of blues. A lot of those field recordings were both country-and-western artists.
I talked with my father about the sessions he did with Robert Johnson [in San Antonio, 1936, and Dallas, 1937]. They had to do those recordings in un-air-conditioned venues; they made the record on-site. You had an engineer, and as they recorded, they were actually cutting the record— the final record. It was the engineer, Robert Johnson, my father, and a bottle of whiskey. They would all drink.
At the session in San Antonio, they had a bathtub filled with ice and a fan blowing the air across the ice to keep the records from melting. Field recordings were really pretty crude and primitive.
My father was a quasi-salesman. He had to go try to sell it; he had to get the record distributed, get it out into the marketplace, around to stores and so forth. It wasn’t a very big business back in the ’30s, particularly in the South.
My mother talked about walking down the street with Robert Johnson and my father. She described this really bizarre circumstance, where my father was determined to walk alongside Robert, and Robert was determined not to let him. My father kept stopping, and Robert kept walking farther back. My mother, who was from Texas, said, “Don, he can’t walk with you because he’d be seen as ‘uppity.’ He’d get beaten up.” My father didn’t get it. It wasn’t like where he’d come from, but he had wanted no part of the environment that he left.
When I think of my father, I think of that Jack London passage where he talks about “a sailor on horseback”—a man totally out of his environment. I think of my father as this wrecked English gentlemen in the Deep South, trying to walk along the road with Robert Johnson. It must’ve been the strangest thing in the world: this guy with an English accent recording this Delta blues singer. A “sailor on horseback”—I love that image of cultural dichotomy: the two of them walking down the street; my father bailing Johnson out of jail; that whole nonsense of “I’m lonesome, and there’s a lady here. She wants fifty cents, and I lacks a nickel.”
In 1942, Glenn Wallichs, Johnny Mercer, and Buddy DeSylva formed Capitol Records in Hollywood. The first country recording issued by the new company was Tex Ritter’s “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle.”
Tex Ritter, “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle” (1942), Capitol Collectors Series (compilation, 1992, Capitol)
One day, Glenn came to Chicago and asked Lee [Gillette] what he was doing. He told him, “I’m musical director of [radio station] WJJD.”
Glenn said, “You’re just the guy I’m looking for.” So Lee and his wife moved out to California, and I went back to my old job at JJD. We had live country music at that time. We had Uncle Henry’s Kentucky Mountaineers, Bob Atcher, and several other artists [including Les Paul as “Rubarb Red”]. The program was called the Suppertime Frolic, and it was tremendously popular. Then, the station decided they were going to drop the live musicians, and I had to buy records by the umpteen millions. It was all country records. I bought records from Canada and, even, from England.
Are you familiar with transcriptions [recordings cut to sixteen-inch discs for radio broadcasts]? There was Standard. There was World, which was owned by Decca. There was Lang-Worth and Capitol. When Lee went with Capitol, he started out in the transcription department. He wasn’t producing any records at all. Finally, they decided that they were going to go into the country field. At that time it was called “hillbilly.” So Lee took over the country department of Capitol. Then, they decided he couldn’t do both jobs, and Lee went strictly into country.
Lee went to Glenn Wallichs, who was president of Capitol. He said, “Hey, get Ken Nelson out here.” I had a fairly good knowledge of songs. So Capitol brought me out to take over the transcription department [in 1946].
With the help of Cliffie Stone, Lee really got into the country department. (A musician, producer, and A&R man par excellence, Cliffie Stone (1927–1998) was largely responsible for Capitol’s exceptional roster of country musicians. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989.) He brought Tex Williams to Capitol. He brought Hank Thompson, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Merle Travis. Next, Capitol decided that they wanted Lee over in the pop department, and I took over the country department. Lee was probably the greatest producer of that era. He did all of Nat King Cole. He did Kay Starr, Stan Kenton, and Jan Garber. He did Guy Lombardo.
Oh, and Capitol put transcriptions out of business. They started to give away promotion records, started to send them to radio stations. Lee had recorded a song on transcription called “Twelfth Street Rag” with Pee Wee Hunt. The demand for it as a record was tremendous. There weren’t any records [only transcriptions were available]. So they [Capitol] decided to put out a record and to give them away [to radio stations for promotional purposes]. Before that, the radio stations had to buy their records. I know because I was buying them. All the other [transcription] companies said, “Hey what’s going on here?” So record labels started to give out promotion records. The radio stations said, “What the hell? We’re getting all these records free. Why should we pay for transcriptions?” Every transcription company went out of business. Capitol Transcriptions shut down, and I took over the country department.
Don’t Be Overly Artistic
The Maddox Brothers and Rose, America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band: Their Original Recordings, Vol. 2, 1946–1951 (compilation, 1995, Arhoolie)
At that time following the war, if you were in an Army uniform and went to Bel Air, which is a very exclusive club, they’d let you play golf. So a buddy and I had both gotten our discharge, and we went to California. We had a lot of fun and played a lot of golf. While we were at Bel Air, they asked if a person could join us for nine holes, and it turned out to be Hoagy Carmichael [actor, musician, and composer of “Stardust” and “Georgia on My Mind”]. He was a charming person, and we had a real good time. Later on, I met him at the Melrose Grotto. We talked shortly, and I told him that I was in the music business. He made one remark to me. “When you’re making stuff,” he said, “keep your eye on the dollar. Don’t get swept away by something that you happen to like.” In other words, don’t be overly artistic.
I first worked in the studio probably in 1946 and ’47. There was a little studio called Crystal down at the Riverside Drive in Los Angeles. Eddie Dean did “I Dreamed of a Hillbilly Heaven” in that studio and “One Has My Name and One Has My Heart.” We were doing business with them, and I produced the Maddox Brothers and Rose there, a number of things. I produced T. Texas Tyler there, and later on, I produced “Deck of Cards” by T. Texas Tyler. But we did that at Radio Recorders up on Hollywood Boulevard.
We did sound checks, and we’d experiment until we got the right balance. I was always a stickler for getting the vocalist isolated to the point where the feed in music didn’t make the lyrics hard to understand. That was always frustrating to me, not being able to understand the lyrics to a song. But other than that I was more concerned with song selection and getting an acceptable recording and getting the maximum number of tunes in during the amount of time given us by the union so that we could avoid the time-and-a-half cost of overruns.
T. Texas Tyler, “Deck of Cards” (1946, 4 Star)
It’s a funny thing how I came across that song. Tex Tyler had made it into a transcription [disc, formatted for radio play]. I think he was in West Virginia at the time working with Little Jimmy Dickens. When he came out West and formed a Western swing band, he brought the transcriptions that he had, which were just for radio airplay at that time.
He took them down to [“border blaster”] XERB, the Mexican radio station right across from San Diego, in Tijuana. Matter of fact, it was out on Rosarito Beach. They had 150,000 watts that they aimed right up the coast of the U.S. They could sell products by mail order with that powerful signal. So he left those transcriptions down there, and they played them.
I’d go out and sell records on the road. I’d go up in the San Joachim Valley and go all through Bakersfield and Fresno and Stockton and Sacramento, go all the way up to Washington. People started asking for “Deck of Cards.”
I said, “There is no such record. I control T. Texas Tyler, so that’s it.”
But when I got ahold of Tex, I said, “Tex, I’ve got people wanting to get this record ‘Deck of Cards.’ What is it?”
He said, “That’s no good for a phonograph record. That’s just a spoken recitation. I’ve got it on a transcription.”
“It doesn’t make any difference,” I said. “We’ve got to make that record.” And so we did.
We recorded on acetates. We were very concerned that … On a 78-speed record, we could just barely get three minutes of sound on a side. The song was running long. We didn’t want to eliminate any of the story; it was all important. We had to speed up the recitation, to get it down to three minutes and ten seconds. We had Tex Tyler say it just a little faster.
But we were afraid that, when the pressings came out, needles wouldn’t track. They’d get kicked out of the groove. We had to be careful not to have too much bass sound in there because there were wide swings down at the bottom of the groove. You could see them with a magnifier. We had to limit the bass and concentrate on the higher sounds so that we could get that much music, that much recording, on the disc.
That was typical of what we did when we recorded on acetates. Then, we made the metal master [or “matrix,” created by electrocoating or plating the original lacquer or acetate] and, then, the metal mother and, then, from it the stampers to press records on shellac. We had a plant there in Pasadena where we made the [shellac and, later, vinyl] biscuits that records were made of. We went from the raw material to the finished product right there. Except for the plating. We got the plating done over in Culver City. But we would record there and make the pressings there and warehouse it there and ship from there. We did the whole ball of wax.
I think we shipped about seven-, eight-hundred-thousand copies of “Deck of Cards” on 78-speed. We just worried about production, production, production.
Tex Williams and his Western Caravan, “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” (1947), Smoke Smoke Smoke (album, 1960, Capitol)
The lady who became my wife was the engineer on “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” [a song written by Merle Travis for Tex Williams]. At that time there was a scarcity of guys. We were coming out of the war, and women had started to do a lot more stuff. She and my sister did what the Army called “deletion work.” They took radio checks [live broadcasts recorded on acetate], maybe recorded at Radio Recorders, and deleted the commercials. Then, those records were sent overseas to the Armed Forces.
The theory of the echo-chamber is not that new, but here’s how it worked. We were forced to get into small studios. As a commercial recording company, we had to have flexibility. You couldn’t have a studio that was big and had a very roomy sound to it. You wouldn’t have enough control. For example, we wouldn’t be able to do country music.
Country music depends on close miking and, usually, on a lot of individual mikes. Using as many mikes as you had, you would try to get an individual good sound for all the principal guys in a band with mikes of their own. As soon as you did that, the sound became very close. But it wasn’t a very exciting sound. It kind of fell flat in the studio.
We knew that the only way you could extend that sound was through the use of echo-chambers. They could be as dumb as a stairwell in a big building. Sometimes, especially when you had to go on remotes, you could put up an echo-chamber, or you would try to find a little room—maybe, a tiled restroom—with very live walls. You had to put a mike in there, and you had to put a speaker in there. Then, you fed a portion of what you were picking up on your microphones into that chamber [through the speaker], and you balanced the amount of reverberation against the quality of sound that you were attempting. The echo-chambers were on the roof at Radio Recorders and on the roof at [Capitol Records Studio on] Melrose. At the [Capitol Records] Tower, they were underground. You’ll notice there’s a great deal of difference between recordings by various companies because of the sounds of their chambers. Some of them got very distinctive sounds. They might try for more high-end, more delay, and other little tricks.
If a record producer hears a sound done by an independent recording studio, he pretty well knows what’s coming out of that place. He’s not going to go in there and start telling the engineer how to make a recording. He’s going to go in there and sit down. His job is to judge the recording musically. That’s the way the good producers did it. All of the Capitol guys used that system. In the early days, it was interesting to see guys like Lee Gillette and, later, Ken Nelson learn the business as we were learning too. Everybody was in the same boat. We knew we were dependent on each other to make the right kinds of recordings.
The Dinning Sisters, “Buttons and Bows” (1947), Best of the Dinning Sisters (compilation, 1998, Collector’s Choice)
Sometime in 1942, I came to Radio Recorders [in Los Angeles] and began working as an engineer. It was a very progressive studio. When tape came [in 1948, though it wasn’t fully adopted until the early 1950s], editing became part of the recording process. We did editing for two reasons. You either had errors that you are trying to dodge, or you were fighting time. Doing a session, you might not have the leisure of saying, “Another take; another take; another take.” Right away, during a take, the producer might say [to the engineer], “Let’s use the first half of the last take, and the second half of this one.” Usually, it was one edit, and not something that changed the feel of the record. Also, in those days we had a lot of time restrictions on records—singles, ten-inch LPs, twelve-inch LPs. We were restricted by the sheer physical properties of the formats.
The earlier edits to analog tape that I’ve seen were not necessarily fix-oriented. I think the audience, the producers, the artists, and the music in general were much more forgiving back then and, ultimately, much more interesting. Rather than being fix-oriented, edits had to do with things like adding a solo from another take that was particularly fiery, or a vocal phrase or a chorus that was particularly touching, as opposed to so-and-so sang flat there. Let’s pick up “but love” from this take and put it in another. Which is what a lot of analog editing seemed to be based upon as time went on.
Although I’m sure that they exist, I can’t off the top of my head give you an example of a country recording that I’ve worked on from the early ’50s where something went wrong and they fixed it with an edit, as opposed to calling for another take. I can remember—not song by song—but specific instances where I go, “My God, look at this. They took the solo from this one and put it into here. And listen why!”
You start to see the big change occurring in the latter half of the ’50s. It took analog tape literally a good four, five, six years before it differed significantly from cutting to an acetate. I’d probably date it to the advent of multitracking, when Nashville got its first half-inch, three-track recorders in 1958. That’s when the whole arena pretty much changed. Up till that time they were still recording to full-track mono tape. It was just a different medium than the lacquer.
The first hit record I made was in Chicago with the Dinning Sisters— “Buttons and Bows.” During that period, Jimmy Petrillo, who was the president of the Musicians’ Union, had threatened to strike, and in fact they were going to strike. All the record companies got panicky, and that’s how I actually got started with Capitol [Records]. They were all trying to get in as many [recording] sessions as possible before the strike. The Dinning Sisters were in Chicago, so I recorded them.
Later, when tape first came in, the Dinnings came out to Hollywood. Lee [Gillette] did the session. I did the one in Chicago because they had no choice. They were booked with me. But after the Dinnings recorded with Lee, they left to go to the airport to catch a plane back to Chicago. Lee listened to the tape, and there was a mistake in it. So he grabbed a cab and ran out to the airport and got the Sisters back. They didn’t do the whole thing, only the part where the mistake was made. It saved them a barrel of money.
Merle Travis, Folk Songs of the Hills (original recordings, 1947, Capitol; compilation, 1993, Bear Family)
Thom Bresh (guitarist/producer/Travis’s son)
Lee Gillette [producer at Capitol Records] was asking him to write more folk songs. Travis was irritated by that. “You don’t write a folk song,” he said. “People write folk songs. They come out of the ground—the hills. That’s why they’re called folk songs.”
Lee Gillette said, “Well, just write something that sounds like a folk song.”
“That’s why I sarcastically wrote ‘Sixteen Tons,’” he said. “First of all, you can’t load”—and he was serious—“you just can’t load sixteen tons of number-nine coal. No man can do that. It’s like John Henry.” He says, “I just gave it [‘Sixteen Tons’] to Lee Gillette, and Tennessee Ernie Ford sold it.” Travis used to use this line. He said, “Never did like that tune till Tennessee Ernie Ford sold about 5 million copies. Then, I got to where I loved it.”
You could not get him to say that he wrote “Dark as a Dungeon.” “It’s a tune I made up.” He would not use the word “write,” “write a song.” He’d say, “Well, I didn’t write it. I just made it up. That’s why they’re not folk songs, because I made them up. I just put into rhyme and story what I saw around the coal mine.”
They inducted him into the Smithsonian Institution as a great American folk song writer. He wouldn’t go to the ceremony. They put him in, but he wouldn’t go.
When he got the letter, he said, “When is this induction?” I’m using a fictitious date. “It’s going to be June 3.” “Write on the calendar over there, ‘Sick.’” He said there was no way he could go in there and take credit for folk songs when he made them up. And that’s just the way it was, period, the end.
He said he wrote “Dark as a Dungeon” after making love to a pretty girl in Redondo Beach. “I came out of her apartment. I got on a motorcycle. It was dark, and I looked up. There was a lone street lamp up there.”
He said, “I was going to go back out to the San Fernando Valley, and I thought, ‘Oh no, I’m supposed to be writing some of those folk songs.’ I sat there on a Harley-Davidson underneath that street lamp that looked like a lone miner’s lamp in the darkness. That’s what it looked like as far as what I thought—the image. I sat there and said, ‘Okay, folk songs usually come from the Irish. How do they write?’
“I wrote on a piece of paper, ‘Now listen ye children so young and so fine, and seek not your fortune in the dark, dreary mine.’”
“I sat there,” he said, “and I wrote that verse in Redondo Beach on a Harley-Davidson”—or an Indian, I don’t remember which it was— “looking at a lone street lamp after making love to a pretty girl. That’s not a folk song.”
But of course “Dark as a Dungeon”—if you look at it—is considered one of the great folk songs of that era. That whole coal-mining era was documented in music by Merle Travis. And that’s just the way it is, but to him that’s not the way it was at all. It’s just something that he knew something about.
He could write about anything. He had a brilliant mind. He wrote all of those train segments for the old Johnny Cash TV show. If they did “Come On, Ride This Train,” he’d write the train segments. That was his job. They would say, “Travis, we need a four- or five-song medley on the B&O Railroad.”
“That’s like taking candy from a baby,” he said. “I don’t do nothin’ except go to the library, read about the B&O, and tell different stories in rhyme. Any idiot could do that.”
You try it. Go read a book and write five songs. “Oh, here’s a good chapter. That would make a good song.” To him, that was like getting paid for doing nothing.
He wouldn’t take credit for anything. Grandpa Jones said one time, “He was too humble.” If you came up to him and said, “I sure enjoyed your picking Merle,” he’d say, “I don’t pick like Thom Bresh here,” and he’d point at me.
Don’t compliment him. Boy, if someone said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, here he is—a legend in his own time,” he’d say, “I could just walk out right now and leave. Why do they have to say stuff like that?” It upset him, and he’d go onstage shaking. He never grasped what he’d done. He was a real interesting character.
Dale Evans, “Don’t Ever Fall in Love with a Cowboy” (1949), Happy Trails: The Roy Rogers Collection 1937–1990 (compilation, 1999, Rhino)
In our Roy Rogers Collection we put out a song—Dale Evans singing “Don’t Ever Fall in Love with a Cowboy”—which is really great. I found out about it through the family. They said, “Maybe you can help us find this song.” Actually, Cheryl Rogers Barnett, who is Roy and Dale’s daughter, said, “I’m trying to find this.” Some of the relatives of Roy, the granddaughters sing in a group called the Rogers Legacy. They wanted the granddaughters to sing that song: “We know about it. My mom’s talked about it, but I have nothing on it. I can’t find any publishing on it, no lyrics, nothing. But my mom says she did sing that song.”
I called the Country Music Foundation, and they were kind enough to help us out. To put it in the [Rhino Records] collection, I needed a letter from the Rogers’s family saying that they, indeed, authorized the duplication of the recorded song. We found out that it was a great record, definitely worthy of inclusion in the collection. And it’s something that most people didn’t even know existed, and it was released as a single. It just fell through the cracks.
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Above Photo: Tompall Glaser in the studio control room at Hillbilly Central, 1978. © Leonard Kamsler.