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Producing Country: The Inside Story of the Great Recordings

Michael Jarrett

The story of country music told through hit records by Hank Williams, George Jones, Patsy Cline, Buck Owens, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and many others.

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.


Cutting Tracks

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)

Jeremy Tepper

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.

Don Pierce

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.

Chet Atkins

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)

Lawrence Cohn

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.

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