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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.

My Engineer Said I Was Hallucinating

Bill Monroe, The Essential Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys 1945–1949 (compilation, 1992, Columbia/Legacy)


Lawrence Cohn

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)


Bob Irwin

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 [1934], 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)


Lawrence Cohn

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)

Ken Nelson

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.

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