Producing Country: The Inside Story of the Great Recordings
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.
Don’t Be Overly Artistic
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.