Michael Jarrett’s Producing Country: The Inside Story of the Great Recordings offers readers an oral history of recorded country music in four parts. Jarrett takes us from the days of the acetate to the present where ProTools and other digital recording and editing programs reign. The cast assembled includes Chet Atkins, Tompall Glasser, Jim Ed Norman, Gurf Morlix, and others who speak about songs written and/or recorded by Loretta Lynn, Kenny Rogers, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, The Bottle Rockets, Lucinda Williams, the Dixie Chicks, and Willie Nelson.
What’s best about Jarrett’s book is that although he speaks with experts the reader need not be an expert on either music production or country music to understand the evolution of the recording process or the evolution of record producers. The stories behind the recordings tell that story with subtlety and humor.
For those who don’t know or aren’t even sure what a record producer is, Jarrett spends some time gathering definitions from members of his all-star cast in this volume’s earliest pages. Producers in the music industry are not the money men that producers in the film industry are (at least not typically), but are instead like film directors. They may be well versed in the language of music itself or not; they may or may not be songwriters; they may or may not have backgrounds as recording engineers; they may or may not get a percentage of the publishing rights and may or may not have scruples.
What the best ones have is the ability to create an environment in which musicians can thrive and achieve the best performances possible. That’s really what these stories are about: How some of our favorite country songs came to life, how others saved careers, and how others stood to alienate audiences but instead won them over.
As types go, producers can be a superstitious lot, believing in the magic of rooms or the power in some kind of “magic moment”. They might rival baseball players in some of their beliefs, though no one in these pages mentions failing to change their socks for six weeks or burning candles or placing chicken feathers inside their shoes.
Others will tell you that there isn’t magic in rooms, but that instead the magic comes from the people involved. Others might even go so far as to say that there isn’t magic at all — just the fruits of hard labor. Overproduction can sully a strong song and the right touches can elevate a mediocre one to the level of a fast hit. (More than one tune here is referred to as “not the best country song ever recorded”.)
Many of the musicians you’d expect to be meticulous in their methods are: Working with Ray Charles required a kind of agonizing patience as he was deliberate with every note; Merle Travis created aural tricks with his guitar licks and Dusty Springfield may have missed her calling as micromanager when she opted to dedicate her life to singing. Tom T. Hall approached songwriting with the kind of care a carpenter takes in his craft, finishing each song that he started, while others were far more open to sonic experimentation than you might expect.
There are tragedies: Charlie Rich’s commercial breakthrough may have cost him to sacrifice the artistic heart he’d been born with and tended to for years before “Behind Closed Doors” sent him to Vegas and we all know what became of Elvis. Otis Redding never really got to see his hard work fully pay off, and Patsy Cline and Buddy Holly died too young. Roy Orbison, a man who, by all accounts, was large of heart, had terrible luck despite being gifted with one of the greatest voices in recording history. And Keith Whitley could not stay sober.
There are no judgments made about the music as it evolves from true roots music to something that’s more akin to Def Leppard than Dale Evans. By the time we get to contemporary recordings, we can see why some have come to believe that country music has died off while others find great hope and comfort in the insurgent movement that began when Bloodshot Records first slid from the womb. But even if you don’t like much that has come out of Nashville since the early ’90s, you have to appreciate the thought and care behind that music and the stories told within these pages.
Jarrett has made choices as to which artists are included and which are not ,and there are a handful that belong more to the worlds of rock or soul than country and some surprising omissions (John Hiatt, who cut his teeth at Tree Publishing in Nashville; Randy Travis gets a brief mention here but his early, best recordings are untouched), but that’s to be expected. Another writer can take up those names and those stories in another volume. In the meantime, Producing Country is a fine and fitting work that’s hard to put down, and even harder to forget.
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Above Photo: Tompall Glaser in the studio control room at Hillbilly Central, 1978. © Leonard Kamsler