Michael Jarrett’s Producing Country: The Inside Story of the Great Recordings is one of the best oral histories of country music to come around for quite some time. But rather than telling that history from the point of view of the artists and musicians, Michael takes us on the other side of the glass into the control room to hear from the producers and engineers who recorded the music. It’s a great angle that gives the story another dimension.
Covering from 1927 to 2010, Jarrett talks to some of the biggest producers in the genre getting the inside scoop on many of the biggest hits in country music. All of it is told in their words from interviews Michael conducted (with a couple of exceptions such as Don Law, whose son, Don Law Jr, speaks for him).
Michael was kind enough to talk a little about the book:
Music Tomes: Your book really tells the story of the history of country music from the other side of the glass than it is normally told from. How did you get interested in relating that side of the story?
Michael Jarrett: I don’t consider myself a record collector. I’m not sufficiently obsessive. For example, I’m certainly not what’s sometimes called a completest. That said, I’ve bought and listened to a whole lot of records for, what is now, a whole lot of years. Early on, I began to notice that the names of producers were pretty good indicators of whether or not I would like a recording. For example, I might not know the name of a new artist, but if, say, some guy named Jerry Wexler produced the artist’s recording, I’d most likely enjoy it. After all, I’d noticed that Wexler produced Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and then, surprise, Willie Nelson. “How does this happen?” I began to wonder. How is my experience of music—which seems so personal and autonomous—shaped by some mysterious figure called “the producer”? Not to mention, how was it that magic seemed to occur so frequently in the presence of certain producers? Did producer Bob Johnston, for instance, have anything to do with the Bob Dylan albums I so dearly loved? I suspected that he did, but if so, what in the world was it? It certainly was not apparent. Finally, why didn’t people talk more about producers?
MT: You’ve interviewed many of the great country music producers. Is there anyone you would have liked to interview but never got the chance?
MJ: Anyone? There are many people I wish I could have interviewed but didn’t get the chance. One of the painful consequences of knowing what I now know about production is a hyper-awareness of missed or never-available opportunities. Among the dead, I’ll single out one name. I wish I could have spoken with pioneer producer Uncle Art Satherley. He and Don Law are music’s Lewis and Clark. Among the living, one figure looms large–Billy Sherrill—though I’m happy to say that my book has plenty of material on Sherrill. Even so, I can’t think of a production job any better than the one Sherrill did with Tammy Wynette’s “Till I Get It Right.”
MT: What traits did you find that the most successful producers shared?
MJ: If anybody is capable of brokering peace in the Middle East, I’d put my money on a record producer. Record producers not only work peacefully with some of the planet’s most difficult people they prompt those people to create great American art. All of the producers I’ve met, are natural diplomats and psychologists. Harold Bradley told me that people constantly tried to get his brother, famed producer Owen Bradley, to admit that Patsy Cline was “difficult.” I’ll bet Cline really could be unbelievably difficult, that is, to anybody except Owen Bradley. And that’s, finally, why Owen Bradley was one of the greatest record producers ever.
MT: How have you seen the role of the producer change over the years?
MJ: Nowadays, mainly because of hip-hop and dance-pop, kids know the names of producers, and they understand what producers do—at least kinda sorta. That knowledge points to a gigantic change in production. It probably began way back with Phil Spector, but the contemporary producer is incontestably an artist in his or her own right, even though most producers still strive for some level of “invisibility.”
Another change—and one that bugs me—charts something like a late consequence of recording technology. Many of today’s producers understand their job as the creation of perfect (often flawless) tracks. No wonder producers are seen (and see themselves) as artists. In the past they featured themselves more as instigators or, to mix metaphors, as midwives of great music. Their job was to prompt or to enable amazing performances. (Engineers captured these performances.)
MT: What are you currently working on?
MJ: I’m working on a companion book to Producing Country, that is, most likely, its inverse. This week, the manuscript’s working title is Recording Jazz. Next week, it might be The Jazz Record. Here again, I’m using record producers to tell an oral history. But with jazz the producer’s role is, predominantly, self-effacement. In a very important sense, jazz aspires to a calculus that would eliminate production altogether: the great jazz album is understood as engineered but, probably, not produced. Even so, jazz producers tell some great stories, and they do much more than logic would suggest.
MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?
MJ:Here are fifteen great ones that I pulled off my bookshelf. I love them all. Meaning, I want to start rereading right now. They are in no particular order:
Colin B. Morton and Chuck Death, Great Pop Things: The Real History of Rock and Roll from Elvis to Oasis.
Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz.
John Cage, Silence.
Michael Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter.
Mark N. Grant, The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical.
Richard A. Peterson, Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity.
Ted Fox, In the Groove: The People Behind the Music.
Krin Gabbard, Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema.
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Peter Guralnick, Sweet Soul Music.
Nathaniel Mackey, Bedouin Hornbook.
Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century.
Christopher Small, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening.
John F. Szwed, Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra.
Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.