Michael Jarrett,
Producing Country: The Inside Story of the Great Recordings
(Wesleyan University Press, 2014)

In Producing Country, the biggest names in country music production tell their stories, letting us know how their best recordings were made and assessing their contributions to the field. The book also covers the history of the occupation, using a sort of oral history to explain exactly what a producer is, what he -- it's a mostly male field, still -- does and how the job description has changed over the years.

Once known as A&R men (arrangement and repertoire) the producers were responsible for choosing the songs, the studio, the musicians, coming up with arrangements and guiding the singer through the recording process; they were kings and the studio was their domain. The artist was a mere subject.

That was the old days. After a short section on what a producer is, author Michael Jarrett arranges the book to tell the story of how the job evolved into what it is now. The origins are covered in the first major section of the book, which deals with the pioneer days of 1927-1949. In it, we learn of the work of Ralph Peer, discussed by acolytes Jeremy Tepper, Tom Pierce and Chet Atkins. Peer was the man who scoured the south in the 1920s and '30s, discovering and producing the first recordings of the Carter Family, Jimmy Rogers and Robert Johnson, among many others. He once told Chet Atkins that he invented both country and race music. His work led to a country music industry and to the importance of the producer.

From there the interviews are arranged chronologically, each section arranged around an advance in technology: from the years when acetate was used, to the tape revolution, to multitracking and encoding. Along the way, we learn that different producers saw their jobs differently and worked differently.

The fascinating thing is how many producers had to hide from the record companies in order to do their work. Tom Paul Glazer, for example, saw his role as protecting Waylon Jennings from the record company, isolating him to prevent interference, while Jerry Wexler saw his job at Atlantic as reviving Willie Nelson's career by getting his music out there in the form it should be in instead of the predetermined formula RCA was imposing on it. Willie's long-time record company, RCA, had dropped him, and at a party one night, Wexler heard Nelson play "Phases & Stages" and, unable to believe that Nelson's former company didn't want that album, signed him immediately to Atlantic and cut the album down at Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama, again safe from Nashville and New York interference.

Bob Johnson, on the other hand, wanted to take Bob Dylan to Nashville for an album but the Columbia execs in New York said that if he did, they'd fire him. He did it anyway and came up with Blonde on Blonde, which he describes as the best rock album ever made.

Other producers see the interview as an opportunity to settle scores. Bill McEuen takes full and total credit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken, complaining that all the credit for the album went to the band and that his work -- according to McEuen, he did everything -- has never been credited. It's not a pleasant piece of reading.

McEuen's comments are a rarity. Mostly, we hear from hard-working and dedicated musicians (most Nashville producers have a performing background) who recognize that their job is to serve the artist, to help realize someone else's vision. Most discuss the job interestingly and intelligently. Jarrett's interviewing and editing skills bring out the best in most of them, leading to a fascinating book.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

20 September 2014

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