Where the Magic Happens
By Kevin Wierzbicki | Photography courtesy of Jake Brown, Norbert Putnam and Dave Cobb
Book cover courtesy of Blackbird Studios
Author Jake Brown offers a look ‘Behind the Boards’ of Nashville music in his latest undertaking.
There’s a line in Joni Mitchell’s 1974 hit song “Free Man in Paris” where she sings about “stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song.” A huge group of people is involved in that activity including publicists, journalists, record company hype men, concert promoters, and, of course rabid fans. Many go unsung, and perhaps the most overlooked of these star-making folks are the music producers who work their magic in the recording studio, toiling in near-anonymity as far as the general public goes. Now with his new book, “Behind the Boards: Nashville,” Jake Brown puts dozens of Nashville’s most-revered producers in the spotlight.
Brown, author of 50 music-related books over the past two decades, was in a funk before he started writing “Behind the Boards: Nashville.”
“I lost my precious dog Hannie in 2018 and I was deeply depressed and seeking something to kick start me out of it,” Brown says. “So, I reached out to (producer management honcho) Andrew Brightman, and he in turn reached out to Dave Cobb (John Prine, Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton) who was the very first producer who signed on. I also found out that Cobb has a couple of my other books in his studio!”
With Cobb set to be interviewed, Brown’s project snowballed fast.
“Dann Huff, Nathan Chapman, Paul Worley, Jim Ed Norman, Shane McAnally, and Norbert Putnam signed on, and then word of mouth spread,” Brown says. “And I had a wonderful wave of late arrivals last fall that included Clint Black, Ray Riddle, and Don Cook. Then right before the pandemic Buddy Cannon, Bobby Braddock, Frank Rogers, and Ray Baker signed on. We reached out to everybody. Given we got about 90 percent of the top talent working in Nashville today, and most of the signature artists’ long-term producers, the book really covers every generation of country over the past 40 to 50 years.”
Fans will learn a lot, not only about the men behind the boards (“board” refers to the sound board/mixing board used in the studio) but also about some of the artists they work with. In the chapter spotlighting Norbert Putnam, Putnam details how he nudged Jimmy Buffett into the “trop rock” sound that is his hallmark today. Insisting that Buffett record in Miami and not Nashville, Putnam rented a big house right on the beach for Buffett and his crew, and drove the point home while sailing with Jimmy almost every day. The effort resulted in Buffett’s 1977 album “Changes in Attitude, Changes in Latitude” and its massive hit single “Margaritaville.”
The story is just one of many examples in “Behind the Boards: Nashville” where Brown shows how producers shaped a performer’s raw talent. “I was always pleasantly surprised to have a producer really pull the curtain back and give fans a front row seat inside the studio, into how their favorite stars like Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw, George Strait, and Kacey Musgraves all really work in the studio and how their greatest hits were created together from the ground up.”
There’s a little technical information in the book, so recording nerds will hear producers referring to things like Cole 4038 ribbon microphones and Tascam 246 4-track recorders from time to time. But “Behind the Boards: Nashville” is a breezy read that can be reconsidered a sort of collection of mini-biographies where the producers reveal their personalities and recording techniques through anecdotes.
Brown cites Willie Nelson producer James Stroud as an example. “Willie’s recording studio is actually the clubhouse of his golf course, and Stroud told me about recording vocals and guitar tracks with Trigger (Nelson’s Martin guitar) and then the two of them throwing their clubs in Willie’s Mercedes and driving out onto the green and playing 12 rounds, because Willie owned the course!”
Getting his subjects to open up is Brown’s specialty; he’s done it for Joe Satriani’s memoir, with tons of songwriters in his “Nashville Songwriters” series and in “Beyond the Beats Vol. 1” where he profiled drummers from bands like Aerosmith, Journey, Foo Fighters and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
“Getting it right for fans is a perfectionist pursuit for many of the producers and the artists they work with, so it’s almost a friendly competition because no one can believe they’re in the studio getting to live their dream for a living,” Brown says. “It doesn’t often feel like work from the way they describe it, even though it takes incredible devotion. I hope everyone who reads this book walks away with a better understanding of how hard these country artists and bands work alongside producers in pursuit of excellence.”
Brown’s beloved Hannie is no doubt still with him in spirit, perhaps nestled lovingly at his master’s feet. Good thing too; Brown will need the help of his “co-writer” as he completes his upcoming books, which include “Doctors of Rhythm,” a profile of legendary hip-hop producers, and the third in his songwriter’s series, “Nashville Songwriters Vol. III.”
On a non-musical note, Brown is also writing about the summer camp he attended for years and the family that ran it.