The Producer’s Chair: Byron Hill

By James Rea, organizer of The Producer’s Chair interview series.

Don’t miss Byron Hill’s appearance on The Producer’s Chair Thurs., Jan. 26, 6 p.m., at Douglas Corner. Details at www.theproducerschair.com.

Byron Hill

Since Byron Hill’s arrival in Nashville more than 30 years ago, there probably aren’t many producers who haven’t cut one of his songs. His career has generated over 650 recordings, including 77 RIAA-certified Gold and Platinum awards, 10 ASCAP Awards and 30 U.S. and Canadian top-ten hits.

He won the Canadian Country Music Award for Producer of the Year in 2008 and 2010. Though he’s not Canadian, Byron produces both the CCMA Male Vocalist of the Year winner, Gord Bamford (Sony Records/Canada), and Hey Romeo, the CCMA Vocal Group of the Year. So needless to say, my Canuck curiosity begged to know, how so many great Canadian artists wound up in the studio with Byron at the helm.

Q: Did you go after the Canadian market, in some fashion?

Hill: “I never really went out looking for Canadian acts. Nashville’s gravitational pull has always brought opportunities for me to produce acts from all over. Gary Allan is a good example of that. I was working with an act out of California and we had planned to showcase nearby, during the ACM Awards week. Gary’s band was the house band at the club, so we used their stage for our showcase and then we stuck around after to watch Gary. The house was filled with Gary Allan fans and he put on a killer show. I eventually cut some sides on Gary, which generated interest from four labels in Nashville. Mark Wright signed Gary to Decca and I co-produced Gary’s first three albums, with Mark.”

As far as producer’s go, Hill’s songwriting stats are off the chart. He says producing artists has always been an extension of what he does as a songwriter, and another great example of that is when he got Kathy Mattea her record deal.

“Kathy was a waitress at T.G.I. Fridays and I was having lunch there with a friend. The staff used to wear some pretty wild outfits and on that day, Kathy had her hair pulled through a 45 RPM record, so I jokingly said, ‘Hey, if I bring you one of my 45’s…’ so the conversation led to her as a singer and the fact that she had been doing a lot of demos. The Nashville songwriting market was really tied into Anne Murray, and for some reason, people thought Kathy sounded a little like Anne, on her early stuff. I needed to do some demos for Anne Murray, so I hired Kathy. Frank Jones signed Anne Murray to her first deal a couple of years prior, so I eventually called him at Mercury and said, ‘I’ve got your next Anne Murray.’ Frank said he’d like to meet Kathy, so I brought her over and he immediately offered her a record deal. I didn’t pitch myself as her producer because I felt that Kathy really deserved the opportunity to work with her choice of producer. I set up a couple of meetings for her, but as it turned out, Kathy couldn’t find the right chemistry, so Frank said, ‘Why don’t you produce her? I think you and Rick Peoples (then Head of A&R) would make a great team.’”

Q: What do you like most about being in the studio? And what’s your biggest strength in the studio?

“I love hiring great players. I’m always on the edge of my seat wondering what they’re going to put on the song. I would say my best skill is staying out of the way, when genius starts to happen.”

Q: With artists cutting fewer outside songs, have you noticed a change in the quality of material on the radio?

“I don’t know many artists who can consistently write hits and still keep up with everything else they’ve got to do. There are smashes waiting to be cut that won’t see the light of day, because the artist is not involved in the song. Sometimes it puts me in a tough spot, and I have to defend my producing and writing with artists. But I tell writers to find a great artist, get in the trench, spend six months to a year working with them creatively, and bring that artist up to where they’re at least competitive with what radio wants. If I were a producer who didn’t write, I would be telling my artist the same thing…find great writers and bring your songs up to snuff.”

Q: Are publishers and songwriters doing more guitar/vocal demos to save money?

“It’s hard to go into labels anymore with a sparsely produced demo. A lot of label execs can’t hear a hit from a guitar/vocal. That’s why so many people are doing huge demos. They’re trying to make it sound like a hit on the radio. I might play something pared down for someone with a good ear, but does it give he/she the tools to take the song to the next level?”

By the late 70’s, Hill had his sights set on Nashville. Several folks including famed bassist/producer Henry Strzelecki had shown interest in his songs. Dianne Petty introduced Hill to Blake Mevis, Tony Brown and David Conrad (the latter two from Hill’s hometown Winston-Salem, NC). Merlin Littlefield signed Hill to ASCAP, and Mae Axton encouraged him to make the move. He relocated here in 1977 after Jonathan Stone tipped him off to a tape duplicating gig at ATV Music.

Hill quickly graduated from tape duplicating to songplugging and his first songwriting deal at ATV was signed the following year, while he continued to plug the ATV catalog.

Among his first hits was “Out Of Your Mind” recorded by Joe Sun, and co-written with Dennis Knutson; and “Pickin’ Up Strangers” recorded by Johnny Lee. When Hill and Blake Mevis penned George Strait’s first No. 1, “Fool Hearted Memory,” the flood gates opened and the hits kept coming.

During this period, two of Byron’s most prolific co-writing partnerships developed, with Georgia songwriter Mike Dekle, and UK songwriter Tony Hiller, and that catapulted a slew of recordings by Juice Newton, Conway Twitty, Mel McDaniel, Ricky Skaggs, Margo Smith, and Reba McEntire, just to name a few.

In 1984, when Byron left ATV to become an independent songwriter/publisher, nothing changed. As well as having songs recorded by Kenny Rogers, Anne Murray, George Jones, Tom Wopat, and others, Byron co-wrote Ed Bruce’s No. 4 single “Nights” with Tony Hiller, and the Ray Charles’ single and album title “The Pages Of My Mind,” with J. Remington Wilde.

Since 1988, Byron has been a staff songwriter for several creme de la creme publishing companies including Collins Music (now Sony/ATV Music), MCA Music Publishing (now Universal Music Publishing), Reba McEntire’s Starstruck Writers Group (now Warner/Chappell Music), and Almo-Irving Music (now Universal Music Publishing).

Then, in 1993 and 1994, Hill became Director of A&R for BNA Entertainment working with a roster of artists that included Marc Beeson, Lisa Stewart, Turner Nichols (Zack Turner and Tim Nichols), Kim Hill, Doug Supernaw, Lorrie Morgan and John Anderson.

“My friend Gary Overton recommended the job to me, but by the time I stepped in, the fate of BNA and much of the roster was a foregone conclusion. Joe Galante was making plans to return to Nashville, and there would soon be many changes that would affect everyone at BNA, Arista, and RCA. Working with great creative producers like James Stroud, Keith Stegall, Wayne Kirkpatrick, Randy Scruggs, Emory Gordy Jr., and Barry Beckett often made my job look easy. I especially enjoyed getting to know head of promotion Chuck Thagard and his incredible staff. Though I found label work particularly challenging compared to the world of music publishing, the project that I enjoyed the most while at BNA was A&R-ing the Keith Whitley ‘Tribute Album,’ working with all the guest artists and producer Randy Scruggs. I had remained under contract with MCA Music as a songwriter during this time, but had somewhat neglected my songwriting while at BNA, so after the BNA party was over, I hightailed it back across the alley to the more familiar world of writing songs and artist development.

“I was fortunate to have Jerry Teifer as one of my early mentors. Jerry taught me ethics, business, some of the dos & donts and urged me to stay away from custom projects. I think about him and his wisdom all the time.

“There have been a lot of changes on the Row, but you can always count on this market returning to what really matters….the song.”

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