The Producer’s Chair: Garth Fundis

By James Rea

Don’t miss Garth Fundis’ second appearance on The Producer’s Chair on Thursday, April 26, 6 p.m. at Douglas Corner. Details at www.theproducerschair.com.

Since his arrival in Nashville in the early ’70s, Garth Fundis has become one of the city’s most respected producers, earning countless Platinum and multi-Platinum plaques and trophies from the CMA, ACM and Billboard. He received early career encouragement from fellow producer Allen Reynolds, and went on to work with artists Trisha Yearwood, Keith Whitley, Don Williams, Crystal Gayle, Sugarland, Alabama, Colin Raye, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, New Grass Revival, Doc and Merle Watson, Townes Van Zandt and many others.

When Fundis was growing up on his parents’ 80-acre farm in Kansas, he had his sights set on being a singer. He joined his first band at 14 and by the time he was a music education major in college, he was playing brass, guitar and becoming a sought-after vocalist.

After college, he got a gig as the lead singer of Nebraska-based band Smoke Ring. Interestingly, Fundis was with the band for a few months before he discovered they had previously released a couple of records and appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. The band’s records were being co-produced by Reynolds, writer of “Five o’clock World” (a big hit for The Vogues). In late 1969, Reynolds and co-producer Dickey Lee asked Fundis to fly to Memphis to overdub vocals on Smoke Ring’s previously recorded sides. There he learned that Reynolds and Lee had been signed by Sam Phillips’ protégé Cowboy Jack Clement to Sun Records. On that visit they also introduced Fundis to Bob McDill, who had written some of the songs Fundis was recording in the studio.

Shortly thereafter, Reynolds and Lee relocated to Nashville to rejoin Cowboy Jack who had recently built the Jack Clement Recording Studio (JCRS).

“One of the songs that I sung in Memphis started to get some action at radio,” recalls Fundis. “So the record company, Certron, picked up the option on the album. Instead of the whole band coming down from Nebraska, I was the lead singer, so they just flew me into Nashville to make the record with studio musicians at Jack’s new studio.”

As Fundis began to lose interest in the band in Nebraska, Reynolds encouraged him to move to Nashville. He made the move in 1971 at age 22 and was hired a few months later by Charlie Talent at Jack Clement’s studio, earning $ 2.50 per hour as an intern. Talent, Ronnie Dean and David Malloy showed Fundis the world-behind-the-glass and he received his first engineering credit on a Don Williams album.

“Becoming one of their regular engineers, I ended up getting to be a part of the first two Don Williams records,” adds Fundis. “I also put some harmony parts on it. The high soaring female vocal on ‘Amanda’ is me.” It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Fundis and Williams, resulting in collaboration on 19 albums.

Clement also owned a building across the street from his publishing company at 16th and Horton, so in 1975 he turned it into demo studio Jack’s Tracks. Fundis became head engineer there, and was Reynolds’ go-to engineer for albums he was producing by artists including Crystal Gayle.

In 1979 JCRS was sold to Larry Butler, the name was changed to Sound Emporium and Fundis returned to the studio as an independent producer/engineer. Throughout the 80s, he experienced incredible success with Don Williams, Keith Whitley and New Grass Revival.

“I brought Keith ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes’ and ‘When You Say Nothing At All,’” remembers Fundis. “I’m pretty sure bringing in those songs helped me get the [producer] gig.” Whitley’s project resulted in five consecutive No. 1s. Known for his patience, Fundis was able to rein in Whitley’s reckless energy, creating a sanctuary in the studio in the midst of the artist’s uneasy personal life.

In 1992 Fundis purchased Sound Emporium and added a lobby and offices to the front of the building. He redesigned Studio B but left Studio A virtually untouched. Along the way, Reynolds bought Jack’s Tracks, where he produced Garth Brooks’ record-setting albums. He eventually sold the studio to the superstar. [In February 2012 when Brooks celebrated his 50th birthday at the studio and surprised Reynolds by renaming it Allentown Studios in his honor.]

Beginning in 1993, Fundis spent two years as VP of A&R at RCA, followed by three years in a similar position at Herb Alpert’s label, Almo Sounds.

Since then Fundis has served as chairman of the board of The Recording Academy, as well as Trustee and President of the Nashville Chapter. He has been on the boards of the GRAMMY Foundation, MusiCares, and LARAS (Latin GRAMMYs), and is an alumnus and former board member of Leadership Music.

Last year, Fundis sold Sound Emporium, where some of Nashville’s most renowned recording projects in all genres have been produced including numerous film soundtracks such as O’ Brother Where Art Thou, Cold Mountain and Walk The Line under the guidance of Grammy winning producer T Bone Burnett, who also recorded most of the heralded Alison Krauss/Robert Plant collaboration there.

Fundis is currently working on Trisha Yearwood’s new album, as well as Due West and newcomers Morgan Tobias and Autumn Rose.

Producer’s Chair: Has working with a singer like Trisha spoiled you?
Garth Fundis: Yes. A couple of weeks ago we were in the studio doing vocal overdubs, and after about three or four passes we decided to just do one more. And it was perfect, front to back, just one performance. It’s a beautiful thing to sit there and look at it in one long Pro-Tools file—no edits, no tuning. I was influenced by Ella Fitzgerald who had this graceful power. She never ripped your head off with it, she’d just blow you away with soul, interpretation and phrasing. It’s not about volume and licks. It’s about style, phrasing and making the lyrics of those great songs come through. Trisha is in that league.

What is the biggest challenge facing new artists today?
If you [the artist] can’t figure some of it out on your own, you’re not likely to have a record company want to partner with you. You have to be able to build something on your own. You have to be a self-starter, ambitious, care about details and constantly follow up. If you’re a flake or irresponsible, it’s not likely there’s going to be a place for you.

Napster changed everything, will the industry ever recover?
It’s never going to go back to what it was. It’s going to evolve into the next thing.

What is the biggest challenge facing our industry?
Fear of failure. It’s hard to make big gambles, take chances. It’s hard to finance dreams and an idea. It’s a commitment. You’re attaching yourself to someone’s career long-term. When you enter into someone else’s dream, there’s a responsibility that comes with it. But there’s a lot of independent money out there and people are finding ways to access it. I think Kickstarter is a fantastic thing.

Can producers today earn the same amount of money they were making in the ’90s?
Today it’s definitely different. But I’m not going to ask for a piece of someone’s publishing, that’s not right. Some people don’t seem to have a problem with that. I try to get as much on the front end as I can. My fees are not going to go down. I will make deals with a young artist when the budget is lean. When I really want to work with them, I’ll make it work. I have a much better chance of having a career and feeling good about it if I stay not where the money is, but where the music is. I’m not saying the money will always find its way to you, but it’s a lot more gratifying.

During your time as chairman of the NARAS board, what did you learn about the P&E wing?
Maureen Droney is the best thing that’s happened to the P&E Wing. She’s fantastic. I think she’s done a really wonderful job. She can speak the language and converse with anyone about the issues.

What projects are you working on right now?
I just finished a brand new Don Williams record. It’s the first record Don and I have made in 20 years and it is awesome. It may be one of the best records we’ve ever made and he sounds fantastic. It will be out June 19 on Sugar Hill and when you hear it, it’s going to be like hearing from an old friend. We had a lot of folks play and sing on it like Vince Gill, Keith Urban and Alison Krauss.

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