By James Rea
Don’t miss Paul Worley’s first appearance on The Producer’s Chair, Thurs., June 28, 6 p.m., at Douglas Corner. Details at www.theproducerschair.com.
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Hitmaking producer Paul Worley has worked on albums totaling $1 billion in sales. In recent years his collaboration with Lady Antebellum went on to win four Grammy Awards for Need You Now, adding to his already countless honors including 2011 ACM Producer of the Year, as well as Grammy, CMA, ACM, CMT and American Music awards.
Worley was born and raised in Nashville, sang in the church youth choir, taught himself to play guitar, played in bands throughout university and graduated from Vanderbilt with a degree in philosophy.
His music career started in the late 1970s, when Jim Ed Norman hired him as a session guitarist on albums by Janie Fricke, Eddy Raven, Mickey Gilley and Johnny Lee. Paul recalls, “When Jim Ed moved to Nashville from LA, he called engineer Marshall Morgan who recommended me and some other musicians. Jim Ed gave us a try and liked us.
“My first productions were Riders In The Sky, Burl Ives and Tennessee Ernie Ford for the National Geographic Society, who got into the music business for a period of time to document Americana. After a number of years, Jim Ed was getting offers that he couldn’t handle so he gave us a chance to produce Gospel artist Cynthia Clawson.
“I also started helping my songwriter buddies record demos. As those demos circulated, and as some of those writers started to have deals, I was eventually sought out by Jerry Bradley at RCA to produce Eddy Raven. I had met Eddy when I played on his previous album produced by Jimmy Bowen. My first No. 1 single was Eddy Raven’s I Got Mexico.”
As his production discography blossomed, Worley partnered with famed drummer Eddie Bayers and built The Money Pit studio in 1984. Some of the artists who recorded there were Martina McBride, Sara Evans, Big and Rich, Pam Tillis, Bruce Hornsby and Kid Rock. The studio, which sold in 2004, is where Worley and engineer Clarke Schleicher (pronounced Sly-sher) began their 25-year working relationship. Since then, Worley’s Gold Wing and Schleicher’s BMW motorcycle have logged many road trips together.
Schleicher, who landed his first gig as assistant engineer with Ed Seay after graduating from MTSU, has worked with Lady Antebellum since the band’s self-titled debut album in 2008. He now owns and operates L. Clarke Schleicher Engineering in Nashville and is Studio Services Director at Warner Bros. Records.
By 1989, Worley was working as Vice President at Sony BMG. He followed that with time at Tree Publishing.
“A lot of producers have come through Tree,” he explains. “I was working there with songwriters Harlan Howard, Curly Putman, Don Cooke, and Kix Brooks, before he started making albums. CBS bought Tree and Sony bought CBS and I was there during that transition. After a few years at Tree, Sony wanted to make a change in their executive structure. They tried to get Tim DuBois but couldn’t get him out of his contract with Arista. They tried to get Tony Brown but couldn’t get him away from MCA, and along the way they realized that I was right there making hit records for everybody else, so they took me in over there.”
In 1992, while at Tree, Worley began his longtime producer/artist relationship with superstar Martina McBride. Their 20-year collaboration led to 13 albums, and McBride’s worldwide sales totaling 16 million-plus.
Worley also teamed with another superstar act, the Dixie Chicks, for 1998’s Wide Open Spaces and 1999’s Fly. He played guitar on those albums, as he does most of his projects.
In 2002 he took on his second major label post, as Chief Creative Officer at Warner Bros. Records. “Every time a guy like me goes into a corporate job, you go in there thinking, ‘I can be the creative for the corporation and I can make a difference, I can help the artists, I can help everyone understand each other, and keep the company thinking outside of the box.’ You go in there with best of intentions.”
In 2004 Worley, Wally Wilson and Glen Morgan founded Skyline Music Publishing and Skyville Records. Among the songwriters initially signed to Skyline were Hugh Prestwood (“Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart”), Jimmy Yeary, Tammy Hyler and Russ Titelman. Today Skyline’s staff writers include The Henningsens and Jon Stone. In association with Skyline, Worley and his partners built Shabby Row, a project/overdub studio whose quirky name greatly misrepresents the projects that have been produced there.
Paul and his wife Karen have two children, ages 10 and 7, along with Paul’s older children from a previous marriage and one grandchild.
The Producer’s Chair: How did you feel about the Dixie Chicks leaving country music?
Paul Worley: They certainly felt spurned by Nashville, especially Natalie. One time I said, “You know you’re letting them win. If you let them defeat you like this, you’re giving them the victory. Just try and rise above it.” And she said, “Paul, if you had gotten 700 credible death threats to you and your family, you’d feel differently about it.” And I couldn’t say otherwise.
Whose decision was it to co-produce The Band Perry?
Their father paid for Clarke and I to record seven sides and I worked with them over a period of a year and a half doing artist and song development. I introduced them to The Henningsens who wrote and co-wrote a lot of the songs that are on the album. We cut the sides that got them their deal, then as it evolved Scott Borchetta had Nathan Chapman do a couple of songs and then they ended up cutting yet anther song with Matt Serletic, so the final album wound up being a collaboration of all three of our camps’ work.
How did you meet Lady A?
Tracy Gershon and Cris Lacy had seen them and really liked them, and encouraged me to come see them perform at 3rd & Lindsley. I went, and they blew me away. I ran straight up to the stage after the show and said, “You want a record deal? you got it. Anything you want, just tell me.”
Did Lady A methodically prepare for a record deal?
I think they instinctively knew what they needed to do to be ready. Hillary had a long-standing relationship with Victoria Shaw, so Victoria worked with them on their live show, their songs and coached them. When I saw them, it was already figured out. They really kind of crystallized in me the prototype of artist development today. You can’t just come to town with talent and dreams, and you can’t look for somebody to figure it out for you. You can look for someone to help you out and take their advice, but you’ve gotta do it. I don’t mean any disrespect, but the last place you want to develop as an artist is at a record label. They’ve got too much on their plate, too many things to focus on. You want to get your team together and go and figure it out.
Do you like the new 50/50 partnership deals being offered to artists today?
I think a 50/50 deal, after investments are recouped, is a good position for an artist and their funding entity to be in. 360 is a word that nobody wants to use anymore. But that model where the money side of the equation is investing in the whole career, not just the recording career, puts everybody in the same business. Think of it this way, a 50/50 after recoupment deal is the same as saying the artist has a 50% royalty rate. Obviously, for that to work the label partner has to be cut in on other income streams. The trick is to get those other percentages right.
Do you think new venture capital money widens or narrows the gap between the business and the creative?
I think part of what the music industry suffered over the past 15 years started when these mom and pop companies went to Wall Street to get investment capital. They became subservient to the Wall Street’s quarterly business cycle. It started messing with the creative process in a way that I think has been partly responsible for a slow decline of real music entrepreneurship. A cycle for a music company is two years long. When you’re going to dip below the line, capital has to be saved so that the company can run and get to that next inevitable rise. If you stick to your creative principles as a company, you will emerge once again to profitability. The quarterly wave length negates that kind of thinking.
What are the financial opportunities for producers today?
I’m making a living and I’m grateful that I get to do what I do, which is artist development. I’m making money off of music sales and I have some publishing interests. To participate in the publishing is a good way to spread the reward out a little bit. I think that it’s a good way to go for a producer because that publishing is not going to be worth anything if you don’t make some hits. Conversely, if you make an album with an artist whose career doesn’t take off, you have a chance to get a return for your energy, time and money, if they are a great songwriter. Of the two new artists that I have coming out this year, one of them I’ve worked with for four and a half years, and the other I’ve worked with for two-plus years.
Big Machine Label Group recently signed a deal with Clear Channel which allows its artists to participate in broadcast radio revenues. Do you think other labels will follow suit?
We’re one of four nations in the world that haven’t paid artists for airplay until Scott Borchetta’s negotiation. The other nations are North Korea and a couple more of that ilk that the U.S. wouldn’t ever be associated with otherwise. Everybody pays the songwriters, but they don’t pay the artists, much less the musicians, engineers or producers. I don’t get paid for airplay unless I have a piece of the publishing. It’s my hope that all of the labels will all have that agreement eventually. There have been people lobbying in congress for years, to get this corrected. ASCAP for one, has been very vocal for many, many years.
What projects are you working on?
I’m working with Kelleigh Bannen on Capitol, The Henningsens on Sony and we’re currently mixing Lady A’s new Christmas album.
Partial Production Discography
Lady Antebellum, Martina McBride, Dixie Chicks, The Band Perry, Big & Rich, Pam Tillis, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Collin Raye, Sara Evans, Carolyn Dawn Johnson, Cyndi Thompson, John Anderson, Blake Shelton, Marie Osmond, Lisa Brokop, Highway 101, Emmylou Harris, Desert Rose, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Neil Diamond, Hank Williams Jr., Gary Morris, Eddy Raven