By James Rea
Don’t miss Dann Huff’s return to The Producer’s Chair for the 7th Anniversary Show. Note the date change: Mon., Oct. 1, 6 p.m., at Douglas Corner. Details at www.theproducerschair.com.
I fully expected Dann Huff’s Brentwood home and studio to be drenched with his sea of past awards, which include 2010 Billboard Country Producer of the Decade, multiple Producer of the Year honors from ACM and MusicRow, and CMA Musician of the Year, but that was not the case. His 2005 Grammy for Best Album wasn’t even on display. According to Huff, he’d rather focus on his current projects. He’s nominated again for CMA Musician of the Year for the upcoming ceremony.
Dann was born and raised in Music City with a musically gifted family. Brother David was a drummer and father Ronn Huff was a sought-after arranger on the cutting edge of Nashville’s contemporary Christian music scene. Young Dann would accompany him to sessions and cites his father as his first influence. He started playing guitar at age nine, mostly by ear. When he was 13, session guitarist John Darnall taught him his first scale, setting Huff on his career path.
Today Dann is first and foremost a family man. He and wife Sherri met at a junior high retreat and have been married for 30 years. Their daughter Madelyne is in her third year at UTK. Daughter Ashlyne, a BMG songwriter, is getting married this month. And Dann says son Elliott is a better musician at 17 than he was; he’s studying with famed swing drummer Duffy Jackson.
In high school at Brentwood Academy, Dann met fellow guitarist Gordon Kennedy and they started a band and played at school assemblies. By 16 Huff was playing on artist demos. He then moved to Los Angeles where he played and recorded with an impressive list of artists. His sessions resume includes Barbra Streisand, Reba McEntire, Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Michael Bolton, Donna Summer, Rod Stewart, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Whitney Houston, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Clint Black, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Natalie Cole, Toby Keith, Billy Joel, Joe Cocker, Martina McBride, Chicago, Wynonna, Glen Campbell, Paula Abdul, Tammy Wynette, Mariah Carey, Merle Haggard, Bob Seger, and many more.
Dann mostly plays his Tyler Classic signature model built by Los Angeles boutique luthier James Tyler and runs it through a stack of different amps and effect pedals. Huff’s gear also includes a variety of Fender Stratocasters & Telecasters, a Tom Anderson Classic T and a Tyler Ultimate Weapon with Dual Humbuckers, active mid-boost circuitry and a recessed Floyd Rose Original locking Tremolo Bridge.
When he was 20, he formed the Christian band Whiteheart. Other members were his brother, drummer David Huff, singer Steve Green, keyboardists Billy Smiley and Mark Gersmehl, and bassist Gary Lunn. Whiteheart completed three albums before Dann and David left and formed heavy metal band Giant, which scored a massive hit with “I’ll See You In My Dreams.”
Huff’s move into production was the result of friendly persuasion by Mutt Lange, who told Huff, “You are a producer in guitarist’s clothes.” He was flattered but didn’t know where to start until Lange recommended Huff to Faith Hill. Within a couple of years, Huff was making a name for himself as a producer in Nashville. His credits included Hill, Lonestar and SHeDaisy, as well as two Megadeth albums. As their careers took off, so did his.
Today, Dann ranks among Music Row’s most in-demand producers, with an impressive production discography that includes Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts, Carrie Underwood, Jewel, Wynonna, Deana Carter, Pat Green, Billy Ray Cyrus, Jimmy Wayne, Kenny Rogers, LeAnn Rimes, Martina McBride, Bryan White, Chely Wright, Rebecca St. James, Collin Raye, Trace Adkin, Julianne Hough, Steel Magnolia and Bon Jovi.
Over the past year or so, Huff has been working with Hunter Hayes, Brantley Gilbert, Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Swift, Sarah Darling, Mickey G, Johnny Gates and The Invite, Kenny Rogers, Big & Rich, Billy Currington, TV shows Nashville and Malibu Country (Reba), and is scheduled to cut a few sides with The Band Perry.
The Producer’s Chair: Is it more challenging to produce veteran artists or new artists?
Dann Huff: They each have unique challenges. When you’re working with established acts, it forces you to try to re-invent, re-frame and re-think ideas. There’s a certain intensity, especially if you’ve had much success with an artist, to re-define. With new artists, you’re working with an entirely new set of dynamics. It’s a relationship that hasn’t been formed and you’re developing a new language and a trust. With Hunter Hayes, I’d met him several times but didn’t know him very well. Then all of a sudden I’m working with a young man who is going to play everything on his record. We had no language for that. I had a rough idea how to do it, but not to really implement it. Once you start doing that, you have to develop a language and trust. With every new artist, in the back of their mind is, “I don’t want to sound like so-and-so. How are you going to differentiate me from others?” That pressure is as stout as the pressure of working with established artists.
How do songwriters feel about sharing a piece of the pie with artists who want to co-write?
Probably not too good. I think it’s a blessing and a curse scenario, because gone are the days where an artist shows up at the studio with a set of songs. That worked for a decade. Artists are becoming more savvy, the marketplace is not the same and there’s much more competition from every different angle. The idea is to make music that is unique to a certain artist. When that artist is writing, it makes things that much easier. The typical Nashville deal is: if you’re in the room you split it. I would feel embarrassed if I only contributed one line and took a third, if there were three writers. I’ve seen many artists say, “No, I just had the title, 10% max,” out of respect for the other writers. But economics aside, I think it’s ultimately better for everybody when the artist has a story to tell as opposed to boutique shopping songs. Artists who say, “Let’s write songs that share my story” is a positive thing.
How do you know when an artist is ready for the majors?
The whole model is changing. Management, publishing companies, everybody is into the development business these days, not just producers. Hunter Hayes was developed by a publishing company. They just kept me in the loop while they were developing his songwriting, his demos and his sound.
You have to be unique and have a story to tell. Being motivated is not enough. It’s all intangibles in music. Look at Peyton Manning. He can’t run, but look what he can do. It’s not about having the best voice, that’s a moving target. The best voice to one person is an irritant to others. I think at the root of a great entertainer and artist is a person who lives to be heard. You have to have that. And the more different it is the better.
Do you think country music shies away from addressing current events?
No, I think it embraces it. There’s a lot of compassion and unity and neighborliness, small community, standing up for the little guy and honoring commitments. I think those kind of things are a big part of the politics of country music.
Is it difficult to find radio hits today for legendary artists like Kenny Rogers?
Kenny Rogers is a national treasure, an icon, and everything that every artist would aspire to be. I told him, “the idea of trying to find songs that are concurrent with radio right now, to me, is an absolute mistake. It’s irrelevant to who you are as an artist. Let’s try and accentuate who you are. If there’s something for radio that’s magical, that’s great, but to willfully go after that? You’ve lived this phenomenally rich life. Perspective from you today is what I’m interested in.” He has the right to say things that so many artists can’t say.
Do artists with huge financial backing stand a better chance of being signed?
It helps, but if Elvis Presley walked through the door in rags, you’re still going to go for the talent.
What is one of the biggest challenges of your job?
Time management, I was mailing mp3s to Scott Borchetta in Milan at 10 o’clock on Sunday night. Usually I’m up at about 7:30 in the morning working on something before I go to the studios downtown. I don’t have an assistant.
How long have you been working with Justin Niebank and what do you find unique about his engineering skills?
We started working together around 1990, when I started working with Keith Urban. Justin has an absolute knack for framing a song and really dealing with the emotional aspects of the music. He’s not static. He understands that it’s not about him. Justin’s a bass player, he understands flow and tempo and the necessity of being able to jump in when there’s not an idea.
Do you do many re-mixes for other markets?
Yes, it is a big part of securing success and getting songs up the charts. The labels are really savvy about that. If you have a radio programmer in the Midwest who says, “That sounds a little too much like pop music,” instead of accepting a “no” labels can get traction in larger urban areas where the lines are a little blurrier by calling the producer and saying, “do you mind pulling down the guitars a little so that it’s not going to ruffle this guy’s listeners?” Then you get into re-mixes for other formats and countries. Some artists say “absolutely not, this is my music” and others just want to be heard.
Are major labels still going to operate the same way in 20 years?
Not in the structure they’re in right now. Big Machine wasn’t a major label but it is now. Talent can’t help but become bigger. I don’t think it’s going to be a bunch of boutique situations; it’s just re-structuring the real estate. I think there’s going to be the ability to be more stealth. There’s not going to be the redundancy in the labels. I think they’re going to be able to outsource more things and they’ll be smaller.
What are the benefits for artists of having label and management under one roof?
You get the ultimate amount of attention. Everybody’s in it together. Details are not going to be missed. This is the answer to the mega record labels with 25 artists and departments that have to service all. People have been outsourcing for a while, especially marketing and publicity. Labels don’t need people to tell them what a hit record is, they need partners. One size doesn’t fit all. Some artists are better served at a major label and other artists are better served by the 360 mentality. It all boils down to the people, their intensions and commitment level.