By James Rea
Don’t miss Jeff Stevens on The Producer’s Chair, Thurs., Oct. 25, 6 p.m., at Douglas Corner. Details at: www.theproducerschair.com.
Jeff Stevens is one of Country music’s top producers, having helmed Luke Bryan’s three studio albums and Spring Break EPs. His most recent album, Tailgates & Tanlines, gave Bryan’s career a major push. It is up for 2012 CMA Album of the Year, and Bryan is nominated for Male Vocalist. He also leads the 2012 American Country Awards nominations with seven nods.
But don’t think Jeff appeared out of nowhere in 2007 when he produced Bryan’s debut album. There’s barely enough wall space in Jeff’s office/studio, to mount all of his songwriting awards. With seven No. 1s and countless top 10s to his credit, his discography includes George Strait No. 1s “Carrying Your Love With Me,” “Carried Away” and “True;” Alabama’s “Reckless;” Tim McGraw’s “Back When;” John Anderson’s “I Fell In The Water;” and Tracy Byrd’s “Big Love” and “I Wanna Feel That Way Again.” Jeff earned a Dove Award nomination for Guy Penrod’s “Pray About Everything.” His discography also includes cuts by Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney, Lonestar, Mark Wills, Brad Cotter, Rhett Akins, Chris Ledoux, and of course, numerous Luke Bryan hits. One of his newest songs, “Better Than Today,” has been recorded by his musical hero Don Williams.
By the age of 12, Jeff was opening for some of the biggest stars in Country music. “Santa Claus brought me and my brother, Warren, guitars,” he recalls. “My dad was a dreamer of the highest order and he dreamed that we could be country music stars. We learned ‘Folsom Prison Blues,’ entered an adult talent show and won. I was nine. My dad started booking our shows, and my mother sewed sparkly suits for us. By the time I was 12 or 13, I had done shows with all the big stars of the day: Conway and Loretta, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Bill Anderson, Charley Pride and Willie Nelson.”
Jeff also met his future drummer and hit co-writer Terry Dotson in high school and they started writing songs together. Jeff was 20 when they wrote their first two hits, “Sweet Country Music” and “Atlanta Burned Again Last Night,” recorded by Atlanta.
“We had a five-piece band, Jeff Stevens and The Bullets, and we started booking bars and beer joints. Terry and I wrote the songs but my brother Warren was very instrumental in a managerial role. One day, we learned that Alabama was splitting with their manager and we thought he might be looking for a band. So we sent him material hoping he would sign us. He didn’t, but couple of months later, a disc jockey friend of mine called and said a group called Atlanta just sent in one of your songs, ‘Atlanta Burned Again Last Night’ with big cake on fire. So we drove over to the station and had a listen. Thank God, Terry and I had signed up with BMI. From then on, every Tuesday morning I’d get in my Pinto and drive to the news stand and look at a copy of Billboard. In no time it was No. 33, then 29. When it got to 14, Terry and I went to Nashville and had a meeting with Cedarwood publishing. They listened to one of our other songs called ‘Sweet Country Music.’ He told us it wasn’t what country is playing, but it went on to No. 3. It’s now a 2 Million BMI Award-winner.
“After those two songs were hits we recorded an album at Scruggs studio with our own money and that album made its way to Earl Thomas Conley’s producer, Nelson Larkin. Nelson got us the deal on Atlantic Records. That took a couple of years and in that time we moved to Nashville.”
Jeff was eventually re-signed to Atlantic as a solo artist but after a string of low-charting singles found himself struggling financially. “I lost my wedding ring in a pawn shop and I lost all of my guitars. After I had written two hit songs, I didn’t have a guitar, nothing to make music with. I was on the same label as Ray Charles and I was up on Dickerson Rd. financing cars. That was my life in the mid 80s. I was doing everything I could just to survive. That’s how much I wanted to stay here.”
Fortunately during that period Jeff kept writing and at the tail-end of his recording deal with Atlantic, he secured a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell, and discovered a new outlet as a writer. Since then, Jeff has become one of the most successful writing forces in country music. Today, he is signed to BMG/Chrysalis Nashville.
The Producer’s Chair: Is it difficult to be objective about selecting songs for the project, when you’re producing and writing with your artist?
Jeff Stevens: For me, producing and songwriting require two different hats. As a producer, my main goal for the artist is to have a long term career and fill arenas, not just a hit, so I must set aside my own personal short term goals to get one of my songs cut. A good producer will mine the artist and Music Row for the best song no matter who wrote it. As a songwriter, if I can support the artist with their sound and style, then certainly I will do that–but it’s not a Jeff Stevens record–it’s the artist’s record and I try never to lose sight of that.
How do you deal with negativity?
There is no room in my life for negativity. No one sticks around very long with that. Ninety percent of what we write is rejected and I need every ounce of positive energy to achieve another hit. Rejection is a major part of this business. I’m in this business to communicate with the listener. When I’m writing a song I don’t think about what my publisher would like. I don’t think about what radio will play or that it will be rejected along the way. I go right to the person that matters and that’s the listener. If you engage the listener, the listener will pull a few dollars out of their pocket and put it in you pocket.
How difficult is it to get a publishing deal today?
It’s really tough, much harder than when I started. My first pub deal was with Warner/Chappell in 1992, when I signed with them there were about 100 writers there. Today there are maybe 30. The numbers are staggeringly different. Now-a-days, it’s my belief, if you’ve got a publishing deal, you must be pretty good.
What do publishers look for in new writers?
In order for it to be a positive experience for both parties, where the songwriter and the publisher have success together, you have to have chemistry, not unlike a marriage. There has to be trust and common goals. The trust is the hardest thing, because as a songwriter, it’s your creation and in order for you to go, “You’re right, I need to change this,” that’s big stuff. You should only be changing stuff when you believe that they are right. And they should be able to prove they’re right by getting it cut. It’s a dynamic that’s hard to achieve, but I’ve found it with Dale Bobo and Michael Knox.
Can you give me an example?
Steve Bogard and I wrote “Carrying Your Love With Me” and we were excited about it and we called Michael in to hear it. He listened to it and his head hit the roof, he just exploded, he loved it. So he went back in his office and I’m sure he got on the phone and called Tony Brown and told him “I got a big hit for you.” An hour later, I was still in my little office and Michael came back in and said, “Can you play it for me again?” He listened to it and said “God that is so good. Explain the second verse. What does that mean?” Well, my heart sank because he had to ask me what it means. I explained it and he was satisfied. Michael never asked me to re-write it, but I respected his feel for songs, so Bogard and I got together a few days later and re-wrote the second verse.
What makes Luke’s vocal performance so compelling?
You’ve seen a little six-year-old kid go “Mommy I went down to the creek and I saw UHHHHHH a big frog and jumped on the UHHHHH…” It’s that thing Luke does when he is truly lost in his delivery. Those things to me are like gold. There are listeners out there who don’t give a flip about the mechanics. All they know is, this artist is speaking to them. They would never notice that he’s even doing that, but it’s there and somewhere inside of them, they’re getting that. I don’t look at them as flaws. That’s what makes Luke different.
How did you wind up producing Luke?
Luke and I met on a songwriting session and wrote a really cool thing called “Baby’s On The Way.” He had previously done a showcase for the folks at Capitol and he took the song over there and the next thing I know they’ve got me on the phone asking me to produce some sides on him! The label is very organic that way and I believe that’s one of the reasons we work so well together.
Jeff is currently developing a couple of other young artists, a Belmont University singer/songwriter named Matt Enik, and a vocalist named Colton Pack.