By James Rea
When 20-year-old Keith Stegall arrived in Nashville in 1975 he’d already been performing on stage and in the studio since he was 8-years-old, and writing songs and producing records since he was 15. Thirty-eight years later, his accomplishments in the Country music industry are no less than astounding. As a songwriter and producer, Stegall has had 54 No. 1 hits, over 40 million airplays and his production discography boasts 25 platinum and multi-platinum albums. Stegall’s body of work has resulted in sales of over 70 million units. He has earned four CMA awards, 10 ACMs and six Grammy nominations, including a nod at the Feb. 10 Grammys where Zac Brown Band’s Uncaged will vie for Best Country Album.
Growing up in a family of industry pros in Wichita Falls, TX, Keith attended the Louisiana Hayride as a child and at age eight, made his stage debut at a regional show in Tyler, TX. His father, Bob, played steel guitar for country legend Johnny Horton and his uncle had a recording studio in Dallas.
“My uncle would take me there while he was working,” recalls Keith. “One night he heard me playing the piano, and brought a mic down and cranked up the tape. So I rattled off four or five tunes for him including ‘It Keeps Right On a-Hurtin’, and ‘Six Days On The Road.’ I was eight years old and that was my first experience in the studio.”
A few years later Keith took up guitar and joined a rock/soul band called the Pacesetters and in high school, he toured internationally with folk group The Cheerful Givers. By the time he was 15, Keith began to write songs.
“When I was a freshman in college one of my friends called me and told me to get my guitar and get over to the college as quickly as I could. I got to play three songs for Kris Kristofferson and Billy Swan. By the time I got to the second chorus of one of the songs, Kris started harmonizing with me, which was really weird. It was really crazy. Afterwards, Kristofferson shook my hand and said, ‘You’re pretty good. You really ought to move to Nashville.’ So I did.”
Three months after his arrival in 1975, Keith co-wrote his first hit, Dr. Hooks’ 1980 smash “Sexy Eyes” and the flood gates opened. Helen Reddy, The Commodores, Johnny Mathis, and others rushed to record Stegall’s songs in L.A., and in Nashville, Conway Twitty, Charley Pride, Jerry Reed, Eddy Arnold, Moe Bandy, George Strait, and Steve Wariner were recording Stegall compositions. By 1985, Mickey Gilley and Glen Campbell had taken Keith’s tunes to the top of the country charts with “Lonely Nights” and “A Lady Like You.” Most notable among the subsequent recordings was Al Jarreau’s huge hit “We’re In This Love Together.”
“I was intrigued by the craft that I had observed from people like Kristofferson and Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. I got my first pub deal when I was 24, so I was bangin’ on doors for about three or four years just trying to meet people. Judy Harris at April Blackwood Music had hooked me up with some of the writers there. One afternoon I got a call from April offering me a job as their tape copy person, a songwriting deal and $200 per week. Back in those days everything was reel-to-reel, so that first year I did an apprenticeship in the tape copy room and I learned how to edit and slice and wrote songs at night. Once I started doing my own demos, I started getting record offers.
“God rest his soul, Lynn Shults ran Capitol in those days and Dr. Hook was signed to Capitol, so when I gave him my first demo, Lynn heard ‘Sexy Eyes’ and said ‘I’ve gotta get this to Ron Haffkine, this is a smash for Dr. Hook and by the way, I want to sign you to a record deal.’”
In 1980 Keith debuted as an artist on the country charts via Capitol Records. A subsequent stint with Epic Records yielded hits “Pretty Lady” and “California” and one of the industry’s first country music videos.
In 1985, Keith was nominated by the Academy of Country Music for Top New Male Vocalist, but by then Keith knew that being on the road as an artist wouldn’t allow him to spend enough time to concentrate exclusively on his first love—songwriting, so he quit performing.
“Then my career really went into a slump,” he laughs. “The songwriting dried up. It was a tough time. So I went home and licked my wounds, but it was the best thing that ever happened. It forced me to get my nose back to the grindstone.”
Randy Travis, then a struggling nightclub singer, and friend asked Keith to produce an independent album to sell at his gigs. The project led to Keith producing a pair of standout songs on Travis’ epochal debut, Storms of Life. Then in 1990, Ronnie Milsap took Stegall’s “Stranger Things Have Happened” up the charts and Stegall regained his songwriting feet.
Meanwhile, another friend and songwriting partner kept asking Stegall to produce a tape to play for record companies.
“Alan Jackson knew that I’d done some of the tracks on Randy. He was writing for Glen Campbell’s company at the time and he was being managed by Marty Gamblin, a good friend of mine. Gary Overton was my manager and Marty and Gary put Alan and I together. Every time I had a demo I’d drop by and play it for Alan and he was always curious as to how I got that kind of sound and what mics I used and began a process of asking me about producing him. The only reason I didn’t was because he was working with a guy who was a friend of mine. I said, when you guys settle your business up, please call me. He called me one night at the house and said ‘Ok it’s over with. Can we do some demos now?’ And that was the beginning.”
Jackson employed Keith’s production talents on every album from that point on, which led to sales of over 30 million units. Stegall continued collaborations with Jackson, co-writing “Don’t Rock The Jukebox” and “Dallas,” two of Alan’s biggest hits and in 1992, after taking Jackson’s advice, Keith received an offer to head Mercury Nashville’s A&R department and a chance to release another album as an artist.
“I thought this is not my gig. I’ve spent half my life fighting with record labels,” recalled Keith. “But Jackson said, ‘Half the reason I wanted to work with you is that you are an artist and you understand.’” Reminiscent of Chet Atkins’ years earlier at RCA, Stegall became an artist and executive at Mercury Records.
1996 saw the release of Passages, Keith’s critically acclaimed Mercury debut, and the same year, more chart success as a writer on Clay Walker’s “If I Could Make A Living” and Travis Tritt’s “Between An Old Memory And Me.”
In 1997, Keith teamed up with legendary songwriter Dan Hill (“Sometimes When We Touch”). The collaboration quickly yielded two No. 1s: Sammy Kershaw’s “Love Of My Life” and Mark Wills’ “I Do (Cherish You).” Then 98 Degrees made “I Do” a major pop hit.
The new millennium began with Stegall producing Jamie O’Neal’s gold-selling debut album Shiver for Mercury Records which included two No. 1s.
In 2002 he parted ways with Mercury Records after nearly a decade, but his winning streak with Alan Jackson continued with album Drive and the No. 1s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” and “Drive.” The album sold over four million copies and garnered Keith two CMA Awards, an ACM Award and a Grammy nomination. Keith was also named MusicRow Magazine’s Producer of The Year.
In late summer of 2003, Keith produced, “It’s Five O’ Clock Somewhere” by Jackson and Jimmy Buffett, which spent a staggering eight weeks at No. 1. The song earned Keith two ACM Awards in 2004. That year “Remember When” went No. 1, as did Keith’s co-write “I Hate Everything,” recorded by George Strait.
In 2006, Keith took a short-lived position as Chief Creative Officer at Broken Bow Records. His success continued in 2007-08 with Jackson’s platinum selling gospel album Precious Memories, Clay Walker’s album Fall, and Jackson’s Good Time.
The 2008 release of Zac Brown Band’s The Foundation marked the beginning of Stegall’s work with the band, which has resulted in a record breaking nine consecutive No.1s.
In 2009, Keith and partners opened the doors on Bigger Picture Group, home to artists Chris Cagle, Craig Campbell, Chris Janson, Rachel Bradshaw and Ryan Kinder.
The Producer’s Chair: Who was your mentor as a producer?
Keith Stegall: Early on, I discovered a David Houston album produced by Billy Sherrill. That was around 1967 and Sherrill was coming into being the czar and I was intrigued by what a record producer did. It took me years of self discovery to figure out that a record producer is a lot like a movie director. Also, I became a huge student of Larry Butler’s records. I would sit for hours and study the way a track was constructed, because Butler was very big on building a track as it went along. It was very sparse and very open on the front end and then as it progressed, it got bigger and bigger until it finally climaxed. And I was fascinated with the Nashville number system.
Why, after being nominated for ACM Top Male Vocalist, did you walk away from your record deal?
I had a great producer, Kyle Lehning. The problem for me was that I had the head of a record producer instead of the head of an artist. I knew the way I wanted the track to sound and I knew what I wanted someone to play and that wasn’t always in agreement with my producer. I think in those days, artists were expected to be heard only behind the microphone and to let the producer do his thing and it just didn’t work for me. I realized that I was wasting Kyle’s time and mine, so I called Rick Blackburn and said “Can you please just let me go?”
How did you wind up producing Randy Travis?
That was actually my [first] brush with the big time as a record producer. I’d already done a live record on Randy that he was selling out at the Palace. Kyle was my producer, and I took Martha Sharp out to see Randy and she wanted to sign him. So it ended up with me and Kyle producing Randy. I was still an artist at the time and I was losing money. It made me re-visit producing records.
In 1992 you became head of A&R and an artist on Mercury. How did that happen?
That was a weird deal. Luke Lewis wanted me to come over there and I was so dead set against working for a record label, I just kept throwing barriers up and I was in the process of making a record on myself in my studio. But Luke came over and said, “Hey man, Chet Atkins did it, you can do it.”
Who did you sign at Mercury?
The first act was Terri Clark, then I signed Mark Wills, Shane Minor, Jamie O’Neal, and ended up producing Sammy Kershaw and Billy Ray. That was a fun time.
When did you start producing Alan Jackson?
In ‘87, I produced the first two albums with Scott Hendricks and on the third album, Alan made the decision that he wanted me to do the records by myself. That was a scary time for me, but that was the album that had “Chattahoochee” on it.
Did you already have a vision for Bigger Picture when you left Broken Bow in 2006?
I was thinking along the lines of a production company, because we had Big Picture, our publishing company and I was still doing three or four outside acts, so I really wanted to have an umbrella that these acts could rest under. The actual Bigger Picture Company came together around that first Zac Brown Band record. Zac and I paid for that record out of our own pockets. I think we spent about $20,000 on The Foundation. I helped Zac get signed to Live Nation. After they signed Zac, they wanted to go to radio with a single, and wanted me to put a company together to promote it. The basic company at that point was promotion, and I turned over my office to Michael Powers and that was the beginning of the Zac Brown story.
In the middle of having what looked like a hit record, the whole Live Nation thing fell apart and all of a sudden we had a hit record and no label. I got a call from Craig Kallman, Chairman of Atlantic, because he realized we didn’t have a record label. So, I flew up to New York, sat down with Craig and hatched out a plan. They signed Zac and we became joint venture partners with Atlantic on the first two records. That was killer, that’s the way it happens, in the midst of chaos, there’s always something going on that makes sense.
Are you producing all of the artists on Bigger Picture?
Yes but I didn’t do this by design. From an economic standpoint, because I own a piece of this company, it was easier for me to produce these acts and incur some of the costs myself and save us a shit load of money and be effective. In Rachel Bradshaw’s case, I felt like she needed somebody that was used to making music with women. I thought of Frank Liddell because he has done that magnificently from his wife right through to Miranda. Frank and I began spending Friday afternoons drinking beer and talking about it and I introduced them and that relationship blossomed. They’re in the middle of making her five or six song EP and I’m excited as I could be about it. With a guy like Frank, you know it’s going to be stellar when it’s done.
When you sign a new artist to your label, does it matter if they write?
Yes, and they’re all involved in the community with their groups of people that they write with. I’m such a junkie for singer/songwriters. My biggest influences were Dan Fogleberg, Dan Hill and James Taylor. The case can always be made for Frank Sinatra because he didn’t write his own songs, he was a great interpreter. But I like hearing the story from the person that lived it and wrote it down after he or she lived it.
I understand your daughter Jen Ketner is signed to Big Picture.
Yes, I told her that her job was to attach herself to Ryan Kinder. He’s a Birmingham boy, who hasn’t spent a lot of time in Nashville and I wanted Jen to start writing with him and connect him with some other people and become part of his creative sub-set. And that’s what she did and she’s actually co-producing the Ryan Kinder record. I’ve got three daughters, Jen is the oldest and she’s the only one who was crazy enough to follow me into the fire.
Who else is signed to your publishing company?
D Vincent Williams, Brice Long, Luke Sheets, Michael White and Lance Carpenter.
How does Bigger Picture’s label model differ from major labels?
Everybody, even major labels have had to adapt to the present economics of how they do things. Most of the record labels are offering 360-deals … a little piece of this and a little piece of that. We’re not really in the 360-business. We’re in what we call joint-venture partnerships with all of our artists, so with the things that we participate in, we’re not just trying to take something, without being accountable and contributing. We try to participate in the things that we make happen within the career, instead of just taking something because we need it. We’re very much involved in publishing, production, marketing, promotion and management. Maintaining the integrity of great artists is the most important thing to me. For the next five years of my career, the most important thing that I can do is help mentor these up-and-coming artists and help them develop into truly great talents.
I have a fear that some of our music has evolved into fast-food music, and that nobody is going to remember songs a year from now that are hits right now. Great artists know that they’re being commercial but they’re also creating a piece of art that should have a life of its own beyond the radio. At my age, I hope to be more of a guiding parenting figure for these kids, to help them hold true to their dreams and never feel that they have to sacrifice, or give up anything to fit in. Great artists don’t care about that. They just do their thing and the world chases them.
Do you have any new goals on the horizon?
To stay relevant … and, I’d love to write a book about making music in this town.
Click to download Keith Stegall’s discography.
For more, visit www.theproducerschair.com.