The Producer’s Chair: Mickey Jack Cones

Mickey Jack Cones

Mickey Jack Cones

RowFax Column No.  17 (February 2013)

By James Rea

Mickey Jack Cones has produced, engineered, mixed, written songs, sang or played on over 50 major artist’s albums since his arrival in Nashville in 1996. His impressive body of work includes Jason Aldean, Kelly Clarkson, Trace Adkins, Luke Bryan, Carrie Underwood, Eric Church, Reba, Sara Evans, Blake Shelton, Joe Nichols and Kenny Rogers.

In 2012, 39-year-old Cones’ vocal engineering expertise combined with Michael Knox’s production on Aldean’s 2x Platinum album My Kind of Party, to earn numerous awards and a Grammy nomination.

It’s been said that most great vocal producers are also great singers, Cones is certainly one. His voice can be heard on albums by Joe Nichols, Trace Adkins, Reba, Gretchen Wilson, Billy Gilman, Jeff Bates, Katrina Elam, Andy Griggs, Julianne Hough, Chuck Wicks and Kristen Kelly.

He comes by it naturally, his great grandparents and grandparents were musicians, and his mother and two aunts were The Cones Sisters. By age 10, he was playing guitar and singing in their band, which was later discovered by Barry Beckett and offered a record deal with RCA Nashville.

Cones was bitten by the songwriting bug when he was about 13 and by age 15 he was the lead singer and guitarist in his first band, Hired Guns. In the mid-‘90s, he left college at the University of Texas in San Antonio to become the lead singer, guitarist and band leader for Rhythm of The Road, a well-known band on the south Texas dance hall circuit.

Mickey moved to Nashville and in 1998 graduated from Belmont’s Music Business program with an emphasis in studio production, which landed him an interning gig with Beckett. After graduation, Cones went to work as a staff engineer for David Malloy’s publishing company studio.

He recalls, “I was able to use the studio for my demos and quickly learned the difference between the vibe on my sessions compared to the vibe on David’s sessions. On the first session with David, I learned about not stifling the creative process. From ’98-’99 was a huge learning curve as an engineer, but I started meeting all the A-musicians and eventually got the opportunity to engineer several of David’s projects.”

Through friend April Taylor of Ladd Management, Cones got the opportunity to write the music for Nemesis, a pop/rock act signed to Curb. About ’99 Mickey signed a production deal with Curb to produce Nemesis, which landed him his first pub deal with EMI.

A big turning point in his career as a producer came when Desmond Child, who loved Cones’ ’98 production on Nemesis, hired Mickey to engineer Motley Crue and Linkin Park. Famed rock producer Marti Frederiksen, who today is partners with David Malloy and Mickey at Westwood Studios, asked Mickey to engineer Buck Cherry and Aerosmith.

Around 2000, Malloy asked Mickey to work with him and Kenny Beard on a Jeff Bates’ session for RCA. The Jeff Bates project propelled Mickey as a vocal producer. Malloy and Cones worked on a multitude of projects together, but eventually Cones decided engineering was not hands-on enough, so he set his sights on producing.

Although his producing career was just taking off, every musician’s dream is to hear what they sound like in a concert arena and Mickey was no exception. He had been writing with Julie Roberts while they were both signed at EMI. So, when she landed her record deal and asked Mickey to go on the road as her band leader (background vocals and guitar), he jumped at the chance. It turned into a two-year run including performing on the Rascal Flatts’ Here’s To You Tour, and appearing on Good Morning America and The Tonight Show.

When Mickey came off the road in 2004, Beard immediately hired Mickey to engineer and sing background vocals on Trace Adkins’ next album, Dangerous Man. Blake Chancey also asked Mickey to work on Kellie Pickler’s Small Town Girl album. Since then, Mickey has worked on the majority of Trace’s albums.

But the rock gods were not the only gods watching Mickey Jack Cones. Tony Brown hired Mickey to sing background vocals on Katrina Elam’s project. Tony continued to call Mickey for vocals and engineering for Reba, Heidi Newfield and other projects including Lionel Richie’s Tuskegee album.

Through his association with Adkins, Mickey met Michael Knox who also produced some sides on Trace’s Cowboy’s Back In Town album. They wound up working together on Chuck Wicks and Montgomery Gentry, which led to their huge Jason Aldean / Kelly Clarkson duet “Don’t You Want To Stay” and the Ludacris / Aldean duet, after which Ludacris tapped Mickey for his new project Burning Bridges.

Cones’ current or recent production work includes Trace AdkinsJoe NicholsJames Wesley, and a multi-artist Merle Haggard tribute album.

Do you try to push the boundaries of country music sound-wise?
Mickey Jack Cones: Loving the feeling of a “kick” at a live show and the impact of the sound as it hits you, is the way I mix. Coming from that Mutt Lang-world to Hank Williams, I always try to merge the sonics of both worlds. But I try to throw things in discretely, rather than break new ground. I think that’s why I haven’t been forced to leave town yet. That doesn’t mean I haven’t saved a few tricks up my sleeve.

When a producer hires an engineer, do they discuss what the producer envisions prior to going into the studio?
No … usually if the producer calls you to engineer, he’s calling you because you have created some sort of sound or expectation that he knows he’s going to get. If you’re being called to co-produce, it depends on the other producer. With Tony Brown, absolutely, the answer is yes. From phone call one, we discussed everything.

People sometimes describe today’s country music as being more like ‘80s rock. Does your background, with artists like Motley Crue and Steven Tyler, enhance your chances of remaining relevant in Nashville?
Absolutely, and I say that because I’ve now been in town for about 17 years. That cycle that people talk about and that ‘80s sound that I grew up with has definitely influenced the evolution of country music. To me there’s a marriage sonically in a sound between getting too technologically processed and that ‘80s sound, which has more of an analog-type warmth and punch to it, but with that straight-ahead “live” feeling. It gives an edge to me and anyone else raised in that era.

Has the decline of rock caused an influx of musicians to Nashville?
I’d say so. Nashville is booming and they need a new outlet. They’re coming here because country is not just known for its twang anymore. It’s actually helping both genres.

Which producer taught you the most about dealing with artists and musicians?
I’ve learned something from every single producer but without a doubt 100 percent, David Malloy.

What is the producer’s biggest challenge?
The songs… The song makes or breaks the artist. The label’s role and how they’re changing has created more gray areas, as far as who makes decisions on the creative side. The hardest part to me is narrowing that down. Listening to songs is a large chunk of the work. You track in a couple of days, but it takes months to get to that point. 

Do you find more songs through pluggers or writers?
The writers… It may be because they are so focused on trying to find the best songs for that artist, that they’ve written, so their brain is only on that catalog. Whereas the pluggers are having to stay on top of the publishing company’s entire catalog. I’m not saying the pluggers aren’t focused on finding the best songs. The best thing I can do is to be as informative as I can with the pluggers and the writers about what I’m looking for.

Is it obvious that a song is going to be a hit when you are recording it in the studio?
If it’s not too quirky and everybody knows it’s a hit, there’s a feeling in the room when everybody looks up … and they’re ready to make it happen.

Do the budgets that you’re given these days restrict the creativity of a project?
Income is down so budgets have had to come down. There are certain aspects of the business where budgets have not been adjusted, but the first people to adjust are those of us guiding the ship. The per-song rate has been reduced. If I want to work and stay busy, instead of lowering the budget, I’ll take on more responsibilities.

Have you ever given a hit song to one artist and another artist complained?
That wouldn’t happen if there was a bigger gap between projects, but it happens all the time when you’re recording a lot of projects at the same time. But because I’m a vocal guy, I can explain why to the artists, maybe it doesn’t showcase their strengths, due to a long note, the range, too much diction or being too wordy. There’s usually a case or I wouldn’t have done it, but it’s honest.

Is traditional country music ever going to be lost?
Absolutely not. You can stray sonically from artist to artist and you can have different dialects and not have the same twang because you’re from a different region, but the true element of country music and what it stands for and the story portion of it and the real life element is to me, what makes country, country.

Even in the most rocking sounds and projects, traditional country is always going to circle back around. There’s a demand right now for more traditional sounding music, in my opinion and it  needs to be satisfied. Like with any product, when there’s a demand, it’s going to be met, then it might be overly-met and it’ll dip down and people will stray from it, but traditional country is always going to be there.
Can the industry ensure that country stays country?
Now we’re going to get deep here. What you’re referring to has been in place since long before I was born. It’s got to be country. We’re not going to sign anybody who does not know who Hank Williams and Merle are. Nobody is going to let that happen.

Producer Credits

  • Trace Adkins (ShowDog/UMG)
  • Jeff Bates (Black River)
  • Joe Nichols (Red Bow Records)
  • Nemesis Rising (Curb Records))
  • Chad Hudson (Universal Music Group)
  • James Wesley (Broken Bow Records)
  • Matt Stillwell (Average Joe’s Entertainment)
  • Nicky Barot (UK Rock)
  • Damien Leith (Australian Idol)
  • Jimmy Fortune (Statler Brothers)

Engineer Credits: (Recording and/or Mixing)

  • Jason Aldean
  • Kelly Clarkson
  • Luke Bryan
  • Carrie Underwood
  • Eric Church
  • Reba
  • Trace Adkins
  • Sara Evans
  • Blake Shelton
  • Joe Nichols
  • Kenny Rogers
  • Jeff Bates
  • Andy Griggs
  • Frankie Ballard
  • Gretchen Wilson
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Kellie Pickler
  • Blaine Larsen
  • Julie Roberts
  • Katrina Elam
  • Chuck Wicks
  • Julianne Hough
  • Randy Owen (of Alabama)
  • Billy Gilman
  • Mötley Crüe
  • Aerosmith
  • Steven Tyler
  • Buckcherry
  • Ludacris
  • Exile
  • Lionel Richie
  • Rachel Farley
  • Hayden Panettiere
  • Damien Leith (Australian Idol winner)
  • John Daly (yes the golfer)
  • Matt Stillwell
  • Brother Trouble
  • Nicky Barot
  • Kristen Kelly
  • Paul Overstreet
  • Daniel Powter
  • Jimmy Fortune
  • Ryan Tyler
  • Fools For Rowan
  • Kevin Fowler
  • 3 Doors Down

Back Ground Vocal Credits:

  • Andy Griggs
  • Julianne Hough
  • Matt Stillwell
  • Chuck Wicks
  • Joe Nichols
  • Jeff Bates
  • Jimmy Fortune
  • Kevin Fowler
  • Nicky Barot
  • Country Strong (soundtrack)
  • Kristen Kelly
  • Gretchen Wilson
  • Trace Adkins
  • John Daly
  • Billy Gilman
  • Katrina Elam
  • Brother Trouble
  • Reba
  • Act of Valor (soundtrack)

Musician Credits: (Guitar/Synth, Bass and/or Percussion)

  • Trace Adkins
  • Joe Nichols
  • Billy Gilman
  • Nicky Barot
  • Matt Stillwell
  • Country Strong (Soundtrack)
  • Nemesis Rising
  • Jeff Bates
  • Heidi Newfield
  • Act of Valor
  • Damien Leith
  • Act of Valor (Soundtrack)

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