The Producer’s Chair: Jimmie Lee Sloas

Jimmie Lee Sloas

Jimmie Lee Sloas

By James Rea

Jimmie Lee Sloas has been producing, playing and writing songs in Nashville for 35 years and he humbly wears all three hats very well. He received a Grammy for PFR’s Pray For Rain, the first album Jimmie ever produced and has received two other Grammy nominations since (for The Geoff More Band’s self-titled album and the Jeff Lynne Tribute Album).

He is the current winner of MusicRow’s Bass Player of the Year three years in a row, the 2013 ACM Bassist of the Year (also nominated in 2006, 2008 and 2009) and an accomplished songwriter with over 50 cuts to his credit, including cuts by Reba McEntire and Andy Williams. Jimmy co-produced Katrina Elam with Tony Brown, Christian Kane with Bob Ezrin for Bigger Picture and is currently producing Jerrod Niemann on Sony.

His session discography ranks with the best pickers on the planet, including Garth Brooks, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, LeAnn Rimes, Kellie Pickler, Reba, Blake Shelton, Little Big Town, Wynonna, Lee Ann Womack, Martina McBride, Amy Grant, Toby Keith, Trace Adkins, Alice Cooper, Luke Bryan, John Rich, Ronnie Dunn, Sara Evans, Alan Jackson, Kelly Clarkson and the list goes on.

It must be in the genes, because there’s no doubt that Jimmie was inherently blessed with “big ears.” His father Dave was a member of the Bluegrass band The Sloas Brothers. Dave Sloas is also a celebrated songwriter with a legacy of songs recorded by Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley and many others. Jimmie’s mother Martha was a country singer and to this day remains Jimmie’s favorite female country singer. Jimmie’s brother David Sloas played lead guitar with Tammy Wynette from the early ‘80s until her death and now tours with Aaron Tippin. Jimmie is completely self-taught and doesn’t read music, however it was Brother David who taught him the Nashville number system when Jimmie was about 16 years old.

Jimmie got his first paying gig when he was five years old. He received 25 cents for the performance. Growing up in East Chicago, Jimmie’s first instrument was a dobro, but by the time he had reached public school, he and the driving force of a bass guitar had begun a life-long relationship.

Now, envision all that talent, along with sideburns, in banana yellow suits and you’ve got David Sloas and The Country Showmen, who performed every weekend at the local Air Force Base when Jimmie was growing up.

When Jimmie was a senior in high school, his brother David was bandleader for Margo Smith, a country singer with several No. 1 hits in the late ‘70s. David got Jimmie the gig playing bass. In his teens, Jimmie also played with several Christian bands. His uncles were Baptist preachers, and Jimmie fully intended on going to bible college. Instead, after graduating high school, he moved to Nashville at age 17.

One of his first thrills at 21 was playing with the Christian pop band The Imperials. Jimmie had grown up idolizing The Imperials, who played with Elvis in the early 70s. Jimmie happened to know their bandleader. He auditioned and wound up performing to 10,000 seat auditoriums, with his heroes.

His one-year stint with The Imperials propelled Jimmie into the rock band RPM, which began another significant relationship for Jimmie with Brent Maher. That year, Jimmie got married at 22 and had two children. His son Aaron is now 28 and James is now 30.

Songwriter Robert White Johnson and Jimmie co-wrote Ronnie Milsap’s “If You Don’t Want To,” which was Jimmie’s first major songwriting cut.

After RPM disbanded, Jimmie came back to Nashville and painted apartments until he received a call from The Imperials asking him to come back and sing. Brown Bannister was producing the Imperials at the time.

“Brown Bannister changed my life and gave me my first job producing,” says Jimmie. “Bobby Blazer and I found a band called PFR, who opened for us and we co-produced them for Brown. I produced another six records on them by myself.”

In 1996, Jimmie also co-founded the group Dogs of Peace with former WhiteHeart guitarist Gordon Kennedy.

His first pub deal came from Warner/Chappell when he was 32. He was then signed to EMI by Gary Overton and later re-signed with Warner/Chappell. Currently, Jimmie does not have a publisher.

“People say to me that I’ve been so blessed and lucky but hey, I never dated, I wasn’t in bars, I wasn’t into sports and I didn’t travel,” says Jimmie. “All I did was music. I was obsessed. I’ve lived without insurance and came close to bankruptcy. One day, I did a session with Garth Brooks in the morning on his Chris Gaines record and another session with Megadeath that afternoon. That evening my car was repossessed. The name of that album was The System Has Failed. I don’t care who you are, that’s funny.”

What advice would you give to new musicians arriving in Nashville, to get studio work?
Jimmie Lee Sloas: First of all … did you come here knowing anyone? Start where you stand. Who do you know already? Go there and see who they know. Nashville is an incredibly sweet, relationship-based town. Be patient, work on your skills and work on putting your own stamp on a song.

How did you meet Jerrod Niemann?
I was producing Christian Kane on BMG. He’s the knock-out punch actor on the hit TV show Leverage. He came to Nashville to write and we hit it off. I did a pitch tape on him, took him to Renee Bell at BMG and got him signed and produced his record. While we were writing for that record, he knew Jerrod and we started writing together. Christian cut one of the songs Jerrod and I wrote.

Will you be going on the road with Jerrod?
No but I’m going to take his band in and work up a whole new show. I enjoy doing that.

Who else besides Jerrod are you producing or developing?
Two guys … Joe Hall who lives near Atlanta. He’s a 21-year-old kid who is enormously talented. Great, unique voice, energetic, and he’s a killer writer already. Hit songwriter/drummer Kip Raines brought Joe to me. We’re working together with Joe. The other is John Russell from Lexington, Ky. I fell in love with their voices and now I’m falling in love with who they are.

Describe your methods of development with new artists?
I’ll write with them and I’ll pull some great writers who are friends of mine to be a part of that. When they become more comfortable in their own skin, I’ll put a band together, go into the studio, and let them see what that world is all about. This takes about one to two years typically, but every artist is different, obviously. It’s all about the song at the end of the day. Thank God we live in the best “song” town on earth!

When doing artist development, do you concentrate more on strengths or weaknesses?
Their strengths … if you start embellishing their strengths, they’re going to gain confidence and they’re going to get even better. Weaknesses fade with time.

What has been your most memorable session?
Every year very gifted and articulate Vanderbilt musicians and singers ages 16-25 are given the opportunity to come to the studio. They pick a new producer every year. This was Scott Hendricks’ day and he invited me in on the session at Starstruck Studios. They wrote a song, recorded it and then performed it on the Opry. My other most memorable session was playing with Ronnie Milsap, which Scott also produced.

What is the most significant change in Country music that you’ve witnessed since you arrived in Nashville and how has it affected what you do?
The greatest change since I’ve been in town is, NOT the people here. It is still a relationship-based business. The fact that real musicians show up every day to play real instruments hasn’t changed (although there is an occasional drum loop that seems to be a standard issue).  However, more than ever, I see the artists writing their own songs. When I showed up in Nashville it was a rare thing to be a singer and songwriter, like Roger Miller or Tom T. Hall, just to name two.

The biggest change that I can see is obviously the modern technology. Now a songwriter or producer can do the bulk of an album project from development through mix on a laptop. This has leveled the playing field immensely. It’s a very exciting time. If you can think it and hear it in your head, you really can do it if you have enough plug-ins, ha!

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