The Producer’s Chair: Tom Hambridge

tom hambridge

Tom Hambridge

By James Rea

2014 Grammy nominee Tom Hambridge makes his second appearance on The Producer’s Chair on Thursday, March 20, 6 p.m. at Douglas Corner. Details at theproducerschair.com.

It may seem like a lofty claim, but I think producer, drummer, artist, songwriter extraordinaire Tom Hambridge is single-handedly responsible for the presence of the blues in Music City.

Tom was the recipient of the 2011 Grammy for Buddy Guy’s album Living Proof. It also took home Blues Music Awards for Best Contemporary Blues Album, Song of The Year and Album of The Year. Written and produced by Tom, the album is Guy’s highest charting record and features his first duet with B.B. King.

In 2014 Hambridge received his fourth Grammy nomination, this time as producer for Best Blues Album for James Cotton’s Cotton Mouth Man, which features performances by Gregg Allman, Keb Mo, Warren Haynes, Ruthie Foster and Delbert McClinton.

Hambridge has his imprint on an unprecedented 12 nominations at the 2014 Blues Music Awards, including Best Album and Best Song, but he’s most proud is his nod for Drummer of the Year. Cotton knows the nominations are much deserved, he says, “Tom Hambridge is the best producer I’ve ever worked with. He has a great deal of integrity and I’m proud to call him my friend. And man … what a drummer he is—he can play anything.” As Tim “Too Slim” Langford said in a recent interview in Blues Blast, “Probably the hottest name in the blues business is Tom Hambridge.”

It’s hard to know where to begin when conveying Tom’s body of work. His songwriting credits exceed 350 cuts. His work on Buddy Guy’s Skin Deep earned a 2009 Grammy nom for Best Traditional Blues Album and a Blues Music Award forBest Contemporary Blues Album. In 2007 he was the recipient of an ASCAP Country Music Award for “Every Time I Hear Your Name.” In 2004 he received a Grammy nod for Best Contemporary Blues Album for Johnny Winter, I’m A Bluesman.

Tom’s global presence includes touring, producing, songwriting and recording with Chuck Berry, ZZ Top, Susan Tedeschi, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Hank Williams Jr., Delbert McClinton, Bo Diddley, BB King, Meat Loaf, Billy Ray Cyrus, Boston, Gretchen Wilson, Rodney Atkins, Van Zant, Montgomery Gentry, Rascal Flatts and many more.

In the past year, Hambridge produced albums by Joe Lewis Walker, Kevin Crutchfield, Quinn Sullivan, and George Thorogood. He has contributed vocals to the Disney soundtracks Cars and Ratatouille.

He produced, wrote, played drums and sang background vocals on Buddy Guy’s 77th birthday double-disc Rhythm & Blues, which features guests Keith Urban, Kid Rock, Gary Clark, Jr. Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. The project earned a perfect four-star review from USA Today and debuted at No. 1.

Guy said, “I’ve had a lot of producers …. But, forget the rest, Tom is the best. Tom brought the songs, the team and the vision to the party that lit up Rhythm & Blues. Tom is such a creative writer and musician. Someone like that only comes along once in a lifetime. I call him the white Willie Dixon.”

Tom’s current album Boom is his sixth solo album, released via his own SuperStar Records, which is also home to Jack Mack & The Heart Attack Horns, Quinn Sullivan, The Justin Kalk Orchestra and Andrew Morstein.

Tom and his wife Chris moved to Nashville from Buffalo in 1998 and have teenage daughters, Rachel and Sarah, who are budding songwriters. “When I was doing Skin Deep with Buddy Guy at Blackbird Studios, my kids showed up. Both of them write songs and are musically inclined. Rachel had just won a songwriting contest and Fender had given her a Stratocaster and an amp. The judges included Robby Robertson and I remember telling her when she entered, ‘Nobody ever wins these things, it’s such a long shot, don’t get your hopes up.’ So at the session Buddy said, ‘Do you guys play guitar?’ and Rachel told him she has a Stratocaster, and Sarah said, ‘my dad is going to get me one when I learn my chords better.’ A couple of weeks later, after the record was done, Buddy sent her an autographed Telecaster.”

The Producer’s Chair: Do you play around Nashville much?
Tom Hambridge: I did a round at The Bluebird recently with Jim Collins and George Teran, and the first thing Jim said was, “So, I’m watching TV the other night and Mick Jagger was playing at The White House and Tom Hambridge was playing drums.”

How did you wind up playing with Mick?
The White House called and asked me to put together an outline of who I thought, artist-wise, would be a great show  for Black History month, for a Blues show called Red, White and Blues. Crazy as it sounds, I put my list together and Mick Jagger was on it because British artists were the ones who turned America back onto the blues artists. They idolized these guys. When they came to America, the first thing they wanted to see was Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters. So my idea was to have Mick Jagger, along with Buddy, Keb Mo, Shemekia Copeland, Susan Tedeschi, Warren Haynes, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, BB King, James Cotton and Jonny Lang. But, they couldn’t pick everybody. They hired the production company that does the Grammys and got Booker T. and a band from L.A. A couple of artists asked me to play drums and Mick was one of them. Also, this past Christmas I did the Kennedy Center Honors salute to Carlos Santana with Buddy Guy.

How did SuperStar Records emerge?
It started from a friendship with John Heithaus who started the rock fantasy camp. I met him when I played at the camp. He was interested in starting a label. John introduced me to internet commerce and sales specialist Steve Mack, and experienced entertainment attorney Michael Holstein. We teamed to start the label about two years ago.

Where was your first publishing deal?
I did a co-venture with EMI after receiving a few offers and waiting a few years. I wanted to make sure my stock was going up a little before I jumped into it. That deal was great. Now I’m back to owning my own publishing company, Tom Hambridge Tunes.

How do you get cuts on albums that you’re not producing or playing on?
I don’t have anybody pitching my music. I handle my own publishing and booking. I’m my own manager. I make all my own decisions. In the past year, I had about 20 songs on Buddy Guy’s double album, plus cuts by James Cotton (10), Quinn Sullivan (12), Joe Lewis (10), Rascal Flatts, Danny Gokey, Skynyrd (4), and ZZ Top (3). I’m fortunate enough that when people are making a record, they call me. So I’m very, very fortunate that these guys remember me. I’m honored.

Do you write on guitar or piano?
Both. I just play the 1, 4, 5 on the E-string, like a bass player. I play block chords on the piano. To me, a lot of it is the lyric. Sometimes we won’t even pick up a guitar for the first hour because we’re talking about ideas and hooks. It’s not brain surgery to me.

I write a lot of country songs with Jeffrey Steele, Jim Collins, Bob DiPiero, George Teren, Gary Nicholson and a lot of other great writers. I’m also writing with some new country artists.

Who signed you to your first record deal?
Artemis Records, started by Danny Goldberg, the legendary record guy who worked with Led Zeppelin and managed Nirvana. He also signed Steve Earle, Ricky Lee Jones, Warren Zevon, The Pretenders and Todd Rundgren.

How much radio airplay are blues artists receiving these days?
Obviously not as much as country, rock, and pop. It’s a drag they’re not as open to blues artists anymore, but with satellite radio I hear one of my songs every time I drive. It’s comforting to know that people all over the world are tuning in and hearing it.

It’s a little bit of a different beast. For instance, in the short time that I’ve been working with Quinn Sullivan, we’ve done a video, tours with Buddy Guy, festivals like Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, and shows like Ellen, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Jay Leno. I’m not sure that radio wants to play a 14-year-old right now, so we’re getting him out there, groundswell.

I understand that you do a couple of cruises every year.
I do a cruise every January with Delbert McClinton and The Mavericks and a bunch of really great bands. I’ve been doing it for 10 years. It’s wonderful, I bring the kids. Also, my band The Rattlesnakes, does the Lynyrd Skynyrd cruise in October.

What circumstances led to Quinn Sullivan signing with SuperStar Records?
Buddy Guy discovered Quinn when he was 7 or 8 before SuperStar was put together. Buddy gave me a DVD of Quinn playing with him, and asked if I would play on a song with Quinn. So I wrote a song called “Whose Gonna Fill Their Shoes” about people like Buddy Guy and BB King and Ray Charles. Buddy asked me to produce a record for Quinn, so we did Cyclone in 2011. I wrote all the songs and Buddy Guy put it out. It was an interesting task because I had to write for a 12-year-old who plays the blues. So I couldn’t write about girls or dating. I kinda looked at it like early Beatles, where if we touched on a relationships, it was just fun, like “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” It really worked, it charted on Billboard’s Blues chart and sold a lot of records. Now Quinn is 14.

Musically, has the blues world expanded outside the traditional blues-box?
Yes, I think on my records it has. I am a purist and I love traditional blues and traditional country, but I also love pushing the envelope in any genre that I’m writing or producing. I say, knock the box down to where you’re really out on a limb, where the mix is over-the-top or your subject matter is completely in your face or the guitar solos are tearing your head off. It’s important to make blues records credible. “Sweet Home Chicago” is a great song and it’s been recorded by so many people. I want to write a new “Sweet Home Chicago.”

When I wrote “Rock Me Right” for Susan Tedeschi, the label said she couldn’t use it on the record because it has the word rock in it. I didn’t care. I wanted to reach blues fans and also the rest of the world. The record went to No. 1, sold a million copies and the song has been recorded by over two hundred artists. It’s a new standard.

Is it true that the Keith Urban/Buddy Guy duet almost didn’t make the album?
At first listen to the work tape, Buddy said he didn’t want to record “One Day Away.” After he went back to the hotel that night, I recorded it with the band and I put a vocal on it, because I just had a feeling that this song was going to resonate with him. But I am his producer and I am trying to do things that I think are the best for him. So I sent him the album to listen to, and at the end of it I put a long pause and then there’s my version of the song. So he calls me about four days later and says, “Man I love this record but I got to tell you, there’s a song called ‘One Day Away,’ and it’s killing me how wonderful it is, but I don’t remember recording it.” And I explained that I wanted him to hear it in the context I had in mind and told him my idea for a duet with Keith Urban. And he said, “I’m all for it, I love it. As a matter of fact, people who have been hearing my CD want me to play that one again.” So I recorded Buddy in Chicago and Keith at Sound Stage in Nashville. Keith said, “I can’t believe I’m singing with Buddy Guy.” He was so into it and so gracious and he did an amazing vocal and they traded guitar solos.

Who is your A-Team in Nashville?
Michael Saint Leon engineered Boom and James Cotton
Bass – Michael Rhodes, Tommy McDonald and Glenn Worf
Guitar – Rob McNelly, Pat Buchanan, JT Corenflos and David Grissom
Keyboards – Reese Wynans and Kevin McKendree

“Nashville’s not just a town for recording country. I recorded Buddy Guy’s last four albums at Blackbird. I did James Cotton’s Cotton Mouth Man at Sound Stage Studios. Jack White, The Black Keys, Sheryl Crowe and Delbert McClinton all record in Music City … This Town Rocks!”

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