The Producer’s Chair: Brent Maher

Brent Maher

Brent Maher

By James Rea

Don’t miss Brent Maher’s second appearance on The Producer’s Chair on Thursday, April 24 at Douglas Corner at 6 p.m. Details at www.theproducerschair.com.

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Six-time Grammy winner Brent Maher has 498 credits to his name as a producer, engineer, mixer, composer, guitarist, percussionist, background vocalist and hand-clapper.

His mantle of Grammys are from work with The Judds (“Mama He’s Crazy,” “Grandpa,” “Give A Little Love,” “Love Can Build A Bridge”); Kathy Mattea (Good News), and Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price (“The Last of The Breed”). With three decades of experience and over 150 major cuts, Maher has received 30-plus awards from ASCAP and NSAI, plus numerous CMA, ACM, SOCAN and CCMA Awards.

Behind the glass, he has guided the studio work of Roy Orbison, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Chuck Berry, Ray Price, Sammy Davis Jr., Gladys Knight, Louis Prima, Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell, Tanya Tucker, The Four Tops, Jimmy Buffet, Sly and The Family Stone, Dottie West, Kenny Rogers, Jo Dee Messina, Shelby Lynne, Kathy Mattea, Nickle Creek, Carl Perkins, Olivia Newton John, Dave Loggins, Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, Benny Hester and of course his discovery-The Judds. Not to forget Ike & Tina‘s “Proud Mary,” The 5th Dimension’s “Age of Aquarius,” Duke Ellington‘s last album before his death, and Elvis‘s last No. 1, “Way Down.” Now that’s what I call historical.

Brent’s vision for the Judds’ acoustic County sound catapulted them to the stratosphere and after a record deal with RCA/Curb. He co-wrote many of their hits including “Why Not Me” with Harlan Howard and Sonny Throckmorton, “Girls’ Night Out” with Jeff Bullock, “Rockin’ With The Rhythm of The Rain” with Don Schlitz, “I Know Where I’m Going” and “Turn It Loose” with Craig Bickhardt and Schlitz and many more. Maher produced all ten of The Judds’ multi-platinum albums.

During that time, he also produced award winning records and No. 1 singles on Kathy Mattea, Carl Perkins, Michael Johnson‘s Country hits, Kenny Rogers (“Buy Me A Rose”) and Shelby Lynne‘s big band project Temptation.

On the international scene, Maher produced Canadian Country artist Johnny Reid making him one of the top-selling artists in Canada in 2009-2011). Maher also developed and produced the Grammy nominated self-titled debut from Bering Strait.

Over the last twenty years, Brent has operated Moraine Music Group which is home to numerous No. 1s by artists he didn’t produce. Singles that include “There’s Your Trouble,” “Suds In the Bucket,” “Small Town USA,” “Bring On The Rain” and many more.

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At 18 Brent joined the Air Force and was stationed near Nashville as an aircraft mechanic until he was 22. He played guitar and trumpet, so he put together a cover band for extra money on the weekend. “I knew that music was what I was supposed to be doing,” he says. “But I also knew that our band was not going to be ground-breaking. I listened to records incessantly and while listening to a great Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions album, I noticed the back of the jacket said ‘recording engineer.’ At that moment, I thought ‘that’s it! That’s what I’m going to do.’ I took a bunch of correspondent courses through the Air Force in sound, acoustics and electronics and the week before I left the Air Force, I went looking for an engineering gig, but soon found out I was terribly under qualified.

“I tore out about two pages of recording studios out of the phonebook and got turned down by every one. All of the engineers working in the studios at that time had a background mixing TV and radio shows. The last door I walked through was Fred Foster‘s studio, Foster Recording, on 7th Ave. Little did I know that it was one of the premiere studios in Nashville. That’s where I met Bill Porter and Tommy Strong, two of the town’s most respected and acclaimed engineers. They were looking for someone to train as a backup engineer. As fate would have it, I walked through that door with my Sunday-best suit on at the right time and they gave me an opportunity that changed my life.”

A few years later, Porter purchased United Recording in Las Vegas and asked Brent to join him. By then, Brent was an engineer with hits under his belt. The first was “Everlasting Love,” by Robert Knight, which was a connection that would change his course again in the years to come.

Maher’s first major producing gig was with Bobby Darin.

“Bobby booked the studio for me to mix an album that he recorded in Los Angeles. He was happy with the mixes, but there was one track that didn’t come together. We decided to record it with a group of musicians I had been working with and he absolutely loved it. Then we put his voice on it. A few months later he said, ‘I’m going to start a record company (Direction Records) and I’d like to be partners.’ I was beside myself. We became very, very dear friends. About a year into it, he had another heart episode and pasted away far too young.”

“During that time at United Recording, Ike and Tina Turner came in to record a few sides to complete their record. We hit it off and they did a whole album with me about a year later.”

“On the second project, we recorded ‘Proud Mary,’ which became my first Gold record. Engineering the project was an amazing and inspiring experience on many levels. I hadn’t touched my guitar in years, but I went home one night and I was channeling Ike and I started writing this funky thing and my wife encouraged me to play it for Ike and Tina. The next day after we were done working on their project, I stayed late and demoed the song. It took all the courage I had, but I played it for Ike. I didn’t say I was pitching it, I didn’t say it was me. Ike seemed to be grooving and he said, ‘That’s really funky…Did you write this? Can I play it for Tina?’ They recorded it and I co-produced it with Ike. They recorded ‘Work on Me’ and ‘Love Sweet Love,’ which were also his first cuts, as a writer.”

“Working with Tina was one of the highlights of my career and Ike showed me how to not overwork things and let the groove rule. He was such a great guitar player.

“Oddly enough, a few months later, United Recording burned down. Porter left the studio business to run live sound for Elvis and I was out of a job.

“I felt I should check out what was going on back in Nashville. My first client ever as a recording engineer was Buzz Cason. He was the co-writer and producer of my first hit, ‘Everlasting Love.’ When I called Buzz, before I said a word, he said, ‘I can’t believe my secretary found you this fast.’ I commented that she never called. And Buzz said, ‘what are you doing on the phone?’ and I said, ‘I called you.’ We were both dumb-founded. Fate had played its hand once again.

“Buzz said, ‘Do you remember the B-side to ‘Everlasting Love,’ ‘Love On A Mountaintop?’ It’s No. 1 in the UK. They want to release an album and we don’t have one. I need you to engineer it. I said [laughing to myself], ‘That shouldn’t be a problem.’

Maher moved back to Nashville to help build Creative Workshop Recording Studio. In the late 70’s at Creative, Maher engineered Olivia Newton John‘s first album in the U.S. along with projects by Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Jimmy Buffett, Dottie West, Michael Johnson, Dave Loggins, Larry Gatlin and many others. “I reconnected with Fred Foster (Monument Records) and engineered some amazing artists on his label including Roy Orbison, Boots Randolph and Grady Martin. I engineered ‘Dream Lover’ by Tanya Tucker and Glen Campbell, which was written by my old friend Bobby Darin. Also, The Faces recorded a few songs at Creative. These were Ron Wood‘s last recordings with The Faces before he joined The Rolling Stones.

Beyond his musical career, Maher has given lectures on engineering and production for various schools and universities, he has a large collection of vintage Gretsch guitars and was one of the founding members of Middle Tennessee Fly Fishers. In 2011 he created “Cowboy Golf” and now designs golf courses on ranches, which led to founding the Boots and Bandana Golf Association based in Franklin, Tennessee, at The Pines Golf Course. The events benefit charities that include MusiCares, The Facial Pain Research Foundation, and others.

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PC: How did Randy Goodrum’s “Bluer Than Blue” change your life?
BM: I was co-producing Michael Johnson with Steve Gibson. As fate would have it, after a Dave Loggins session that Randy Goodrum was the keyboard player on, Randy played me ‘Bluer than Blue’ and it was like a light went off in my head that reset the bar-this is how you should feel when you hear a great song.

My friendship with Randy brought me back to writing. Randy was over at my house and he sees this 45 and said, ‘You co-produced Ike and Tina and you wrote the tune by yourself? I gotta hear this. Why don’t you write anymore?’ I thought that page had been turned, but Randy convinced me to start writing songs again. The first song I wrote with Randy, he played it for Chet Atkins, then Chet cut it on Perry Como. Shortly afterwards, Randy and Brent co-wrote the No. 1 Hit, ‘A Lesson in Leavin” for Dottie West and had a second No. 1 on the same song with Jo Dee Messina in 1999.

When you got back into writing, did you sign a publishing deal?
Around that time, Gerry Teifer ran ATV Music in Nashville and I went over there looking for songs for my artists but he offered me a deal. I found out real soon what a great organization that was, with Gerry, and Sam Trust, out in LA. We all became very good friends and I was a writer at ATV for over 15 years.

How would you describe stylistic focus?
It is very different for each artist. With the Judds, it was all over the board early on. All great music, but difficult to wrap your head around, because their musical appetite was so broad. One song Kenny O’Dell wrote, ‘Mama He’s Crazy,’ we were sold on, early on. Another that Dennis Linde wrote called ‘Had a Dream.’ Those two songs established the parameters for the sound. I wanted to create unique acoustic guitar sounds and use mostly acoustic instruments other than bass and steel. That’s when I called Don Potter, who was my favorite acoustic guitar player at the time. He did some pre-production sessions and once again…it all came together. In 10 albums, we only used electric guitars on about four songs, which included Mark Knopfler playing on his song ‘Water of Love’ and Carl Perkins on a song he co-wrote called ‘Let Me Tell You About Love.’ With Wy and Naomi’s vocals at the center of everything, I just didn’t want to clutter things up.

Tell us about SHEL. (Made up of sisters Sarah, Hannah, Eva and Liza)
A few years ago, a friend John St. John, a radio programmer in Denver asked if I would listen. We drove to Ft. Collins, Col. and I walked into the house and realized I was walking into the domain of SHEL. Everything about the family was dedicated to their music; the whole living room was a rehearsal area. The instrumentation was mandolin, fiddle, keyboards and percussion and I couldn’t even fathom how that could produce, what I was hearing. It was shocking. They were incredibly young yet such accomplished musicians. Liza the drummer was 15 and the eldest was about 22. I found out they’re all classically trained. The last thing they played me was a classical composition that Eva had written called, ‘Tuscany.’ To this day, it is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard in my life. I left there in a state of shock. Why would I not want to be involved with something so special? So we signed SHEL.

“Part of our artist development plan is to pace songs. We took SHEL to play for the agency that represents Glade products, and our partner in New York got the Splenda spot. In addition, Gareth and Michael Logen have some impressive placements in TV and commercials.”

SHEL has released an EP on Republic and a self-titled debut album, all of which was co-produced by Brent and SHEL. They also produced their own music videos, and even make their own clothes.

How many writers do you have at Moraine?
As a boutique company, we have a few writers, but represent a larger roster. SHEL (Sarah, Hannah, Eva & Liza Holbrook), Michael Logen, Gareth Dunlop, Mark Selby.

You seem to have gotten away from Country. Was that intentional?
I don’t go out in pursuit of new talent, I just meet them through various ways. I haven’t purposely said, ‘I don’t want to produce Country music, I have just gravitated towards other formats. The new talent that has really turned my head, in the past couple of years, has ranged from folk to soul to blues to Country. I love it all.

Are you still actively writing?
I do some…but mostly for projects or when young artists come to me and want a specific type of song.

How important is social networking and fan engagement today?
It’s important in today’s world and it creates opportunities for young artists to get their music directly to their fans. The negative is when the industry gets more excited about the artist with great social marketing skills, over the artist that is making incredibly innovative music, but less involved in social media.

Do you still record in analog?
Our Trident, which was built back in the 70s, is an analog console. Our outboard gear is analog, but we record on a digital format. We use the radar system and Pro Tools. So we’re capturing the music digitally but we’re using analog processing. I work with a great young engineer, Charles Yingling, who makes that all come together in the recording, mixing and mastering.

Do you still engineer projects for other producers?
Once in a while… I’ve engineered two records for Fred that I absolutely adore. The first was Willie’s tribute to Cindy Walker. And the other, which won a Grammy was, The Last of The Breed album with Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price. Being in the middle of that as an engineer was an amazing experience.

Have you ever thought about writing a book?
I’ve been encouraged by some people to do that. My wife is insistent that I do that because of some of the extraordinary circumstances that put me in a position to where I could meet and engineer or produce an amazing array of artists … historical stuff. Sometimes I’ll look back and read my own bio and go, ‘you’ve got to be kiddin’ me.’ I can’t believe I’ve been blessed to work with so many people like Bobby Darin, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Carl Perkins, Duke Ellington, and Elvis that were my childhood heroes and inspired me to pursue music as my career. Yet the new talent I am working with inspires me as much as the legends. The future of music is in good hands with this next generation.

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