“I’ve been performing since I was about 10 years old,” says Nashville producer/engineer Mickey Jack Cones. “It definitely runs in my family.”
In the late 1980s, Barry Beckett (a Muscle Shoals rhythm section member, Bob Dylan producer, and former Warner Bros. Records A&R Director) produced the Cones Sisters, a family group comprised of Mickey Jack’s mother Jackie and her sisters. At one point, the group was signed to RCA.
As a teen, Cones played guitar for the trio before making the move to Nashville in 1996. The Texas native has long since made a name for himself in the Nashville music community, engineering recordings for Jason Aldean, George Strait, Luke Bryan, Carrie Underwood, Steven Tyler, Blake Shelton, and Lionel Richie, and producing albums for Dustin Lynch, Joe Nichols, Trace Adkins, Exile, and more. He also has numerous credits as a musician and vocalist to his name.
Cones also owns and operates Westwood Sound Studio in Nashville’s Berry Hill area. It seems that Cones will spend plenty of time in the studio in 2016, working again with Adkins and Lynch, as well as Jackie Lee, Craig Campbell, and others. He also recently launched a new management and publishing venture, Cor Entertainment.
Life’s A Dance
In the mid-‘90s, Cones was a band leader on the Texas dancehall circuit. “When people think dance hall circuit, they think honky-tonks,” Cones says. “There were 3,000 people in this dance hall, and the band had pyros and huge stages. There are bands with record deals that don’t play with that kind of production. I was 19, making great money, playing three or four nights per week.”
When he moved to Nashville to enroll in Belmont University, the music scene in Music City came as a dramatic change. “You can’t really play here in town and make money, nothing compared to what I had just done, so I remember going downtown to get a job. I went to Planet Hollywood, and I remember Will Hoge was waiting tables at the time. He got me a job working there.”
Determined to break into the Nashville music scene, Cones worked multiple jobs, in addition to schoolwork and music work. He began by writing music for a pop act managed by Mark Chesnutt’s management company. The act got a recording deal, and Cones inked a publishing deal with EMI. In 1998, Cones signed on as a staff engineer with David Malloy and J. Gary Smith at Malloy Boys.
He worked as a staff engineer until 2002, when a gig writing with and producing Julie Roberts turned into a radio tour gig after she signed a deal with Mercury Nashville. He worked with Roberts on tour for a few years before turning his focus to co-production efforts with Trace Adkins.
In 2009, Cones purchased Westwood Sound Studio with David Malloy and Marti Frederiksen. In 2014, he bought them out, becoming the sole owner.
Cones recently celebrated two No. 1 songs for BBR Music Group artist Dustin Lynch as a producer on “Where It’s At (Yep, Yep)” and “Hell of a Night.” The edgy, rock-based production on “Hell of a Night” was a risk for Lynch, who broke through at country radio with the traditional sound of his debut single, “Cowboys and Angels.” “I said I was all in because I’m a rock guy anyway, but we hoped his fans would receive it,” Cones says. “It’s awesome to see that ‘One Hell of a Night’ went No. 1.”
According to Cones, Lynch also has one hell of a work ethic. “I’ve worked with a lot of hard-working artists, but when you are sick, you have to push through. Some people don’t have the ability to do it, but through bad health, good health, little sleep, lots of sleep, missing vacations and holidays, Dustin brings his best. And he’s been so appreciative of everything all along the way. That’s fewer and far between these days.”
Cones’ creative muscle and physical stamina were put to the test during his work on Joe Nichols’ first Red Bow Records release, 2013’s Crickets. At the request of legendary producer Tony Brown, Cones produced four sides on Nichols. “It was after he had gotten off of Show Dog, but before he had his deal with BBR,” said Cones. “That session got him his deal and two of those songs were picked to become part of the record.”
Cones recorded most of the album, and handled mixing, background vocals, and overdubbing. When lead single “Sunny and 75” began climbing the charts at a faster-than-expected pace, Cones says “they moved the [album] deadline up like two months on me, at the last minute. I could have gotten someone else to mix it but we didn’t want to jeopardize that sound.”
According to Cones, he had 16 days to finish the better part of the album, including six songs with no lead vocals laid down at that point. “I had only finished ‘Sunny and 75’ and one other song at that point,” recalls Cones.
While Nichols returned to the studio the next day to begin working on lead vocals for the rest of the album, Cones had a conversation with BBR Music Group founder and leader Benny Brown. ‘I told him I would do whatever he needed me to do. I also know that, in this town, sometimes a CD of finished work is turned in and can sit for two months before a label will do anything with it. I remember saying, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’ll need to sleep at the studio and work round the clock. I’ll do it because it’s so important, but the day I finish it and walk it into the studio, it better go in a FedEx bag.’ Now, we were laughing of course, but I said, ‘If it doesn’t go out that day, I might burn down your building, cause I’m going to lose like 10 years off my life to meet this deadline.’”
Cones recalls the hours spent working under tight deadlines to finish the project. “I slept on the couch [in the studio] from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. I did it again the next day, and for 14 days straight. I would mix from 7:30 a.m. until 4 or 5 p.m., then start overdubbing guitar stuff, then start singing background vocals and then when I finished singing background vocals at about 6 in the morning, I would take them off and sleep for an hour and a half, then lay those background vocals into the mix, close the mix, and do it all again. I did that for 14 days straight. When I’m passionate about a project, an artist, I have to put everything I’ve got into it.”
The album produced two No. 1 singles for Nichols, including “Sunny and 75” and “Yeah.” “I am so proud to hang those plaques on my wall,” says Cones.
The hard work involved in the production of Nichols’ album is embedded into the history of Westwood Sound Studio, literally. “We put new floor in the tracking room, and they had to lay this leveling stuff down before they put the floor down. I took a couple of Joe Nichols’ CDs and put them in zip lock bags and put them in there. It’s literally buried in the floor here. I was like, ‘This is permanent, I’ve got to do something to commemorate it.’”
Cones and Westwood Sound Studio are featured in MusicRow‘s upcoming Next Big Thing issue.
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