The Producer’s Chair: Scott Hendricks
By James Rea
Don’t miss Scott Hendricks on The Producer’s Chair, 10th ANNIVERSARY SHOW, on Thursday, August 25 @ Sound Stage Studios @ 6:30 p.m.
With a daunting work ethic, an eye for talent, an ear for great songs and a thirst for opportunities to take risks, Nashville’s own Scott Hendricks has already put his thumbprint on a significant portion of country music history.
Hendricks has produced well over 100 albums, resulting in 102 Top 10 singles, 63 of which peaked at No. 1 collectively spending two years at the top of the charts. His production credits span almost four decades of artists from Restless Heart, Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Faith Hill, John Michael Montgomery and Trace Adkins, to Dan + Shay, Jana Kramer, Michael Ray and superstar Blake Shelton.
To date, the industry has recognized his achievements with six ACM Awards and three CMA Awards as the producer of such hits as Brooks & Dunn’s “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” John Michael Montgomery’s “I Swear,” Alan Jackson’s “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” and Blake Shelton’s collaboration with Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone.” He won an Emmy for his production of Hank Williams Jr.’s Monday Night Football theme as well. Fans discovered Scott’s pedigree when he joined Blake as a mentor for three episodes of NBC’s The Voice.
Since his arrival at Warner Music Nashville in 2007, and his new appointment to EVP of A&R, Hendricks has also overseen the discovery and introduction of Hunter Hayes, Brett Eldredge, Michael Ray and Jana Kramer, along with right-arm A&R ace Cris Lacy. Hendricks also produced Shelton’s Loaded: The Best of Blake Shelton, All About Tonight, Red River Blue, Bringing Back the Sunshine, If I’m Honest and Cheers, It’s Christmas, Dan + Shay’s Where It All Began and Obsessed and Hayes’ debut and Storyline albums.
In 1998, Hendricks helped found the Nashville division for Virgin Records, where he signed Chris Cagle and served until 2001. Prior to that, he was President/CEO of Capitol Records Nashville, from 1995-1997, on the heels of Jimmy Bowen’s rein. At the label, Scott oversaw the careers of Garth Brooks and Deana Carter, and was responsible for signing Trace Adkins, Roy D Mercer and Keith Urban. Hendricks’ publishing company, Big Tractor, was founded in 1991 with writers penning tunes as “I Saw God Today” for George Strait and “Amazed” for Lonestar.
Hendricks’ journey began in 1978. After graduating from Oklahoma State with a degree in architectural acoustics, his first gig was designing and selling gear to recording studios for Nashville Sound Systems. He also landed a part-time job teaching engineering classes at Belmont University, which lasted seven years. During a sales call at Glaser Sound Studios, the engineer invited Scott to hang out at sessions any time he wanted. Hendricks became an unpaid “gopher” at Glaser Sound, where he watched many historic sessions with Jimmy Bowen at the helm.
After nine months the Glaser Brothers hired Hendricks as a full-time engineer and he was officially “in,” but that was just for starters. From Glaser Sound, Hendricks moved to Bullet Recording Studios, where he was chief engineer. Hendricks and another Okie, Tim DuBois, (who arrived in Nashville with Scott) hooked up to co-produce Restless Heart, a new band eventually signed to RCA Records. Restless Heart racked up 13 Top 10 singles, including six No. 1 singles.
He also took the sonic reins on seven Hank Williams Jr. albums, including the award-winning Born To Boogie. During that partnership, he combined Hank Williams’ vocals from a 1951 acetate recording with new tracks from Hank Jr. to create “There’s a Tear in My Beer,” a honky-tonk number with a foot in two different generations. The duet won a Grammy and awards at both the CMAs and ACMs that year.
Scott has had numerous pivotal moments in his career but one of his most memorable was around 1985, after Restless Heart had hit, when Jim Ed Norman called him one day and said, “I’ve got this guy who’s moving to Nashville. He’s a legend named Barry Beckett. He’s from Muscle Shoals rhythm section and he needs an engineer, would you be up to mixing something for him?”
Hendricks recalls, “By the time I met Barry, I had mixed 25 to 35 No. 1 singles and so I thought I knew what I was doing. Barry brings out this tape of something—I don’t even remember what it was. I said, “I’ll mix it tonight. Why don’t you come in in the morning and we’ll go from there?” So I mix it as good as I can get it. Man I’ve got this nailed. He comes in the next morning and I set him up to listen without me in there.
“He finally came out of the control room with a serious look on his face. He said, ‘You ready?’ I said ‘Yup,’ so we roll up to the board and he reaches up and he grabs all the faders and pulls them down. And I’m sitting there thinking, ‘What did he just do?’ I was stunned. I mean, he goes, ‘We’re going to start here. We’re going to start with the high hat.’ And he raises the high hat fader. I was thinking, ‘Are you kidding me?’
“Long story short, by the time we got through, I had been schooled. My tail was between my legs. I could not believe how much better this mix was that Barry just did with me. It was so obvious. It wasn’t like we could argue this. I thought I was something and I had just been taken to school on mixing. Barry taught me so, so, so much about a lot of things. He was my mentor, my biggest mentor, hands down, ever.”
The Producer’s Chair: How did you wind up producing Alan Jackson?
Hendricks: Alan was Tim’s first signing to Arista. Tim had heard four demos that Keith Stegall had done. Tim decided that he wanted me in there with Keith because he knew what I did in the studio and needed that security blanket, not really knowing Keith. I ended up co-producing two albums and got a No. 1 song off the third album.
Weren’t you involved in the formation of Brooks & Dunn?
There was a Marlboro talent contest. The first winner of that contest won 40 hours in the studio with Barry Beckett producing. The winner was Ronnie Dunn, a fellow Okie. I engineered the sessions and fell in love with Ronnie’s voice. I took it immediately to Tim and said, “Tim, you have to hear this guy? This may be the best voice I’ve ever heard. Listen to his songs.” For some reason Tim didn’t initially bite on it. Every chance I got, I would remind Tim about this guy and plead with him to sign him.
Roughly a year later, Tim and I were going to a football game and he was telling me about needing a duo on his new Arista label. He played me something of Kix Brooks and then played another guy and I said, “Tim, that’s boring. I’m going to play you this cassette one more time and if you don’t like this I’m going to take it somewhere else. This guy is just the best singer.”
I played him a cassette tape that had four songs: “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” “Neon Moon,” “Used to Be Mine,” and “White Lightning,” three of which became No. 1 songs. And Tim said, “I think you’re right.” So Tim put Kix and Ronnie together. Don Cook, who brought Kix to the table, and I produced Brooks & Dunn.
I understand that you turned down Faith Hill in the beginning but later changed your mind. What changed?
Martha Sharp [a former A&R executive at Warner Bros.] called me and asked if I would produce this new female on their roster, Faith Hill. I asked her to send me something to hear. I listened. It simply didn’t move me. I called Martha a few days later and passed so Martha ended up hiring a couple of other producers to cut some sides on her.
A good nine months later or something like that, I turned on the Ralph Emery show on TNN, and I think Gary Morris was the guest host. He had Faith on as a guest. This was before she ever had a record out, which is something we don’t see much anymore. Her personality was radiant and this time when she sang, much to my surprise it blew me away.
The next day I called Martha and said, “Martha, I screwed up. I saw her last night and I get it now.” Martha asked, “How fast can you make her record?” I said, “Two months.” “Perfect, can you start tomorrow?” I said, “Yeah, I guess.” Faith comes over to my office and we start listening to a pile of songs I’d been saving for a female artist. I think there were three songs on the first album that came out of that first listening session, including “Wild One.”
Can you give me the backstory behind “I Swear”?
There’s a really good story about “I Swear.” This was the first album I produced on John Michael. In those days I would listen to cassettes of songs pitched to me from songwriters in my pickup truck. If it was something I wanted to hear again I would put it on my dash and things I didn’t think were a fit would go on the floorboard. There’s one song I heard and thought was really cool, but probably too pop for John Michael. Not really knowing John Michael, I didn’t want him to think I was off target by playing him a pop song so I was hesitant to even play him this song.
I literally had that song sitting on my dash for weeks. We go into our final song meeting at Atlantic Records with Rick Blackburn (the president of Atlantic Nashville) and John Michael. We pick all the songs that we’re going to record. The meeting ends without me playing this song for fear I would be laughed at by those in the room. We are all just sitting around talking and for some reason I thought, “Why not at least play it for him preceded with an apology?”
So I said, “Excuse me, but there is this one song I’ve been listening to over and over again and it’s probably too pop. Will you not laugh at me for playing it?” So I play it and John Michael goes, “You know, I think I’ve heard that demo and I like that song.” And Rick says, “Why don’t you just cut it and see how it turns out?” That was the level of excitement, nothing more than that.
Once we cut it I knew, I could tell, this is a big fish. It just feels different. I call Rick Blackburn and tell him to come to the studio to hear this. There’s something really special about this song. And that was “I Swear.” And then the next album, when we cut “I Can Love You Like That,” that was more obvious, but “I Swear,” that was almost not to be.
How did you wind up signing Keith Urban to Capitol?
I needed a new business affairs person, so I interviewed a bunch of them and I ended up hiring Ansel Davis. He said, “I want you to hear this kid I’ve been watching,” and it was Keith Urban. So I went to see him and the rest is history.
But what I signed was a band called The Ranch with Keith as the frontman. Keith had cut 33 sides for Warner Bros. He was actually signed to Warner Bros. when I met him. Some of the sides were cut by Barry Beckett, my mentor. I called Jim Ed Norman up and said, “You guys have got somebody over there I am absolutely crazy about. He’s been over there for a long time and you’ve spent a lot of time cutting sides on him and he still hasn’t been released. I’d like to buy Keith Urban and the Ranch from you and I’m willing to pay $100,000.” He said “Sold!” and I bought Keith Urban from Jim Ed and Warner Bros.
Blake has become a superstar since you came here and started producing him. Can you encapsulate what you changed?
Well it’s not just me. It’s a lot of things and it’s a lot of people working to raise his profile. Finding better songs has been the number one key.
If you ever left Warner, given the right financial partners, would you start a new label of your own?
I wouldn’t start a new label. I’ve been offered that several times. It’s just too hard for the majors to do it, let alone the independents. You know what, as long as they’ll have me here, I’m here.
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