Michael Knox makes his fourth appearance on The Producer’s Chair for the year-end Christmas Show, Thursday, December 1, 6:30 p.m. at Sound Stage Studios
By: James Rea
Michael Knox is someone I refer to as “industry royalty.” When he showed me the rare photograph of his Rockabilly Hall of Famer Father, Buddy Knox with his buddy Elvis, I couldn’t help but think about how proud he would be of his son’s accomplishments.
Michael grew up on the road, sitting on the dashboard of his Dad’s Winnebago, listening to Roy Orbison, Elvis, The Everly Brothers and his father on the radio. Young Michael had intensions of following in his father’s footsteps … he says, if only he could sing.
Michael arrived in Music City in 1991 and today he has credits on 19 No. 1 songs, over 30 million singles sold and 14 million albums sold. His stellar production credits include Jason Aldean, Michael Tyler, Thomas Rhett, Josh Thompson, Trace Adkins, Montgomery Gentry, Kelly Clarkson, Eric Church, Luke Bryan, Bush Hawg, Ludacris, Connie Britton, Hayden Panettiere, Chris Carmack, Will Chase, Chip Esten, Hank Williams Jr., Chuck Wicks, Frankie Ballard, Miranda Lambert, Randy Owen, Charlie Daniels, Brantley Gilbert and the first artist he ever produced, the late, great Buddy Knox.
Having just celebrated his 25th year in country music, Knox has served on the GRAMMY Special Committees, ACM and CMA Boards and, his works have been honored with over 50 awards or nominations ranging from the Grammys, ACM, CMA, Billboard, and more.
He operates Music Knox Management, along with Sr. VP Shalacy Griffin. Knox is creative leader and Vice President of peermusic Nashville, which celebrated the 2016 SESAC Song of the Year, Dierks Bentley’s “Somewhere On A Beach,” co-written by Michael Tyler and Jaron Boyer. Peermusic also celebrated the 2013 ASCAP Song of the Year, Randy Houser’s “How Country Feels,” co-written by Neil Thrasher and Vicky McGehee.
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The Producer’s Chair: Since you’ve been at peermusic, what’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned?
Michael Knox: It’s a family company so it’s more personal. When things are personal, you work harder. It’s also a lot smaller than most publishing companies with this level of success. And when it’s smaller, you’re more focused. Less is more. Quality is first. Always put the creative process in the front.
Next year marks 90 years from the day Ralph Peer recorded the Bristol Sessions (1927) that gave us Jimmie Rodgers (the Father of Country Music) and The Carter Family (the first Family of Country Music). The history at this place is crazy.
Jason Aldean’s new album They Don’t Know is your seventh studio album together. After winning so many awards during that time, what are Jason’s next goals?
He’s a touring artist so his goal is always to have the best quality record to go out and play to his fans. He always wants to cut a record, it’s in his DNA. His goal is always to give that performance the best opportunity and that’s having the strongest songs so when you come to a show, you’re entertained. He wants people to come to a live show and have a place to escape. The energy that we have together creates a very nice live show.
I was shocked when Jason didn’t receive a CMA nomination this year. Was timing a factor?
That shocked us too. We were stunned that he wasn’t in the male vocalist or entertainer category. I don’t know why, but sometimes that happens. The CMAs are awesome, we won Album of the Year for My Kinda Party in 2011 and we were very proud.
Can you talk about Jason’s song selection process?
Jason started out writing, that’s what I signed him to do at Warner/Chappell, but today he is one of the few acts that doesn’t try to write everything. Best song wins with us. You have to stay focused when you’re cutting an album, especially if you want people to invest in your career and buy it. We are out there finding the best songs from all the great songwriters that Nashville has to offer.
Dwight Yoakam and Garth Brooks are always my best examples. They found the best songs whether they wrote them or not. That’s the way you should approach every artist and every album. You have to have the discipline to find the best song for the artist and the project, not just the one in-house because you might make a little extra today. The problem with that is you hurt the project tomorrow and mess up long-term success.
Jason did a duet with Kelsea Ballerini called “First Time Again” on his new album which was written by Michael Tyler and Jaron Boyer. How did that come about?
We loved the song and Jason was going to cut it by himself. But as we were going through the process of the record, it kept feeling like a duet. At the last minute, we found out Kelsea could cut it. She was on the road with Rascal Flatts, so Jay DeMarcus recorded the vocal for us in her dressing room at the stadium in San Diego. It was incredible.
Do you look for the same things in an artist today, as you did when you first met Jason?
I would not be doing anybody a positive service if I wasn’t looking for something I love. I always look for someone that is an extension of me and I saw that in Jason Aldean. I was looking for a Motley Crue in the country world and he did that and still kept his small-town America direction for country radio.
I work best with artists who like the same types of music as me. Michael Tyler is a new artist I’m working with and he is a true singer/songwriter. In this loop-filled world, he brings a little melody to the table, as well as having a grasp on where the music world is going.
Radio has a lot of commercials that they call songs out there. You love them today and forget them tomorrow, kind of like a commercial.
How did you meet Michael Tyler?
His mom sent me a note on MySpace at 2 in the morning. I replied and they came to town and played for me at Tootsies. When he was 15 I started working with him pretty seriously and made him write a song a week and post it on YouTube so I could talk to him about it and see him play and watch what he does. We did that for a few years and I brought him to Nashville when he turned 18. I wanted him to find his voice first. A lot of times, younger writers will follow the big writer in the room so I made sure he had his own thing beforehand.
Is Michael Tyler related to Jimmie Rodgers?
He had been signed to peermusic for about a year and his mom came to see our office for the first time. There was a picture of Jimmie Rodgers on the wall with his signature and she says, “We’re related to a Jimmie Rodgers.” I remember looking at them and saying “Are you kidding me? THE Jimmie Rodgers?” They researched it on ancestry.com and found the direct bloodline that Michael Tyler is a descendant of The Father of Country Music. I took MT to the Country Music Hall of Fame and showed him the video of Jimmie Rodgers performing. He loved it.
Tell me about Michael Tyler signing with Reviver Records and his debut album.
When Reviver heard the song he wrote, “Somewhere On A Beach,” they fell in love with it. But they already knew MT, because he had written songs on the LOCASH record. The other labels that liked MT wanted “Somewhere On A Beach” to be the first single. Reviver’s David Ross felt like we were bigger than one song and offered a great deal for a new artist to prove it.
We have already recorded the album and it comes out early next year. MT wrote or co-wrote all the songs on it.
He has been on his radio tour the past few months with a song called “Crazy Last Night.” We are excited about the new single coming out in January. This will be a big song for him.
What are your thoughts on artist development? Is there a moment when you know they are “ready”?
The biggest part of development is the discipline to be patient. Some guys come in expecting to be superstars now and sometimes the work is not what they signed up for. It’s a process for me, as well, to get to know the individuals I’m working with. You have to give the artist time to develop.
With Jason, I cut a song called “Where Did I Go Wrong” that he wrote with Jeff Stevens. It was sort of Tracy Lawrence meets Tim McGraw at the time. After I mixed it, I called Jason and said, “This is the direction we are looking for.” Then he wrote a song called, “You’re The Love I Want To Be In” that put the icing on the cake. You can’t explain it, but I could hear it.
Of your up-and-coming songwriters, who might have the potential to be a successful producer?
Jaron Boyer is learning a lot right now about production. He has great ears for it. Being a producer is like being a songwriter or artist—you have to have something that makes you unique. He is already a hit songwriter so this transition should be easy for him. I’m trying to make myself available for him to ask questions and bounce ideas off of. Peter Coleman is my mentor. He taught me less is more. Space is your friend, you don’t have to fill every hole up in music, let it breath.
During your 25 years in the business, the model has changed greatly. Looking ahead, what do you see?
Everything is going to change—How we consume music, how we make music, how we get paid for music and even what we call music. Just the past five years have moved ahead more than the 100 years before that. The worst thing we can do is shut the door and think we have the answers. In a creative sense, we are dropping the ball. We need artists more now than ever. We are not developing talent like we used to. Just because the business is moving fast doesn’t mean we need to rush the creative process. The fundamentals of artist development are the same as they always have been. If you want to have success in a creative market, put the creative process first.