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THE PRODUCER'S CHAIR: JEFF STEVENS

THE PRODUCER'S CHAIR: JEFF STEVENS

By James Rea www.theproducerschair.com

Jeff Stevens
Jeff Stevens

Billboard recently named Jeff Stevens as one of Country's top producers in their yearend and it's no wonder. To-date, along with a series of "Spring Break" EP's Jeff has produced three career-altering Luke Bryan albums. The first two albums, 2007s I'LL STAY ME and 2009s DOIN' MY THING both hit #2 on the Billboard Country Album Charts. And now, Jeff's current album on Luke Bryan, TAILGATES & TANLINES is up for 2012 CMA Album of the Year, Luke is nominated for 2012 CMA Male Vocalist of the Year, plus...he leads the 2012 American Country Awards with 7 nominations including Album of the Year, Single of the Year, Artist of the Year, Male Single of the Year and Male Artist of the Year.

But don't think for one minute that Jeff appeared out of nowhere in 2007. There's barely enough wall space in Jeff's office/studio, to mount all of his songwriting awards. With 7 no 1's and countless top 10's to his credit, Stevens songwriting discography includes 5 songs for George Strait including 3 no 1s "Carrying Your Love With Me", "Carried Away" and "True", Alabama's "Reckless", Tim McGraw's "Back When", John Anderson's "I Fell In The Water", Tracy Byrd's "Big Love" and "I Wanna Feel That Way Again", Blackhawk's "Down In Flames", Clay Walker "If You Ever Feel Like Lovin' Me Again", "Atlanta Burned Again Last Night" & "Sweet Country Music" by Atlanta, a Dove Award Nomination for Guy Penrod's "Pray About Everything" and just a partial list that goes on to include Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney, Lonestar, Mark Wills, Brad Cotter, Rhett Akins, Chris Ledoux, Danni Leigh, David Ball, Jerry Kilgore, John & Audrey Wiggins, Ricochet and of course, numerous Luke Bryan hits. In addition to working with Luke Bryan, Jeff continues to write for other artists, and one of his newest songs, "Better Than Today," has been recorded by a musical hero of his, Don Williams.

By the age of 12, Jeff was opening for some of the biggest stars in Country. "Santa Clause brought me & my brother Warren guitars when we were children. My dad was a dreamer of the highest order and he dreamed that we could be country music stars. We learned Folsom Prison Blues, entered a talent show with adults competing and won. I was 9 and my dad in typical dad fashion started booking us on shows and my mother sewed up these sparkly suits and by the time I was 12 or 13, I had done shows with all the big stars of the day; Conway & Loretta, George Jones & Tammy Wynette, Bill Anderson and Charlie Pride and Willie Nelson."

"Anybody you can think of, I did a show with them when I was a child. We were the two cute little kids that would come out and everybody would laugh & grin and we'd do 4 or 5 songs and warm em up." Jeff also met his future drummer and hit co-writer Terry Dotson in high school and they started writing songs together. Jeff was 20 when they wrote their first two hits, SWEET COUNRY MUSIC and ATLANTA BURNED AGAIN LAST NIGHT.

"We had a 5 pc band, Jeff Stevens and The Bullets, and we just started booking bars and beer joints. Terry and I wrote the songs but my brother Warren was very instrumental in a managerial role. One day, we learned that Alabama was splitting with their manager and we thought he might be looking for a band. So we sent him material hoping he would sign us. He didn't, but couple of months later, a disc jockey friend of mine called me up, he said man, a group called Atlanta just sent in one of your songs, ATLANTA BURNED AGAIN LAST NIGHT, with big cake on fire. So we drove over to the station and had a listen. Thank God, Larry and I had signed up with BMI. From that point on, every Tuesday morning, I'd get in my Pinto and I'd drive into the news stand and look at a copy of Billboard. In no time, it was number 33, so every Tuesday I'd go back into town and keep checking Billboard...number 29. We did it every week and it got up to number 9 on Billboard. When it got to number 14, I called Terry and said we've gotta go to Nashville and tell em we got a song on the charts. We had a meeting with Cedarwood publishing and they listened to one of our other songs called SWEET COUNRY MUSIC. He told us it wasn't what country is playing. SWEET COUNRY MUSIC went on to number 3 on Billboard. It's now a 2 Million BMI Award-winner.

After those two songs were hits we recorded an album at Scruggs studio with our own money and that album made its way to Earl Thomas Conley's producer, Nelson Larkin. Nelson got us the deal on Atlantic Records. That took a couple of years and in that time we moved to Nashville."

Jeff was eventually re-signed to Atlantic as a solo artist but after a string of low-charting singles Jeff found himself struggling to survive financially. "I lost my wedding ring in a pawn shop and I lost all of my guitars. After I had written two hit songs, I didn't have a guitar, nothing to make music with. I was on the same label as Ray Charles and I was up on Dickerson Rd. financing cars. That was my life in the mid 80s. I was doing everything I could just to survive. That's how much I wanted to stay here."

Fortunately during that period Jeff kept writing and at the tail-end of his recording deal with Atlantic, he secured a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell, and suddenly discovered a new outlet as a writer. Since then, Jeff has become one of the most successful writing forces in country music. Today, Jeff is signed to BMG/Chrysalis Nashville.

The Producer's Chair: Is it difficult to be objective about selecting songs for the project, when you're producing and writing with your artist?
Jeff Stevens: For me, producing and songwriting require two different hats. As a producer my main goal for the artist is to have a long term career and fill arenas, not just a hit, so I must set aside my own personal short term goals to get one of my songs cut. A good producer will mine the artist and Music Row for the best song no matter who wrote it. As a songwriter, if I can support the artist with their sound and style, then certainly I will do that-but it's not a Jeff Stevens record-it's the artist's record and I try never to lose sight of that.

How do you deal with negativity?
There is no room in my life for negativity. No one sticks around very long with that. 90% of what we write is rejected and I need every ounce of positive energy, in order for me to achieve another hit. Rejection is a major part of this business. You have to maintain your mechanism. One of the ways I do it...I'm in this business for one reason...for me to communicate with the listener. When I'm writing a song I don't think about what my publisher would like. I don't think about what radio will play or that 90% probability that it will be rejected along the way. I hop over all that stuff and go right to the person that matters and that's the listener. If you engage the listener, the listener will pull a few dollars out of their pocket and put it in you pocket.

How difficult is it today to get a publishing deal?
It's really tough today, much harder than when I started. My first pub deal was with Warner Chappell in 1992, when I signed with them there were about 100 writers there. Today there are maybe 30. The numbers are staggeringly different. Now-a-days, it's my belief, if you've got a publishing deal, you must be pretty good.

What do publishers look for, when considering new writers?
In order for it to be a positive experience for both parties, where the songwriter and the publisher have success together, you have to have chemistry, not unlike a marriage. There has to be a trust and common goals. The trust is the hardest thing, because as a songwriter, it's your creation and in order for you to go; "Oh, your right, I need to change this" that's big stuff. If you're doing it just to please your publisher and there doesn't seem to be any end to it, you're into some rough territory. You should only be doing it when you believe that they're right. And they should be able to prove they're right by taking a song and getting it cut. It's a dynamic that's hard to achieve, but I've found it with Dale Bobo and Michael Knox.

Can you give me an example?
Steve Bogard and I wrote "Carrying Your Love With Me" and we were excited about it and we called Michael in to hear it. He came in and he listened to it and his head hit the roof, I mean he just exploded, he loved it. So he went back in his office and I'm sure he got on the phone and called Tony Brown and told him "I got a big hit for you." An hour later, Steve Bogard had gone home and I was still in my little office and Michael came back in and said; "Can you play it for me again?" He listened to it and said "God that is so good. Explain the second verse. What does that mean?" Well man, my heart sank because I thought, this guy has to ask me what it means? I explained it to him as he was leaving and he was satisfied, but I got on the phone right away to Bogard and said "we gotta re-write the second verse." He said how come? And I said; Knox came in here and asked me what the second verse means. And I said if he has to ask me what it means...I can't stick my nose out of every radio player in America and explain to people what this means. So Bogard and I got together a few days later and re-wrote the second verse. Michael never did say "You've gotta re-write it". But something went off in his head and I respected his feel for songs so I felt we should re-write it.

What is it that makes Luke's vocal performance so compelling?
You've seen a little 6 yr old kid go "Mommy I went down to the creek and I saw UHHHHHH a big frog and jumped on the UHHHHH". It's that thing Luke does when he is truly lost in his delivery. Those things to me are like gold. There are listeners out there who don't give a flip about the mechanics. All they know is, this a person who is speaking to them. They would never notice that he's even doin' that, but it's there and somewhere inside of them, they're getting' that. I don't look at them as flaws. That's what makes Luke different.

How did you wind up producing Luke?
Luke and I met on a songwriting session and wrote a really cool thing called "Baby's On The Way" He had previously done a showcase for the folks at Capitol and he took the song over there and the next thing I know they've got me on the phone asking me to produce some sides on him! The label is very organic that way and I believe that's one of the reasons why we work so well together.

Jeff is currently working to develop a couple of other young artists—a Belmont University singer/songwriter named Matt Enik and a vocalist named Colton Pack.

Read other Producer's Chair interviews:

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Tony Brown

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Michael Knox

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Forest Glen Whitehead

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Mark Bright

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Scott Hendricks

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Trey Fanjoy

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Chad Carlson

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Jay DeMarcus

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Shane McAnally

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Doug Johnson

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Jeff and Jody Stevens

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Jamie O'Neal

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Fred Mollin

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Dann Huff

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Noah Gordon

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Carl Jackson

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Paul Worley

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Cactus Moser

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Dave Brainard

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Gretchen Peters

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Frank Liddell

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Victoria Shaw

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Jed Hilly

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Marshall Altman

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Julian King

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Brent Maher

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Tom Hambridge

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Jim Catano

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Michael Knox

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Keith Thomas

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Mark Bright

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Jimmie Lee Sloas

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Ron Haffkine

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Trey Bruce

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Doug Johnson

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Mickey Jack Cones

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Keith Stegall

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Ted Hewitt

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Carl Jackson

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Brett James

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Jeff Stevens

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Dann Huff

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Paul Worley

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