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THE PRODUCER'S CHAIR: BRENT MAHER

THE PRODUCER'S CHAIR: BRENT MAHER

By James Rea www.theproducerschair.com
Brent Maher

To date, legendary 6-Time Grammy Winning record producer, Brent Maher, has 498 credits to his name as a producer, engineer, mixer, composer, guitarist, percussionist, back-ground vocalist and hand-clapper. Brent's body of work has been Historical, to say the least.

Brent's mantle of Grammys includes Mama He's Crazy (The Judds -1984), Grandpa (The Judds 1986), Give A Little Love (The Judds 1988), Love Can Build A Bridge (The Judds 1991), Kathy Mattea's 1993 album Good News and The Last of The Breed/Lost Highway (Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price, in 2007). With three decades of music that also garnered over 150 major cuts, as a songwriter, Maher has received over 30 awards from ASCAP and NSAI, plus numerous CMA, ACM, SOCAN and CCMA Awards.

Behind the glass, his iconic artist client list includes 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 Brent's discovery of The Judds Not to forget Ike & Tina's PROUD MARY, The 5th Dimension's AGE OF AQUARIOUS, Duke Ellington's last album before his death on May 24th, 1974 and...Elvis's last number 1 Hit, WAY DOWN, just before his death on August 16th, 1977. Now that's what I call Historical.

EARLY YEARS:

At 18 Brent joined the Air Force and was stationed near Nashville as an aircraft mechanic until he was 22. Brent played guitar and trumpet, so he put together a cover band to make extra money on the weekends. "I knew that music was what I was supposed to be doing. But I also knew that our band was not going to be a ground-breaking band. 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 I soon found out I was terribly under qualified."

"I tore out about 2 pages of recording studios out of the phonebook and got turned down by every single one. All of the engineers working in the studios at that time came from radio and television and 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 at the time. That's where I met Bill Porter and Tommy Strong. They were two of the most respected and acclaimed recording engineers in Nashville." A side note, years later Bill Porter wrote the first degree curriculum for the University of Miami, for what schools use now for the Recording Arts & Sciences. There was no degree for recording engineers or the music business, at the time.

As it turned out, 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, Bill 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 "Ever Lasting 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.

"How I met Bobby...he booked the studio for a week for me to mix an album that he recorded in Los Angeles. Bobby was happy with the mixes, but there was one track that didn't come together. We decided to record it again with a group of musicians I had been working with and he absolutely loved it. Then we went into LA and put his voice on it. A few months later he was back in town and said; I'm going to start a record company called Direction Records and I'd like you to be partners with me. I was beside myself. We became very, very dear friends. About a year into it, Bobby had another heart episode and pasted away far too young, in 1973."

"During that time at United Recording, Ike and Tina Turner came in to record a few sides to complete their record. We really hit it off and they said they were looking forward to doing a whole album with me, which took place about a year later."

"On the second project, we recorded "Proud Mary," in 1970, which became my first Gold record. Engineering the whole 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 said; Wow that's great, you need to play that for Ike & Tina and I said; No, that's very inappropriate, I'm their engineer. And she said; I'm telling you, you need to do it. So, 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 the next day, when we got done working I said to Ike; Can I play you something? Tell me what you think about this. I didn't say I was pitching it, I didn't say it was me. I just played it and I noticed Ike seemed to be grooving and he said; That's really funky...Did you write this? Can I play it for Tina? Ike came back the next day and said we love that tune. Tina wants to do it and I'd like you to co-produce it with me. They recorded, Work on Me and Love Sweet Love, which were also my 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. Bill Porter, who previously worked with Elvis, left the studio business to run live sound for Elvis and I was out of a job, just as I thought things were taking off. I had some opportunities in LA, but before making a decision, 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 years before, "Everlasting Love." When I called Buzz, before I said a word, he said; I can't believe my secretary found you this fast and I commented that she never called. So Buzz says; what are you doing on the phone and I said; I called you. We were both dumb-founded and fate played its' hand once again.

Buzz said, "do you remember the B side to Everlasting Love, a song called Love On A Mountaintop? It's number 1 in the UK, it's huge and they want to release an album and we don't have one. I want to put the old team back together and I need you to engineer it. What are the chances of Bill letting you go, for about two weeks?" I said laughing to myself; "That shouldn't be a problem."

"So we did that project and in the middle of it Buzz asked me if there was any possibility that I might move back to Nashville. He said; I'd like to build a new studio complex in Berry Hill, but I need to do it with you."

BACK TO NASHVILLE:

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 on 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, Grady Martin and many more. "I engineered Dream Lover by Tanya Tucker and Glenn Campbell, which was written by my old friend Bobby Darin." That was special for me. Every time I heard it on the radio, I thought of Bobby. 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.

In the early 80's, Maher discovered mother/daughter duo sensation, The Judds.

Brent's vision for their acoustic county sound catapulted The Judds' career into the stratosphere and after getting The Judd's a record deal with RCA/CURB, he co-wrote many of their hits including Why Not Me (1984), with Harlan Howard and Sonny Throckmorton, A Girls Night Out (1985), with Jeff Bullock, Rockin' With The Rhythm of The Rain (1986) with Don Schlitz, I Know Where I'm Going (1987) and Turn It Loose (1988) with Craig Bickhardt and Schlitz, Let me Tell You About Love (1989) with Carl Perkins and Paul Kennerley, Born To Be Blue (1990) with Mike Reid and Mack David and When Love Starts Talkin' in 1997 for Wynonna, with Gary Nicholson and Jaimie O'Hara. Maher produced all 10 of The Judds' multi-platinum albums.

During that time, Brent also produced award winning records and number one 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's breakthrough Country record KICKIN' STONES and following LP's DANCE WITH ME and A PLACE CALLED LOVE making Reid one of the top-selling artists in Canada. The albums won CCMA awards for Album of the Year (2009), Best Selling Canadian Album (2009, 2010, 2011), and a Juno Award for Country Album of the Year (2010, 2011). Maher also developed and produced the Grammy nominated self-titled debut from Bering Strait, a young band composed of seven Russian musicians whose story was covered by 60 Minutes.

Over the last twenty years, Brent has operated Moraine Music Group to nurture young songwriters and artists, which has resulted in numerous # 1 singles on artists not produced by Maher. Singles that include "There's Your Trouble," "Suds In the Bucket," "Small Town USA," "Bring On The Rain" and many more. Before my interview with Brent, I went on-line and checked out the company's new artists, SHEL and Gareth Dunlop, both of whom are bound for Global Stardom. Some guys just know how to pick em'.

The Producer's Chair: How did you find The Judd's 'stylistic focus'?
Brent Maher: It is very different for each artist. With the Judd's, when we first sat down to listen to music and tossing about ideas, it was all over the board, all great music, but difficult to wrap your head around, because their musical appetite was so broad. I'm sitting in the middle of all that saying, where's point A. We had one song that Kenny O'Dell had written called Mama He's Crazy that we were all sold on and another tune that Dennis Linde had written called Had a Dream. Those two songs finally established the parameters for the Judd's sound. I also wanted to create a unique acoustic guitar sound 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. I asked him to come do some pre-production sessions and once again...it all came together. In 10 albums, we only used electric guitars on about 4 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 their vocals at the center of everything, Wy, Naomi, I just didn't want to clutter things up.

You said; Randy Goodrum's song 'Bluer Than Blue' changed your life. How?
At that time I was co-producing Michael Johnson with Steve Gibson. Michael had a couple of tunes, but asked us to come up with a song or two? As fate would have it, after a Dave Loggins session that Randy Goodrum was the keyboard player on, Randy says; can I play you a song? So he plays Bluer than Blue and it was like a light went off in my head that re-set 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 playing some new songs for Michael Johnson. I was cleaning up my music area and there was stuff all over the floor and he sees this 45 and said; you co-produced Ike & Tina Turner and you wrote the tune by yourself? I gotta hear this and why don't you write anymore? I thought that page had been turned, but Randy convinced me to start writing songs again. Randy said, "We're going to write together, so be over at my house next Tuesday at 2pm. I showed up and we we wrote the first of many songs. Randy loved it and played it for Chet Atkins, then Chet cuts it on Perry Como. Randy Goodrum was 100% responsible for me returning to songwriting. Shortly afterwards, Randy and Brent co-wrote the #1 Hit, A Lesson in Leavin' for Dottie West and had a second #1 on the same song with Jo Dee Messina in 1999.

When you got back into writing, did you get a publishing deal?
Around that time, Gerry Teifer ran ATV Music in Nashville and I went over there looking for songs for some of my artists and Gerry says; I understand you're writing songs again. Do you have a publisher and I said; not yet and he said; we'd like to publish your music. 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.

Tell us about SHEL (4 sisters - Sarah, Hannah, Eva, Liza)
A few years ago, a friend of ours, John St John, who was a radio programmer in Denver asked if I would have time to listen to a band that he'd stumbled on? They are outstanding but they're at the point where they need someone to help them get to the next level. It's not country but, I think you need to listen to them. We drove to Fort Collins, Colorado 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" and 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? Knowing full well, in advance that, I don't know exactly what format would play their music. We're a development company. That's what we do, so we signed SHEL.

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, make their own clothes, top hats...they are a visionary young band. The new music is incredibly exciting.

Did Moraine Music Group place SHEL's songs in the Splenda and Glade commercials?
Placing songs is part of our artist development plan. We took SHEL to play for the agency that represents Glade and our partner in NY got the Splenda spot. In addition, Gareth and Michael Logen have some impressive placements in TV and commercials.

Did you sign them to publishing deals?
Yes...how could you not want to work with such brilliant young writers.

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

You seem to have gotten away from Country a little bit. 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 and I've always embraced discovering new talent. 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. That is a great thing. For me, 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. I put great singers and great songs before anything.

Do you still record in analog?
We don't go to analog tape. 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 along with it. 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 process.

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 a Willie record, a tribute to Cindy Walker and the other, a couple of years later, 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. And I loved what my responsibilities were; making the musicians happy and Fred happy and make the best sounding record I could make.

Have you ever thought about writing a book?
I've actually 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.

Beyond his musical career, Brent 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 Inc. In 2011, 'in his spare time', Maher 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.

What do you think your epitaph should say?
It's A Wonderful Life. It's my favorite movie and I can look back on my life and honestly say that.

Read other Producer's Chair interviews:

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