Musician: Steve Nathan
Location: Nashville, Tennessee USA
Bio: Over more than forty years, Steve Nathan has worked with some of the biggest and best in the music industry. That’s far from hyperbole too, here’s the list:
Image courtesy https://stevenathanmusic.com
In this interview we delve into Steve’s incredible career, how he got into music and his thoughts on some of the many artists he’s worked with and the state of contemporary music more broadly.
Find out more: http://stevenathanmusic.com
Original audio and video interview: click here
KC: I thought we’d kick off with a talk about your amazing ongoing career. What kicked you off in music?
SN: You know, people often ask me, well, how did you get into music? And my stock answer is always that I didn’t know there was a choice. I apparently showed some interest. My dad was a player. He was a businessman, but he played, he played in college. He was in a big band and he gave it up to go into business with his brother. But my dad told me when he was alive that he had this, he had this sense that I was hearing, when I would sing TV commercials that I’d heard on the television, he had this sense that I was singing them in the key, they were in on the television. And so he paid attention and went over to the piano and got a sense of what key I was singing in and then noticed that the commercial would come on again. And sure enough I was, I was in the same key and he thought that was kind of cool.
By the time I was three, I had two older brothers. My oldest brother was the first to sort of be forced to take piano lessons and he was not a musician. He would have much preferred to be outside hitting some kind of ball with some kind of a stick. But I was three years old and I, they tell me, sat fascinated watching his entire lesson. When his teacher left and he’d go out to hit the balls or whatever, I would pull myself up onto the piano bench and try to play what I had heard the playing. He talked to the teacher and the teacher said, ‘three’s pretty young, but he clearly seems interested’.
So I started taking piano lessons at the age of three. She was an interesting teacher. I didn’t know it at the age of three, but she was, um, how do I put this? She played piano at Murphy’s Omega Lounge, which was a hotspot in what you would call the red-light District of Buffalo, New York. So a rough joint, lots of drunks and hookers and whatever else, and she was the piano player there. That’s who I took lessons from for, I’m gonna say maybe four or five years. And then she told my dad, ‘I can’t do much more for him’. He found a guy named Danny Kane who was musical director for Andy Williams, he lived in in the area.
He became my teacher until I was 16, I think. My mother had gone back to work, she was a registered nurse, head nurse, and so getting to a piano lesson meant a whole lot. Long bus trips, and I kind of just, I sort of blew it off at that point. I took the regular, classical typical kid piano lessons, and Danny Kane was a great guy and a great player, but he didn’t catch on. At the end of every lesson, he would say, ‘all right, now this week we’re gonna do this’, and he would play it for me and I want you to work on this. He would play it for me and I would hear it and I would remember it. And I never really learned to read very well because I had such a good ear. So I got away with that for a long time. That’s how I learned to play, I just had the drive that so many of us just have and can’t really do anything else.
By the time I was, I don’t know, maybe 13, I started a band with the kid down the street and another guy in my school, and we didn’t have any gear. We did what we could and then when I was maybe 14, I got my very first Wurlitzer Electric piano. My dad was quite a stickler for lessons and learning values and things like that. He easily could have bought me this Wurlitzer electric piano for 50 bucks at the time, but instead he took me down to the corner bank and he co-signed for a loan so that I would learn the value of the instrument. It was a great lesson and I wish I still had that Wurlitzer here. It was an absolutely beautiful old, dark brown tube Wurlitzer.
Then I started get into bands. We named ourselves The Offbeats. And we were so young that when people would call us the Beat Offs and laugh, we didn’t get it. I played in bands just like everybody, I think. And you become a teenager, you start playing at school dances and things. I was kind of the go-to guy. I went to an integrated high school in the sixties and I became known among the singing, dancing black students in my school. I became known as the guy who could play the songs they wanted to do. At every talent show I was the musician backing up the James Brown impression guy or the three girls who did Supremes songs.
Before long I started to find myself as the youngest guy in a band with fairly older guys and, and struggling because they could get gigs in bars and I was too young to play in the bars. There was a bit of wrangling with my folks about that. I first played in a bowling alley that served alcohol and they let me get away with that, and before long they just gave up. I got fake ID or whatever I had to do and for a long time I was always the kid in the band playing with much older guys. That’s how I got started.
KC: In your formative years what was your favourite kind of music?
SN: I had a certain amount of broad interest. My dad was a jazz player, and so I grew up, the, the records in the house were Dave Brubeck and Horace Silver. I loved Ray Bryant. I loved Bobby Timmons, Cannonball Adderley. My dad, my mother also liked Broadway show tunes a lot, so we had a lot of cast records for that sort of stuff. I grew up trying to play jazz. My dad was such a pivotal figure in my becoming a musician. My dad took me to bars that even not many white people went to. He took me to see Cannonball. He took me to see Jimmy Smith. He took me to see Groove Holmes. He took me to see Jack McDuff. He took me to see all kinds of people in these places where I was this little kid.
I sat in with Kai Winding when I was 11. It was quite an education. He also took me out to the bar out by the Bethlehem steel mill, where a guy named Stan Celeste had a band, Stan and The Ravens, and they were the rock and roll band in Buffalo, New York. With no exaggeration, Stan influenced every rock piano player in Buffalo. He was in Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, and he played with Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and Rick Danko. He played with all of those guys for, for many years.
My dad had started to venture away from his fiberglass business with his brother into doing concert promotion. And so he was promoting a show with Bob Dylan at the time. Bob had gone electric. There’s two things I really remember distinctly from that show. The first one was that Bob himself came into the ticket office and told my dad, “I’m going to come out and I’m gonna play with just me and my guitar for 30 minutes, and then we’re gonna have an intermission, the show is sold out, right?” And my dad said yes. He (Bob) said, “okay, now when I come back from intermission, I’m gonna come back with The Band, and play electric. And when I do, a lot of people are gonna boo and they’re gonna walk out. So when that happens, I just wanna be sure that you sell those seats again”. That was kind of eye-opening for me. I was young enough to just think about Dylan as this sort of countercultural hero, but he was definitely all wrapped up in ‘I’m gonna make more money because people are gonna walk out and we can sell their seats’. But the other thing I remember is when The Band came out by themselves to do one or two songs and before they played a note, they said, it sure is great to be back in Buffalo, home of Stan Celeste.
KC: So by the age of 16, you’ve got 13 years of lessons and experience under your belt, which, a lot of players won’t have. How did you then move to that next phase as far as deciding, well, ‘I’m gonna do this full-time’?
SN: Well, like I said, my dad was a jazz musician and I grew up listening to it all, and I grew up playing whatever I could off of Take Five, imitating Les McCann and trying to play these things. Throughout this time, my dad is just sort of dipping his toes into doing concert promotion. He put on two jazz festivals with George Ween and I met Cannonball Adderley, who came to the house for dinner one night and heard me. My dad had me show him I was trying to learn Mercy, Mercy, Mercy. I don’t know, I was probably butchering it or whatever. Cannonball comes back to my house the next night with Joe Zawinul in tow to give me a lesson. So I had all of that sort of background, but then my older brother started bringing home records, like, Wilson Pickett, I heard Johnny Johnson play with Chuck Berry, and I was like, ‘boom’.
I took an immediate hard left, probably broke my dad’s heart, but all of a sudden I wanted to play that music and that’s kind of the direction I went. I was in blues bands and soul bands, for many years, and struggling to get gigs because I wasn’t playing top 40. You’d play these blues gigs as long as you could, for the little money that they paid. And then you’d have to put on a funny suit for a little while and go play the latest hits until you got ahead enough on your bills to go back to play more blues. I did that for a long time and I had a couple of kind of side trips I went to. I had worked in a club in Niagara Falls for a long time, which was a two stage two band club. Back then it wasn’t uncommon for a club to hire a house band and you get the gig for a year or sometimes longer. I would go to the piano store in Buffalo where you could buy a used upright (piano) for a hundred bucks. They would deliver it to the club that you were playing and then you would play it until the gig was over and then you’d leave it. When you moved into the next club, you’d go back to the piano store and you’d buy another piano for a hundred dollars and they’d deliver it and you’d stick contact mics on rubber balls stuck on the sound board or whatever you had to do, to get the sound out of it.
I did that for quite a while and shifted in and out of one of those clubs in Niagara Falls. There was a guy in the other band named Gary Baker. He’s gone on to, to become an extremely successful songwriter record producer, and he called me and wanted me to come join a band he had in in Houston, Texas. Me and the guitar player from my band went to Houston. We played down there for a while, did a lot of traveling. Then I’d go back to Buffalo and somebody else would offer me a gig someplace else. The last time the whole band that I had in Buffalo got a call from a guy in St. Petersburg, Florida. They were opening a new club just for him, and he needed a band and it was great pay and a great gig and all that. We packed up all of our gear, everything we could, and we drove to Florida. We got to St. Petersburg, there was an IRS padlock on the club on the front of the club, and no gig.
So we scrambled and did what we could, found another club, got another gig. And then once again, Gary Baker. calls me and he’s in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and he says, I’ve got a gig for you, a great gig, come on up. You know, how soon can you get here? It was hard to say goodbye to my band. These were my best friends, but it was very clear to me then that what Gary was offering had the upward mobility. This gig was you were going on a tour. They had a top 10 record. It was definitely a, a good move, so I quit my band, packed up all my stuff in my little Fiat sports car that I removed the backseat from so I could get a Rhodes into it. And I drive to Muscle Shoals where I discover I have an audition, not a gig. And I’m pretty wigged, but Gary tells me ‘I didn’t tell you it was an audition because I was afraid you wouldn’t come and I knew you’d get the gig’.
So I got the gig and I did my first short stint on the road, which confirmed that I don’t like the road. This was a duo, the record was a duo. Lenny LeBlanc and Pete Carr were called LeBlanc and Carr. They had a, a big hit record. It was in the top 10 at the same time as six or seven Bee Gees records from Saturday Night Fever. So it was a really big record, and they’d started a tour on it. Half of the duo, Pete Carr, the guy who produced it, and a tremendous guitar player. He didn’t hold up well to the rigors of the road. He didn’t hold up well, and he left. So I’m out there with this band that’s a duo with only half of the duo out on the front of the stage every night. That was over in less than six months. Record company said, ‘we can’t keep doing this. We gotta get you (Lenny LeBlanc), back to Muscle Shoals. You gotta cut a new record’. He goes back to Muscle Shoals, books some studio time, and out of the road band I’m the only one he asks to come do the record. The rest of the band is studio players, well established studio players. Roger Clark on drums and Bob Ray(on bass).
So I go to FAME Studios for my first time. I remember when I had first driven into Muscle Shoals for what I didn’t know as an audition, and I remember distinctly thinking as I passed FAME Studios, I thought, ‘oh my gosh, I wonder if they’d ever just let me in there to look around. How cool would that be?’ And so here I am, I’m going to play on a record at FAME Studios. And so we get started and the engineer was a guy named Don Daley. He was a great engineer, but on the first little break, he goes upstairs to Rick Hall’s office and he tells Rick ‘you better come down here and hear this keyboard player,’ which I didn’t know. Rick Hall comes down and he sits in the control room and he listens to us play and he listens to me apparently. At the end of the session, he comes over to me and he introduces himself and he goes ‘I’m starting a Dobie Gray record next week, I’d like you to do it’. And that was the first of 13 or 14 years I played on every record he made from then on.
KC: Which Steve could be a whole podcast series on its own. You mentioned quite succinctly there that you turned up for the audition, thought, gee, I’d like to get in to FAME studios one day. What was the actual audition? Was it a matter of just working with these artists and them deciding that you fit in, or was there a more formalized audition?
SN: Well, the, the audition was to get into LeBlanc and Carr and they set up in the rehearsal hall. I sat down and played what they asked me to play, and they went ‘you’re hired’. That was all it was with Rick Hall. He just listened to me play and then everything just sort of spreads from that. People heard me play on the Dobie Gray record and the drummer and the bass player or whatever, they’re talking to some other musicians, and they go ‘man, we heard this keyboard player, he played on Dobie Gray, he’s pretty good, we should try him on this’. I just started getting calls.
Now I also had, for me it was good fortune, for him it was not good fortune for him, but there was in Muscle Shoals at the time, Barry Beckett. Clayton Ivey was at Wishbone Studios and Randy McCormick was a freelancer who primarily worked out of Muscle Shoals Sound. He was their second keyboardist and, and their first keyboardist anytime Barry (Beckett) didn’t want to play. So all of the other sort of freelance keyboard work went to a guy who was not a happy guy and he committed suicide.
I hate to even mention that, but there was this opening. Muscle Shoals was very tight and together, once they gave you the gig, you got the gig as long as you showed up when they wanted you to show up. If you took a tour and you went on the road for, for three months, your gig was gone. When you came back, they’d find somebody else. They weren’t interested in your career. They were interested in how you could help them with their career. I turned down some good tours over the years, but I stayed there and word of mouth spread pretty quickly, and songwriters were hiring me to play on their demos. Some of the other producers who had heard I was good would hire me to play on something and then they would like what I played and they kept hiring me. So pretty soon I was the busiest freelance keyboard player in the area.
KC: It certainly sounds like it. Steve, Paul and I had discussions before recording this and your amazing list of credits. As I said, you, you nearly need a podcast series. So what we’ve done is just chosen somewhat at random some artists we’d love your thoughts and perspective on, but also please feel free to jump to any others because you, you are the one that’s lived this experience. Do you mind if we just sort of throw some names at you and we, we see where that takes us?
SN: Go ahead.
KC: . Thank you Steve. So let me kick off with Percy Sledge. What’s some key recollections working with Percy Sledge?
SN: I didn’t do a lot of recording with Percy Sledge, I had not gotten to Muscle Shoals when he cut When a Man Loves a Woman, which was the huge hit that he had that, but he was still cutting records at Muscle Shoals. I think David Johnson was producing him when I first worked for him at Broadway Sound Studio. He was a good singer, he was just a sort of a simple, straight ahead, unassuming kind of a guy. He liked to sing, he had been an orderly in Sheffield Hospital and somebody heard him singing in the halls as he was mopping or something of that sort and told somebody in one of the studios about him, and that’s how he got his start. I actually backed him up live a couple of times for award shows. I remember once, this is many years later, they have something called the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, and they put on a banquet every year and induct people into it. Because nobody else would sort of step up, I was the band leader. I stood there and pretended I knew how to wave my hands and signal cut-offs and that sort of stuff. It had been many years since he’d cut that song, and we had a rehearsal.
I remember thinking, gosh, it’s killing him to still hit these notes in the key of C, it’s just really tearing up his voice. I turned to the band after one of the rehearsals. I said, ‘let’s knock this down to B, let’s give him a break. We got to sound check and we kicked it off in B and he started to sing it and he stopped us in the first verse. He said, ‘what key are you playing in?’. I told him, ‘well, we knocked it down to B so it wouldn’t be so hard’. He said, ‘oh, no, no, I sing it in C, C is my key’. It was almost painful, but that’s where he sang it and that’s where he wanted to sing it and he knew we weren’t in C, he could feel it, so.
KC: Amazing. So from one extreme to another, from Percy Sledge to Huey Lewis.
SN: Oh, I only did one record with Huey Lewis. He came to Nashville because Capitol Records had come up with this idea of Country salutes The Beatles, I forget what the title was, but it was country artists singing Beatles songs. And some of them were duets and some of them were not country artists. Huey Lewis came to Nashville to sing Oh! Darling. I played piano on it. What I remember most about him other than besides being a really nice guy and really friendly and singing great and all that, he seemed particularly impressed with the studio, the capabilities of the studio, our headphone systems, our mic selection. I think it never occurred to him that Nashville would have studios that weren’t just on par with Los Angeles or New York, but were actually in many cases better equipped and better sounding rooms. He was clearly surprised and kind of blown away by what we had. And he loved the band, the band killed him. A lot of times you’ll get non-country artists come into Nashville to record and get a band of Nashville players, and they’re surprised that they can play anything that isn’t Country music.
I hate to veer off, but I have a friend, Steve Gibson, he’s a guitar player and he’s played on hundreds of country hit records. In addition to being a great musician and having played on so many great country records, he doesn’t look like a musician. He dresses, cuts his hair, he looks like an accountant or an insurance salesman or something. He’s very, very non-musician looking. Norbert Putnam took him with some other musicians over to England to cut a record for George Harrison. George Harrison had signed this band to his label and hired Norbert to produce it, and they all get over there and all of the other musicians are scruffy. They got long hair, they have holes in their jeans, and Steve Gibson’s wearing a permanent-press iron shirt and some khaki slacks and very short hair. As soon as they get there, George Harrison pulls Norbert aside and he goes, ‘who is this?’ and he (Norbert) says, ‘well, that’s, that’s my guitar player’ And he (George) goes, ‘No. I think you’ve brought the wrong guy. We need a real rocking guitar player’. Norbert says, ‘Well, Steve’s really good, let us get started and then if you don’t like him, we’ll send him back to Nashville. We’ll get you somebody else’. So Harrison leaves to go do something, run an errand or whatever, and he comes back and they’re in the room and Steve Gibson is over dubbing the guitar solo on the track. And George Harrison comes in and he looks out there and he sees him playing and he hears what he’s playing and he turns to Norbert and he goes, ‘He’s bloody Clark Kent!’
KC: That’s brilliant.
SN: Yes. I keep veering off
KC: No, that’s a hundred percent fine. They’re amazing stories, so please feel free to share, Steve, we’re enjoying them. So, Levon Helm, who you already mentioned.
SN: Levon, I did a few things with, and those were records I did with where Barry Beckett and I both played. So remembering exactly what I played, it’s been a long time, but typically Barry might play Wurlitzer and I’d play organ, or I’d play piano and Barry would play organ. Most of that stuff was gonna be organ, piano, Wurlitzer and not much else. I probably had all my synth gear set up, but I probably didn’t touch it. Levon is great. He’s extremely cool. What I remember most about Levon is that when we were cutting Jerry Reed at FAME (Studios) in the same time period, and we had finished tracking Levon. But he’s still in the studio doing vocals, doing overdubs, all of that. I just remember Levon came over in his bus to FAME and me and Jerry Reed got on Levon’s bus and got very, very high . He had unbelievably strong pot, like nothing I had ever smoked. I got off the bus after a while and left the two of them on there. Then I’ve gone to the little market on the corner and I come back out and Reed spots me with like a bag of chips or something and he comes running off the bus and he grabs the chips away from me. Reid was a character.
KC: That’s great. Probably less pot involved with this next artist, the Staple Singers.
SN: Yeah, again, I didn’t do a lot with the Staple Singers. I did a little bit of one of their records. I don’t remember how much, but I did one of the records and again, I didn’t get there until long after I’ll Take You There and some of those bigger hits. I was particularly thrilled to be playing with Pop Staples, I thought he was a really cool guitar player. And of course, getting to hear Mavis Staples singing in your headphones couldn’t be beat. I remember we cut The Weight, The Band song. It was a, a duet on there. We did one on the songs of the Eagles and then we did another one that was sort of a country R&B blend. Marty Stuart and the Staple Singers did The Weight. We cut Rainy Night in Georgia with Sam Moore and Conway Twitty. We cut Since I Fell for You with Reba McIntyre and Natalie Cole. I didn’t play on every song on that record, there’s some really good ones. The Al Green and Lyle Lovett cut was very, very cool (Funny How Time Slips Away).
It’s one of my biggest disappointments in that whoever was in charge of keeping track of the credit, did not keep track of the credits. So at the end, when it came time to turn in the credits, they just looked and they went, ‘okay, well there’s three keyboards players. Barry Beckett, Benmont Tench and Steve Nathan. Hmm. Let’s see. All right. Barry Beckett played organ and piano, Benmont played Wurlitzer and Steve Nathan played synths. And there’s no synthesizer on the record for one thing. The piano solo, I played on rainy Night in Georgia, is one of my favorites ever and yet it’s not credited to me, and Barry Beckett’s organ part was so cool and he’s not credited with that. It’s just a shame that stuff happens every once in a while.
KC: It’s incredibly frustrating though, Steve. It’s, I always see that as the equivalent of an artist painting a painting and then having someone else’s name signed at the bottom of it.
SN: Yeah, sometimes it’s just a simple, honest mistake and sometimes it’s just flat laziness. The great sessions drummer, Carlos Vega, told me he got credited more than once as Carl Las Vegas. I don’t know if you know who Mark Chestnutt  is, but I know that it probably frustrated him to no end that the Clavinet part I played on one of his records, got credited as Steve Nathan clarinet.
KC: Well, we are pleased at the Keyboard Chronicles to be setting the record straight right here, this is our chance to set the record straight for history. So thank you for sharing that. Steve, let’s zoom quite a bit into the into the future from where we just were: Taylor Swift.
SN: Taylor Swift, there’s not much to brag on. I played on, I’m gonna say four songs with Taylor, and the record company rejected all of ’em. Byron Gallimore was a producer, a big successful hit producer who produced almost all of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s stuff, and lots and lots of records. The record company just felt like the tracks that we cut for Taylor weren’t (for her), or she wasn’t happy. I didn’t really get to sit in on the meeting for when they decided they weren’t happy with them. So I played on her cut of Tim McGraw and three or four of the songs that went on to be her breakout hits, but they were all recut with Nathan Chapmanproducing and a different band. I knew her, I met her, we had nice chats and ate lunch together, but, I didn’t make it to the final record.
KC: Well, that was it. No wonder she didn’t go anywhere Steve, that, that that was a big oversight (laughs)
SN: She was very sweet, but you could tell even at that really young age, she was laser focused on becoming successful, on becoming a star. You could tell, she always was thinking about who’s looking at me? How should I be sitting? How do I need to pose? Is there a camera in here? Is there a camera over there? When I’m getting up to say hello to this person, do I go… she was thinking about every aspect of looking and acting like a star.
KC: That’s an amazing insight. And you mentioned another big star that you have worked quite extensively with, and that’s Tim McGraw.
SN: Yeah, I’ve done a lot of his records. I did a lot of his early stuff that wasn’t a hit, but the record did come out and I was on them and I managed to stay with him. There was a short time in there where he moved from one producer to another producer who was more used to cutting with Matt Rollings than me. And so they started that record with Matt and then they started calling me in to come in and redo some of Matt’s stuff or add to some of Matt’s stuff. So on some of the records, I think when he first started with James Stroud, I’m only on part of those records. Once he started having hits, I became the primary keyboard player for all of that stuff.
KC: And why do you think that was, Steve? What was the success of that relationship?
SN: I had a good relationship with a lot of producers for pretty much the same reason, and this gets into that whole discussion about why being a successful studio musician isn’t the same as being a great keyboard player, or it’s not the same as being the best piano player in the town or the room or whatever. It’s a completely different set of skills and a different part of the brain, and I’ve always been pretty good at it, that I have sort of a gift for. Somebody will come into the studio and they’ll go, here’s my song, and they’ll sort of ham fist it out because they’re not a great guitar player. They’ll sing the words they wrote and the melody they wrote. I have a pretty good sense I can hear that and get a good idea of ‘what are they trying to say?’, ‘What are they trying to get across?’ And not just for the keyboard part, but for the whole record, for the whole band, I will typically get a richer, deeper, more complex sense than the other musicians on the session.
A lot of record producers learned, when I hire Steve, he does a lot of my job for me in a sense. He comes to me and says, you know, we really ought to try this with hand drums and a stand-up bass, or, she’s got a great song there, but her bridge really ought to come before that third verse, not after. I tend to hear a lot of things and I often will hear simple things that have a larger than small effect on the big picture. I might turn to the producer and go, ‘you know, if that bridge instead of going to that four chord and then the six minor cord, if it went to the six minor and then a flat, add nine, she wouldn’t have to change the melody and it’ll take the thing someplace else completely in a way that I think it needs to. Because the listener’s ear is already kind of tired of what they’ve heard at that point, if they repeat it. I have a gift for doing that a lot, and I became the guy. All of the musicians on the sessions that I worked with, almost all the musicians always know something’s not right here. You get to the end and you just go, boy, some something’s wrong. And I’ve, I became the guy where all the other musicians would, my nickname was Perez, they go, ‘Perez, fix it’.
I learned so much about making records from Barry Beckett. He got booked on a lot of records for that exact same reason. There’s a lot of really, really talented, good producers who are good because they can recognize, they know when a song is a hit. They know when it’s gonna be a hit. They may not know how to get it there, but they know it’s a hit song. They know it fits, they know how to pick the material that fits the artist. They know how to make the artist feel comfortable in the studio, but the sort of nuts and bolts of arranging, a lot of ’em are kind of weak in that area. They hire guys like me or Barry Beckett to be on their sessions because they know we’re gonna help ’em make a better song.
KC: Steve, I think you’ve raised a brilliant point there, and I’m gonna veer off now and ask, do you feel that’s still the case as much with modern music production? So even that great example you gave of chord structure and transitioning with verses and choruses and so on, there was an article published in the last couple of months showing that key changes in modern music have essentially reduced to zero. Do you think that’s something we’ve lost?
SN: It’s something that’s definitely missing. I’m old enough to have been through a lot of, sort of down periods in popular music, only to have something come out of nowhere. Like the music business always does, something great breaks through and hits and they all go, ‘let’s do that’. And then you all do that for a while. But yeah, I think it’s missing, it’s a little more complicated this time than it might have been when everybody was cutting disco and it took, you know, punk or something else to break out.
I grew up in a fairly large city, so I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of music and I can tell this story from the country music perspective in particular because, I’ve, I’ve spent the last 32 years in Nashville and I’ve sort of watched what has come and gone in country music. What was always interesting to me was that for me, for most of that time in country music, you would find artists, songwriters, even record producers, who had grown up exposed to only one kind of music. They came from little towns, little farm towns. Tony Brown, one of the greatest producers on the planet, grew up in an itty-bitty town in Mississippi where the only radio station you could get was the gospel station, nothing else. Kids that grew up on farms or grew up in tiny communities, they never heard anything that wasn’t George Jones and Ray Price. Now you can be a kid in the middle of nowhere riding a tractor, and you’ve got Spotify playing rap from Afghanistan in your earphones. We’re a couple of generations in now to kids that aren’t limited into what they’re exposed to. Naturally, this brought all of these other influences into all music, not just popular music. It certainly brought it into country music.
Somewhere in the early 2000s, as young kids in the South were listening to rap and hip-hop, it changed the nature of the kind of songwriters they became, and it changed the nature of the kind of artists they wanted to be. Like I said, I’m mostly retired now, but when I was still going and doing sessions and I would find myself on sessions with these young 19, 20-year-old artists, I would find exactly what would come natural to me. I would be inclined to say ‘your song has these two chords in one bar and these two chords in the other bar, and it never changes, it’s the same all the way through. And your melody has three notes in it and it never changes’. And their response was always, ‘yeah, isn’t that great?’ That was the sort of sign for me that maybe it was time to start looking for other things to do. I started writing more and and working on things just for my own pleasure and being a lot more selective about what sessions I took. I don’t wanna blame hip-hop, it’s an art form in its own right, but the popular music of that generation has reduced country music and pop music down to very basic repetition, where the structure doesn’t really change. You take instruments out and you put things in. You make it bigger, you make it smaller. You drop all of these things except some little thing over here, but it’s still the same thing and the lyrics are unbelievably repetitive with very little thought.
It’s particularly sad in country music because a great songwriter George Jackson said to me a long, long time ago, ‘well, you know in country music, it really matters what the words mean. And in pop music, it just matters how the words sound. He was right, but popular country music today doesn’t tell the stories that it used to. It doesn’t speak colloquially to the listener. It’s become kind of throwaway, it’s popular for a little while and then it’s off your Spotify list.
Like I said, there’s a couple of generations that aren’t really terribly invested in their music. It’s a lot like wallpaper, a lot of younger people think of music in terms of it being part of a bigger, visual art form. I don’t know how old you guys are, but you and I probably all sat with headphones absorbing every syllable, every instrument. ‘What does that sound, what is that thing doing? What does he say there? What does that mean?’
It’s not the same now – I’m hoping that there’s some sort of rebellion similar to what we’ve seen in the past. If you got a band and you write songs and you want to make it, it’s so much harder to sustain yourself long enough to develop a career and and become known. It’s harder to get paid, harder to earn money from your songs. From the studio musician perspective, and this is something I’ve been working on legislatively a lot lately, a 20-year-old musician coming into it like I did when I was 20 years old, just doesn’t have the kind of opportunity that I had. I could live longer on a lot less money for one thing. There was a way in, a lot of musicians got their start just by doing songwriter demos for years. You could make a decent living by doing songwriter demos, and eventually you would play something on a demo that would get cut by somebody as a record and they’d go, ‘who played that piano on there? I want that guy’. That’s how your career would move forward. But you know, the record company rosters are a third to a quarter the size of what they used to be. The budgets are smaller than what they used to be. We used to cut an average record in a minimum of 10 to 15 sessions, and that was fast by LA and New York standards.
We would do two to three, three-hour sessions a day for five or six days and, and get the whole record tracked. Then of course they would do all the over-dubbing and the mixing and the singing and all that. Nowadays the record companies expect the same kind of musicians to go into a studio, and they want them to come out three hours later with five of the tracks and six hours later they want 10 songs. A musician trying to do what I did now is gonna make a tenth of what I made for a whole record, and they’re only gonna get to make 10 records a year when I got to make 30 or 40 or whatever it was. The publishing companies have less money, so they’ve cut the advances and they cut the demo budget. Everything is much smaller and the musicians who can’t give it up are giving Skype lessons, they’re playing on the weekends with this person. They’re riding a bus with that person over there, they’re working in a music store. They’re doing everything they can to try and stay alive, but the lack of any sustainability means that a lot of musicians who would’ve been able to tough it out and be somebody and do something meaningful are dropping out because they got families to feed.
It’s really hurting what I think is our greatest export to the rest of the world, American music. It’s treasured all over the world, but I think it’s suffering from, from the music economy.
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