Vince Gill’s latest album, Pocket Full of Gold, is still top 10 on the country charts; his new single, ”Take Your Memory With You,” is headed that way. No matter — it’s time for Gill to make a new album. Unlike pop acts, major country artists release an album every 9 to 12 months, in part because it’s no big deal to make them. The time-honored Nashville tradition of brisk record making hasn’t changed. You simply pick a studio, hire a few pickers, select the songs, assemble, and, in about a week, make an album. Memo to studio overachievers Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen: Read on and learn.
Jessie Noble, MCA’s director of recording and a funky cowgirl in jeans and boots, is handed a list-the dream band for the new album, as drawn % up by Gill and MCA executive vice president Tony Brown (producer of Gill’s last two albums). Unlike pop albums, most Nashville records use studio musicians rather than road bands. (”Vince’s (touring) band has a right to be pissed,” says Brown. ”We’re just trying to make a good record as efficiently as possible.”) Noble books the Masterfonics studio, a Gill favorite, and hits the phones, hiring musicians for February.
Local 257 of the American Federation of Musicians — the union’s Nashville branch — has 3,500 members, yet most major-label country albums use a core of only 30 to 40 highly skilled studio pros. Gill has chosen seven of them: guitarists Richard Bennett, Randy Scruggs (Earl’s son and a producer and musician in his own right), and Steuart Smith; bassist Willie Weeks; keyboardists Pete Wasner and John Barlow Jarvis (heard on the latest albums by Wynonna Judd, Patty Loveless, and Reba McEntire); and, imported from L.A., drummer Carlos Vega. ”I try not to play last week’s licks on this week’s record,” says Jarvis, who recently won a Grammy for cowriting the Judds’ ”Love Can Build a Bridge.” ”But it gets tough sometimes.”
Each musician will be paid union scale: $241.43 for a three-hour session, with each day to consist of three three-hour sessions. Studio veterans Jarvis and Weeks command double scale, so they’ll gross nearly $6,000 apiece for four days’ work (session players don’t receive royalties, though). The budget is about $100,000 — typical for a country album but as little as one-fifth the cost of most pop albums.
Back home in Nashville after a lengthy tour, Gill blocks out the month to write the 10 songs needed for the album. He ends up doing two with Max D. Barnes and Don Schlitz of Almo/Irving Music, one of Nashville’s many song-publishing houses.
Almo/Irving, owne d by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss (of A&M Records), is indeed run out of a house — a refurbished Victorian home that is a quick stroll from Masterfonics. In its cozy confines, most of the company’s 15 staff writers crank out songs in offices outfitted with tape decks and couches, making an average of $20,000-$40,000 a year (additional royalties from Almo/Irving can push the amount higher). Each week, an average of 10 songs are written and added to the company’s catalog of 8,000 songs. Current staff writers include hit makers like Schlitz (the Judds’ ”Rockin’ With the Rhythm of the Rain”), Paul Kennerley (Marty Stuart’s ”Tempted”), and Mike Reid (Bonnie Raitt’s ”I Can’t Make You Love Me”).
”Every week we’re called by record companies,” says vice president David Conrad, who combines a Southern-gentleman friendliness with no-nonsense business instincts. ”They say, ‘We’re recording so-and-so in a month, and I want to come by and listen to songs.”’ Depending on the artist’s image or style, Conrad draws up a list of songs and plays tapes of them for the producer (and sometimes the artist). ”Most producers only listen to a verse or chorus,” he says. ”So in an hour, I can get through 25, 30 songs.”
The work pays off: There are four Almo/Irving copyrights on Wynonna Judd’s first solo album, Wynonna, three on Tanya Tucker’s latest, What Do I Do With Me, and one — the hit ”Straight Tequila Night” — on John Anderson’s comeback album. ”All we do is see to it that new songs are born and try to get ’em cut,” Conrad says. ”We don’t live and die by any of them. We’ll just make a hundred more.”
”Okay, let’s get to work,” announces producer Tony Brown, dressed in crisp jeans and work shirt and looking like the young rural professional he is. It’s noon on the third day of the Gill sessions at Masterfonics. On the first two days of recording, five songs have been finished; another five will be done today and tomorrow. Gee, it takes Michael Jackson four days to decide what he’s going to wear to a session.
The first track to be cut today is ”Pretty Words,” an uptempo, bluegrass- flavored tune cowritten by Gill and Schlitz. Gill — a tall, mild-mannered guy dressed in jeans and a ”Feed the Children” T-shirt-plays a demo tape of the song (his voice and guitar). The band listens intently while staring at the song’s chord changes. Within minutes, the ideas start flying — Scruggs plays a speedy guitar lick for the intro, Jarvis suggests playing organ on the track — and away they go.
At 12:15, Gill settles in front of a microphone and the band members start doodling with the chords. By 12:45, they have, incredibly, worked out a rough arrangement, and the song springs to life. Brown affably makes a few suggestions — for Smith to switch to electric guitar, for Vega to hit the snare a little harder on the choruses. To pianist Jarvis, he says, ”John, a little more Charlie Rich in there.” Gill gives a bland nod of approval to each change. ”Make it sound good, you double-scale sons o’ bitches!” Brown kids them in an exaggerated good-ol’-boy tone.
At 1:15, the group takes a break and, with Brown and Gill, discusses a few ) minor changes. Five minutes later, Brown announces, ”Okay, we’re gonna put it down — here we go,” and the musicians take their places once again. As Gill sings along (but only as a guide — a polished vocal will be added later), they play the song three more times, and by 2:30 — a little over two hours after the band heard the song for the first time-Brown has the take he wants. Gill’s finished lead vocal and an instrumental solo (be it a pedal steel guitar, fiddle, or Gill’s own guitar) will be added later. There are smiles all around, and everyone takes a break for a catered lunch of chicken pot pie.
After chow, the band records two more songs — a barroom weeper, ”No Future in the Past,” and ”I Still Believe in You (and Me),” a song Brown half-jokingly calls the “power ballad” — and wraps it up at 10:30 p.m. Two more songs are cut the next day, and the album’s 10 instrumental tracks are done; all that’s left are lead and harmony vocals and a few weeks of mixing. The still-untitled album should be out this summer.
Gill seems content. The album, he says during a break in the sessions, is ”pretty much the same stuff. Hopefully, the songs are the best batch we’ve done.” There’s not much time to relax, though. After more touring, he’s scheduled to record a duet album with Patty Loveless in the fall, for which MCA’s Noble is already lining up the musicians. ”Nothing’s too far down the line,” she says with a laugh.