TONY BROWN PRODUCER, FRIEND
Ask anybody in the music business and they will answer without thinking, "Hands down, George Strait is the coolest guy in country music." Record producer Tony Brown gave an example of the Cowboy's cool.
"I was at the Kentucky Derby waiting to meet up with George and his wife, Norma," Tony said. "The room was filled with big-time money businessmen, as well as actors and actresses from Hollywood, famous singers from all genres. In the door walked George and Norma, and every head turned and stared -- everyone in the room. Nobody in that room attracted the attention like George Strait." Tony laughed, "He's got it." Tony has produced all of Strait's records since 1992, and they have a long string of nothing but success.
"As an artist, he's not an overachiever. He wants to be relevant, wants his records on the radio. Some artists know enough to be dangerous. He's not like that. George likes to keep up with what's happening, though. I found a really cool article about his last single making the highest chart debut of his career and I sent it to him. He called me back saying, "Thanks, I never get to see this stuff." "George is probably the biggest nonstar star there is. What I mean is George Strait is so down-to-earth and normal. I've been around him a whole lot over the past 15 or so years and he is a genuine, real good guy. Of all the acts I've produced over the years - Vince, Reba, Wynonna, Trisha, Marty - George is hands down the easiest and most relaxed in the studio. There's no reinventing himself like some country and lots of pop stars do." "George goes in the studio, uses the same rhythm section - like a comfort zone. He always starts on Monday and finishes on Thursday, and during that week, session players fill out his band. Once the recording begins, the band becomes George's unit. I remember once the regular piano player was booked elsewhere and couldn't make it. George made the decision to do the session later when the regular piano player could be there. There's no getting 'who is available'. He wants the same guys he's used to. He's the greatest guy on earth to work with." "George and I agree on nine out of every 10 songs. I find songs, FedEx them to George, George finds songs, FedEx's them to me. George found "You'll Be There". At first I couldn't figure how we would record it. But George does what he does best - he listened and he heard what he could do with the deep lyrics and a spiritual overtone. It became Strait's biggest production ever and he made it his song. That's what's exciting about him, when he takes an 'out-of-the-Strait-box song' and makes it his." "'Somewhere Down In Texas' took longer than the rest to record. Reason being George bought a recording rig so he could do his vocals at the ranch. He sings each song several times and then I choose the best take." "You know, he can turn every head in a room. Four years ago he invited Anastasia and me to attend the Kentucky Derby with him and Norma. We went into the VIP area, and when George walked in the room - you knew an icon had entered. Every head in that room - Peyton Manning, Bo Derek, Cameron Diaz, worldwide businessmen - turned toward George Strait, a real cowboy."
Tony Brown, Producer February 21, 2009
For nearly 25 years, Tony Brown ranked at or near the top among successful country music executives. His lengthy list of signees included Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Kelly Willis, Todd Snider, Allison Moorer, The Mavericks, Cross Canadian Ragweed and Shooter Jennings. But he also produced more than 100 chart-topping singles, and had sales from his productions of such prime hitmakers as Vince Gill, Reba McEntire, George Strait, Trisha Yearwood and Brooks & Dunn surpass the 100 million mark.
While Brown could have easily remained a prominent part of the major label business, when his contract came up for renewal at Universal South, the label he co-owned with partner Tim Dubois, Brown decided that it was time for a change. “When I first started with the company it was MCA and Universal was the film group,” Brown remembered. “Then as things evolved, it became the Universal Music Group, because the feeling was that the name Universal was one that had real power and prominence among the public. But it turns out that my favorite period during all my years with the company was the time I call the Garth (Brooks) years, 1989-1997. I realized that what I wanted to do most was produce, and that I really didn’t want to be a label executive any more, but just a producer and get in there and make some smash records.”
This week Brown celebrates the formal opening of the new offices for Tony Brown Enterprises, 1013 17th Ave. S. It’s located appropriately in Chet Atkins’ building, and it enables Brown to now return to his first and foremost love, producing. “When I was thinking about what else I might want to do after deciding not to re-sign, I thought about doing A&R for a time,” Brown added. “But over the years you get to know all the people at a label, have contacts in every department. I wasn’t interested in trying to re-establish all those contacts at a new company. Plus, now I was free to do whatever I want in terms of working with artists. I don’t have to jump through hoops if I want to produce someone who might be a different label like you would if you’re exclusive to one company.”
He’s widely regarded as the founding father of the alternative country movement, yet Brown proclaims his love for all types of country, and doesn’t let the traditional vs. contemporary divide have any impact on his creative decisions. “I truly do love it all,” Brown said. “If you look at an artist like George Strait, one of the things that he does with every session is select a song by someone like Mel Street or some other classic country singer that may not be as well known to the general public and then do a great contemporary version. He’s someone who has appeal to both the young and old in terms of audience. My real challenge is trying to make records that sound as good as what people like Owen Bradley and Fred Foster used to make.
“I’m a real fan of what artists like Shania Twain, Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban and Big & Rich have brought to country music,” Brown added. “(Producer) Mutt Lange took some of those rock licks that had been on Def Leppard albums and turned them around and made them work for Shania. It brought a new energy and fresh attitude to country. Yet I also am a huge fan of what people like Martina McBride, who are coming from a totally different place have done as well.”
Brown also wants everyone to know he’s fully recovered from the near-fatal fall he had in Los Angeles back in April of 2003, though he jokes that “when people see me the first question they always ask me is are you sure you’re alright?” He has plenty of new projects coming down the line, having just completed a new Brooks & Dunn disc, plus other sessions with Strait, Heidi Newfeld and Cyndi Thompson. But he’s especially enthusiastic about the newest release Reba Duets, a set just released Sept. 18 that pairs Reba McEntire with artists ranging from Kelly Clarkson to Justin Timberlake.
“I told Reba that I didn’t just want to make a hit with her, but I wanted it to be a huge smash,” Brown said. “She’s told me that this was a chance to get the biggest first-week sales numbers of anything she’s ever done, and we’re really thrilled about that possibility.” When asked about all-time favorite projects that he’s produced, Brown cites his body of work with Vince Gill, and two specific discs that he labels vital in establishing his profile as an ace producer.
“Pure Country was the first album George Strait had that sold six million copies,” Brown recalled. “Up to that point George had made platinum albums, but that one put him in a whole different area. Later we had a boxed set that sold seven million. Steve Earle’s Guitar Town is another record that to this day I can still hear things on it that are fantastic. We kind of did that one on blind faith, because I was certain that it would be something special, but we didn’t know for sure.
“One of the things that I’ve discovered over the years is that it is easy for artists, managers, song pluggers and other people in the business to lose track of where you are,” Brown concluded. “So I want to let everyone know that we’re now in business, and I’m ready to make some more great records.”
Tony Brown to Receive Honor
Monday, February 23, 2009 – Tony Brown, record executive and producer, will be the 2009 Cecil Scaife Visionary Award recipient honoring his contribution to the music industry on March 2 in Nashville.
LaRawn Scaife Rhea founded the award honoring her gather to honor one individual each year who, through their life and work, has made it possible for future generations to realize careers in the music industry.
The event will benefit The Cecil Scaife Music Business Scholarship Endowment. During the evening, there will be a silent auction that will include a signed guitar from Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame member James Burton, who will be in attendance; an autographed hat from George Strait and an autographed fiddle from Charlie Daniels; a guitar signed by Vince Gill and Amy Grant, among many other items.
Scaife is highly respected for his love of the music industry and education. It was his vision to see the formation of an educational program to produce successful musicians, artists and music business executives by giving students an opportunity to formally learn about the industry. Scaife conceived the idea of creating a music business program at Belmont University, which became known as the Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business at Belmont University.
Scaife, a native of Helena, Ark., started his career in the music business working at KFFA radio in Helena. He went on to work for producer Sam Phillips, and was the first Promotion Manager at Sun Records during the early days of Elvis Presley's career. Over the years, he worked with artists such as Charlie Rich, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Scaife currently lives Nashville.
Starting his career in Nashville as a piano player, most notably for Presley, Brown was the driving creative force for more than two decades behind MCA Nashville. He signed and/or produced Reba McEntire, George Strait, Brooks & Dunn, Trisha Yearwood, Wynonna Judd and Gill. He also signedSteve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Rodney Crowell, Kelly Willis, The Mavericks, Allison Moorer, Shooter Jennings, Cross Canadian Ragweed and Todd Snider.
In 2007, Brown opened Tony Brown Enterprises. He recently produced Strait's "Troubadour" and McEntire's "Reba Duets."