Archives for category: Sun Studio

Chips Moman at Country Music Hall of Fame, all photos – Brad Hardisty

Chips Moman was at The Ford Theater in The Country Music Hall of Fame as part of the “Celebrate the King” series on Saturday, August 19th and spent a little over an hour talking about over thirty years worth of work in the music industry. If there were a list of the top 25 people that are responsible for American music today as we know it, Chips would be there.

Chips, who grew up in La Grange, Georgia, got a ukulele when he was three and a guitar when he was four, hitchhiked to Memphis to stay with his Aunt when he was just fourteen. When asked why he decided to go to Memphis, Chips just said, “I had never been there before.”

Scotty Moore and Brad Hardisty at Chips Moman Interview

Chips, who rarely does such interviews, drew a five star crowd of musicians that worked with him, especially in the Memphis years. Original guitarist for Elvis, Scotty Moore as well, the members of The Memphis Boys, sessions cats from the American Sound Studio years featuring guitarist, Reggie Young. Also, Gary Talley from The Box Tops.

James Burton, the other prominent guitarist in Elvis Presley’s career was also there.

Chips, who grew up listening to Les Paul & Mary Ford on the radio as a young boy, was also asked when he first heard Black Music. Chips just said, “I guess it was while I was picking cotton when I was a boy,” which brought a little laughter. It was hard to get a straight answer when one of the architects of the Memphis Sound was just going to play off your last statement.

Johnny Burnette & The Rock and Roll Trio

Chips Moman started playing guitar on some Sun Sessions for Warren Smith. In those early days, he played guitar in road bands for Gene Vincent and The Burnette Brothers.

Chips left Memphis for a while and headed out to California and worked at Gold Star studios as a session player while learning the studio experience where Phil Spector would develop the “Wall of Sound” production techniques.

With that experience, Chips was ready to work with somebody to start an R&B label when he got back to Memphis. Chips had talked Jim Stewart into buying a tape machine and went to scope out a place for a studio with Paul Ritchie and it was really under Chips insistence that they purchased the Theater on McLemore Avenue in Memphis that would serve as the recording studio for Satellite and Stax releases.

Defining the Stax Sound,Chips writes “Last Night”

In fact Chips wrote the first big hit, “Last Night” by The Markeys that was on Satellite Records and helped to establish the Memphis Sound with the driving beat, horns and locked in guitar, bass and drums.

Chips was a true visionary able to play guitar, compose music, run a label and act as Producer for well over 100 Billboard hits during the sixties and seventies.

A little inside story, Chips owned a little British sports car where Booker T. & The MG’s got their name from.

When asked why he left Stax, the simple answer was that he wasn’t getting paid.

 

The first hit record out of American Sound Studio.

What happened next was the founding of his own studio, American Sound Studio, where not only did Chips continue composing and Producing, but, other great American Producers such as Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd worked to create some magic including the classic album, Dusty in Memphis by Dusty Springfield.

Elvis with The Memphis Boys at American

If you ever wondered how Elvis Presley ended up recording in Memphis, Marty Lacker, Elvis’ confidante who ran the day to day operations of the Memphis Mafia put that one together and delivered one of his finest albums in 1969, the Chips Moman Produced, From Elvis in Memphis, which featured some of Elvis’ greatest late career recordings, “Suspicious Minds,” “In The Ghetto” and “Kentucky Rain.”

After the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination, the vibe had changed in Memphis and so did the music business. Chips began spending more time in Nashville and Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  Chips co-wrote “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” for Aretha Franklin whom he said was one his favorite singers at that time. Chips played guitar on that track along with tracks by Wilson Pickett.

Produced by Chips Moman

Although, Chips would have liked to see things get back the way they were in Memphis, they never did turn around and later on, Chips ended up producing a lot of great recordings by Willie Nelson, Gary Stewart, Tammy Wynette, Ronnie Milsap, and The Highwaymen.

Chips discussing Waylon Jennings

Chips penned, “ Luckenbach, Texas (Back To The Basics Of Love)” for Waylon Jennings after hearing him talk about the place.

Chips earned a Grammy for writing the B.J. Thomas hit, “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Done Somebody Wrong Song.”

Chips moved seamlessly from musician to songwriter to producer to studio owner in the triumvirate domain that was Memphis, Muscle Shoals and Nashville speaking in R&B, Pop and Country like it was water out of the same stream.

On the current state of Memphis…”It aint Nashville.”  Without being critical of Memphis itself, that statement was enough that not much else needs to be said. Chips went back in the 80’s to try to turn it around, but, although there are still some quality music coming out of studios in Memphis, the infrastructure that was there from the 60’s through to the early 70’s may never happen again.

Chips finally settled back down in La Grange, Texas where he raises horses. Chips said, “My Walking Horses are running and my Running Horses are walking.”

An afternoon with one of the greats – Chips Moman

With such a well respected lifespan in the music business there were certainly many milestones rather than one single event in the life of Chips Moman.

– Brad Hardisty, Nashville, TN     thenashvillebridge@hotmail.com

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Justin Townes Earle mixes up the JTE sound, yet again, remaking his trademark with the help of Jason Isbell on this tribute to New York with “Harlem River Blues” and the metaphoric lines “Lord, I’m goin’ up town to the Harlem River to drown, Dirty water going to cover me over and I’m not going to make a sound,…troubled days are behind me now and I know they are going to let me in.” In a gospel sing a long Justin starts a song cycle about his other hometown.

New York now has its own album full of Country blues flavored Americana. It continues with true JTE style on the second track “One More Night in Brooklyn” similar to the breakdown of slower material from “The Good Life”.

Before continuing the ode to New York, “Move over Mama” with its straight up Rockabilly is my personal favorite.  The driving upright Bass of Bryn Davies and “Get Back-Billy Preston” style electric piano, paces at the same rate as the classic “Move it on Over” with the change up of “Mama you been sleepin’ in the middle of the bed too long”, it is a great response to that old Hank Williams classic, “Move it on over, cause this big old dog is moving in”. Clocking in at two minutes, “Move over Mama” would be a great 45 vinyl in the jukebox alongside some classic Sun Records.

“Workin’ for the MTA” is a train song for a “its cold in them tunnels today” Subway Train worker. I don’t know if there ever has been a train song about the subway, but, this is a story of a second generation “son of a railroad man from south Louisiann’”. He is able to make the connection between his Dad and the trains but “this ain’t my Daddy’s train, I ain’t seen the sun for days.” It references the current hard times but he is working and “banking on the MTA”.

It could have been easy to find a muse in Tennessee or Mississippi, but, this is New York City. He is now a full time resident of the Big Apple along with other artists such as Punch Brothers. I haven’t been up there lately, but, maybe there is kind of a folk resurgence going on like in the days of early Bob Dylan that followed through with songwriters like Simon and Garfunkel.

There is enough Blues; Muscle Shoals horns with Jason Isbell’s stand out guitar track “Slippin’ and Slidin’” followed by the next stand out track “Christchurch Woman”.  “Christchurch Woman” is a great lead in from the previous album “Midnight at The Movies”, in fact it could be a B-side “when I feel this blue, I just need somebody laughin’ at my jokes”. I guess a Christchurch Woman is easy going. In the end he says he will probably get sick of her.

The Good Life

If you are looking for a mix that sits either like “The Good Life” or “Midnight at The Movies” forget it. While the instrumentation sounds similar with the addition of some distorted licks  by Jason Isbell, he even goes to mixing his voice a little thinner on the frequencies with a little delay or echo like early sixties Nashville West-Bakersfield out of Capitol Records ala Buck Owens.

The Yuma Era

 It is interesting there are fans who only swear by his self-released “Yuma” waiting for Justin to do that one again. Okay, I admit I am with the ones that stand by “The Good Life” as the best yet, but, there is enough “Good Life” such as “Ain’t Waitin’” in this album to keep me happy, without needing to return to that masterpiece. Justin has developed his own sound, style and presentation that draws just enough on the past masters such as evoking Jackson Browne on “Rogers Park” to show a strong songwriter lineage.

He is a workaholic with a string of four records in four years. It looks like Jack White has met his equal for not only amount of output in a short period but creative ability. In much the same way as Songwriters and Recording Artists worked in the Fifties and Sixties before the advent of Fleetwood Mac “Rumours” and Def Leppard “Hysteria”, it is going back to being about the music and not bombastic production.

In a comparison, The White Stripes as a two piece band were able to keep moving, keep the production overhead low while spreading the show around the country and Justin was able to travel light with just a notebook full of songs and a sideman when he travelled opening up for Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit last year in support of “Midnight at The Movies”. He could have been out with a full band, but it kept him from eating bologna sandwiches every night as an opening act.

Live at The State Room, Salt Lake City, UT, spring 2009

Jason’s music is strong enough that he can do it with a full band or as a Troubadour like when I saw him at The State Room in Salt Lake City in mid 2009. Enough people showed up for his opening slot and crowded the front of the stage to catch the vibe and check out his unique finger style on the guitar.

I don’t think he will be able to go out much more by himself unless it is an in-store appearance at Grimey’s or something similar.  Justin has three Bloodshot albums in three years, enough material where some fans are going to be upset because he didn’t play the song they wanted to hear. The closest thing I have seen to a full band was about the time of the release of “The Good Life” at The Basement when he had a couple of others playing fiddle and mandolin.

Ramones

I did get a chance to meet him back in the beginning of 2008. I just thought it was great that something like “The Good Life” was out there and Nashville had gotten behind him.  A lot of music has been recorded since then. For some, that would be a careers worth, for others, like The Ramones, he is just getting started.

– Brad Hardisty, Nashville, TN      thenashvillebridge@hotmail.com

 

Don Rich on Tele with The Buckaroos

Eileen Sisk, in her recent biography of Buck Owens disclosed a good amount of information on how much The Buckaroos made working for the King of Bakersfield. It gave a lot of insight into the sacrifices that were made to be a Buckaroo.

Don Rich made $75 per week when he started to play with Buck. In addition to that, he was to turn over any money he made from outside jobs. Don and the other Buckaroos could make extra money by making a commission on concession sales. Don won many awards as a guitarist; in fact he won awards before Buck was recognized by Country Music associations. Don could have played on many sessions but opted to stay by Buck’s side even though the money was not that great. Buck and Don were a team much like  Tom Petty and Mike Campbell, but, only Buck saw the real money. He was really an employer. 

1960's Merle

In 1963, Merle Haggard was persuaded to take a cut in pay and play bass for Buck. Merle was making $150 per week playing Bakersfield Honky Tonks. Buck hired him to play Bass in his band for $75 per week.  Merle only lasted 2-3 weeks depending on who you talk to before quitting Buck’s band. During those three weeks Merle nicknamed the band The Buckaroos. Merle came up with the name for Buck’s band.

Even though the money was not that good, it was hard to turn down a chance to play in Buck’s band who at the time were considered probably the best in Country Music. Many sidemen today only earn about $200-$400 per week for dates at fairs or other steady venues.

It can be worse for an Indie Rock band. I recently went to a show at The Nick in Birmingham where a band I knew had traveled playing several Southern clubs got their share for the night, $34 after splitting the door with three other bands and the club Sound Engineer.

Early Ozzy, Black Sabbath Days

Ozzy, in his recent autobiography, tells how he never really saw money during his days in Black Sabbath. Black Sabbath was selling records and selling out shows yet rarely saw money. He learned from other members of the band that he could contact management and request a car like a Rolls Royce or something and it would be at the front door the next day. The car could then be sold and converted to cash in his pocket to use as he wished. Essentially, he was living as many bands did back then and that was on the management credit card, both literally and figuratively.

Even Elvis, who commanded big money, was at the mercy of his Manager Col. Tom Parker. At times, he would discuss getting out of his contract or not wanting to do certain concert dates or whatever only to be reminded how deeply in debt he was. In the early days, accounting and taxes were known to be above the heads of many artists and the business knowledge had by Management and Label Executives enabled them to use scare tactics to keep their roster in line.

Semisonic  drummer, Jacob Slichter, wrote a great autobiography from the journals that he kept during his fifteen minutes of fame called “So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star”. He not only went through how the music business worked in the 90’s but talked about how much money it took to have a number one record.  It took close to a million dollars when all was said and done in promotion to get the song “Closing Time” to number one. All the money it takes in promoting a band as well as the cost of touring including a bus that costs several thousand dollars each week eat into profits. In the end, most bands don’t see much unless things really hit big.

During the early days of  Van Halen things were kept lean to put money back into their show and work on becoming headliners. Eddie Van Halen was still living at home with his parents when he married Valerie Bertinelli according to her own book, “Losing It: and Gaining my Life Back One Pound at a Time”.  Even though he could have probably bought a house by the third album when he was dating Valerie it made life easier to keep a room at home with the parents.

When I was 16 I had the opportunity to meet Thin Lizzy on the “Johnny the Fox” tour. The song “The Boys are Back in Town” was a hit on the radio and they were out on tour opening for Queen who had a big album with “A Night at The Opera”. By the time they came to Fresno, California, Freddie Mercury was sick and Queen cancelled. Thin Lizzy became the headliner with Sammy Hagar brought in to open the show.

Hey Scott, so how much you make?

I was at sound check at Selland Arena and had the chance to hang and talk to guitarist, Scott Gorham. We talked about guitarists that he knew such as Ritchie Blackmore and how I was surprised he was from L.A. when I had expected an Irish or British accent. I had one big question since I was a guitar player that wanted to be in a twin lead rock band like Thin Lizzy, but, only played the occasional dances or talent shows with my garage band. How much did he make probably for the year? You know, he knew I was sincere and he was honest with me. He estimated about $24,000 per year. Back in 1976, that would be about $50,000 or so in today’s dollars. It was okay, but, I was expecting $100,000 or something.

In reality, the big payoff for some well-known names in the business did not happen until after years of solid work and paying lots of taxes.

Alex Chilton, Big Star days

What does that mean today especially for an indie act where you don’t want to look too big or be a sell out in the music business? It may mean adjusting one’s lifestyle in order to accommodate the need to create. At one time,   Alex Chilton , the cult hero behind The Box Tops and Big Star  was living in a tent on a friend’s property outside Memphis. He did find a home in New Orleans, but, after a lifetime worth of work he made enough to keep a modest lifestyle.

The music business may be whatever you are able to do yourself. The big labels don’t touch anything that doesn’t want to be developed by a Manager for the masses such as Kesha or Katy Perry. It’s entertainment, but, is it talent? Is it originality or is it a play developed for the artist to walk into? Most musician/songwriters don’t want to even go there as they write and record their music.

It remains to be seen how many musicians will be able to consider what they do as a career after free downloading has taken much of their livelihood. It is estimated that Nashville has lost about 60% of its songwriters due to illegal downloading. The Music Industry has lost jobs in the tens of thousands.

In a way, the clock has turned back to where a new “ Sun” records or other regional could end up making a big impression with innovation. A band, a cooperative or an entrepreneur with deep pockets and web know how could end up being the next big player. Ultimately, the music has to be interesting enough to get the listener to go look for it on the web.

– Brad Hardisty, Nashville, TN

Ray LaMontagne

Four of the top ten records this week in Billboard are a reflection of  Tennessee on the national charts and music in general these days.  A showcase of different styles that all have one common source.

Ray LaMontagne & The Pariah Dogs’  “God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise” with the prominent pedal steel of  Greg Leisz,  may be considered “Contemporary Folk” and could be cross genred with “Americana Music” has its roots in the original Bob Dylan sessions for “Nashville Skyline”  and the phenomenal pedal steel player, Pete Drake. Pete was a first call session player on Nashville Country sessions that became known for his work on “Lay Lady Lay” as well the George Harrison’ “All Things Must Pass” album as well as Producing Ringo Starr’s “Beaucoups of “Blues” .  Greg Leisz work is prominently featured on “New York City’s Killing Me” and the title cut. The record debuts this week at number three on Billboard.

Trace Adkins’ new disc, “Cowboy’s Back in Town” debuts at number five on the national Billboard charts showing his strong audience pull beyond “The Apprentice”.  In a way Trace Adkins, although part of this generations Country Music, represents traditionally Country with his every man and ”what you see is what you get” type persona. He is one of the crop of newer artists that is defining himself much in the way the original icons such as Johnny Cash were able to do.

Lady Antebellum

Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” has gone beyond the country charts with the right pick of material and masterful production and presentation.  “Need You Now”, co-written by Lady Antebellum and Josh Kear spent five weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot Country Songs, before going #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 is now certified triple platinum  and can be heard on just about every radio format. The single has been in the top five on International Charts in Canada, Ireland and Norway as well as a top ten hit in the Netherlands and Norway.  I don’t know of anybody that doesn’t know that song. Again, the pedal steel lick on the chorus is as important as the vocal delivery. I can hear it in my head right now. The follow up singles “American Honey”, “I Run to You” and “Our Kind of Love” have continued the chart topping success.

John at Sun, Memphis

John Mellencamp and T Bone Burnett were right on with “No Better Than This”.  The first week on Billboard that album enters at Number 10 in all its ragged glory. “No Better Than This” was recorded in much the same way as Sam Phillips recorded early tracks at Sun Studios by Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. A vintage mono Ampex Reel to Reel fed by a vintage solo RCA ribbon mic figure in a big way in the Sonics of this album. This features great songs by John Mellencamp being heard on rock, pop and country radio.  The single “Coming Down the Road” being played locally as part of their “Americana Files” on WSM 650, “The Home of Country Music”. If you didn’t know it was a new cut by John Mellencamp you would swear it was an obscure but great track recorded at Sun back in 1956 that is now just coming to light. John will be a part of the Americana Music Awards being held in Nashville being held on September 9th at The Ryman Auditorium.

Americana Music, in general, is the new underground. It doesn’t even have its own chart on Billboard yet. WSM 650 in Nashville is paying attention and participating big time with hosting the “Music City Roots” show at The Loveless Barn every Wednesday night. In times like these, with people searching for jobs and worrying about the future, sometimes the familiarity of Country songs themes and the roots of Americana and Folk that go back to the days of The Carter Family are a way of easing and soothing our troubled minds.

– Brad Hardisty, Nashville, TN

Sun Studio: 3 Musicians and a Microphone

I read about this postcard from Memphis created by John Mellencamp almost a year ago. I waited patiently for many long months for the release of this T Bone Burnett – Produced, Sun Studio bequeathed gem with none other than  Dave Roe (Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Dwight Yoakum) on Bass.  

It could have gone either way. His previous efforts with T Bone Burnett left me kind of underwhelmed. I got my email newsletter from Grimey’s this week with a new CD from John Mellencamp. It was there in the store and now it is pay day. I couldn’t find the dang thing. Oh, with a little help from the staff we found it, i n big letters NO BETTER THAN THIS, then in small caps, Thirteen New Songs by John Mellencamp.

The liner notes tell the whole story of this masterful idea, recorded at Sun with nothing but an Ampex 601 1/4 inch reel to reel fed by a RCA 44 ribbon microphone. One Microphone like the old Elvis and Johnny Cash recordings. There were a few others recorded at some other historic locations added to this southern stew. I always know when it is T Bone at the helm. He seems to have studied an Old 56 tube Seeburg Jukebox tone with its slowly expanded bass response feeling the room and decided that was his line in the sand. Sometimes it is brilliant such as the Robert Plant – Allison Krauss, “Raising Sand” or the “Crazy Heart” Soundtrack other times it doesn’t seem to work right like the last Robert Randolph and Jakob Dylan discs.

This disc is in the Premier Group. It sounds great. There are going to be plenty of Classic country and Rockabilly artists, I think, that will clamor to try this. As the CD slid out of a cover that looks like an old 78 rpm book that would hold 4 or 5 records well-worn and hid away, the disc started out a little guarded, “Save Some Time To Dream” sounds like the next track on the “Crazy Heart” soundtrack but with an easily recognizable John Mellencamp penned song.

Things start to get more interesting on track 3, “Right Behind Me” recorded at The Gunter Hotel, Room 414, San Antonio, Texas where Robert Johnson recorded his first 2 sides “Terraplane Blues” and “Dust My Broom”. It has a haunting feel to it with a violin that sounds like it just got dusted off from 1929 walking around the room in a couple of positions.  This is getting good.

It only gets better. Lyrically, it is introspective and reminiscing,  “For my whole life, I’ve lived down on West End, But it sure has changed here, Since I was a kid, It’s worse now, Look what progress did, Someone lined their pockets, I don’t know who that is”- The West End, John Mellencamp.  In “Thinking About You” the first lines, “It’s not my nature to be nostalgic at all, I sat by the phone last night, Waiting for you to call, It’s been decades since I spoke to you.” Set a mood that is not just nostalgic in sound but looking back into the dust of those who came before.

It had to be life changing to not only record in those spots but to try to use the same methods and sonics. Dave Roe was the perfect pick. He was recently interviewed by Rolling Stone after the Nashville Flood where he disclosed he lost 300 Basses at the Soundcheck Facility to the surging water. This was recorded well before that . For all I know the Bass he used on this recording may have been lost at that time.

go to Daveroe.net to see some shots from the session

Dave has a couple of stand out tracks with the Johnny Cash style arrangement of “Thinking About You” and the boogie woogie of “Each Day of Sorrow”. Two of my favorites. When it really gets into the trio with a little drum sound that was Johnny and the Tennessee Two or, Elvis, Scotty and Bill, it totally works. Where was DJ Fontana? T Bone you should have called him up.  T Bone you did well, easily John’s best album in years. It’s not perfect. It drags in a couple of spots when it sounds like a late 60’s guitar and vocal demo in search of some Artist or Producer.

If you like this one, check out “Kitty, Daisy and Lewis”. This was recorded by an English family with Lewis overseeing vintage gear and cutting it to a 78 lathe.   

Job well done, 8 out of 10.  Let’s hope this inspires some more of cutting everything analog before it goes to digital so it has some sound waves that are pleasant to the ear.

– Brad Hardisty, Nashville, TN