In some careers, your title is conferred on you by authoritative figures or institutions on a date certain. But others are self-appointed and self-anointed, hopefully with some humility, after an indeterminate period of apprenticeship. That’s the story for a lot of music producers. It’s a career into which one mostly slides over time. Producers tend to be musicians with a variety of aptitudes - for drawing out musical elements, for getting people to work together, for honing an esthetic idea and much more. They have to good at the big picture and the details. It means producers are worth talking to.
Episode 125 of The String is a producers’ episode, in which I ask a couple of Music City’s most interesting influencers to pause and talk about what they do and how they do it. Rick Clark has focused on soundtrack music for film and TV in recent years, helping Nashville’s best musicians to be heard in unexpected settings, with good paychecks to boot. Neilson Hubbard has established a feel and approach that’s been trusted by many of the city’s finest songwriters and recording artists. Here’s the show, with some background.
Born in the mid 1950s in Memphis, TN, Rick Clark had original Sun Records 45s by Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis lying around his family’s home as if they were just, you know, cool local records. Music – black and white – was everywhere and Clark says it was only in his 20s that he fully realized that his city wasn’t like other cities. He spent the next decades participating in that specialness of Memphis as a musician in working bands, a DJ and a music service programmer, making mix tapes for nightspots from a vast and growing record collection. Clark moved to Nashville in 1995, looking to grow. He did a lot of music journalism and dabbled in major label talent scouting. One of his most influential jobs was more than a decade of producing the CD companion, and thus the artistic content, of the vaunted Oxford American magazine’s annual Southern Music issue.
Then, working mostly from Nashville, Clark got pulled into the Los Angeles world of TV and film. His work on a variety of shows, especially Hell on Wheels, the award-winning western series for AMC, put him in the studio in a serious way, coaxing out performances and sculpting music to the needs of dramatized emotional moments. His network of go-to musicians, a cast he calls The Deliverance Sisters, includes bassist Viktor Krauss, multi-instrumentalist Rory Hoffman, drummer Jano Rix of the Wood Brothers and Chinese guzheng player Wu Fei. Clark’s approach draws in part on the influence of his heroes and friends Jim Dickinson (Big Star, The Replacements) and Brian Ahern (Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell).
“When I work in the studio, I’m very intense on protecting the inner two or four-year-old child in every one of the players. I want them to feel that they can throw paint willy-nilly and there will be no judgement. Most musicians who work with me usually remark it’s the most fun they ever had. Because I think you’re going to get something of worth that conveys something at risk of being lost, which is sort of the thing I look to realize in the music. I don’t want things linear.”
In recent years, Clark has been writing songs and cutting tracks as an artist for the first time in decades. Here’s one we talk about, "Is That All?"
Neilson Hubbard is a Mississippi native who got his start as a songwriter and artist. He released six albums starting in the 1990s and later became part of several respected bands, including Nashville’s Strays Don’t Sleep with Matthew Ryan. In recent years, Hubbard co-founded The Orphan Brigade, an atmospheric, narrative-driven folk-rock ensemble with Joshua Britt and Ben Glover. He even found time to release a solo in 2018 called Cumberland Island, marking a bit of a return to original music making and some limited touring. As he says though, he loves the studio and doesn’t love the road.
Working out of his East Nashville studio called Mr. Lemons, after a late, beloved cat, Hubbard has produced sumptuous sounding albums by Matthew Perryman Jones, Garrison Starr, Glen Phillips, Amelia White, Kate York and Kim Richey. Recent guests on The String have talked about albums made with Hubbard, including Mary Gauthier, Amy Speace and Nora Jane Struthers.
In our interview, Hubbard talks about what his pursuit of photography has taught him about record production (and vice versa), his fruitful relationship with Glen Phillips of Toad The Wet Sprocket and his admiration of producer Rick Rubin.
“(Rubin’s) a zen guy. I feel like he’s good with that kind of direction. It’s not like he’s in the room telling everybody what to do all the time. He just knows when something is right. At the end of the day, that’s really the only thing that matters – how it sounds coming out of the speakers. So whatever version someone gets to that point, it doesn’t matter. There’s a part of it that’s you don’t do anything, and there’s a part of that that’s the true skill of it. To know when to say something and when not to say something and how to create an environment, behind the scenes, that no one realizes, that is safe.”
Here is “Trouble My Heart (O Harriet)” from the first Orphan Brigade album, produced by Hubbard. Ben Glover is singing lead vocal. Hubbard can be seen briefly banging on a washtub.