On The String: The Insider Outlaw David “Ferg” Ferguson
The conversation in Episode 179 of The String begins with an epiphany in sound. David Ferguson remembers being about five years old, growing up in Madison, TN, when his mother took him to one of the TV tapings at the old WSM studios on Knob Hill. It might have been The Wilburn Brothers. Might have been Porter Wagoner. The point is, it was the first time he ever heard a real band in a room. “I had only heard music on a little speaker in the car,” he said. But there, in the studio, “it wasn't loud or anything, but I could feel the low end I never knew was there.”
Hearing the sonic details in recording studios became Ferguson’s way of life. He started running errands and making coffee for the eccentric genius producer Cowboy Jack Clement and would go on to engineer, mix or produce landmark albums by Johnny Cash, John Prine, Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price. He won Grammy Awards for his work with Simpson and the Del McCoury Band. And he’s lately a go-to co-writer and consultant for Dan Auerbach’s busy world at Easy Eye Records. Along the way the protege of Cowboy earned his own nickname, Ferg.
“The Ferg is a bona fide card-carrying legendary hillbilly genius,” is how Sturgill put it. “And when he talks, you better shut up and listen.” I’d planned to invite Ferg to the show for a while, and not that I needed a hook, but one came along. On Sept. 3, Fat Possum Records will release Nashville No More, one of only two albums Ferguson has released as an artist. So we got together at my studio. He was, no surprise, a great talker. But he wasn’t reluctant to listen too. That’s what he does.
“We were outcasts. We were misfits,” Ferg says of the culture he’s helped cultivate from the 1980s onward. “We never listened to the radio around Cowboy’s. I mean, every once in a while, he would force himself to listen to it, to where you can see what was going on. But he just really didn't like what was on there. It was that era of music that took a kind a nasty turn when the digital stuff came in and took all the smoothness off of it, you know. And I think it took a lot of the magical elements away.”
Not that Ferg is a luddite. He’s built several studios that served all kinds of sessions and projects, including his best-known space, The Butcher Shoppe, which he built in partnership with John Prine. Alas, both Prine and that Germantown studio have passed on, and the pandemic year found Ferg improving his home studio in Goodlettsville. That process sparked him to complete work on a self-produced album he’d been nibbling at for years.
Nashville No More has strong echoes of Cowboy Jack in its tuneful ease and vocal phrasing. The tracks are songs deep in Ferg’s heart, “some of my favorite songs ever,” he says. It opens with the timeless and well-traveled “Four Strong Winds,” by Ian Tyson. From the same era and vibe comes Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain.” Ferg taps songwriter Roger Cook, a close friend of the Cowboy Jack circle, who co-wrote the romantic “Looking For Rainbows.” The song that anchors the album’s title, “Knocking Around Nashville,” came from fellow underground legend Pat McLaughlin. And it all wraps with the melancholy but timely “Hard Times Come Again No More” by Stephen Foster, an anthem of country music.
Ferg plans to keep developing projects from his home studio and his collaborations with Easy Eye. But there’s room to fill in new ideas and directions. He’s in a period of transition. He made an album and didn’t see that coming. “Who knows why you do something?” he says. “I just did it. Because I could. Unlimited studio time is nice, you know?”