Look at the production credits on the music rolling out of Nashville’s production line, and the producer is almost always a man. Why? Well, many guys I have talked to over the years say, matter-of-factly, that’s because being a record producer has always been a man’s job. Like being George Martin with the Beatles. Or like cooking barbecue or working on cars or playing football.
The Nashville record-producing tradition really began with Fred Rose, the songwriter who more or less discovered Hank Williams and guided him into the superstar that he became, co-wrote with him and likely ghostwrote many of Hank’s songs. Long before there was a “producer” credit in the industry, Rose worked in that capacity with Williams in the studio.
Rose, who moved to Nashville in the early 1940s from Chicago, was followed in the production ranks by musicians such as Owen Bradley at Decca and Chet Atkins at RCA in Nashville and Ken Nelson at Capitol in Los Angeles. And they wielded supreme power. They picked the songs the artist would record, they often did the arrangements, picked the session musicians who would play on the record and then supervised the recording session.
Some things change over the years, but many don’t. The fact remains that the country music industry remains a boys’ club — as does the entire music industry in general.
I have been around country singers and writers and executives for several decades, and I can tell you that it is still very much a small fraternity. That’s a fact of life, and no amount of legislation will change it. Many of the players will frankly admit it, but they don’t want to risk losing their power or position to try to change things.
In Nashville’s history you can still count the number of full-fledged women producers on one hand. The pioneer in Nashville was Gail Davies, who produced her own solo album The Game in 1979 but said that she had to prove herself by working in Muscle Shoals, Ala., first before she could get into a Nashville studio.
Others have included Wendy Waldman, who produced John Cowan. Lari White co-produced Toby Keith’s White Trash With Money. Alison Krauss co-produced O Brother, Where Art Thou and other works, including Union Station and Nickel Creek albums. Marshall Chapman has co-produced her own work, as have a few other women artists.
Tellingly, no women have been tapped to produce contemporary artists who are competing for mainstream country radio airplay, which is the ultimate prize. Equally telling is that there are few female country artists being recorded for that same market.
The Nashville studio scene is so small and clannish and such a cottage industry that no outsider can hope to gain entrance.
One woman who has turned to producing carved her own path. Tamara Saviano has worked as music journalist and manager, among other duties, and has now produced four albums: Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster, The Pilgrim: A Celebration of Kris Kristofferson, The Bluegrass Elvises, Vol. 1: Shawn Camp & Billy Burnette (with Camp as co-producer), and This One’s for Him: a Tribute to Guy Clark. Beautiful Dreamer won a Grammy and the Guy Clark project is nominated for one this year.
“I work outside the mainstream,” says Saviano, “and have taken a path that many women might find uncomfortable. For one, I think we as women just need to do what it is we want to do and let the chips fall where they may. The records I’ve produced have been personally important to me, and I didn’t want to turn them over to someone else.”
Saviano says there is nothing mystical and difficult about producing.
“I think people think producing a record is some big mysterious, difficult job that one needs special training to excel,” she says. “I disagree. What I learned from working on the Stephen Foster album is that producing a record is not difficult. It is a creative process and can be approached any way the producer wants to approach it. As a former music journalist, I feel like I know how to tell stories, and producing a record, for me, is simply telling a story through music. One pulls together the elements in the way she wants to tell the story. I think a producer in a recording studio is much like a film director.
“It’s always my goal as a producer to get the smartest people in the room, give them the big picture and then stand back and let the artists, musicians and engineer do what they do. For the Guy Clark tribute, I had a certain sound I wanted to achieve, and I gave the artists, the musicians and the engineer those guidelines. Then during the process, my job was to make sure everyone remembered my vision for the record and stayed on track.
“In country music, it is still very much a good old boys’ network. … There are few women in powerful positions in the mainstream country music world. That is probably a stumbling block to women who want to produce country records.”
NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.