The Producer’s Chair: Frank Liddell

By James Rea

Just minutes into my conversation with Frank Liddell, Frank said; “I feel a buzz in the air about people wanting to come here to make music, but I think the #1 challenge that must be presented to Nashville, in terms of the music business is, to remember that this is a creative town first and foremost. I feel like this town has become very powerful over the years and I feel like there’s a bigger gulf than ever between the creative side of the business and the rest of the business”

If you’re sitting waiting for Frank in the reception area outside his office facing east, you don’t have enough time to take in all the industry awards in his showcase. If you’re sitting on the east side of the room reading the west wing wailing wall, you’ll eventually understand why. I guess the walkway in-between leading to his completely unpretentious office is that gulf.

Instead of us saying those guys on the other side need to respect our field more, maybe we should be able to say; “Hey, let’s make you a part of what we do.” Musicians work an 11 hour day and they go home. They don’t have time to BS with the community, as I do. Without the great talent, we’re nothing. This is a talent driven town, not marketing driven. The marketing doesn’t inspire the talent, the talent inspires the marketing. I’m not blaming the powers-that-be on either side. It’s very important that we market the talent, but how do we teach kids, record companies, grown-ups, everybody, to understand the talent and not take it for granted and work closer to grow an awareness of the quality of musicians and songwriters who live here; public and industry awareness? The music wasn’t built by the industry. The industry was built by the music. If I could do anything, it would be to help build the awareness that this is Music City; the greatest concentration of songwriting and musician talent in the world. It’s more exclusive in this town to be a professional musician than a professional football player. I just think that we should work harder to educate the world to know that, without what musicians do and what songwriters do, there’s nothing. And if they’re the greatest in the world, then they should be paid accordingly.


Why aren’t producer’s names on videos?

They used to be. When I moved to Nashville I didn’t really know what a producer did, but I love Lyle Lovett, and Steve Earl and Nancy Griffith and all three had Tony Brown’s name on their records. And I thought…I want to know that guy. In terms of self-satisfaction, I don’t think anybody outside of this business really cares a whole lot about, who produces the record, but I’m optimistic or I would have been gone a long time ago.


Engineers are generally the most un-heralded bunch. They don’t get the praise they deserve. You talk about the geniuses behind a record. 99% of the compliments I get they deserve and actually have nothing to do with what I do. My goal here is just to get the best team in a room to make a great record. It’s not a committee and it’s not a dictatorship either. I’m probably ultimately the boss in some of those things, just because sometimes decisions have to be made. I need somebody to bounce ideas off in a room. I have a ton of respect for engineers. What they do is one of the most important things that any of us do… their vision is, how the record is going to sound.


I don’t know what any of that gear does. I’ve never touched a compressor. A distinctive sounding record is the most important thing. Think of all the great records. Your car radio can come on anywhere in the song and you know exactly what it is. These guys have more information than anybody. They’ve been recording music every damn day, for how ever long they’ve been doin’ it.”


Everyone used to love to flip that big album over and that just doesn’t happen any more.

That doesn’t mean that the information is not relevant. I think it was more easily accessible when you and I were growing up but there’s more ways to get music now and the information does exist. Those who want it will get it. I think it just needs to be somehow made more readily available and also, there needs to be more marketing, in terms of the quality of somebody’s behind the scenes work.”


Publishing

What I’m trying to do is build a publishing company and I want this company to be remembered maybe the way Acuff/Rose was. I want Carnival to become a formidable company of artist development. We’re publishers at heart. Part of our strength is recognizing unique talent and developing it. If I can identify, re-shape and re-define our goals, the business model will work. I don’t want to be anything but a creative company. I don’t want power. I want us to have strength and a strong platform to speak from, and a foundation that cannot be cracked.


I love records. Going to a live event doesn’t speak to me the way a record does. I never got to see the Beatles live, but I’ve seen footage and it’s not Rubber Sole and it’s not Revolver. I love records. We have a vision here at Carnival for the artists we’re working with and sometimes you turn a record over to a label and they don’t share your vision. It’s heart-wrenching when that happens. We helped develop The Ely Young Band and got them to a place and they had a very strong management that helped them get to another place too, but it all set them up to where they’re selling records, their selling tickets and they’re makin’ noise. They’re not a household name but they’re making good money, I can guarantee you that, and they’ve got their foot in the door as artists, in this business, whereas some people, who just depend every week on their single, don’t. We have a couple more in Texas that we’re doing the same thing with right now.


I want to help build careers out of music not out of marketing ideas. There are so many artists that never had radio hits, but their songs are universal. I think Miranda’s team have taken advantage of opportunities, but her career is defined by the music she makes, both in the studio and live.


I get frustrated when I have to work with an artist, who thinks he or she needs this, or needs to do that, or needs to say this, or needs to be that”. I don’t hear that from Miranda. That stuff never comes out of her mouth. The Beatles were not put together by a record company and neither were the Allman Brothers. Creativity comes from the artist, not from a dictator down. What interests me is that Music Row today and in ten years is known as the music capitol of the world.”


I love the Pistol Annies album.

Miranda has a real good sense of who the Pistol Annies are and who she is. It was Miranda’s brainchild. Miranda heard Angelina Presley’s record and just fell in love with Angelina. Miranda was already close friends, with Ashley Monroe. Miranda invited them on the road and the three of them started writing. Miranda called me one day and said she wanted to do this. They wrote all the songs and did all the vocal arrangements. Miranda sees something that she wants to do and she does it. I was like a fly on the wall that got to witness the whole thing.”


Artists writing chops; as they get better, they write more of their own material. Is this affecting the number of Carnival cuts?

Yes it has diminished but I don’t have a problem with artists writing their record. What I have a problem with is when people who aren’t writers are writing for the money. My whole feeling is, if Willie Nelson can cut outside songs, everybody in this town can. Willie Nelson is one of the greatest American songwriters in the last 60 years. If somebody who is good enough to write Crazy can cut an outside song, then don’t walk into this town and say; “I’m too good for outside songs.” Miranda’s new record has 14 new songs and she only wrote on 6 of them.”


How do new artists generally come to you?

That’s scary…I try to find people from the ground up. More people are finding me now, than I have found and that scares me a little bit because I used to just uncover rocks and accidentally find most of the people I’ve found. I usually found people that nobody else wanted anything to do with. Sometimes when you get a certain reputation of working with certain kinds of talent, that talent of that ilk will gravitate towards you.”


Do you still listen to songs the way you did when you were 16?

I can’t say that I do, because in a weird way, there’s so much goin’ on in your life when you’re 16. I am more melodic driven than I am lyric-driven. I just think it’s the first thing you hear. I hate trite lyrics that I’ve heard a million times. When you get in your car and you turn your radio on, it’s not going to be at the beginning of the song, it’s going to be in the middle. So there’s, all these things. Does it get to the chorus quick enough, is the intro too long. I understand that it’s somebody’s box of number-crunching and all that stuff is probably relevant, but at the same time, I get in a car and I either like it or not. I don’t listen to a song all the way through and then put it through some crunching formula in my mind, to decide weather I like it. I’m that way with artists too.”


You don’t write do you?

No, I’ve had ideas and I’ve messed around with it a little bit but not really at all. I’d like to but it would get in the way of what I do.”


Is it kind of a conflict of interest?

I don’t know that it’s a conflict of interest, but it would ultimately be a conflict of my interests. There are people who own vast collections of art and perhaps they’re not painters themselves. I’m as proud of our songwriters as I am of anything that I’ve done. I just wanna go and make more music and help other people make more music. Music, that follows the rules that, I like to follow, which are few rules. The Allman Brother’s “Blue Sky” is one of my favorite songs. I listened to it about 15 years ago, after I’d been here several years and I realized that it’s


Verse

Chorus

Incredibly long jam session

½ verse

Chorus

Another long jam session

Over


It’s an unfinished song … and it’s one of the greatest records ever made, if you ask me, so what’s not finished about it? I think that if you start applying rules to that, it wouldn’t have been what it is.


I’ve been blessed to meet a lot of successful people over the years that have given me little nuggets of wisdom. I met John Stainze, an A&R guy whose first artist that he signed was Dire Straits. He told me one time he tried to sign The Clash and he took all the guys down to see them play, before they were The Clash. There was nobody at the show and it didn’t start until one in the morning. He said they started playin’ and they’re spittin’ at each other with some guy in the crowd and shovin’ each other around. They said: Are you kiddin’ me, these guys can’t even play and he said: I can’t play either, but who really gives a shit. What about the guy who can play, who can’t speak to anybody. These people were speaking to people.


Rather than hone in on what I do, I’d like to continue to broaden my horizons and hopefully the peoples in this office that I work with. Hopefully we’re all doing the same thing. I don’t know how much I can help somebody get fans to go to their show and add extra value for their ticket. That’s not what I do for a living but I respect the hell out of the people who do.”, which I’m sure is why Chuck Ainley recently invited Liddell to join the Nashville branch of the NARAS, P&E Wing.


I’m real eager to sit down with a lot of these people because maybe I can contribute, we’ll see. I just don’t know”


There’s no doubt that, Frank Liddell makes records that sound like no other record you’ve ever heard. If you’d like to hang out with him, for an hour or so, don’t miss Frank’s third appearance on The Producer’s Chair on Thursday, September 29, at Douglas Corner, at 6 o’clock. In the meantime, think about that gulf, in Frank’s world.