The Band and the Studio: The making of Sixteen Winters

Making a record isn't easy to do.  You need songs; you need a studio; you need an engineer; and, you need the right musicians. If any one of these factors doesn't fall exactly into place, your record will fall short of what you envisioned.  Me, I figure making a record isn't cheap; and if it goes well, lots of people are going to hear it. I really want it to be the best it can possibly be when it's finished. I want to listen to it and know that in that place and at that time, I made the best record I could have made. I could have made this record for half of what it cost me. But it would not have been "this" record.  Of that, I'm sure.

It doesn't matter how good your songs are. If you can't find musicians to play the parts the way they need to be played to make your sound happen, it ain't gonna happen. I don't mean players you can stand over and dictate notes and phrases to - that takes a lot of skill on both ends, but it never sounds natural to me. You have to find players who understand and feel what you're trying to do, where you're trying to get the song to take people. You can't reference songs and styles to give a guy the right idea if he's not familiar with what you're referencing. You need players who have the ability to come from the same place you do, musically speaking.

I played all the guitars and the bass guitar myself. I also played some percussion, and a little harmonica. I knew I could do that, and get the job I needed done. The other instruments however...let's just say that although I mess around with all of them, I knew there was no way I could play them at the level I needed to, to get that elusive "sound in my head".  I knew I had to hire the right people if I was going to make the record I wanted to make.

The first piece that fell into place and really got me itching to make this record was Chris "Elmer" Hanna. I've known Chris for a long time and although I loved his playing, we never got much chance to work together in years past. I was about to kidnap him and force him into a band with me several years ago, but he up and moved to Nashville for a couple of years, where he did quite well. When he moved back to Cleveland a couple years ago, we started working together, and I knew he was the guy. He's a beast on anything with keys, and he hears like a bat. He can play blues; he can play rock; he can play jazz; and, he can play gospel.  If you ask me though, the guy was born to play country music and western songwriter music. He's got a feel for it that I have not found anywhere outside of Texas and the Rocky Mountains. Some people are born in the wrong time; Chris was born in the wrong place. I don't know how he did it; but, somehow he got this stuff in his blood. His piano and organ parts really set the mood for so many of these songs. 

Jon Darling played all the drums on the record. I first met John a little over two years ago when we hosted a jam together. I immediately liked him and his drumming. With Jon, it's never about him; it's always about the song.  Every time. He listens to a song, figures out what it needs, and just does that. It's a beautiful thing.  About a year after I first met Jon, I approached him about being the drummer on Sixteen Winters. I knew he had never really played country or roots music before because he'd told me as much. But, I knew he could do it. I could tell from working with him, even just playing classic rock covers at the jam we hosted, that he'd find the exact right place to put these songs. He did. He's a very dynamic drummer with a great touch; and, he listens to and really pays attention to arrangements. Oh, and his cymbals sound freaking amazing. We did absolutely nothing to them during tracking or mixing. We just mic'd them up, and that's how they sounded. 

"Steely" Dan Morris played pedal steel. I have known Dan for seven or eight years now. The entire time we've known each other, we've played together in a band called California Speedbag, which has played a couple of the songs from this record live for years. Dan already had great parts for those and had worked with me on several duo dates, so he was the logical choice for the record. Not to mention, there just aren't a whole lot of choices up on the North Coast when you're hunting somebody who plays this ridiculously complicated instrument. Lucky for me, not only does Dan own a pedal steel and know how to play it, he plays it really, really well. His style really emphasized exactly what I needed it to.

Now, let's talk about Becca Rhoades.  I knew I wanted to record Lock the Door really sparsely. My vision for it was originally just acoustic guitar, upright bass, and fiddle - which is exactly what I ended up doing with it. Good fiddle players around these parts are almost as rare as pedal steel guys. I had a few very good options; but all the way up until a couple weeks before tracking, I still wasn't sure who I'd call. I dropped by a local music venue one night to see a duo called Red Brick Rhoades - Becca and my friend Red Chrosniak. I knew within 20 seconds of walking in the door that Becca was going to get the job. I love what she did with the song. It's Appalachian fiddle for sure, but also has that little touch of Texas because Becca is from Lubbock. It is, in my opinion, the perfect part for this tune. Becca also has the distinction of singing the only backing vocal on the entire record. She was in tracking fiddle for Lock the Door, and Curtis suggested a really simple, one line harmony part for Still in It, so we had her take a pass at it. It's beautiful; and, it's one of my favorite moments of the whole recording.

Michael Barrick plays upright bass on Lock the Door. I knew I wanted upright on the tune, and again, wasn't sure who to call.  I was talking to a drummer friend of mine one night, and Mike was standing right next to us. I mentioned that I needed an upright player for one track, and my friend pointed at Mike and said "he plays upright". So I asked him, and he said yes. I've known Mike and worked with him for many years. He's an amazing musician, and a seriously hilarious cat. It was really cool to be able to have him on the record.

All of these great players though, and all of the amazing work they did, could not have been presented properly without engineer Curtis Leonard, and his PlaYroOm studio. I made the first solo record I ever made, an EP called Waiting for April, with Curtis more than ten years ago. For Sixteen Winters, something told me it was time to go back. I'm very thankful for that little bit of intuition, wherever it came from. I started calling Curt "The Zengineer" during these sessions because he's so laid back and easy to work with but at the same time keeps things very focused and on track. If I ever make another record without him engineering, it won't be any time soon. Curt's approach is to get the right sounds the first time, through mic and preamp selection, and mic placement. Capture the performance the way it's supposed to sound so that messing with things post tracking is extremely minimal. It takes a little more time while you're tracking; but, it's so worth it in the long run to have those sounds be natural and not manipulated after the fact. We really spent very little time adjusting things in the mixing stage of things, and did almost nothing with EQ, compression, or effects. What you hear on this record is Curt bringing my production ideas, and the sounds I wanted to hear, to life through plain, old-fashioned, straight-up engineering - no studio magic. In my opinion, it's the way records ought to be made. If an artist and the players they hire have the talent, there's no excuse for doing it any other way.