Country Stars Share the Ups and Downs of Recording Alone

Hunter Hayes Photo credit: Juan Pont Lezica
Hunter Hayes
Photo credit: Juan Pont Lezica

While recording his major label debut album, Hunter Hayes clashed occasionally with his studio musicians. Problem is, they were all named Hunter Hayes.

On his self-titled project, released last October on Atlantic Records, the artist, then just 20 years old, not only co-produced with Dann Huff but also sang every note and played every instrument. That included accordion, bass, bouzouki, Hohner Clavinet, drums, Fender Rhodes, guitars (acoustic, 12-string acoustic, baritone, electric, slide, resonator and steel), Hammond B-3, loops, mandocello, mandolin, piano, sitar, synthesizer and Wurlitzer.

This is not common practice. “I’ve never heard of it done in Country at all,” Huff admitted.

Such extreme displays of DIY musicianship are more common in pop and rock, where John Fogerty, Paul McCartney, Prince, Todd Rundgren, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and other icons have flown completely or nearly solo. But Country has also seen some impressive demonstrations of self-reliance, though none as expansive as Hayes’. In the 1950s, for example, Chet Atkins developed a “mad scientist” reputation for his home studio experimentation. Last year, Shelby Lynne released Revelation Road, a stripped-down independent album on which she wrote, played and sang everything as well as produced. Others, including Anita Cochran and Steve Wariner, have replicated the feat to lesser degrees.

Why? Why Not?

For Hayes, that’s how he’s always done it. After getting an 8-track TASCAM recorder for Christmas in seventh grade, as he recalled, “I didn’t come out of my room for months.” Surrounded by gear, equipped with a little studio know-how and a bunch of unfinished songs, he dived into his work, both sides of his brain engaged, figuring out parts he’d never played and eventually creating his first demos.

“I saw it as an extension of the songwriting process,” he said. “It just became the way I worked. I love that I can see a song through from start to finish.“

Anita Cochran
Photo credit: Courtesy of Anita Cochran

“I love Hunter Hayes,” said Anita Cochran. “I know where he’s coming from. He and I started the same way with little recording devices in our bedrooms. I hope the best for this talented guy!

“In my opinion, an artist gets a record deal because they can sing and they sing on their records,” she added. “If the artist is a musician and plays their instrument onstage, why don’t they play on their records? There are a lot of really good bands that have been signed over the years that never got to play on their own records and I never understood that. If I saw an artist onstage playing an instrument when I was a child, I just assumed they played on their records as well. I’m glad to see that some things are changing and more people are actually playing on their records now.”

Cochran’s 1997 debut album, Back to You, made her apparently the first female Country artist to produce, sing, write the songs and play multiple instruments, including lead guitar, on her own album. Necessity paved the way. She had honed her chops in a family gospel/bluegrass band, but she ran into problems when she tried to assemble her own Country band in South Lyon, Mich.

“There were really no Country Music players — steel guitar players, mandolin players or even piano players,” she said. “They were all rock ‘n’ rollers. I need to record a piano and I don’t see a piano player, so I guess I’ll learn to play it. It led from one instrument to another.”

Back to You included the No. 1 hit “What If I Said,” which she’d written and then recorded as a duet with Steve Wariner. The respected singer/ guitarist was also an advocate for playing multiple instruments, thanks in part to encouragement from his first producer, Chet Atkins, who signed him to RCA in 1967 and with whom he also toured.

“He had a mini RCA Studio B at his house and we would record there,” Wariner said. “He knew I played bass and steel guitar, and of course he knew my guitar playing and singing. He urged me, ‘Hey, play this and then play that, and then we’ll overdub those guitars.’ He was having a blast. He’d have me play some parts, and then he’d jump in and play some parts. He’d even have me playing parts on a little black Wurlitzer (electric piano). I’d say, ‘Chet, I’m not a piano player.’ And he’d say, ‘Aw, you can do it. Just play something in the chorus.’”

From Demos to Albums

Home demos are a world removed from major-label projects. But as Hayes’ Atlantic sessions neared, the idea to have the Louisiana phenom play everything and co-produce was, in his words, “carefully mentioned.” The eventual decision: Give it a shot.

It was a first for a young artist and veteran producer. Hayes had never worked with another producer. Huff had, as he put it, “worked with people who’ve done several instruments, but never somebody that’s done everything, top to bottom, including singing all the parts. So I had no blueprint.”

Much time was spent getting acquainted. Huff welcomed Hayes’ suggestions — where to record, who would engineer, details of the process itself — and let him surround himself with friends. They took a relaxed approach. Huff noted, “I basically said, ‘How do you want to do this? It doesn’t really matter to me. I just know what the results need to be.’ It (recording solo) didn’t intrigue me until I heard his songs. Just doing it for the sake of doing it doesn’t really mean anything.”

Hayes chose The Castle in Franklin, Tenn., where Brad Paisley and Keith Urban, among other Country luminaries, had recorded. Louisiana homeboy Tony Daigle got the engineering gig.

It took a couple of weeks to lay down the first song (and ultimately lead single) “Storm Warning” (written by Hayes, Mike Busbee and Gordon Sampson). By then, the team had agreed that the process was working. Hayes described a “back-and-forth” collaboration in which Huff would “paint all over the canvas” of the original demo. Often, artist and producer would begin replacing individual tracks on the original Avid Pro Tools demos, progressively capturing stronger performances. Some guitar and vocal parts from the original demos survived to the final mix. Other songs morphed significantly.

“There was really no single way that worked for every song,” Huff said. “We kind of felt it out as we went.”

“It was about the song, about the performance — Dann was adamant about that,” Hayes agreed.

For Anita Cochran, producer Jim Ed Norman’s confidence in her encouraged her to broaden her role on her debut. She had done it all on her home demos, which Norman loved. “So he was like, ‘I want you to play as many instruments (as you can) because you created the songs and I love the parts you played,’” she remembered.

As the project progressed, Norman was often out of town, so he made Cochran co-producer. Supported by session aces that included drummer Eddie Bayers, guitarist Brent Rowan and pianist Matt Rollings, Cochran contributed guitar (including lead), Dobro, banjo and mandolin in addition to her vocals.

“Jim Ed lets the artist be who the artist is,” Cochran said. “If you’re a musician, he wants you to be a musician on your record. And if you’re a songwriter, he wants you to be a songwriter on your record. He wants to capture everything within.”

The Band Dynamic

Artists who play every part must compensate for the loss of the band dynamic — the magic that can happen in a roomful of talented musicians feeding off each other’s playing.

“That’s the main challenge,” said Huff. “It’s the X factor in music — collaboration — that makes things special. When it all comes through the funnel of one person, that person is going to tend to react the same way. The trick with Hunter was to let him be Hunter Hayes each time. Sometimes it wasn’t that what he was playing wasn’t good, but it sounded too much like the guy playing drums or bass. We’d get to the end of a track and realize, ‘Hey, you’re playing better and more intuitively now. Let’s go back and cut that part again.’”

At times, the tapestry took shape slowly. But Huff’s instincts and Hayes’ abilities compensated for the lack of a band. “I’ve been doing acoustic parts for two days and they sound really stupid,” Hayes explained. “And then all of a sudden, I’m doing piano parts and it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s a magical thing! It’s making sense.’”

Wariner has felt the tug of competing impulses: self-indulgence and collaboration. For his 2011 album, Guitar Laboratory, “on three or four tracks I played everything, including upright bass and steel,” he reported. “It is really fun, as an artist. But what makes a great record, in my humble opinion, is when you have a bunch of great musicians and you turn them loose. Every player is turning in a performance that’s awesome, and you capture that on tape. One of the things I learned from Chet is to get the best players in the world, just get them in the room and let them do what they do. Let them create.”

For the do-it-yourselfer, there can be other drawbacks. For one thing, it takes a lot longer to record an album. “To be honest, it took me seven months to make this record,” Hayes said. “I really don’t want to spend quite that much time making the second one.”

So is he giving up his practice of going it alone? Not entirely, he admitted. “I consider myself very lucky to get to work that way, that I have a label that allows me to and a team that supports that process and understands it too.”

On the Web:

On Twitter: @TheAnitaCochran; @HunterHayes

By Jeff Walter

© 2012 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

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