Author: | Filed under: Interviews, Musician Resources

The following is Part 2 of my 3-part interview with Grammy®-winning producer, former A&R executive, and veteran musician Steve Fishell.

Steve’s highly regarded work as a musician includes a 10 year stint touring and recording as Emmylou Harris’s pedal steel guitar player in her Hot Band.  As a studio producer, with over 20 years of experience producing hit records for top labels in both the major and indie worlds, Steve’s wide-ranging resume includes projects with Little Richard, Willie Nelson, Mavis Staples, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and The Dixie Chicks.  Steve has earned many distinguished awards, including multiple number one records, gold and platinum albums in both the U.S.A. and Canada, a Grammy in 2005 for Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster, numerous Grammy nominations and a Canadian Country Music Award for Album of the Year for Charlie Major’s chart-topping The Other Side.  His work in 1994 with country vocalist Pam Tillis on her In Between Dances CD helped guide Tillis to a Country Music Association (CMA) award for Best Female Vocalist.

Steve is also the founder of the Music Producers Institute, which he runs while maintaining his busy producing and performing schedule.  As regular readers of this blog know, I had the opportunity to attend MPI’s Todd Snider sessions at the legendary Sound Emporium in Nashville.  While I was there, Steve spoke with me at length about performance from his unique perspective as a successful musician and producer.  Please see my previous post for the first part of this conversation – the third installment will be posted in one week.  –VA

As a studio producer, you have to think big picture, and you have to think little moment – does this little moment fit into the big picture, and does the big picture fit into the little moment.  And so it is kind of about the big themes and the creative process.   What do you think most gets in the way of performers in their creative process?


Steve Fishell:  Fear – the fear of creativity or the lack of confidence to be creative.

Or the lack of knowledge that you can access creativity?

SF:  Right – that it’s there, that you can tap it.  Yeah, it’s true.  If you’re being creative all the time, or, you know, several times a year, then it’s a regular routine and it’s easier for you.  But imagine someone who is really, really good, but then didn’t have some breaks – had an initial success, and then their career went south for 10 years, and then they had to come back.  You hear the expression “comeback” – that’s a huge challenge to come back, especially if you had this one initial success.

Think about Darius Rucker, who was in Hootie and the Blowfish – gigantic album, then subsequent albums fared not as well.  And then Darius came to Nashville and started writing songs three or four years ago, and sought a country record deal.  “Well, sure, ok, so Darius Rucker, this rock guy, now wants to be country.  Oh, perfect.”  He was turned down by everybody.  Everybody said, “No, thank you.”  But fortunately, at Capitol Nashville, a fellow named Mike Dungan over there took a chance and signed Darius, and they made a record.  And damn, it had three number one singles, the record’s gone platinum, he was nominated for best male vocal at the CMA awards and he was nominated for best new artist at the CMA awards, and he won best new artist.  The fact that he got nominated for best male vocal is astonishing.  But most importantly, that reinvention is really hard to do.  And my hat goes off to Darius.  I mean, to reinvent yourself from Hootie and the Blowfish to Darius Rucker the country singer and have it really be good, because that’s an excellent record – a guy named Frank Rogers produced it, who produces Brad Paisley, incredible ideas, great ears – it’s just cool.  So it made me really happy to see him win the CMA award.  That’s hard to pull off, especially coming from Hootie and the Blowfish.  You know, people just laugh at you when you come through the door.  “Darius Rucker wants to be country?  Oh yeah, right.  African-American rock guy?  You want to come and play in our playground?”

When what you should be doing is considering what made the Hootie record what it was, and what was his part in that.

SF:  Yeah, songwriting?  Vocal performance?  Tapping a nerve?

Yeah, what else do you need to know?

SF:  Yeah.  The guy has a great voice – now, he changed his vocal style for the country stuff, but that’s some genius there, too.  That’s evolving your artistic expression.  It’s like moving from one Monet period to another Monet period.  That’s making a serious re-inventive adjustment.  Boy, that’s really hard to do.  It’s much easier to stay the same, and be mad at the world for not accepting you the way you are.  Instead, you’re going, ok, what do I need to do to fit in now?  And if I get this chance, can I pull this off?  There’s a lot of confidence that’s required for something like that.

Or it could be, I’ve been a lawyer all my life, but what I really want to do now is be a teacher.

SF:  That’s a great example.  So you’ve got to go back to school, you’ve got to get a teaching credential, you’ve got to put in your time.

What are your thoughts on what makes a good sideman?

SF:  Oh, I think that’s easy to define.  You have to subvert your own desire to show off.  You have to subvert any willingness to draw attention to yourself.  As a sideman, your goal, and your role, is to support the lead singer, and to help them present their material in as beautiful a way as you can.  So it’s really important to stay out of the way of the voice.  You have to learn that it’s not about hot licks or about playing anything flashy.  You’re there to support the song.  The song is supreme, and the voice is supreme in the mix, and you’re only there to help embellish the song and embellish the artist’s voice.  So you almost have to study composition, in a way, because it’s like a call and response to the lyrics – you have to stay out of the way of the lyrics.  There’s no hard-set rules, but generally, if you’re going to play while the artist is singing, it’s generally going to be a simple pad, or some sort of supportive tone.  And then when their voice is finished, then you’re going to answer in some way, in something that ties to the melody, that lifts up the melody and leads the song to the next line.  So the perfect fill is always something you’re trying to achieve.

You have to put your ego aside – it’s not anything about you or your instrument.  The artist is up there trying to bring these words across to the audience, and your role as a sideman is to help support that artist bringing those words across.  And if you suddenly decide you want to play some flashy hot lick, you’re blowing it.  Go do that on your own time.  Because if the artist is good, they’re going to be singing really good songs, and those songs deserve to be presented with an arrangement that’s heartfelt and soulful and evocative, and not cluttered with a whole bunch of stuff.  It’s a real art to play as little as you possibly can to support that song, but that’s one of the most important aspects to a sideman.  As little, but as supportive, an accompaniment as you can provide, that’s your goal.

When I work with bands, one of the things I’m working on with the sidemen is not to also be visually distracting, because there’s a real set of bad habits that people develop around that.

SF:  Yeah.  It’s funny, I’ve changed about this over the years.  I remember seeing the Eagles in 1974 in Santa Barbara, and they were all wearing t-shirts and jeans, and they looked like the roadies, but I thought that was really cool.  So there was a point in my life when I thought that dressing “street” was cool.  But now I kind of feel like artists should present themselves a little bit, well, not flashy or anything – I’m torn on this question, visuals are tough for me.  Sometimes I think it’s great when somebody just looks like your neighbor next door and they’re an ordinary Joe, but on the other hand, I think it’s interesting that for some people, it became standard for a while for artists to insist that their bands wear black, everything has to be black.  And then when I saw that Bruce Springsteen was doing that, and I really respect Bruce Springsteen and his band, but I think it looks a little bit like a uniform when they’re all wearing black up there – I don’t dig that so much.

But boy, I just saw them here about two weeks ago, and they blew me away.  That band and that guy are incredible.  He’s just absolutely superhuman onstage, and just comes out of the box like the first song is the encore, at that intensity level, and then keeps going up from there.  It’s amazing.  All due props and respect to Bruce Springsteen and his band – they’re badass.

They work so hard.

SF:  They really do.  They do not phone it in.  Now, maybe they shouldn’t all wear black, I don’t know.  They might be doing that for personal reasons.  I’ve noticed that they’ve done it since the 9/11 tragedy, so there might be reasoning there that I’m not taking into account.

I heard an interesting interview recently with Nils Lofgren.  He was asked about Springsteen and how he gets ready for a show, because his shows are just so all out.  And he said that Springsteen approaches performance like it’s a religious healing experience – not in the sense that it’s tied to religion, per se…

SF:  Oh sure, I understand.

It was like, the stage is Springsteen’s church, where he goes to heal spiritually.  Which makes a lot of sense when you think about the interplay between him and the audience and with his band – he just seems to be in an elevated place.

SF:  He is!  And great music can be cathartic, not only for the artist, but also for the audience.  It can be something that can be spiritual healing.  It can be an unexpected emotional release that helps you forget the difficulties of your day-to-day life.  It’s escapism sometimes.  I definitely felt like there was a spiritual connection, seeing Springsteen two weeks ago, and I love that.  It’s rare to have that feeling.  Most concerts that I go to, I just feel like I’m being entertained.  He has an expression – I think it goes something like, to be a good artist, you have to see yourself when you look at the audience, and when the audience looks at you, they have to see themselves in you.  So there has to be that one-on-one connection, and not some sort of aloofness.  He’s not aloof onstage – he’s giving it 102 percent.  He’s extraordinary.  He literally did that thing, what is it called, when you flop down on the audience and they cart you across?


SF:  Yeah, he crowd-surfed.  I think they saw it coming.  He said, “Are you ready for this?” and he leaned back and they all caught him, and they moved him back about 60 feet, then they turned him around and they put him back on the stage.  And this was on the second song!  I was lucky enough to be in the pit at the concert, at the Sommet Center here in Nashville.  A friend of mine is very close to the band and was able to get me there.  And I moved over to the center, directly in front of Bruce, on the first song because I wanted to see what it was like sonically.  So this was about 15 feet back from the stage in the pit, you know, 15 people back, right next to the wall that leads to the general audience.  And somebody leaning up against the barricade on the inner side asked me to please move, because they knew what was about to happen, that Springsteen was about to flop down.  And I thought they were being kind of rude, asking me to move out of the way, because I was dead center in front of Bruce for half of a song.  But I moved back over to the side, and sure enough, he comes crowd-surfing.  He’s 60 years old!  It looked pretty cool to me – it looked like a lot of fun.

I have this sort of mantra that I use when I work with people.  It’s basically, “…like you give a shit.”  You know, show up like you give a shit, dress like you give a shit, sing like you give a shit, play like you give a shit.  Because otherwise, you know, you might as well stay home in your living room.

SF:  Or you might as well do something else!  You know, Steve Goodman was a good friend of mine, and he said, “Look, people out there in the audience paid a lot of money to be there.  You owe them a show.  They’ve paid for a ticket, they paid for parking, they probably paid for a babysitter.  They probably have a lot of money invested in this show, and you’d better damn well get out there and do 102 percent.  And no whining.  This is not so much about you, this is about a mutual experience.  And if you can’t handle it, then go sell shoes somewhere or something.  There’s no excuse.”  If you ever saw Steve Goodman, he would go out and open for Jimmy Buffett or somebody, all by himself with an acoustic guitar, and just wow 15,000 people all by himself.  If he broke a guitar string, he wouldn’t stop and whine about it.  He would actually sing a song while he was putting a new string on his guitar, and the song would continue while he changed the string and he told a story.  You know, these are four things going on at once in your mind, in front of an audience.  You have to give it your all, and it’s a privilege to be on that stage, and if you’re going to be self-involved about it, think about another career.  Because the audience will pick up on it – they’ll move on if they think you’re being aloof or self-involved.  There are probably some artists who get away with it for a while, but not for very long.  You’ve got to give back.

To be continued…