I thought I’d take a look at a some producers, who are also respected musicians, and the work they’ve done with older established country artists to breathe new life into their music and/or add a different dimension to their sound.
The template for a producer working with an older artist, often past the peak of their critical and popular acclaim, was pretty much put in place by Rick Rubin, primarily in his landmark work with Johnny Cash but also to an extent in the work he did with Tom Petty and Neil Diamond. A career revitalisation, a sonic shift, new players and different ideas – they all worked wonders to reframe the idea of an artist having a use-by date.
Since Rubin’s production work with the aforementioned artists, there have been a handful of younger producers, primarily known first and foremost as musicians and songwriters in their own right, that have lent their astute ears, experience and fresh perspective to older acts.
Back in 2004, Jack White stepped up for his first and most high profile production job outside his own music. Working with the legendary Loretta Lynn on her album Van Lear Rose, White successfully added his noisey and raw, garage rock guitar to the still authentic country sound so integral to Lynn’s work. She’d only released one album in the preceding 16 years so the celebrity status of White, married with the return of an icon, generated a fair amount of attention. Most importantly it showed White’s sympathetic but not subservient production style which highlighted Lynn’s considerable and continuing relevance.
A decade later, in 2014, White would would go on to work with another female trailblazer in Wanda Jackson. With a mix of covers he again brought his particular sound to the music, fusing it with Jackson’s rockabilly roots on The Party Ain’t Over. Initially Jackson was unsure if the combination would work but in her autobiography she said “It was clear that Jack was for me in every way, and I felt honored by the respect he showed me.”
Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy took a similarly sympathetic approach when he worked on Mavis Staples’s 2010 album You Are Not Alone. Tweedy proved to be a great producer for Staples who was primarily known as a soul and R&B artist. He retained the church spirit in Staples’s voice but knew to approach the music with a light touch. The pure country strum on the title track, her electric country rock take on John Fogerty’s ‘Wrote A Song For Everyone’ and the heavenly tremolo guitar on ‘Losing You’ were all sonic aspects that wouldn’t have made the cut under the auspices of another producer.
Shooter Jennings is not only the son of Waylon and Jessi Colter, and a musician in his own right, but he’s increasingly focused on his own production work. In 2019 he helped (alongside Brandi Carlisle) to revitalise the career of Tanya Tucker, who had experienced a long quiet period. The producers focused on songs of hardship and overcoming life’s challenges, filtered through the lens of the hard-living Tucker. They made While I’m Livin’ an authentic and personal record and one of the finest of her career.
Most recently, Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys has increasingly been adding producer to his CV, since the mid 2000s. In the context of producing older artists, he worked on Dr John’s Locked Down in 2012, posthumously brought Tony Joe White’s songs to life on Smoke For The Chimney and now, in 2022 he’s taken Hank Williams Jr. deep into the hill country blues with covers of songs by Robert Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, R.L. Burnside and more on Rich White Honky Blues. Out of the all the artists and producers above, this is the most extreme and wholly successful example of a studio collaboration being willingly taken into new waters with spirit and enthusiasm by all parties.