Kyle Lehning — one of the industry’s top producers. He’s been Randy Travis’ producer from the very beginning, and recently won the CMA Song of the Year with “Three Wooden Crosses”. From “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight”, Dan Seals’ “Bop”, Neal McCoy’s “The Shake”, Randy’s “1982 ” and “On The Other Hand ” to George Jones, Bryan White, Michelle Wright — the list goes on. As a record executive, recording engineer, musician, producer, his impact on the music scene has been recognized and awarded many times over.
NOTE: After this interview, “Three Wooden Crosses ” also won the Song of the Year Award for the internationally televised Academy of Country Music (ACM).
Table of Contents
Kyle Lehning Interview
Q. First of all, congratulations on your latest success, “Three Wooden Crosses” by Randy Travis. It won the CMA song of the year, it’s been a number one radio hit, on a gold-selling album (Rise & Shine), number one on the Billboard, R&R, and Music Row charts. You’ve produced Randy’s hits for quite some time, and we’ll talk about that in a moment, but how did you connect on this one?
Kyle: Blake Chancey and I were making a record for Michael Peterson for Sony, and near the end of that record, Michael, who’s just a terrific guy, came in the studio one day and said: “I just heard a wonderful song that I think would be great for Randy.” He played “Three Wooden Crosses “, and I completely agreed with him right away. We called Randy and sent it to him, and he really liked it, and, a long story short, we ended up getting to record it. It was because of Michael Peterson’s generosity that we actually got the song.
Q. Did you have any sense that “Three Wooden Crosses” was going to have the phenomenal success that it has?
Kyle: I’ve had the same sense about that song that I’ve had about other songs that we’ve recorded, some of which have been hits and some of which haven’t. I mean, I knew that it was just a great song. Kim Williams and Doug Johnson wrote a really wonderful song. I liked it a lot. I felt it was intriguing and a compelling story – the kind of story that I knew Randy’s voice could tell. You never know what is or isn’t a hit. If I knew what a hit record was every time I made one or heard one, I’d be Clive Davis.
Q. Where was the track recorded?
Kyle: We recorded that at Seventeen Grand Studios here in Nashville.
Our visit to Kyle Lehning’s facility, known as “The Compound “, was very informative and educational. Amidst all the activity, we sat and talked with him about the current state of the music business and what the future holds. He shared his opinions on technology, past and present projects, and stories about the many hits he’s produced.
Q. Going back in time, you produced a tremendous album for England Dan and John Ford Coley. I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t remember the hit single “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight “. How did you team up with them, and how did the album come together?
Kyle: Oh gosh. I’ll have to go all the way back in order to tell you accurately how that happened. I’d have to go all the way back to my first moving to Nashville. Here goes.
When I first came to Nashville, which was ’71, there was just no way for me to get a job in town. I couldn’t even get a job as an assistant anywhere, and I was hanging around Tom Paul Glaser’s studio on 19th avenue, because my wife at the time worked there and she actually grew up next door to Tom Paul’s house and so she was a singer and that’s how she and I met. She was working as a receptionist and was singing demos for them. So, I would hang around the studio all the time, but there was just no way to get a job. I didn’t know if I was going to be a piano player, an engineer, or what, but I ended up focusing on engineering because I finally had to admit to myself that I really wasn’t a good enough keyboard player to cut it as a session player. And I always enjoyed making records and engineering and doing stuff like that.
Well, this is a long story and it’s going to get longer.
Dave Harrison, who built Harrison’s consoles, and Claude Hill had a company in town called Studio Supply Company, and they sold recording equipment in the early ’70s, primarily MCI gear. There was a young guy named Leland Russell who was looking to buy a tape machine and open a studio in Jackson, Mississippi, and he was looking for a young, hungry engineer. So my wife and I and our 6-month-old baby, Jason, packed up and moved to Jackson to go to work in the studio called Alpha Sound. Alpha Sound was a recording studio in the back of a nightclub in Jackson that was originally owned by BJ Thomas. It was a club called BJ’s. By the time we got there, it was a place called Penelope’s. So the studio was actually an API console and Sculley tape machines. This was like ’72. Tom Hidley had designed it, so it was a pretty rockin’ little studio back there.
Leland was managing some bands, and he owned a live sound company that was called “Alpha Sound” that was doing Loggins and Messina’s live sound and Black Oak Arkansas. He had some good accounts, and he had a band called Zyder Zee that ended up recording for Columbia. But there was a songwriter, a young guy named Parker McGee who was literally living in a school bus. He and his wife, Allison, were living in a school bus behind the recording studio. There was an extension cord coming from the school bus into the studio so they could get some electricity. And Allison, who’s just a sweetheart, was in there baking granola in their gas oven in the bus. Hippy kids, just the sweetest, nicest people, and Parker was a songwriter – a James “Tayloresque” kind of songwriter – and Parker and I sort of grew up together. He grew up as a songwriter, and I grew up as a producer. We teamed up – he’d sort of kick me in the teeth about my record production, and I’d tell him where his songs were weak. So, we hit it off and started to work together. We started working in Jackson.
The studio really couldn’t quite make it, so I ended up moving back to Nashville, and an opportunity did open up at the Glaser studio. I came back to work there as the chief engineer. It was an incredible break for me.
When I was in Jackson in ’72, I met some wonderful people. The guys at Malaco – Wolf Stevenson and Tommy Couch and those guys – but I also met Paul Davis and James Stroud. So, I’ve known James probably as long as I’ve known anybody in this town. It was a great time and an exciting time in the early ’70s there.
But we moved back to Nashville, and Parker moved up here too. Parker was, and still is, a member of the B’hai faith, which is a very special form of religion with a sensible and unique kind of approach to spirituality, and so were Seals and Crofts. Parker felt that if he sent his music out to Seals and Crofts, something good might happen with it. So we made these demos and sent them out there, and sure enough, the folks out in L.A. at the Seals and Crofts company, which was a company called “Dawn Break “, did like Parker’s songs, and they signed him to a little publishing deal. So, I would produce his demos and we would send the stuff out there and they’d try to figure out what to do with it.
Well, one day Parker – we were working together a little more than a year, I guess – he walked in the studio one day and said “You know, I’m tired of messing around with all of this ‘Art’ stuff. I really want to write some hits.” He said that he’d figured out ten things that every hit record has to have, and he said: “From now on, I’m going to have at least six of them in everything I do.” I said that’s great. You know, I emailed him just about a month ago and asked him if he still had that list. He said that he didn’t have it, couldn’t find it, and could only remember little bits and pieces. But I sure wish I had the list! So, I can cut you off in your next question? I don’t know what that list is.
He just shifted. In that period of time he wrote “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight “, “Nights Are Forever Without You”, a song called “Goodbye Old Buddies” that Seals and Crofts actually recorded, another song that Gene Cotton had a pop hit with called “You Got Me Runnin’ “, and a couple of others. Barry Manilow cut one of Parker’s tunes. It was just kind of wacky the way he walked in and said “Gee, I’m going to shift this.” and the next thing you know everything started clicking. So, I did a demo of “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight “, and we sent that to LA. Jimmy Seals’ (Seals and Crofts) brother is Dan Seals, and they had a group called “England Dan and John Ford Coley “.
They had made a couple of records on A&M with Louie Shelton producing, a wonderful guitarist, and who produced all the great Seals and Crofts records. They had gotten dropped. They just didn’t have the kind of success they needed. I think they had done two or three albums on A&M, and it just hadn’t clicked. And they heard this song. They were being managed by a young woman by the name of Susan Joseph at the time, and Susan thought the song might work really well for Dan and John.
The original demo was sung by a female artist, a singer in Nashville by the name of Sherry Huffman who was a really good singer. Anyway, they heard the song, and Louie Shelton did a little record with them on the song. Susan took it to Bob Greenberg who was then Vice President of Atlantic in LA and played it for Bob in his office. He kind of liked it, but he passed on it. But in the next office was a guy named Doug Morris, and he owned Big Tree records at the time, which was distributed by Atlantic. Doug literally heard the song through the wall. When Susan walked out of the office, Doug stepped out of his office and said to Bob, “That was pretty neat, Bob. Are you going to do anything with that?” and Bob said, “No, I think I’m going to pass.” And Doug said, “Would you mind maybe if I did it?” and Bob said “No, that’d be fine. “
So, Doug was ready to sign the record right then and there, but Susan, to my undying gratitude, said to Doug that she thought it was a good record, but thought there was a better record for it that could be made. He said “whatever “, and she said, “There’s this young guy in Nashville named Kyle Lehning that did the demo, and I promise you the demo has something that this doesn’t have.” I can’t imagine that Louie’s record of that would have been bad at all – it had to be great – but thanks to Susan.
By this time I was recording at Lee Hazen’s “Studio By The Pond “. I had left the Glaser Brothers studio, trying to set out on my own to do independent production and engineering. So, off we went to record the single. They gave us some money to record the single, and we did. The rest is history. It went up the charts. It was number two for seven or eight weeks right behind “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” by Elton John and Kikki Dee.
Kyle (left) and Lee Hazen reminisce about their experiences. Lee owns the famous “Studio By Pond” recording facility where Kyle recorded the England Dan and John Ford Coley hits, “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight” and “The Nights Are Forever Without You “.
Q. The second release from the album was “Nights Are Forever Without You “, also a big hit. After their split, Dan Seals went on to have a very successful career in Country music with you as his producer. Was it an easy transition for you in terms of genre markets and the ‘cultural’ differences in Nashville?
Kyle: A couple of things. One of the first times Dan and I met and we were going to make this record in Hendersonville (TN), he walked in the control room in Lee Hazen’s studio, and the very first thing he said to me was “Man, I’d really like to make a country record someday.” And I said, “Anything’s possible, and maybe someday that’ll happen.” So, in some ways, it was sort of destined that we’d get to do that. On the other hand, before making the records with “England Dan “, I’d spent four years at the Glaser Studio making Tom Paul and the Glaser Brothers records, Willie Nelson records, and Kenny Rogers records, and Waylon Jennings – I actually went on the road and played the piano with Waylon for a few months. So my background of country and pop was fairly solid at the time.
Because I’d had pop hits, people in Nashville didn’t really consider me a country producer. But the folks at Capitol – Lynn Shultz, particularly, and Jim Foglesong – were very supportive of what Danny and I were doing. Danny was writing some wonderful tunes. That was back in the days when you could make a record for not an enormous amount of money, and people could afford to wait. Our first record didn’t do all that well, but eventually, we started to hit a stride with some really good solid records – “Bop” was a huge record for Danny which was sort of a pop kind of thing.
“Everything That Glitters Is Not Gold “, which was a Dan Seals song, is a record which I’ve been proud to have been part of. We had a number of hits that way, and the transition was really not all that difficult, mainly because Danny had a sense of what he wanted to accomplish and how that music ought to be framed. It’s always easier when the artist knows who they are and what they’re about.
Q. “Bop” was a crossover hit, wasn’t it?
Kyle: Well, yeah, kind of. It did get some AC play. And it was a big number one country record. (note: “Bop” was written by Paul Davis and was CMA Single of the Year, 1986)
Q. Before Randy Travis appeared on the charts, Country music had drifted away from its roots. He was credited with re-establishing the traditional sounds, and yet broadened the appeal across generations and markets. Your association with him was from the very beginning and has gone on for some 18 years. In fact, Randy said, “I can’t imagine recording with anyone else. I don’t want to, for that matter.” How did you two get together? What did you hear or see in him that made you recognize the potential?
Kyle: Well, again, it’s sort of interesting how one thing leads to another. I was actually producing a record for Keith Steagal. Keith was an artist on Epic, and we went in the studio and we made a record. During the course of that record, Keith was helping out this “catfish cook” at the Nashville Palace. He was helping him make a live record. His name was Randy Ray, and Keith came in the studio one day and said, “Man, I want you to hear something “, and he put a cassette on and I listened to about 30 seconds of it, and I said “Who is this guy? “, and he said “This is Randy Ray. He’s a catfish cook at the Nashville Palace.” I said “He’s great. “, and Keith said he thought so, too. I said “What’s going on with him? “, and he said, “Well, we can’t get anybody to take him seriously.” So, I said “Count me in, and anything I can do to help out, let me know.” So, I went to Martha Sharp at Warner Bros. and said that I think this guy’s great, and if there’s a chance of doing a little singles deal, I’d be interested in producing it for him. Martha went and saw him, and she said “Yes, let’s take a chance. “, and Keith and I co-produced the first four sides we recorded on Randy for Warner Bros.
The first single we put out was “On The Other Hand “, and it actually died in the charts at about 63 or something. At that point in the game, Keith was trying to write songs, produce songs for Randy, trying to become an artist himself, and felt that he’d spread himself too thin. He said that he was going to back off from the production thing, and I said that if it was OK with him, I’d like to continue. He said, “By all means. “. So, Martha gave us some money, and we went back and cut some more, and we recorded “1982 “. That became a top ten record, and they re-released “On The Other Hand” and that became a number one record and CMA Song of the Year.
Q. Was there any concern that producing Randy with his traditional approach to Country music was risky considering, as we mentioned, that the music then had trended somewhat toward the “pop” flavor and style?
Kyle: If my brain was trying to make those decisions, who would guess that a young guy who sounded somewhere between Merle Haggard and Lefty Frizzell was going to be a superstar? After we had recorded “1982” and it had become a top ten record and they said, yes, go ahead and record an album, Randy and I were sitting in the control room alone, and I said to him, “Man, if you go ahead and sell maybe 40,000 copies, they might let us do this again.” He said, “Yeah, that’d be good, wouldn’t it. “, and I said “Yeah.” Little did we know that he was about to sell 3,000,000 copies on his first album.
Q. In that time period, was it still the common practice to do the single first and then follow it with an album?
Kyle: Yes, that’s right. We were doing singles deals. We went in and cut a series of sessions. We did like two sessions and cut four to six sides and then see what we had, and then go in again and do two more. For his entire first album, we did about twenty songs, and the whole album cost about $60,000. Those were the days!
Q. You also worked on the “Along Came Jones” CD with George Jones. That was arguably George’s best album in years. Was that the first time you and George worked together?
Kyle: Oh yeah! It was the first and only time we ever got to work together. The only other time was a commercial for Nissan or Lexus, I’ve forgotten which one it was. When he left Columbia, Tony Brown signed him and asked if I’d be interested in doing a CD, and I said: “Of Course.” – how do you turn that down! What a great honor it was to make a record with George.
Q. Yes, with Randy you introduced the new face of traditional country music, and with George, you went full circle with the legend.
Kyle: Yes, definitely.
Q. Tell us about your musicianship. Did you have formal training? What’s your instrument of choice?
Kyle: My very first love is Jazz. That is my first love. Primarily because I had a relative, a great Uncle of mine, who was a doctor, a wonderful bari sax player and a “hi-fi” buff. My early memories are listening to Jazz records at his house. He had a phenomenal Hi-Fi system. In fact, when he passed away, his family gave me his speakers — JBL Hartsfield, which were these huge corner cabinet’s with Klipsch horns — they’re in my studio.
So, I grew up on his knee listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Arthur Prysock, Jimmy Smith, Stanley Turrentine, Les McCann, Oscar Petersen, all the greats – George Shearing. My earliest musical memories are of all that kind of music. So, from the time I was probably about ten, that’s what I was listening to. He had remarkably good taste, and so I was lucky that I got started out listening to high-quality recording, on high-quality equipment with high-quality musicians. I think those things that happen to you at that stage stick with you forever.
And then the Beatles hit, and everything shifted. But my love of that music never changed. But my appreciation of all the other stuff has always been there, too.
Q. How important is it for you as a producer to have actual music knowledge? Do you get involved in charting the sessions? Do you ever suggest structural changes to a song – progressions, melody, etc.?
Kyle: I was a trumpet player when I was about ten. I started in the band in grade school. I started playing the piano when I was twelve, and then took up the guitar when I was about fifteen. And then I went to Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois and majored in music there, where I got to play music all the time.
There was a 23 piece big band that I was in and started out as a freshman on trumpet and then switched to piano my sophomore and junior years. I got to write big band charts – I still have recordings of those.
As far as the session charts, I let the musicians write those, because they do them all the time, and they’ll write them in a much more efficient way. But I feel real confident that if something’s going on that isn’t good for the record, I can be very specific about what to do to change it.
Q. Kyle, how does that work when you have the need to make a structural change in a song – the chorus or the melody – do you have to consult or get permission from the writer beforehand?
Kyle: Once in a while there’s a need to shift things around – which we have done rarely – but I think then it’s important to consult the writer, mainly because the writer will come up with a better idea. I never let my ego get in the way of somebody coming up with something better than I can come up with.
Q. How often is the writer present when you do these sessions?
Kyle: Hardly ever. Of course, there are times when you’re working with the “writer/artist” and so the writer is the artist.
Q. How did you become a producer? Most people probably don’t know what a producer actually does, so how did you become aware of it and decide that’s what you wanted to do. Was it something you started out to be?
Kyle: Well, that’s absolutely true, and in my case, too. In fact, when I was about seventeen, I had a high school rock and roll band, and we went and made a record over in Paducah, Kentucky, and, at that point, I literally just fell in love with the process of recording. I mean the smell of the place, the feel of the microphones, just hearing the tape machine rewind – the speakers, the whole thing. It was a good little studio. A guy named Tommy Morris had a studio in Paducah. He had great gear – C12A’s, Neumann C67’s, Ampex mixers, and tape machines – he really had a good little system. It was the whole process of making records.
I literally came back from that session and told my folks that I think this is really what I want to do. My Dad’s a second-generation pharmacist – “I don’t want to take over the store, Pop” — and they were great. They were very supportive. I started collecting microphones, mixers, and tape machines almost immediately and started really digging into figuring out how to do this.
Q. So, you were enamored with the technical aspects as well?
Kyle: Yes. Actually, more enamored with that than the actual playing of music theory and harmony, although I did enjoy it. But there was some real magic to me about trying to capture something on tape and getting to be part of that side of the whole thing.
So, that was a big moment. To back up a little bit, when I made that tape, we had a good friend of the family who used to live in Cairo, Illinois, a fellow named Ray Butts. Ray was an inventor. – helped develop the hum-bucking pickup. He designed a guitar amplifier called the “EchoSonic” or maybe it was “EchoPhonic “, but it was a guitar amp that Chet Atkins and Scotty Moore played and basically had a echoplex built into the amplifier – it was a tape delay. Scotty Moore was really the first guy to discover Ray’s amplifier and he used it on the road with Elvis, and he turned Chet Atkins on to it, and Chet ultimately convinced Ray to leave Illinois and come to Nashville and to go to work at RCA, which he did.
So, when I did my recording when I was seventeen, my father said that he knew this guy, Ray Butts, and I knew his daughter Katha, she was a piano player. So we took the tape down there, and Ray got me an appointment with Felton Jarvis, who was Elvis’s producer, and with Billy Sherrill who was running Epic at the time. They were both very, very kind to me and, although this wasn’t something they were going to put out right away, they encouraged me that there was something going on here and not to give up. They were encouraging, and that was a good thing.
At that point, Ray said “You know, I think you might make a really good record producer. “, and I said, “Well, what’s that?” He said, “You’ll see.” But to me, I didn’t even know what a record producer was or what he did. A day at the “Compound” — a lot of high-octane activity with recording, reviewing, and discussing business.
Q. What was the first record that you produced that you heard on the radio?
Kyle: It was “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight “. I co-produced a couple of records before that, but I never got to hear any of them on the radio.
There was a singer-songwriter in Nashville, a young lady by the name of Marie Cain who was just a real talent, and I produced a record with her, and she and I were listed as co-producers for Columbia. And then Ronnie Haffkine, who produced Doctor Hook, and I produced a couple of things together. One was with my wife Vickie, we did a record on her – she recorded for Capitol – but the very first record I produced all by myself was “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight “.
Q. You’re on the Grammy’s Recording Academy’s Producers & Engineers Wing. What is the function of that group?
Kyle: Well, that really sprung out of some conversations we were having. The P&E Wing is a gathering of producers and engineers. Because most of us do the same job, we don’t get to see each other very much, and it’s a pretty “high octane” group of guys technically and creatively. When you get everybody together in one room, it’s very interesting conversation.
We were all sitting there bemoaning the difficulties we were having within our own community of creative folks in terms of ensuring the work that we were doing today was actually going to be able to be retrieved in a month, six months, whatever, because the formats were changing and we were all using so much different stuff that is was getting so complicated and confusing and wacky. We’d all had experiences where we’d turned in a project and, for one reason or another, we’d have to get it back and do some more work on it and the problems would vary from “gee, you get it back” to “now that we’ve got it back, we don’t know what it is “, and it would take hours and hours to unfurl the mystery of which software version was it that this was recorded on and is it really ProTools or whatever.
So, we sat down as a group and concluded that we really ought to address this, and it’s a responsibility that we should take on – and we did. George Massenburg and I co-chaired that group, and I think we did some pretty phenomenal work and it was really difficult. I mean, it took us a couple of years to actually come to a consensus and figure out what we ought to recommend. It’s still a work in progress. It’s changing every day, but at least there’s something that exists now that can be referred to as something we believe has viability and some legs. If you migrate this from broadcast “wave” files, you’re going to be able to retrieve it five years from now, ten years from now. Who knows past that what you can do, but at least it?s something you can count on.
Q. We read somewhere that the soulful Canadian singer Michelle Wright’s Every Time You Come Around was remixed for country radio by you. What exactly does that mean? What’s the process?
Kyle: Michelle came to me and said: “Do you think you can do something to shift the sort of quality of this tune?” I listened to it, and liked the tune. It meant changing some of the instrumentation – adding a little bit more “wood” to it, mandolin, fiddle, things like that – but shifting more of the instruments from the “pop” sound to a little more on the countryside, and then remixing the thing.
Q. You produced the hit “The Shake” for Neal McCoy. As with everyone else who’s worked with you, he’s had a lot of great things to say about you. What other projects have you done with him?
Kyle: We did two albums together. They weren’t as successful as I’d hoped them to be for him, because I absolutely love Neal. He’s a great guy and an incredible entertainer. I don’t wish anything but the best for him. In some ways, he’s what you’d like a lot of folks to be out there. He really loves his audience and he takes care of his people.
“The Shake” is a song that we weren’t going in to record. Neal brought the song to the session, and said, “I have this one tune, and my wife really likes this, and I kind of like it. Let me see what you think.” We played it on the session, and I said, “God help us, I like it too!” So, we just went in and did it. I love it. I called it “Surf Country “. It combines some of my favorite things. One of the great things about recording country music is that you get to have fun with it. Everything’s not always taken so darn seriously, and that song has a great sense of humor, and so does Neal. That was one of my favorite records that I’ve worked on, just great fun.
Q. Bryan White, another artist you’ve produced, was a fresh (and very young) face on the scene. How did you two interact?
Kyle: We had a great time. Bryan’s a wonderful talent. We just had a lot of fun. Billy Joe Walker, Jr., who was a guitarist in town, and now a very successful producer, and he and I had worked together on the Dan Seals records and lots of records together.
When we started Asylum Records, he came in a brought a tape of Bryan and said that he’s found this kid in Oklahoma and I think he might have something. We brought him in, took him in the studio, did a little guitar vocal demo on him and I loved his singing and thought he really did have something. We went in the studio and recorded him, and had great success.
Q. You’ve produced some really great artists and hits – varied styles and genres. Do you go into the studio with preconceived ideas about what and how things should be done? Do things unfold as the session progresses?
Kyle: I always go in with a direction I think we’re going, but, hopefully, I’m ready to let go of that as soon as something more exciting comes up. It’s all about catching something special and making something feel really good. It’s not about putting my foot on the neck of the process. I just want to let things flow and make sure something great has an opportunity to get out there.
Q. Generally, what “process” do you follow when producing a track? What kind of preliminary work do you do in terms of song selection, knowing the artist’s strengths and weaknesses?
Kyle: That’s always a collaborative thing with the artist. It’s not about me, it’s always about what the artist wants to stand on stage and sing to their audience. That’s what makes sense in terms of longevity. If they don’t know who they are, I sure can’t tell them. I’m really not all that interested in working with artists who I have to do a lot of molding on. I’m really there to facilitate them in making their best record.
Q. We’ve heard that with you, it’s all about the artist and not the production. Is that accurate?
Kyle: Yes. You know, I’m a really bad songwriter. If I write a song, it’s just sort of goofing around. It doesn’t have anything to do with anything serious. I don’t do that very much, so I’m at the mercy of really great songwriters. I think I have a good instinct for material, and I think I’m a good, objective guy when it comes to helping an artist. It’s hard for an artist to see their backside, so I try to make sure they’re getting a 360-degree view of what’s going on. What a great life – it’s been so much fun.
Q. How much control do you generally have over song selections?
Kyle: Any artist I work with would tell you this: There’s no such thing as a “tie “. The artist will win – always win. But I will do everything that I can to convince an artist that something I feel strongly about is something we ought to try. It’s been sort of the “benefit of the doubt” clause – to try to go in and at least give it a good shot because sometimes they don’t hear it the way I hear it. That always works one way or another. It either shows us something we didn’t know before, or it tells us that it really was a bad idea. That’s a very free and open way to be with an artist.
Q. Are you a songwriter at all?
Kyle: No. I wouldn’t consider myself a songwriter under any circumstances.
Q. When you were President of Asylum Records in Nashville, how did those responsibilities differ from what you had done before? Was it too far from the creative aspects of the business?
Kyle: It was an incredible opportunity and something that I have no regrets doing. I mean, it was just a great experience for me to be able to do that – to start a record company essentially from ground zero with major label support and to work with a guy named Bob Krasnow, who was chairman of Electra Entertainment at the time, and who’s a fascinating music business character. It was very humbling to finally be in a position of “ultimate power” and to find out that just because I could now direct the energies of a record company, it didn’t have anything to do with whether the record would be successful or not. There’s always another element, which is the public. They have the ultimate and the biggest vote. It doesn’t matter how much money you spent or how much marketing you want to plug in there, or how hard you want to pound an artist into the public consciousness, if people don’t connect to it, there’s not much you can do. The other side of that coin is that we’ve had records that we put out with very little promotion and very little marketing that were incredibly successful, and tells you that if people do want it, there’s very little you can do to keep them from getting it. It’s an amazing relationship, and there’s a great dynamic between that – offering up something and whether the public responds or not.
Q. One of the roles of a producer is similar to a movie director – get the best performance out of the artist. Obviously, there can be potential for clashes relating to interpretation, phrasing, egos, etc. How do you think the musicians and artists who’ve worked with you describe your approach? Are you a tyrant in the studio?
Kyle: Well, you’d have to ask them, but if I were to guess, I’d have to say that I doubt they’d consider me tyrannical in any way. Everybody has their styles, and I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do it. When I walk in the studio, at the end of the day, I want to feel that I gave my best, and the way in which I feel that I’ve given my best isn’t necessarily always the way another guy feels like he’s given his best.
One of the great things about getting to be a recording engineer before I was actually a producer was getting to work with lots of different people and seeing different styles, and getting to see that they all work. If the song’s great and the artist is great, there’s a lot of ways to do this. I got to see it work in every conceivable way.
Today, the record business — if your not a producer-engineer-artist-writer – you’re sort of not in it. There are a lot of people who do all of it, and the technology is available, and I think it’s sort of a natural progression. In earlier days, there were record producers who were more like “snake oil” salesmen than they were musicians, but that was a fascinating way to make music because they were really more like the public than the people who are making music now. So, you had this guy in the studio who didn’t know anything about what anybody else was doing except that it wasn’t working. The producer would go “No. This is not good! Do something better.” and it put energy and tension in the room that’s very different than saying “Don’t play an E flat in the bass, play a B flat “. You don’t see that much anymore, and there’s part of me that misses it at some level – but not a big part.
Q. Is there anything in the works that you could tell us about?
Kyle: I’m making a record that I’m paying for out of my own pocket for Joy Lynn White who’s a singer/songwriter, been in town for a while, and she did a couple of records for Sony and she’s been kind of quiet lately and I just love her music, love her singing. We’ve got a really neat record that we’re just about finished with, and I have no idea what’s going to happen with it – whether we’ll be putting it out ourselves, or I’ll find a label in town that might be interested in it or some label out of town. We’re about to finish it and we’re about to see if we can find a partner somewhere. It’s a really good record, and I’m very proud of it.
Q. Are you doing anything with Randy Travis in the future?
Kyle: We’re going to be recording after the first of the year. I’m not sure exactly when or what, but it’ll be classic Randy. I’m also making a jazz “B3” record with Moe Denham which is great fun. Paul Worley and I are co-producing a young artist on Warner Brothers. She’s just phenomenal, and it was sweet of Paul to invite me in on the project – a young lady by the name of Alexis Ebert. She’s thirteen years old, from Oregon. When you talk about how the business has changed, she is really a wonderful singer-songwriter. She writes really well – it’s astounding. She plays piano and guitar. She’s a terrific singer. Very supportive parents. The record is really good. We’re in the process of mixing that right now. It should be done right after the first of the year. (SongBrokers.com note: Kyle played a track for us from an Alexis Ebert demo. Phenomenal! Remember the name — she’s definitely headed to the top.)’, ‘Interview with Kyle Lehning, one of the Music industry’s top producers. He’s been Randy Travis’ producer from the very beginning, and recently won the CMA Song of the Year with “Three Wooden Crosses”
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