(PHOTOS by Mackenzie Moore)
Many songwriters who aspire to have songs cut in Nashville still think they can make an effective home guitar/vocal or piano/vocal demo (a name taken from the term “demonstration tape”) that will be taken seriously as long as it communicates the melody, lyric and chord changes. Sometimes that works. But in Nashville in 2013, those days are all but gone. Music publishers, producers and artists in Music City increasingly want to hear demos that sound like finished recordings, reducing the amount of time they need to spend trying to “hear” song arrangements and productions. And simple psychology dictates that a professionally-produced demo will be more likely to get someone’s attention, and significantly increase a song’s chances of being listened to, and eventually cut.
Nashville is known for the dozens upon dozens of recording studios that turn out demos every day. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how many such studios exist in Nashville, since they routinely operate out of the basements and garages of people’s homes, sometimes using bathrooms to get good guitar echo and closets as vocal booths. And some of the higher-end facilities, like the ones that churn out number one records, also produce demos, depending on a songwriter’s budget. Somewhere in between, though closer to the upper echelon, is Nashville’s Beaird Music Group.
A Nashville music veteran, owner Larry Beaird has designed a system that produces demos day in and day out that sound like radio-made recordings, because the musicians playing on those demos are the same people who play on the songs on the radio. Some of the demo tracks recorded at Beaird’s studio have actually been used for master recordings for major labels, and Beaird himself has produced several major label artists.
Beaird’s shop, like so many in Nashville, is in a house, but with a bigger parking lot. Inside are three ProTools networked recording studios, as well as a reception area and offices for the staff. No mics are set up in the bathroom here. Beaird runs his business on an efficient schedule, tracking (recording the instrumental tracks) a song in the main studio with professional players every 30 minutes or so, recording up to six song demos in a standard three-hour block of time, which is how union musicians are typically scheduled and paid. On the day we visited we arrived at straight-up noon, as Beaird met with songwriter Ty Sweeney, to hear Sweeney’s song and to write out a chart of it for the session musicians to follow — using notation based on a standard Nashville studio combination of the Nashville numbers system and traditional sheet music.
Sitting in Beaird’s office, Sweeney takes out his Taylor guitar to play the song he’s having recorded today. Called “Here To Be There,” it’s a co-write with Broken Bow Records recording artist James Wesley and fellow songwriter Mike McQuerry, one of the authors of the Willie Nelson/Kris Kristofferson/Jamey Johnson/Snoop Dogg song “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die.” Beaird, an affable, tall native Texan with an ever-present smile who makes everyone feel welcome and at ease, directs Sweeney to play and sing the song. With a sharpened pencil and a custom-made pad for charting, Beaird begins to scribble what would look like some type of foreign language to most, but is really a Nashville musician’s session chart.
Sweeney’s song is a little more complicated than a traditional 1-4-5, with things like b5 and add9 chords. He and Beaird pause a few times, sometimes so Beaird can ask for clarifications and sometimes because Sweeney incorrectly assumes that Beaird can’t possibly write the chart as quickly as Sweeney plays. “It’s amazing how you can do that without even having the instrument in your hand,” Sweeney says. Beaird just chuckles; he’s done this thousands of times over the years. And he’s been on the other side of the chart as a session musician, playing acoustic guitar, mandolin or banjo on recordings by Rascal Flatts, America, Art Garfunkel and more.
Within half an hour the song is charted out and Beaird and Sweeney have discussed its production. Beaird then passes the chart along to his well-oiled office staff (which includes son Aaron on the financial end), which will then make copies for the players who will be filing in at 2:00 p.m. for the three-hour session.
Beaird then relaxes for a minute, though he usually seems relaxed even if he isn’t. “I’m the bandleader and I chart everything myself,” Beaird says. “I always welcome a client’s chart, but I like to write it again using my own style of charting.”
The musicians for the day soon begin to arrive with their instruments. Today’s players include guitarist Rob McNelley (Delbert McClinton, Lady Antebellum); steel guitarist Russ Pahl (John Hiatt, Elton John); keyboardist Gordon Mote (Carrie Underwood, The Gaithers); Beaird’s oldest son, Eli (Kix Brooks, Rory + Joey) on bass; fiddler Tammy Rogers (the Steeldrivers, Rodney Crowell); and possibly the most recorded drummer in music history, period, Eddie Bayers (Bob Seger, Willie Nelson, countless others). Beaird himself will produce the session and play acoustic guitar. Again, yes, these are players for a demo session, not a major label recording. In Nashville, work is work, and even though these players perform on albums by top artists, they happily play on demo sessions on days they aren’t booked for record dates. And these pros treat everyone’s song as if it were a record anyway.