Tony Brown, as a producer is responsible for crafting some of the most era-defining songs of modern country music. The list of artists he has signed, produced, and influenced in his spanning career is understated as long, and consequential. Patty Loveless, Danny Myrick and Reba McEntire talk about the legendary producer on the latest episode of Apple Music Radio’s I Miss…90s Country with Nick Hoffman.
Brown’s work as a producer was preceded by humble beginnings as an Evangelist’s son who picked up piano at a young age.
At 19, he landed work with the Southern Gospel quartet J. D. Sumner and The Stamps and later joined the back-up band for The Oak Ridge Boys, winning the “Best Instrumentalist” Dove Award for his skill on the piano. He worked for a brief time as the pianist in Elvis Presley’s band after occupying the “house pianist” role for the superstar. That led to a job in Emmylou Harris’s fabled Hot Band where he learned about country and bluegrass music from Ralph Stanley, George Jones, and most influential to him, Gram Parsons.
Seeking more financial stability he transitioned from session musician to producer.
In his office as President of MCA Records, Brown held the key to country music for much of the ‘90s. Hoffman cites Brown as one of the “Godfathers” of the Americana movement, with credits including Gary Allan, Brooks & Dunn, Steve Earle, Pat Green, Wynonna Judd, Patty Loveless, Lyle Lovett, Reba McEntire, David Lee Murphy, Trisha Yearwood, just to name a few.
“The hottest label in town was MCA records,” Danny Myrick tells Apple Music Radio’s Nick Hoffman on the latest episode of I Miss…90s Country. “And you look down their roster, everybody is on their roster that’s killing it on the radio. And I mean, who produced those records? Tony Brown. Who ran that record label? Tony Brown. Man, effectively back in those days, he owned this town.”
Myrick, whose father promoted Gospel concerts, was first exposed to Brown when he was backing the Oak Ridge Boys. When he arrived in Nashville, Brown was everywhere. he recalls, “just turning on the radio and hearing Vince Gill and George Strait, later Tracy Byrd.”
Loveless, who is known for her Eastern Kentucky-born, Bluegrass bred sound, but her influence was more broad. She recalls to Hoffman, “I would take my lunch money. It wasn’t much, and I wouldn’t buy my lunch at school. What I would do is I’d save the money and go over to that store where all the kids from high school hung out, and I would go over there and put money in the jukebox and listen to music of the ’60s.” She adds, “I think, more than anything, that maybe I’m a hybrid of these different forms of music.”
Loveless cut her teeth playing in her brother’s band and then other rock bands in North Carolina. But when the country sound started to shift back into the traditional space in the mid ‘80s, Loveless headed back to Nashville with a 5-track demo tape. Her brother, Roger, helped her bluff her way into a record deal.
Her brother sat down in the MCA lobby and as Loveless describes it, the secretary said, “‘Hey, Tony, your one o’clock is here,’ or something like that. And Tony says, ‘Okay, just send them on in.’ So she sends Roger in, thinking that Roger is his one o’clock, the other person was late.”
She laughs and continues, “So Roger goes in and Tony turns around and says, ‘Uh, who are you? You’re not my appointment here.’ And Roger says, ‘No, no, but I’ve got this tape and you really need to hear it because this is the best girl that you’re ever going to… this is the best female singer.’ And Tony says, ‘Look, I’ll give you three minutes.'”
Brown listened to the whole tape. With the help of Emory Gordy Jr. and Roger Bowen, Brown developed her through her self-titled debut, 1986, and follow-up, If My Heart Had Windows, in 1988. He took over as sole producer on her third album, Honky Tonk Angel, later that year and it was a breakthrough.
Hoffman adds, “When it came to finding and recognizing a hit song, Tony Brown was one of the best ever.”
His work as a producer, aligning artists with songs is exemplified well with Reba. He brought her “Fancy” and the 1991 hit, “The Greatest Man I Never Knew.” She recalls Brown pitching her that song, “I do see Tony and I out on the pool house porch at Gallatin. And I don’t know if that was the first time or he was trying to talk me into it or what the deal was, but that’s what I associate with that song.
“I didn’t want to record it at first because daddy was still alive and I take everything pretty literal on things like that and then Tony and I talked about it and they said, ‘Well, a lot of people can relate to it,'” she shares about the song. The lyrics detail an estranged relationship with a stoic father. She was hesitant but agreed the sentiment was relatable. “So I recorded it and it was really tough to sing on stage when daddy was in the audience.”
The enduring artist recently released her first new music in over two years, “Somehow You Do,” from the soundtrack to the addiction-themed feature film Four Good Days starring Glenn Close and Mila Kunis, which opened in select theaters on April 30. The track reunites McEntire with Brown, and is also the third Diane Warren song she has cut, following “What If” in 1997 and the Top 5 hit “I’ll Be” in 2000.
Listen to the new episode of I Miss…90s Country Radio with Nick Hoffman on Apple Music Country here.