Nashville Songwriter Series: Brent Maher

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PHOTO CAPTION: Brent Maher, right, with country music legend Willie Nelson at Maher’s Blue Room Studios.

Brent Maher (pronounced May-er) is known to many as the Grammy-winning producer who played a major role in shaping the sound of the Judds. He has also produced Kenny Rogers, Nickel Creek, Shelby Lynne and numerous other artists. But he actually got his start in the industry as an engineer under the tutelage of the late Bill Porter, the man who engineered countless hits at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio B. Maher was the man at the controls for such classics as Ike and Tina Turner’s version of John Fogerty’s “Proud Mary,” Duke Ellington’s “This One’s For Blanton” LP, and Elvis Presley’s number one single “Way Down.” More recently, he engineered the Grammy-winning album “Last of the Breed” by Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price. He spent years as an engineer in Nashville and Las Vegas before making his mark as a producer.

But little is said of Brent Maher the songwriter, the man who has won numerous awards for his tunesmithing. He and various co-writers were responsible for the majority of the Judds’ biggest hits, and he’s also penned chart-toppers for Dottie West, Tanya Tucker and others. Today he and his daughter, Dianna, operate Moraine Music, working in various capacities with such artists and songwriters as Kevin Welch, Mark Selby and up-and-coming Irish singer/songwriter Gareth Dunlop.

After navigating rooms filled with recording and stage gear and squeezing through several narrow hallways lined with gold and platinum record awards, American Songwriter sat down for a chat with the congenial Maher at the office of his Blue Room Studios in the Nashville suburb of Berry Hill.

You never set out to be a writer; you were a trumpeter and guitar player who wanted to be an engineer. How did you end up writing?

Well, I hadn’t written a song since I was a teenager, and I was recording Ike and Tina and I had written this song called “Work on Me”…I pulled everything, the drums and everything, into the control room and did a demo of it, playing all the instruments myself. I’m sure it sounded awful. And I still don’t know where I got the courage to do it, but I played it for Ike and he loved it. He said, “That’s got a deep groove, man, that’s got a deep groove! We gotta play this for Tina.” So we did, and she loved it too, and they cut it. Another song I wrote was the B side. But that was the end of it for a long time. Then one day (hit songwriter) Randy Goodrum was at my house and he saw a copy of the record, saw my name with the writing and co-producing credit. He said, “I didn’t know you wrote,” and he made me play him the record. I was so embarrassed because Randy is such a sophisticated musician. But he liked it! And he made me set up a songwriting appointment with him. And we wrote a song together and he pitched it to Chet (Atkins) and Chet produced it on Perry Como. And that’s where it really started.

You worked pretty extensively with the late Dottie West; you and Randy wrote some of her material together, including “Lesson in Leavin’,” which Jo Dee Messina later covered.

When I was asked to produce Dottie I asked Randy to co-produce with me, and to write some of the songs with me since the label wanted to go in a bit of a different direction with her. He said he wasn’t a record producer, and I told him that, since he made me get back into songwriting, he was going to help me produce. “Lesson in Leavin’” was the second or third song we wrote for Dottie. And ever since that, a part of my producing – not of every artist, but some of them – has involved my writing as well.

When you started working with the Judds, did you plan to write so much of the material yourself?

No. I was really trying to focus on who they were as artists because their music was a bit all over the board. Their tastes and what they could do were so broad that we had to narrow it down. So it was a matter of finding material, listening to their own material – because one of the things that attracted me to Naomi’s music was that she wrote songs like “Change of Heart,” which became a number one record – but I never fashioned myself as a primary writer for them. It just ended up that way. I wrote “Why Not Me” for them with Harlan Howard and Sonny Throckmorton. I also teamed up a lot with Don Schlitz, Paul Kennerly and Mike Reid…all wonderful songwriters. It was a beautiful, nice long run.

Are you amazed at that success you’ve had as a writer since you hadn’t intended to be one?

I’m always amazed. Songwriting, or any part of being in our business, if you really think you’re going to make a lot of money, if that’s your goal, you should probably do something else. I got into the business because it was the only thing I thought I could be successful at, and I just wanted to make a living. Dream big, but remember it’s still a dream.

You’re working these days as both producer and co-writer with singer Johnny Reid, who is having tremendous success on the charts in Canada. Do you consciously think about the difference between American and Canadian radio listeners and consumers when you’re writing?

Not at all. We just write. Unlike me, Johnny never stops thinking about writing songs. I don’t have that same thought process. I have to sort of wrap up the last record and get some space, sometimes take some time off to write by myself. If we think my being one of the writers on the next project (I produce) will be beneficial to its success, then I can shift gears pretty quick. But I’ve never been a writer that sets appointments. Once I’m involved in a project that requires my writing, then I block out all kinds of time to write. But I’ve never been one to have that standing “thing” going to get together just to write. Maybe I need to do it but I never have.

You’ve had songs cut by some pretty legendary artists, but who is the one person you want to get a cut on before you die?

I guess one artist that not only I would love to write with, but spend time with in the studio, would be Paul McCartney. I can’t even imagine how much fun that would be. After all, Paul and the rest of that fabulous band (the Beatles) changed pop culture forever… now talk about dreaming big!

5 Comments

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  1. Elvis Presley, not the Beatles, changed popular culture. The Beatles, I submit, merely modified music. It was Elvis alone who broke down social and cultural barriers in 1950’s U.S.A. making it easier for all acts who followed in his footsteps, including The Beatles, and paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King. Today, Elvis voice, image and name are everywhere from films, TV shows, soap operas, theatrical productions, records etc. There is not a day goes by without him being mentioned or seen throughout the World and he is still the template by which success is measured in the entertainment industry.

  2. Elvis took other’s music and moves and made them saleble to white America. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and many others changed music. Elvis was the handsome door to door salesman with a good voice and nice smile.
    With each new recording the Beatles took a step forward. At the start they were taking what they learned from those before them- Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Les Paul, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and did more and more musically. They may have liked Elvis, but musically they were really taught by those that really changed music.

  3. i completely agree with Marie’s comment.
    i disagree with Brian Quinn’s comment that the Beatles ‘merely modified music’. they did so much more than modify it, and there are many examples, and unfortunately I don’t have the time to go into that at this moment.
    and, either way, since the question posed was who Brent Maher wanted to ‘get a cut on’ in the studio was Paul McCartney, i think we can gather from that the heavy respect garnered throughout Mr McCartney’s songwriting career; namely his contribution to the Beatles’ catalog.
    and, yes, the Fab Four did change pop culture forever…as did Mr. Presley, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, amongst others. yes, not to the effect that Elvis did, but they’ve been a factor in the evolution of pop culture.

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