MICHAEL KNOX makes his 4th appearance on The Producer’s Chair year-end ‘Christmas Show’ on Thursday, December 1st @ Sound Stage Studios @ 6:30 pm.
Michael Knox is someone I refer to as ‘Industry Royalty’, by virtue of birth-right, just like Hank Jr. and Pam Tillis. But when Michael showed me, the rare photograph of his Rockabilly Hall of Famer Father, the legendary Buddy Knox with his buddy Elvis, in his Senior Vice-President, Shalacy Griffin’s office at Music Knox Management, over at peermusic Nashville, I couldn’t help but think about how proud, the ‘first artist’ to ever write his own #1 hit song (Party Doll-1957) would be, of his son’s accomplishments.
The first time I met Michael, he told me that he grew up sitting on the dashboard of his Dad’s Winnebago, ‘on the road’, listening to Roy Orbison, Elvis, The Everly Brothers and his dad on the radio. And don’t think for one minute that, young Michael didn’t have full intensions of following in his Father’s footsteps … if he could only sing.
When Michael arrived in Music City in 1991 and opened Nashville’s first song plugging company HIT PLUGGERS, it wasn’t long before industry giants like Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, George Strait and Reba realized that Knox had great ears and great instincts, as Music Row watched him place an astounding 300 songs in eight years. That quickly propelled him to Warner/Chappell Music, were Knox was VP responsible for Artist/Writer Development and Song Placement, and where he left his stamp on more than 150 million records, proving himself to be, one of Nashville’s most creative business minds and trusted developers of talent. (1992 – 2002)
Now, with 19 number ones, over 30 Million singles and 14 million albums sold, Knox’s stellar production credits include – Jason Aldean, Michael Tyler, Thomas Rhett, Josh Thompson, Trace Adkins, Montgomery Gentry, Kelly Clarkson, Eric Church, Luke Bryan, Bush Hawg, Ludacris, Connie Britton, Hayden Panettiere, Chris Carmack, Will Chase, Chip Esten, Hank Williams Jr., Chuck Wicks, Frankie Ballard, Miranda Lambert, Randy Owen, Charlie Daniels, Rachel Farley, Brantley Gilbert, Lost Trailers, Crossin Dixon, Lila McCann, the Road Hammers, Danni Leigh, JD Myers, the hit TV series Nashville and the ‘Late-Great’ Buddy Knox … who was the first artist Michael ever produced.
In Michael’s 25 Years in Country Music (which he just celebrated), he has served on the GRAMMY® Special Committees, ACM and CMA Boards and, his works have been honored with over 50 Grammy, ACM, CMA, ACA, Billboard, Teen Choice, Mediabase, Touchtune, I-Heart Radio and Producer Awards and Nominations, ranging from ‘Albums of the Year’ to ‘Song of the Year’, not to mention the awards that so many others have taken home, as result of Michael’s song savvy and production skills.
Today, under his Vice-Presidency and creative leadership, peermusic Nashvillehas become one of Nashville’s most prestigious independent publishing companies. In 2013 they received ASCAP’s ‘Song of the Year’ Award for Randy Houser’s “How Country Feels” co-written by Neil Thrasher and Vicky McGeheeand they just received SESAC’s ‘Song of The Year’ Award, for Deirks Bentley’s, ‘Somewhere On a Beach’, co-written by Jaron Boyer and singer/songwriter Michael Tyler (REVIVER Records), who is being managed by Knox.
The Producer’s Chair: Since you’ve been at peermusic, what’s the most valuable thing that you’ve learned?
Michael Knox: It’s a family company so it’s more personal. When things are personal, you work harder, you’re more focused. It’s also a lot smaller than most publishing companies with this level of success and I like that. I came from a big company where I was in charge of around 30 songwriters and it’s really hard to care for #27 when you got thirty writers knocking on your door. That’s why this is such a great thing for me at peermusic, small and focused. Next year marks 90 years from the day Ralph Peer recorded the Bristol Sessions (1927) that gave us Jimmie Rodgers (the Father of Country Music) and The Carter Family (the first Family of Country Music). The history at this place is crazy.
Peermusic allowed me to calm down and focus. Less is more, quality is first and always put the creative process in the front. What they’ve done for my career has really been amazing. peermusic is a true family business and environment.
Jason Aldean’s current album ‘They Don’t Know’ is your 7th studio album together? After winning about every award there ever was, in the time that you two have been together, what are Jason’s goals from here?
He’s a touring artist so his goal is always to have the best quality record to go out and play to his fans. He always wants to cut a record, it’s in his DNA. His goal is always to give that performance the best opportunity and that’s having the strongest songs so when you come to a show, you’re entertained. He wants people to come to a live show and have a place to escape. The energy that we have together creates a very nice live show.
I was shocked when Jason didn’t receive a CMA nomination this year. Was this a timing thing?
That shocked us too. We were stunned that he wasn’t in male vocalist or entertainer category. I don’t know, that just sometimes happens. There are a lot of acts that it just doesn’t happen for them. Sam Hunt can’t get arrested at the awards and he outsold most. It doesn’t click sometimes for some people. I don’t know why that is. The CMA’s are awesome, we won Album of the Year for “My Kinda Party” back in 2011 and that was something we were very proud of.
Has Jason not co-writing most of his albums and you, not owning your own publishing company, ever felt like, you were leaving a lot of money, on the table?
My dad died broke in a motor-home from people taking too much money off his table. Best song wins. Jason started out writing, that’s what I signed him to do at Warner/Chappell but he’s such a song guy. He’d prefer Neil Thrasher to write a hit song, rather than cut something he wrote just because he wrote it. Best song wins with us, you have to stay focused when you’re cutting an album, especially if you want people to invest in your career and buy it.
Jason is one of the few acts that don’t try to write everything so it’s actually easier for us. We are out there finding the best songs from all the great songwriters that Nashville has to offer.
Dwight Yoakam and Garth Brooks are always my best examples. They found the best songs weather they wrote them or not. That’s the way you should approach every artist and every album. You have to have the discipline to find the best song for the artist and the project, not just the one in-house cause you might make a little extra today. The problem with that is you hurt the project tomorrow and mess up a long term success. It’s too competitive to look for a short cut. If the artist songwriting defines them and is what makes them who they are, then yeah, you have to focus on that but don’t just write songs for your project cause you think it will make you more money. In my 25 years here in Nashville, that process hasn’t weathered well for people in the long term. You want the people around you to know the difference between a great song and the best song for you. There is a big difference.
Jason did a duet with Kelsea Ballerini called ‘First Time Again’ on his current album THEY DON’T KNOW, also written by Michael Tyler and Jaron Boyer. How did that come about?
It was just a song that we loved and Jason was going to cut it by himself and as we were going through the process of the record, that one kept feeling like a duet. At the last minute, Jason’s management had called me and said ‘hey, Kelsea can cut this on Friday. She was on the road with Rascal Flatts, so we asked Jay DeMarcus if he could record this vocal for us. They recorded it in her dressing room at the stadium in San Diego and then he sent me the files. It was incredible.
Do you look for the same things in an artist today, as you did when you first met Jason or has the direction of the industry, changed your priorities when it comes to, selecting an artist?
I would not be doing anybody a positive service if I wasn’t looking for something I love. I always look for someone that is an extension of me and I saw that in Jason Aldean. I was looking for a Motley Crue in the country world and he did that and still kept his small town America direction for country radio. I seem to work best when I find an artist that likes the same types of music I like. Michael Tyler is a new artist I’m working with and he is a true singer/songwriter. In this loop field world he brings a little melody to the table as well as having a grasp on where the music world is going. I love a lot of pop melodies; just don’t think they finish writing the songs sometime. MT has a great song since and can finish the song. That’s a lot harder than you think these days. Radio has a lot of commercials that they call songs out there. You love them today and forget them tomorrow, kinda like a commercial.
How did you and Michael Tyler meet, in the first place?
His mom sent me a note on myspace at 2 in the morning. I was looking through music and this note pops up saying hey I think you need to see this kid, he’s great. I replied back and they came to town and played for me at Tootsies. When he was 15 I started working with him pretty seriously and made him write a song a week and post it on YouTube so I could talk to him about it and see him play and watch what he does. We did that for a few years and I brought him to Nashville when he turned 18. I didn’t want to bring him to Nashville too early. I wanted him to find his voice first. Younger writers a lot of times will follow the big writer in the room so I made sure he had his own thing beforehand.
Did I read somewhere that Michael Tyler is related to ‘The’ Jimmie Rodgers?
He was already signed to peermusic for about a year and we were sitting in my office talking. His mom was in town and it’s the first she’s come in to see the office and there was a picture of Jimmie Rodgers on the wall with his signature and she looks at the wall and says, “We’re related to a Jimmie Rodgers.” I asked her you mean the Jimmie Rodgers from the 50s? She goes no, this guy died back in 1933. I remember looking at them and just saying “holy crap,” are you kidding me? THE Jimmie Rodgers? They got on ancestry.com and spent a month doing that and it turned out to be a direct bloodline that Michael Tyler is the descendant of The Father of Country Music, Jimmie Rodgers. Right when we found out, I took MT to the Country Music Hall of Fame and there was a video of Jimmie Rodgers performing and he loved it. I don’t think it has sunk in yet totally but he’s appreciating it more and more as he goes out and he understands what this means. He’s really starting to appreciate it.
I understand that, before Revivor Records signed Michael, you eliminated several labels by not giving them ‘Somewhere on a Beach’. Why wasn’t it a determining factor for President/CEO, David Ross?
When Reviver heard “Somewhere on a Beach,” they fell in love with it but they had known MT before because he had written songs on the LoCash record. So the relationship was a little further down the road. The other labels that liked MT were really in love with “Somewhere on a Beach” being the first single. David Ross felt like we were bigger than one song and offered a great deal for a new artist to prove it. It was hard to not appreciate that.
At what stage is Michael’s debut album?
It comes out early next year. We have already recorded the album and it’s really good. MT wrote or co-wrote all the songs on it.
He has been on his radio tour the past few months with a song called “Crazy Last Night”. We are excited about the new single coming out in January. This will be a big song for him. I’m excited for people to hear this record.
What is the most time-consuming part of artist development?
The biggest part of development is the discipline to be patient. Some guys come in expecting to be superstars now and sometimes the work is not what they signed up for. It’s a process for me as well to get to know the individuals I’m working with. You have to give the artist the time it takes to develop; it’s hard for some people to be patient.
Is there a moment in artist development when you just know, your artist is ‘ready’?
Yes. With Jason, I cut a song called “Where Did I Go Wrong” that he wrote with Jeff Stevens and after I mixed it, I called up Jason and said this is the first song of where we’re going. It was sort of Tracey Lawrence meets Tim McGraw at the time. I remember going home and being like “I got it, this is the direction we are looking for.” Then he wrote a song called, “You’re The Love I Want To Be In” that put the icing on the cake for me. You can’t explain it but I could hear it.
Do you have any songwriters currently that you are mentoring, whom you believe are potential producers?
Jaron Boyer is a good thought for that process. He’s learning a lot right now about production. I’m trying to make myself available for him to ask questions and bounce things off of. Being a producer is much like a songwriter or being an artist, you have to have your thing that’s different that makes you unique. He is already a hit songwriter so this transition should be easy for him. Peter Colemanis my mentor. He taught me less is more. Space is your friend, you don’t have to fill every hole up in music, let it breath. With Jaron, he is just finding his way as a producer and has great ears for it. I’m just trying to make him trust, less is more.
You’ve said, there’s one thing that’s missing from your career and that’s running a label. Did the addition of Music Knox bring you closer to that goal?
I don’t know. The problem with this is a good manager doesn’t have a lot of friends. Irving Azoff kind of said something once about “you can’t be a great manager for your artist if you’re everyone’s friend,” something like that? I would like to run a major label one day. I’m waiting for someone outside of Nashville to say “I want that guy.” I’m a true independent thinker and I’m not going to do it like everybody else.
You just celebrated 25 years in the business and you’ve watched the business model change greatly over the years. Looking ahead, what change do you think the industry, best be prepared for?
Everything… everything is going to change. How we consume music, how we make music, how we get paid for music and even what we call music. Just the past 5 years have moved ahead more than the 100 years before that. The worst thing we can do is shut the door and think we have the answers. In a creative since, we are dropping the ball. We need artist more now than we ever have needed them before. We are not developing talent like we use to. Just because the business is moving fast doesn’t mean we need to rush the creative process. The fundamentals of artist development are the same as they always have been. If you want to have success in a creative market, put the creative process first.