The Legendary country producer got his start playing with Elvis, among other awesome things.
You can’t simply narrow the life and career of Tony Brown to one word or phrase—he’s accomplished too much for that. Starting his career in Southern Gospel, he played with Elvis Presley, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell before becoming one of Nashville’s most dominant music executives. As a producer, his name has graced many of the biggest stars of all time, including Wynonna Judd, Lionel Richie and George Jones. Brown is putting the final touches on his upcoming coffee table book, Elvis Strait to Jesus, as he continues to produce, working with Reba McEntire on her new album – as well as Curb newcomer Mo Pitney. We recently had an opportunity to chat with Brown and learn some lesser-known facts about the producer. Here are ten things you need to know about the man who was a “hipster” before the term was cool in Nashville.
Growing Up, Gospel Music Was His World
I grew up in North Carolina, and my dad was an evangelist. He was very much right wing. We didn’t have TV, and the only thing I could listen to growing up was religious music. For me, the only stars were the southern Gospel quartets like The Stamps or The Blackwood Brothers. I would go see them, and they were my stars – my Springsteen or The Rolling Stones.
Brown Played With Elvis – At First In The Vocal Group Voice, Then As A Part Of The Band
On tour, Elvis would have a comedian to open the show, then he’d have The Sweet Inspirations to do a few songs. I had such stars in my eyes. I just sat back and watched his show every night, along with Glen D. Hardin, who was his piano player. I thought “Man, I could play this show.”
His First Label Gig Wasn’t Country
David Briggs had hired me to pitch songs for his publishing company, and he says, “Would you ever want to work for a record company?” I said, “Absolutely. That would be awesome.” As it was, RCA was about to start a pop label out of Los Angeles, but the main office was going to be in Nashville. David said that Jerry Bradley was going to ask him to do it, but he wasn’t going to. He was going to suggest me. So I got that gig and moved to LA.
He Helped Steer Vince Gill Into Country Music
I told him that he needed to come to Nashville and be a country star, but he said he wanted to pursue a pop thing. But, I eventually persuaded him to come to Nashville and he cuts a record for RCA. He had a few single hits, but he really didn’t sell any records. By this time, Jimmy Bowen was telling me that I needed to find some new artists, and he would groom me into a producer. I found out that Vince was having problems at RCA, and they wouldn’t let him cut ‘When I Call Your Name.’ They wanted him to cut more outside songs. I saw him and asked him to play it for me. After he did, I said, “Man, that’s awesome!” It changed everything for him.
Brown Liked Lyle Lovett – Just The Way He Was
The first album was all his demos. Everybody wanted to re-cut it all, but I told him that if it were me, I would just re-mix those demos because they were awesome. Jimmy Bowen let me do that, and it was a Gold record.
His Production Partnership With George Strait Was An Instant Success
I got that gig because Bowen left MCA to go to Capitol. My first record with George was Pure Country. Up to that point, he was selling about a million each album. That one sold six million.
His Years At MCA Were Definitely Magical
The whole time at MCA was a lot of luck. I remember Bruce Hinton telling me, “Don’t ever forget this period, because it will never happen again.” We had the dream team. Sheila Shipley Biddy, David Haley and everyone there was so good at what they did. We were the number one label for ten years in a row.
Brown Passed On……Garth Brooks
Bowen and I met with Garth. Bowen asked him, “How do you see yourself?” Garth said, “I’m a little James Taylor. I’m a little George Strait, and I’m a little Kiss. I’m a little bit of everything.” We left, and he asked me what I thought about him. I said, “The man is crazy.” But, that’s exactly what he was – all those things. We started hearing about Garth coming out of the top of Texas Stadium on a rope, and every record sells ten million copies. I thought, “Man, we missed that one.”
Elvis Strait To Jesus Will Show How Brown’s Career Has Flowed…From One Stop To The Next
I want the book to show how my journey started in the church, and how it led to here without it making it look like I went from the church to the bars. I went from the church to playing for Elvis – all because he wanted to be a Gospel singer. I got the job with him because of JD Sumner, and that led me to meeting Glen D. Hardin which led to Emmylou which led to Vince, which led to Lyle, and it’s like a metamorphosis of a butterfly opening up.
Brown Continues To Guide New Talent
I’m doing a project with a new artist named Kalisa Ewing. She’s 27 and is from Kingston Springs, TN, and is very much in that mold of Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark – a singer / songwriter who is very intelligent. If you have something good, it will work. I remember when I went to work for MCA in 1984, Bowen had said, “Women don’t sell. I’m going to change that with Reba,” and he ends up cutting Whoever’s In New England. Then, she exploded. After that, you had KT, Trisha, Shania, Faith, and Martina. I think the tide is about to swing again.