Tony Brown is releasing a new coffee table book featuring exclusive photographs and stories about his more than 40-year career as one of Nashville’s leading producers and executives.
Elvis, Strait, To Jesus showcases the people who have played pivotal roles in Brown’s life, dating back to his early career playing Southern gospel music with JD Sumner and The Stamps Quartet, which lead to work with Elvis Presley, and then through Nashville’s ‘90s boom where he produced multi-platinum albums by George Strait and many others.
Each person in the book was photographed in a French Renaissance chair, which belongs to Brown. Alongside photos from throughout his career, Brown and collaborators Rick Caballo and Melissa Core-Caballo, created new photographs using Brown’s chair as the backdrop. They even drove the chair to Atlanta for a photo shoot with Lyle Lovett, and to a Nashville recording studio to meet up with Strait.
Brown recalls, “George lives in San Antonio and he was coming to town to work on his new album, so I took the chair down to Chuck Ainlay’s studio and put up the black backdrop. I said ‘George, I’m glad you came in for this because you’re in the title, and the other two guys aren’t around anymore.’ He looked at me with that little George Strait smirk and chuckled.”
When it was time to photograph legendary producer and executive Jimmy Bowen, Brown took the opposite approach. “Jimmy Bowen was the guy who gave me my shot,” he says. “He lives in Phoenix and he couldn’t fly here, so I flew out to sit in his chair, because I wouldn’t even have a book without him.”
Also featured in the book are Lionel Richie, Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, Cyndi Lauper, Billy Joel, Joe Cocker, Steve Earle, Patty Loveless, Jimmy Buffett, Barbra Streisand and many more.
“I hadn’t seen some of those people, like Jerry Bradley, in 20 years, so it was fun catching up with them. It made me realize how lucky I’ve been in my life. I have been so blessed.”
Growing up in North Carolina, Brown’s father was an evangelist. At age 13, a lady at church taught him to play piano. “I believe in destiny,” he says. “I picked up on my gift. I paid attention. Being raised in a religious family, a poor family, gave me a set of morals and values.”
His first job in music was playing piano with JD Sumner and the Stamps Quartet. He left that gig to play with The Oak Ridge Boys, before Donnie Sumner (JD’s nephew) tapped him to join his group called Voice, which was working with Elvis. [Donnie and William Lee Golden are both in the book.]
“Our job was to play songs around Elvis’ house in Palm Springs, or Beverly Hills or Graceland, wherever he was. He eventually added us to his tour to open for the comedian Jackie Kahane. After our set, I would watch Elvis’ piano player Glen D. Hardin during Elvis’ set. About a year and a half into the gig, Glen was tapped to do Emmylou Harris’ tour, and I got his gig with Elvis. Elvis’ last show was in Indianapolis on June 26, 1977. On Aug. 16, we were at the airport getting ready to go on the next tour when we found out he had died.”
Following Elvis’ death, Brown landed in Nashville. “I got a job pitching songs for David Briggs’ publishing company. He played electric piano for Elvis, and I played acoustic piano. Then Glen D. quit Emmylou’s tour and I auditioned and got that job. We were going on tour with John Denver for a year. I accidentally followed in Glen D.’s footsteps and it led to a lot of good things, so he is in the book. With Emmylou, I met Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash and Vince Gill.
“When I first got in the business, Jerry Crutchfield, Tom Collins, Bob Montgomery, James Stroud, and Jimmy Bowen were producing all the records. I was the new guy in town. I kept wondering, ‘How do you get into that?’ Now I’m one of the old guards and all these new cats are guys that were pitching songs to me. Michael Knox, who produces Jason Aldean, used to pitch me all these great Warner/Chappell songs for George Strait. Jeff Stevens, who used to write all the songs, is now producing Luke Bryan. It’s interesting to see how the cycle changes. I look back on my life and I’m glad I was sitting in my chair during those golden years, when Soundscan started and everybody realized country music was selling records. Every label had about five or six multiplatinum acts. It’s just not that way anymore. My first George Strait and Wynonna Judd records sold 6 million each.
“As I got bigger and bigger in the industry, I realized celebrities, to me, weren’t just singers and actors, they were record executives and musicians and songwriters.”
That’s why Elvis, Strait, To Jesus showcases all the people who were crucial to Brown’s destiny. “You sometimes take for granted the things that have happened to you,” he sums, “but you look back and there’s a common thread.”
Brown is also grateful to his collaborators and says he couldn’t have done the book without them. “Rick and Melissa are completely God sent. We did it together and it’s been a lot of fun.”
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum will host a book signing for Elvis, Strait, to Jesus: An Iconic Producer’s Journey with Legends of Rock ‘N’ Roll, Country & Gospel Music on Thursday, May 3 at 1 p.m. in the museum’s 5th Avenue lobby. The event is free and open to the public.
Elvis, Strait, to Jesus is published by Center Street with design and creative direction by Dead Horse Branding’s Rick Caballo. Photography by Rick and Melissa Core-Caballo is featured throughout the publication, accompanied by images from Brown’s personal archives.