Gary Allan, Drake Milligan, EmiSunshine — Country producer Tony Brown is back in business
The Tony Brown Interview, Part Six
What projects are occupying your calendar these days?
Now that I’m not working at a record label [i.e. RCA, MCA Nashville, or Universal South], it’s become such a young man’s world. I’m starting all over again, which is fine with me. In the beginning I had no idea that you could make real money producing records. That finally happened when George Strait’s Pure Country soundtrack sold six million and Wynonna’s self-titled debut sold five [both albums were issued in 1992 on MCA Nashville when Brown was quickly rising through the ranks on his way to assume CEO duties]. Vince Gill’s I Still Believe in You, When Love Finds You, and the best-of Souvenirs [1992–1995] were certified between 3 and 5x platinum. A handful of my albums with Reba McEntire — Rumor Has It, For My Broken Heart, It’s Your Call, Read My Mind, and Greatest Hits Volume Two [1990–1994] — shifted similar units.
I’ve always wanted to be known as a producer. If somebody stops me on the street and goes, “Hey, did you do that record on Reba? That’s my favorite record on the radio!” It makes you feel like a million bucks, even better than money.
EmiSunshine [Hamilton] is from East Tennessee [Madisonville] and entered my orbit in the summer of 2017. She sings with her family and is a prodigy. She writes all her own songs. She’s like two of my past collaborators — Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle — that Americana left-of-center kinda artist. She doesn’t fit in any box. All the labels have told me, “Emi is awesome, but I don’t know what she is.” Déjà vu — Lyle Lovett. I remember when I signed Lyle the head of RCA’s A&R said, “Who’s gonna play that?” I said, “Somebody will.” The three albums I produced for Lyle [his self-titled debut, Pontiac, and Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, 1986–1989] flew into the C&W Top 20, with the latter two accomplishing gold certification [500,000 units sold]. “Cowboy Man” was a Top Ten single.
I produced Emi’s sixth studio album Family Wars [credited to EmiSunshine and the Rain, 2019] without the support of a major label. Her dad Randall plays bass, her brother John supplies mandolin, and her uncle Bobby Hill rounds out the band on drums. Since then I’ve gone in and cut four sides on just Emi. I tried to make those songs more mainstream until I realized, ‘I can’t do this. I’ve gotta let Emi be who she is because she’s authentic.’ So I told her, “You know what? I’m gonna wait until you turn 18 [Hamilton was born on June 8, 2004]. Then you’ll know what you wanna do. If being an Americana superstar such as Brandi Carlile or Jason Isbell is your bag, that’s a career. Or if you wanna move toward the center and be like Kacey Musgraves or Miranda Lambert, that’s cool, too. It’s your call.” Another reason I’m biding my time is because Emi is the breadwinner for her family. If I were to pull her out now, I wouldn’t feel right. Emi fires me up, and I’m so inspired by her [In the meantime Hamilton auditioned for American Idol in season 19 and advanced to the Top 64 Showstopper Round. She fell shy of joining the Top 24 and was eliminated in March 2021].
Did you see the CMT miniseries Sun Records ? Drake Milligan played the young Elvis. He tried out for American Idol [Milligan disclosed on Instagram that “after my audition I decided that I wasn’t quite ready for that platform yet, and that it would be a better step for me to move to Nashville and focus on my music first…”].
I sent Drake to a vocal coach and landed him a deal with Broken Bow / Stoney Creek Records in early 2018. We cut a record [Milligan’s debut self-titled EP, accented by five songs acknowledging Rascal Flatts-Sam Hunt songwriter Brandon Hood as co-producer, was delayed until July 2021. In the summer of 2022 he competed on America’s Got Talent]. Drake is perfect. He’s 24 years old and single from Texas. He looks like Elvis, but he writes songs like Strait. Drake is traditional like Jon Pardi, Ashley McBryde, Midland and Luke Combs. Luke, in spite of resembling a fat redneck, sings his butt off and writes great songs. I love the fact whenever traditional cycles come back in, which reminds me of Randy Travis, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, and Strait storming the airwaves during the ’80s.
Mark Wright and I cut some of Gary Allan’s biggest records [e.g. “Right Where I Need to Be” from 1999’s Smoke Rings in the Dark and “The One” and “Man to Man” from 2001’s Alright Guy]. We went in and cut six more sides on Gary for his 10th studio album Ruthless [June 2021, MCA Nashville; Allan and Greg Droman churned out another half dozen, while Jay Joyce spearheaded a rendering of Jesse Winchester’s “Little Glass of Wine.” “Temptation” was dropped as a teaser a month prior to the LP’s launch, followed by lead A-side “Waste of a Whiskey Drink.” Demonstrating the label’s confidence in Brown’s proven hit streak, both bear his production credit].
I’ve got an act that actually has a record deal, a career, and a fan base [Allan]. Next, I have a brand new act poised to go mainstream like Drake. Last but not last, Emi is my left of center, artsy act. I’m back in business. I’m starting again, man.