Bringing a session player’s perspective to Nashville hitmaking
By Michael Gallant
If you’ve listened to a country radio station anytime in the last 20 years, chances are you’ve experienced the craftsmanship of studio drummer-turned-producer James Stroud. One of Nashville’s most prolific and successful hitmakers, Stroud has produced multiplatinum albums for country giants like Tim McGraw, Toby Keith and Clint Black, and over the last two years has overseen a string of chart-toppers for rising star Chris Young.
A Louisiana native, Stroud learned to read music and play rudiments as a concert drummer in grade school. By the time he graduated high school he was playing professionally throughout the South. “I played a lot of Delta blues and R&B, a lot of Stax records,” recalls Stroud, whose drum work can be heard on classics like Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff,” King Floyd’s “Groove Me” and Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell.” As his studio credits grew to include famous names like Isaac Hayes, Bob Seger, Paul Simon and Gladys Knight, Stroud began paying careful attention to what was happening on the other side of the glass. “I realized that what I really wanted to do was produce,” he says. “To make records, not just to play on them.”
Stroud relocated permanently to Nashville in 1981. “It was quite a transition learning to play country, but I loved it,” he says. “It was a great time in my life.” He proved a quick study of Music City’s unique way of making records—relying on top-shelf session musicians like himself to lay down tracks quickly and therefore keep costs down. But when he began focusing on production in the late 1980s, Stroud also learned that there are times to subvert that system by using an artist’s touring musicians—a rarity in mainstream country. “It’s a great combination,” he says. “Because what you end up with is more of who the artist is and what the music is like on their live gigs, which is really where the rubber meets the road.” Today Stroud splits his time between recording and running his own startup label, Stroudavarious Records. We caught up with him between sessions at his Nashville studio to discuss his philosophy of production.
How did you learn to produce?
I had become a pretty popular session drummer and got calls to record for some truly great producers. I would watch how they made records and translate how they did their work into what I wanted to do. I was blessed to have the opportunity to play on hits produced by people like Tom Collins, Jerry Crutchfield and Jimmy Bowen. At that point, my problem was, how do I find an artist who would trust me to produce? After all, I was known as a drummer, not a producer.
Who was that first artist?
I found this kid named Clint Black. (laughs) That was really the first production gig that got a platinum record under my belt [Killin’ Time, 1989]. My idea with Clint was not to hire session players, but to work with the band he had in Texas and have them record. Clint’s guys were on the road with him and knew more about him musically than session players would. I still use touring band members to augment recording sessions, to fill in the blanks left by session players. I always have to make sure that the record truly belongs to the artist—not me, and not the session players.
What is the Nashville session-player system like?
There are unbelievable musicians in Nashville who always have the best equipment, learn new material very quickly and are acclimated to what we do in the studio. The key is to get these players to specifically play the artist’s music, and not just what they do every night. When I was coming up as a producer, I found my background as a studio drummer helped me translate to the musicians what the artist needed for his or her music.
How do you pick artists to work with?
I’ve turned down a lot of artists because I didn’t think I could make a better record than what they were already doing. I try to see where the artist is going to be three or four years down the road and if I can help step up the quality or creativity, that’s what I’ll do. If I’ll just be making another record for that artist, I’ll stay away. I’ve always prided myself on having the knack to take what the artist is, what he or she wants to express live, and put that on tape—not just hire a bunch of session players, record a bunch of songs and release something that sounds like every other record out there.
How was working with Toby Keith?
When Toby and I spoke about working together, he’d already had some big hits, so I studied everything he’d done beforehand. And that helped me answer the question: “Can I make a record that enhances his artistry?” When we met, I told him, “I know you’re a great singer, and one of the things I can help you with is your vocal sound.” His vocal abilities are amazing, but to make his vocal sound more powerful the tracks had to be tougher, with fewer instruments and more sound and space per instrument. His vocals had to be out there and bigger than life. And the music had to reflect the attitude in his lyrics.
How did you choose songs?
Toby’s a great writer, so I knew we wouldn’t have to go to outside songwriters for anything. We sat down night after night, listened to his material and chose songs that had strong lyrics that resonated with him. And we chose a few we thought could be great singles. He would sometimes play a few songs for me in the studio that I’d never heard before. Off the top of my head, I would come up with arrangements and give those to the musicians. The idea was to bring spontaneity—and the experiment worked. His song “I Love This Bar”  was recorded that way, and it was a No. 1 record. It might seem a little risky working that way, but I knew his music and we’d already arranged some of his songs, so I knew the direction we were going for. We worked quickly and didn’t second-guess ourselves.
How do you approach vocals?
Usually I’ll let them sing anything they want, however they want, and record several takes. Then I compile those down to a single track, let the artist listen and if the artist is happy, great. If the artist feels like there’s a phrase that needs repair, we’ll go back and look at what they have on the other tracks and see if there’s a suitable replacement. And if not, we’ll just go back and punch in the line.
Which artists score in a single take?
Lorrie Morgan. I’ve used a lot of her one-track vocals. She’s perfect—she’s so aware of what she can and cannot do as a singer that she makes it easy. It’s the same with [newcomer] Margaret Durante. She’s got a lot of range and is very well educated musically, so she did exactly what I needed her to do at the mic.
How do you compile vocal tracks?
I use Pro Tools to edit, but nine times out of 10 I do my comping on the fly while we’re recording. I have a lyric sheet in front of me on a clipboard. As I’m listening to each take the singer records, I’ll make a note when I hear a great line. Doing it that way saves me the time of having to go back and listen all the way through to five or six takes. I’ve done this so much and for so long I don’t question what I’m hearing. I’m listening to every note, phrase and inflection. Sometimes there are two or three strong takes of any given line, in which case I do need to go back to choose one. But I never go back to all five or six tracks and comp from there. By the time the artist is done recording, we have the final take 90 percent there.
Do you use pitch correction?
Sometimes, but I’ll let a note go by. If it’s a little blue or pitchy but it feels great, I’ll use it. Frankly, I don’t think I’m capable of producing a perfect record. It’s my upbringing, the way I learned to play music—to me, the feel is much more important than technical expertise. If you miss a note but there’s emotion there, it’s going to translate to the fans. I leave that stuff alone.
What about tempo?
I’ll often turn the band’s click track off and let the musicians do what they’re going to do. If the tempo changes a little bit when you’re singing and it gets more intense and emotional around the chorus, I don’t mind that the chorus speeds up a few clicks. It’s like how your heart speeds up when you get excited. When I produced Toby’s record “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” I directed the tempo. The record speeds up and slows down five or six times. I did that intentionally because I wanted to get the emotion of the song conveyed through the tempo as well as the other elements of the recording.
Did drumming teach you that?
Isaac Hayes is a perfect example. When I was playing with him in the early ’70s, there were certain places where he wanted to push the tempo because of the intensity or the emotion. You want to play solid time as a drummer, but you also want to be mindful of where the song is going and what it means emotionally and lyrically. That awareness helps me a lot when I produce.
How do you know a track is done?
I never want a song to be done. I keep tinkering, fixing things, overdubbing. I have to eventually let it go for a couple reasons—one is that we run out of money. (laughs) Producing a record can be like building a house. When you’ve got the foundation laid with the vocals and instrumental tracks, it’s done. I may change the color of the paint a few times before signing off, but it’s still fundamentally the same house.