Artist, songwriter, producer—he’s seen success from all sides

By Michael Gallant

When it comes to country music, few producers have made as profound a mark as Nashville’s Keith Stegall. The multitalented studio master has produced more than 20 platinum albums and sold more than 70 million records. His résumé includes 50 No. 1 hits, four Country Music Association Awards, 10 Academy of Country Music Awards—and the list goes on.

Growing up in Louisiana, Stegall got an early taste for music from his father, who played steel guitar for 1950s country-rockabilly star Johnny Horton. The younger Stegall began performing at 8, and was touring in his teens before moving to Nashville. His early successes included co-writing Dr. Hook’s 1980 hit “Sexy Eyes” and landing a record deal with Capitol Records. Five years later Stegall had scored a stack of hits and a nomination by the ACM for Top Male Vocalist.

Offstage, Stegall began spending time in the studio with other up-and-coming artists like Randy Travis and Alan Jackson. “Alan and I started writing songs in 1986,” says Stegall, “which led to working on demos in the studio. Those resulted in a deal with Arista, and then a bunch of No. 1 hits and a bunch of records being sold.” Stegall has produced every album that Jackson has released.

The producer’s discography now includes many superstars, from George Jones, Merle Haggard and Reba McEntire to Billy Ray Cyrus, Uncle Kracker and Zac Brown. “Working with Merle Haggard was a high point for me,” recalls Stegall. “He is such an iconic figure.” Stegall has also helped shape the careers of younger artists, like Craig Campbell and Chris Janson.

Stegall is not only active in the studio but in the boardroom as well, co-founding the multidimensional music company Bigger Picture Group in 2009. “Bigger Picture is a hybrid that includes all the essentials in an artist’s career from production to promotion to management to merch,” he says. Stegall spoke to us about his business venture, applying lessons learned as an artist, and crafting hit after hit with the biggest names in country music.

Describe your working relationship with Alan Jackson after so many records.

You get a little like a married couple. We know the ins and outs of working together, and the ways we both think about and approach music. We can almost predict how the other is going to respond throughout the recording process, and that makes for an easier process overall. We’ve also grown accustomed to the types of songs we’re drawn to.

How do you keep the music fresh?

There’s a certain side to what Alan does where you’re always going to know it’s Alan Jackson—but we try to push the envelope, especially when it comes to outside songs we select. We can get away with some risks because Alan’s been around for a while, but at the same time you can’t go make a record that has him sounding like Hank Sr. and get away with it.

What mic do you use with Alan?

A Neumann U 87. It’s a great mic and I’ve used it on a bunch of projects I’ve produced through the years, including George Jones. If you know anything about Neumann mics, you know that every one has its own unique character. The one I use has what I would call a 3-D quality. Just magical.


How do you approach tracking vocals?

I was an artist, and what always bothered me most back then was having to punch in a line. Sometimes you get to a place psychologically where it takes forever to get just the right inflection, and to think where the line should be. Now when I work with singers, I produce vocals to get a performance, and then put a composite together after that. It’s much easier to comp together a final take and give it flow, rather than punching the fire out of something.


How many times do you have an artist sing through?

I try to get five performances. Obviously, by the end an artist is getting a little tired of singing the song, but we’re not hammering it to death and losing the emotion and spontaneity.


Do you use session players? 

I’ve been in Nashville for 35 years, and I’ve gotten used to the process of how records and demos are made here. There’s an A-team of session musicians—actually a couple of A-teams now, with more young players becoming part of a particular tracking corps. When I work with Alan, for instance, there’s a particular group of musicians I’ll employ. I try to draw on players that will complement what an artist does rather than sticking with any one group.


Do you try to achieve perfection?

I’m a big believer in the character of the records I make and the records that are my favorites to listen to. They’re the ones with flaws, where things aren’t perfect. I’ve always believed that those were the magical records, so I try to stay away from the factory mentality as much as I can.


What if the artist is having a bad day?

I’ll say, “Come in here a minute. How are you feeling? How’s your throat?” If they say that they’re feeling tired or tight, I’ll usually call it a day, tell them to get some rest, give it a shot tomorrow. That’s much better than spending hours frustrating an artist who may have just gotten in from the road after singing the night before. It’s always better to fold the tent when that starts happening and take a break.


How does your background as a musician guide you in the studio?

It allows me to be empathetic when I’m working with artists. I know what it’s like to be out on the floor in front of a mic, listening to somebody give you direction. I’m always very conscious of that and make sure I choose my words carefully. The goal when working with great artists is to get the most out of their abilities, so I stay away from negativity. A great artist might be one take away from having the performance of a lifetime, but if you give him or her the wrong information or say something that throws off the confidence level, you can tip over the apple cart. I keep that in mind and try to stay positive. It’s also important to remember that these people are not construction workers out there building a house. They’re truly artists, and my job is to help them create art.


What was your approach to the Zac Brown Band?

From the beginning, what made that band unique was the gut-string guitar that Zac plays. That was a hook unto itself, in the same way that Willie Nelson hooks his whole sound around his own gut-string guitar. You don’t hear that a lot. When we did The Foundation, we tried a couple of guitars and agreed to stick with the gut string. There’s something magical about it, and it’s been consistent, a common thread through all of his records even though he’s played a lot of electric as well. That guitar sound is identifiable on “Chicken Fried” and lots of his other hits.


How was it working with Merle Haggard?

It was an amazing experience. A big part of it is trying not to look like a completely bumbling fan and stay in charge as the record producer. I had the same experience with George Jones. If you’re working with your musical heroes it’s best to relax and try to have a good time. If you can just get over the fact that you’re not dreaming and accept that this is really happening, hang your thumb in the air and go with it.


How do you discover artists?

I get music sent to me by so many people, even established songwriters who want to be artists. The big thing for me is going into a club and seeing somebody play. That’s what ignites me. When I saw the Zac Brown Band for the first time, there was some magic going on up on the stage, and the audience felt it. It was the same with Craig Campbell and Chris Janson. I was moved by what was happening behind the microphone. Putting on a great show is how you attract fans—and producers—these days. Being good at performing is a big piece of the puzzle that has to be there for success.


Tell us about Craig Campbell. Craig is cut from the cloth of the neo-traditionalist movement. He’s an incredibly talented singer and songwriter. The process of producing him is free-flowing and fun, mainly because he’s just so good. Chris Janson, on the other hand, is a bit of a wild card. I like describing him as Hank [Williams] Sr. meets Mick Jagger. Craig and Chris are on opposite ends of the spectrum—neo-traditionalist versus cutting edge.


Who was Bigger Picture’s first artist?

We started back when the first Zac Brown Band album came out. We put together a promotional staff, and though Zac was part of Atlantic Records at that point, we joint ventured with them on the first couple of albums. Then we took that concept a step further and started finding acts with whom we believed in becoming 50-50 partners. It’s pretty forward thinking. We try to be there for every piece of what an artist needs to make a career work. We work hand in hand with our artists, not against them, because we’re all striving for a common goal together.

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