THE PRODUCER'S CHAIR: TED HEWITT
By James Rea
When Ted Hewitt produced the 2006 album If You're Going Through Hell, not only did Rodney Atkins have his first No. 1 with the title track, but Hewitt and Atkins became the first producer and artist to score four chart-toppers from a country album since Byron Gallimore and Tim McGraw's 2001 string of hits.
If You're Going Through Hell was certified Platinum and the award nominations followed, including ACM nods for Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Producer of the Year. Atkins took home the 2006 trophy for ACM Top New Male Vocalist, and was nominated for CMA Horizon Award and CMA New Artist in 2006 and 2007.
Hewitt recalls, "'When Angel's Hands Are Tied' was teed up to be the first single, but I didn't think it was a hit. I thought, 'this is going to be it, we might get one more swing.' So I quit writing and started looking for more songs. Brad Kennard dropped 'If You're Going Through Hell' (Sam Tate, Annie Tate, Dave Berg) in my lap and that 20 minute meeting changed my life."
Atkins and Hewitt re-teamed for their third and fourth albums: It's America, and current release, Take A Back Road, which yielded their fifth and sixth No. 1s. Not bad for a guy who didn't come to town to be a producer.
Hewitt was born in Baltimore, Maryland and started playing guitar at 15. Both of his parents were professional musicians. His father was an opera singer and actor who appeared in No Time for Sergeants with Andy Griffith. The two actors became close friends and Griffith later offered the eulogy at the elder Hewitt's funeral.
After graduating from Emory University in Atlanta, Hewitt spent several years writing songs, singing and playing lead guitar in rock 'n' roll bands before moving to Nashville in 1984. Since then he has had over 40 major cuts with Atkins, Glen Campbell, Waylon Jennings, Alabama, Kenny Rogers and Wynonna. His song "Love Lessons" was a top 5 hit for Tracy Byrd, and his song "Wine Into Water," recorded by T. Graham Brown, was the Christian Country Music Association Song of the Year in 2000.
Producer Buddy Cannon took an interest in Hewitt on one of his early trips to Nashville. Today he credits Cannon with showing him how to sing in the studio. They even sang together on a Reba McEntire album.
Within a year of moving to Nashville, Hewitt immersed himself in the writing community, but was uncomfortable pitching his own material. "I used to sit outside Mel Tillis's office for 20 minutes, dreading going in to pitch songs," he says. But in 1985 Tillis signed him to his first publishing deal and Glen Campbell recorded "Leavin' Eyes." Hewitt's first cut became even sweeter when he got to sing on it.
Three years passed and Hewitt went on the road as lead guitarist with Vern Gosdin, Suzy Bogguss and Lee Greenwood. His songwriting suffered as a result and he decided to stop touring and concentrate on what first brought him to Nashville: writing. That decision landed him his second publishing deal, with Greenwood, in 1992.
That job is where he first met Atkins. They connected immediately after the new artist came to his office and sang "Keeper of the Stars." Hewitt secured investor funding and produced Atkins' 10 song demo. He pitched it to Chuck Howard at Curb, where Atkins signed his first record deal in 1997.
Howard produced Atkins' first album and Curb put out the debut single "In a Heartbeat," but the album never saw the light of day, so Hewitt started producing new demos of Atkins. Hewitt played them for Curb Sr. VP of A&R Phil Gernhard who liked what he heard and paired Hewitt and Atkins with famed engineers Mike Shipley and Justin Niebank.
Sadly, Gernhard passed away in 2008 leaving behind five decades of work as a producer. Gernhard's career began in the early '60s producing the shortest song to ever reach the top of the pop charts: Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs's "Stay" (1:39). In 1969, he produced Kent Lavoie's debut 45 in New York, "Happy Days." He did five albums with Dion including the hit "Abraham, Martin and John," as well as Jim Stafford's "Spiders and Snakes" and the Bellamy Brothers' "Let Your Love Flow." Today Hewitt says that getting the thumbs-up to produce Atkins from the legendary Gernhard was one of his finest moments.
The Producer's Chair: You sing, play lead guitar and write songs. Did you ever consider being an artist?
Ted Hewitt: At one point I did a bunch of showcases, but God had other plans.
Who besides Rodney are you producing right now?
The Van Lears, and Michael Thomas, a traditional singer from North Carolina who just signed a publishing deal with Rusty Gaston at This Music. I just finished an album by Canadian artist Brett Kissel.
What's the most important thing about artist development process?
The level of commitment of the artist, I think talent is probably 40%. Having drive and good decision-making ability and surrounding yourself with a great team of believers are the things that propel success. Some of the greatest singers I've ever met, for whatever reason, were not motivated. I've been blinded by talent, thinking that would carry the day and maybe it has a few times, but you can't come to town and think 'I'll try for a year or two, and if it doesn't work, I'm out of here.' If you have that attitude, don't come. Everybody will tell you they're committed, but you need to be able to see it.
Is performing in the studio something that comes instinctively to most artists?
I think it's a learned skill. Somebody said it's like the difference between Broadway and the movies. You've got to be big and bold and larger than life on Broadway, whereas on a movie, you get up real close and there are times when you've got to be very quiet. The dynamics are different. That's one of the things that Rodney really worked hard on. He's great at being conversational. When I met Rodney, he was an amazing live singer - huge voice and he can belt with anybody - but he has worked on the small things where you draw people in.
Does being a singer make it easier for you to communicate with artists?
I think that is one of my strengths. Singing should be fun. You can't think and sing at the same time. You have to just sing. I have a whole philosophy about singing. That's when an artist finds out who they really are. But it's an acquired skill. You learn how to communicate. Part of the journey is discovering who they are and what they're good at. I love that part of the process.
Should producers care if an artist writes?
Not necessarily, but writing is a way for me to have a creative relationship with the artist. You kind of get in the wheelhouse and see what they like and what they don't like. When you're in the studio, especially with new artists, a lot of times they're going to be a little timid and you're going to have a hard time finding out if they really like what's going on or not. Whereas, if you've been working with them in a room, you hear what they like and don't like and you get a feel for what they're about.
I had an artist that I did some sessions on and she was a great singer. She didn't say much during the sessions and the next day she was really unhappy. It would have been great if she'd have said something, so I tell artists 'don't be timid, this is your career. If you don't like something that's going on, just talk about it, because we're here to make the record that you want.'
How difficult is it for newly signed artists to find great songs?
There's competition for those songs. Here's what happens, and we've had this happen twice. With "Farmer's Daughter" we had a "hold" on it, but Blake Shelton wanted it too, so we had to commit to cutting it and booking the session on X date. We had to do that with "Take A Back Road" too. We had to prove our intentions and fight for it. A "hold" doesn't mean as much as it used to. As a producer you're always sort of at mercy of whatever songs are out there, at any given time. You just have to put yourself on receive mode and pray that God will bring those songs into your world.
Does the best song always win?
As a producer, I'm dependent on great songs and you can't always rely on the artists to write them. Rodney is a great writer but when he's out on the road, he's busy with other things. There are politics involved in everything, especially between the creative people and the promotions people. Part of it is making sure on the front end, when you're recording, that you've got enough singles and that they're obvious. There is such a thing as a hit song. The most important and impacting decision that is made in this business is the choice of the next single. It affects writers, artists, publishers, A&R, managers, label execs… everybody. If we can get the promotion and the creative folks on the same page about that next single we have a real shot at radio. In my world, the times when we've gone out to radio and we're unified, it's powerful.
What's your take on Rodney's next single?
I hope it's a song called "Feet" written by Tony Hazelton and Walker Hayes. It could be song of the year.
Read other Producer's Chair interviews:
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Julian King
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Brent Maher
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Tom Hambridge
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Jim Catano
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Michael Knox
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Keith Thomas
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Mark Bright
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Jimmie Lee Sloas
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Ron Haffkine
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Trey Bruce
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Doug Johnson
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Mickey Jack Cones
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Keith Stegall
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Ted Hewitt
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Carl Jackson
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Brett James
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Jeff Stevens
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Dann Huff
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Paul Worley