THE PRODUCER'S CHAIR: MICKEY JACK CONES
By James Rea
39 year old San Antonio, Texan, Mickey Jack Cones has produced, engineered, mixed, written songs for, sang on, and/or played on over 50 major artist's albums, since his arrival in Nashville, in 1996. His impressive body of work includes, Jason Aldean, Kelly Clarkson, Trace Adkins, Luke Bryan, Carrie Underwood, Eric Church, Reba, Sara Evans, Blake Shelton, Joe Nichols, Kenny Rogers, Jeff Bates, Andy Griggs, Frankie Ballard, Gretchen Wilson, Montgomery Gentry, Kellie Pickler, Blaine Larsen, Julie Roberts, Katrina Elam, Chuck Wicks, Julianne Hough and Randy Owen (of Alabama). Plus...his work with Motley Crue, Aerosmith/Steven Tyler, Exile, Ludacris, Lionel Richie and Buck Cherry, which explains why Cones is considered to be one of the "new breed" of producer/engineers largely responsible for that "80s Rock" influence, that ignited country music into the stratosphere.
In 2012 alone, Mickey Jack Cones' vocal engineering expertise combined with Michael Knox's production on Jason Aldean's 2 x Platinum album My Kind of Party rocked the award shows with a Grammy nomination, CMA "Album of The Year", "Single of The Year" and "Music Event of The Year", ACM "Single of The Year", "Vocal Event of The Year" and...Billboard's "Top Country Album" and "Top Country Song of The Year".
It's been said that most great vocal producers are great singers and Mickey Jack Cones is certainly one of them. His voice can be heard on numerous albums including Reba, Trace Adkins, Gretchen Wilson, Joe Nichols, Billy Gilman, Jeff Bates, Katrina Elam, Andy Griggs, Julianne Hough, Chuck Wicks and Kristen Kelly and he comes by it naturally.
Not only were Mickey's great grandparents and grandparents musicians but, his mother and two aunts, The Cones Sisters, who were discovered by Barry Becket and offered a record deal with RCA Nashville, had Mickey playing guitar and singing in their band, when he was 10.
Cones got bit by the songwriting bug when he was about 13 and by the time he was 15 he was the lead singer, lead guitarist & band leader in his first club band "Hired Guns". Later, he left college/University of Texas in San Antonio to become the lead singer, guitarist & band leader for "Rhythm of The Road". A well-known band in the south Texas dance hall circuit (1993-96)
Mickey moved to Nashville, in pursuit of a music business degree and graduated from Belmont's Music Business program in 1998, with an emphasis in studio production, which landed him an interning gig with his first connection in Nashville, Barry Beckett.
While in school, between his 2 waiter gigs at Planet Hollywood & Outback Steak House and a full course load, Mickey had no choice but to complete some of Belmont's required studio engineering projects out of his dorm room. After graduating, Cones went to work as a staff engineer for David Malloy's publishing company (studio) and eventually became know as "David's Guy".
"I was able to use the studio for my demos and quickly learned the difference between the vibe on my sessions compared to the vibe on David's sessions. On the first session with David, I learned about "not stifling" the creative process. From 98-99, I went through a huge learning curve as an engineer, but I started meeting all the A-musicians and eventually got the opportunity to engineer several of David's projects.
Through a friend, classmate and employee of Ladd Management (April Taylor) who also loaned Mickey the money for his first hard disc recorder, Cones got the opportunity to write the music for NEMESIS, a Pop/Rock act, who was signed to CURB, LA. Mickey signed a production deal with CURB to produce NEMESIS and that landed Mickey his first pub deal with EMI, in 99'.
Around 2000, David Malloy asked Mickey to work with him and Kenny Beard, on a Jeff Bates' session for RCA. "Derek Bason was scheduled to engineer and couldn't make it so I was brought in to engineer the vocals."The Jeff Bates project propelled Mickey as a vocal producer, which aside from having great ears, also stemmed from being a great singer, I'm sure.
During that period, David Malloy built a studio in his home, Mickey partnered with David in the recording equipment and they worked on a multitude of projects together.
In 2001, Mickey got his first opportunity to produce a major artist, an old friend from the Texas club circuit, David Kersh, on CURB. Although the album did not get released, it was during the project that Cones came to the conclusion that, the roll of an engineer was not hands-on enough for him, so he set his sights on producing.
Although his producing career was just taking off, every musician's dream is to hear what they sound like in a concert arena and Mickey was no exception. He had been writing with Julie Roberts while they were both signed at EMI. So, when she landed her record deal and asked Mickey to go on the road as her band leader (background vocals and guitar), he jumped at the chance. Mickey stayed with Julie for the next 2 years and his dream did come true, on the Rascall Flatts tour. Not to mention the 2 Good Morning America and Tonight Show appearances.
When Mickey came off the road and back to Nashville in 2004, Kenny Beard immediately hired Mickey to engineer and sing background vocals on Trace Adkins' next album, Dangerous Man. Blake Chancey also asked Mickey to work on Kellie Pickler's Small Town Girl album, which went gold and in 2005. Since then, Mickey has worked on the majority of Trace's albums.
A big turning point in Mickey's career as a producer came when Desmond Child, who loved Cones' 1998 production on NEMESIS, hired Mickey to engineer Motley Crue. That album created a different label of interest for Mickey. Famed rock producer Marti Frederiksen, who today is partners with David Malloy and Mickey at Westwood Studios, asked Mickey to engineer Buck Cherry and Aerosmith, which ultimately led to the Steven Tyler and Mickey's "HUGE" production with Kenny Beard on Kiss You All Over with EXILE & Trace Adkins.
But the rock Gods, were not the only Gods watching Mickey Jack Cones. Tony Brown had received some of Mickey's demos for the Katrina Elam project that Mickey had loaded up with back ground vocals. Tony wound up hiring Mickey to sing the background vocals on Katrina's project after a couple of failed attempts to recreate Mickey's background vocal arrangements with other singers. Tony continued to call Mickey for vocals and engineering for Reba, Heidi Newfield and other projects including Lionel Richie's Tuskegee album. Tony & Mickey co-produced sides on Trace Adkins and then Tony asked Mickey to produce Joe Nichols with him.
"Joe had just left Showdog/Universal at the time and was looking for a new deal. The 4 sides that I produced with Tony landed him a contract with RED BOW RECORDS (Broken Bow's new label). But before things got rolling, the label asked if I would be willing to produce the record with Derek George. I was caught off guard, excited, sad, all kinds of emotions. Tony brought the Joe Nichols project to me and I never thought in a million years I'd be in this predicament. But thank GOD, what could have been an awkward situation wasn't, because Tony, being the experienced, kind hearted and understanding man that he is, so graciously handed over the reins, with his blessing and said Mickey, you HAVE to do this."
Through his association with Trace Adkins, Mickey met Michael Knox who also produced some sides on Trace's Cowboy's Back In Town album. They wound up working together on Chuck Wicks and Montgomery Gentry which led to their "HUGE" 2012 Jason Aldean / Kelly Clarkson duet Don't You Want To Stay and the Ludacris / Aldean duet on the Dirt Road Anthem project after which, Ludacris went to Westwood Studios with Mickey to work on his new project "Burning Bridges"
Mickey Jack Cones is currently in the studio producing Joe Nichols, whose single is scheduled for release the first week of May (Red Bow Records), Trace Adkins (Showdog/Universal), James Wesley, whose single Thank A Farmer was just released to radio last week (Broken Bow Records) & a tribute album to Merle Haggard featuring Thompson Square, Randy Houser, Dustin Lynch, Parmalee, James Wesley and Joe Nichols.
The Producer's Chair: Do you find yourself constantly pushing the boundaries of country music "sound-wise" or does that depend on the artist?
Mickey Jack Cones: Loving the feeling of a "kick" at a live show and the impact of the sound as it hits you, is the way I mix. Coming from that Mutt Lang world to Hank Williams, I always try to merge of sonics of both worlds. But I try to throw things in discretely, rather than try to break new ground. I think that's why I haven't been forced to leave town yet. That doesn't mean I don't have a few saved tricks up my sleeve.
When a producer hires an engineer, do they discuss all aspects of, what the producer envisions prior to going into the studio?
No...usually if the producer calls you to engineer, he's calling you because you have created some sort of sound or expectation that he knows he's going to get. If you're being called to co-produce, it depends on the other producer. With Tony Brown, absolutely, the answer is yes, from phone call one, we discussed everything.
People describe today's "country music" as being more like 80s ROCK. Does your background, with artists like Motley Crue and Steven Tyler enhance your chances, of remaining relevant in Nashville?
Absolutely and I say that because I've now been in town for about 17 years. That cycle that people talk about and that 80s sound that I grew up with has definitely influenced the evolution of country music.
To me there's a marriage sonically in a sound between getting too technologically processed and that 80s sound, which has more of an analog-type warmth and punch to it, but with that straight-ahead "live" feeling. It absolutely gives me an edge and anyone else who was raised in that era.
Are the studio musicians more of a blend of country pickers and rock musicians, because of where country has gone?
They have to be.
Has the decline of ROCK caused a big influx of new musicians into Nashville?
I'd say so, Nashville is booming and they need a new outlet. They're coming here because country is not just known for its twang anymore. It's actually helping both genres.
Which producer taught you the most about dealing with Artists and Musicians?
I've learned something from every single producer but without a doubt 100%, David Malloy.
What is the producer's biggest challenge?
The Songs… The song makes or breaks the artist. The label's rolls and how they're changing has created more gray areas, as far as who makes decisions on the creative side. The hardest part to me is narrowing that down.
How much of a producer's time is spent listening to songs?
In this market, it's always been 60-70%. It's a large chunk of the work. You track in a couple of days but it takes you months, to get to that point.
Do you find more songs through pluggers or writers?
The Writers… It may be because they are so focused on trying to find the best songs for that artist, that they've written, so their brain is only on that catalog. Whereas, the pluggers are having to sift through and stay on top of the publishing companie's entire catalog. Not saying the pluggers aren't focused on finding the best songs. The best thing that I can do is to be as informative as I can be, with the pluggers and the writers about, what I'm looking for.
When you present a hit to the musicians on a session, is it obvious that it's a hit or do opinions vary as much in the studio as they do outside the studio?
If it's not too quirky and everybody just knows it's a hit, there's a feeling in the room when everybody in the room looks up...and they're ready to make it happen.
Is the vibe different, if the song is slated to be an album cut?
Admittedly yes, but what's funny is when that vibe in the studio cut comes back and slaps you in the face, when it becomes a # 1 hit.
Do the budgets that you're given these days restrict the creativity of a project?
Income is down so budgets have had to come down. There are certain aspects of the business where budgets have not been adjusted, but the first people to adjust are those of us guiding the ship. The per-song rate has been reduced. If I want to work and stay busy, instead of lowering the budget, I'll take on more responsibilities.
Have you ever given a hit song to one artist and another artist complained?
Normally that wouldn't happen if there was a bigger gap between projects, but it happens all the time when you're recording a lot of projects at the same time. But because I'm a vocal guy, I can explain why; it doesn't showcase their strengths, it could be a long note thing or a range thing or too much diction and its two wordy. There's usually a case or I wouldn't have done it, but it's honest.
Is traditional country music ever going to be lost?
Absolutely not, you can stray sonically from artist to artist and you can have different dialects and not have the same twang because you're from a different region, but the true element of country music and what it stands for and the story portion of it and the real life element is to me, what makes country, country.
Even in the rockiest of sounds and projects, traditional country is always going to circle back around. There's a demand right now for more traditional sounding music, in my opinion and it needs to be satisfied. Like with any product, when there's a demand, it's gonna be met, then it might be overly-met and it'll dip down and people will stray from it but traditional country is always going to be there.
Can the industry ensure that country stays country?
Now we're gonna get deep here. What you're referring to has been in place since long before I was born. It's got to be country. We're not going to sign anybody who does not know who Hank Williams and Merl is. Nobody is going to let that happen.
Trace Adkins (Showdog/UMG)
Jeff Bates (Black River)
Joe Nichols (Red Bow Records)
Nemesis Rising (Curb Records)
Chad Hudson (Universal Music Group)
James Wesley (Broken Bow Records)
Matt Stillwell (Average Joe’s Entertainment)
Nicky Barot (UK Rock)
Damien Leith (Australian Idol)
Jimmy Fortune (Statler Brothers)
Engineer Credits: (Recording and/or Mixing)
Randy Owen (of Alabama)
Damien Leith (Australian Idol winner)
John Daly (yes the golfer)
Fools For Rowan
3 Doors Down
Background Vocal Credits:
Country Strong (soundtrack)
Act of Valor (soundtrack)
Musician Credits: (Guitar/Synth, Bass and/or Percussion)
Country Strong (Soundtrack)
Act of Valor
Act of Valor (Soundtrack)
Read other Producer's Chair interviews:
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Paul Worley
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Cactus Moser
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Dave Brainard
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Gretchen Peters
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Frank Liddell
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Victoria Shaw
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Jed Hilly
The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Marshall Altman
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