With the much anticipated opening of Ring of Fire almost upon us, The Charlottetown Festival invited Brian Ahern who had the opportunity to work with Johnny Cash during the prime of his career. The man at the controls for many great country albums and helping to craft the “Americana” sound would be sitting down for an interview, some Q & A, and a workshop. What a perfect warm up for the new presentation taking over the stage @ the Homburg Theatre.
The event started off with a VH1 Behind the Music style video. Images of legends like George Jones, Keith Richards (having a spastic laugh attack over something only Keith Richards would find funny) and, of course, the “Man In Black” Johnny Cash accompanied in the recording studio with Brian Ahern (often referred to as B.A.) were projected on the screen. The video concluded with Ahern’s motto, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re working with the wrong people.”
Some of the topics they would be touching on included the musicians Ahern worked with, the current state of the music industry, some of his innovations and, of course, some wise words.
John Connolly, one of the driving forces behind the returning runaway hit of the Charlottetown Festival Come-All-Ye, was in the interviewer’s chair, a natural selection, being one of the few people that could claim traveling all the way to Nashville to knock on Ahern’s door for a chance to work together (which he gladly accepted in return for the favor of helping out with a sink installation in Nova Scotia). The audience included fellow Come-All-Ye musicians Ashley Condon, Mark Haines, Chas Guay and comedian Patrick Ledwell among a roomful of curious music enthusiasts, sound techs, musicians, and media people.
Ahern’s advice to young musicians is to compile a collection of music not by them for the producer they’re about to work with to get a feel of where they’re coming from. He provided plenty of helpful tips but it seemed apparent that he probably had more than a few more up his sleeve. You could tell he was downplaying his talents a little bit, yet eager to share his own accomplishments from using a baby bottle as a shaker on an overdub which would later be slowed to half speed for a wishy-washy effect to a 6-string bass solo played live over the studio track of Cash’s “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”
As a young music fan, Ahern listened to Hit Parader and held the uncommon aspiration of being the man behind the scenes in the music industry as a producer or what he liked to call the “audio-machinator.” As a pioneer of mobile recording, he described the great lengths he went to get that off the ground. This allowed for a recording experience of making a “house-call” with the recording studio, that was rare for the time. Brian spoke with wonderment of the unchartered possibilities of getting a symphony spread out in different rooms, capturing a recording of a harpist in the dining room, or even getting a guitar recorded in the bathroom. His favorite innovation was using major 7th and minor chords as well as subtle modulation (raising or lowering the pitch of the melody) which can make live performances a little harder to pull off.
I really liked his advice about going one take past “The Take” (which was the recording where all of the musicians got it right). He was proud to say that most of them were right on at “The Take.” He described the “Can’t help its” as the music created after playing the same part over & over until you just couldn’t help but play it a certain way, as well as the magic created within a nucleus of using sometimes as many as 9 musicians on song.
Q & A
John Connolly & some audience members asked some great questions about the people Ahern worked with & it seemed like a much enjoyed stroll down memory lane. Stories of Nova Scotian Anne Murray’s rise to fame with PEI’s extraordinary songwriter Gene MacLellan’s Snowbird in his “Singalong Jubilee” days & being struck by Emmylou Harris’ ability to always be in command of her band yet took instruction in the studio.
When it came to George Jones (aka “The Possum”) in the studio he described the experience as this: “A deer doesn’t’ say I’m gonna run pretty today, it just runs.” He found it helpful to record with an acoustic bass which suited Jones’ vocal style much better than the longer sustain of an electric bass. On firing Willie Nelson: he couldn’t get a guitar he liked to call “Trigger” (for the extra hole it had a little west of the traditional sound hole) to play in tune on a solo recording. As a testament to Nelson’s resolve he returned a short time later in a limo with a brand new fancy guitar and was able to throw together something worth putting in the mix. As for Johnny Cash, he was quiet and decisive. As a show of gratitude, Cash gave Ahern a brand new shiny Rolex as well as an unrepaired keying of his acoustic guitar that he proudly displayed for the audience.
After a break during which the audience was able to chat amongst themselves about their love of music and get a closer look at some of the memorabilia up front, the Confederation Centre’s Communications Manager Fraser McCallum called Brian and John out to put on some of the great music from his personal collection. During the workshop he recounted a song by Cash when he discovered that antihistamines allowed him to sing some of his trademark bass notes. Hearing it on surround sound (which was discontinued almost completely by the music industry some years ago) I had to agree that singing might have taken some performance enhancement.
Towards the end we heard some tracks featuring the beautiful voice of Emmylou Harris and a refreshingly unlikely pairing of George Jones and Rolling Stone Keith Richards in a heart-felt ballad. You just don’t hear a duet like that everyday. The nostalgia was in the air throughout the event and for anyone who missed the train for that era, Brian Ahern provided a great snapshot.
On one of the last questions, which was about American Idol’s effect on the world of recording, Brian responded that today’s music scene has replaced artistic label reps with accountants. It’s all about who you sound like. It occurred to me that today’s music scene feels more like the fashion industry than the old classics that could be heard over the air waves before generating big money became the primary focus. According to Ahern, “If Johnny Cash walked in and tried to get a record deal today, he’d be labeled as weird.” It’s clear today that millions of music lovers would have it no other way.