The year was 1975. Elvis Presley and his band members were gathered at his Palm Springs, Calif. ranch home, playing through some of his most beloved gospel songs. During a short break, Presley turned his attention to his newbie pianist, 28 year-old Tony Brown. Brown had recently transitioned from his first major gig with the Oak Ridge Boys to play with The King, who he recalls as being “the most beautiful, coolest cat I’d ever seen,” and “someone who never quite figured out he was Elvis Presley.”
Presley called out to Brown without warning, asking, “What are you doing here, Tony?”
“Well, I thought you wanted me out here to play…” Brown said, shifting nervously on his feet.
“No, why are you here?” Elvis persisted, coolly.
“Well… I’m here because I play piano. I’m not sure what you mean,” Brown said, his voice trailing off.
“No,” Elvis said, searching Brown’s gaze for a moment before locking into it. “You’re here because you wanted to be here. You willed yourself here, Tony. If you have the ability, you can will anything to yourself.”
“I never forgot that,” Brown, now 71, says with a grin, cupping his chin with his hand, seeming to have reinserted himself back into that moment. “I was such a pissant back then.”
It’s clear that Brown never forgot.
Though he would make more memories with Presley, learning of his stash of astrology books, recording on the “Jungle Room” sessions at Graceland and sharing the stage with The King all the way through to his final performance in Indianapolis on June 26, 1977, Brown managed to will an even more remarkable range of experiences to himself in the four decades since that conversation: Four Grammys. ACM Producer of the Year. More than 100 No. 1 hit songs. An exalting list of platinum and multi-platinum albums. The discovery and development of some of country music’s most defining contenders. A presidency at MCA records which, under his care, was awarded Billboard’s Country Label of the Year for 10 years in a row.
It was late in the fall when I arrived at Brown’s property in Nashville, Tenn. for our afternoon conversation. I walked through the foyer into the living room, noticing the rows of platinum records lining the main hallway. Brown was cozied in a chair, positioned near his grand piano, a gentle fire blazing nearby. Interesting paintings comprised of bold pops of contrasting jewel tones were mounted on the walls. Scented candles flickered and filled almost every room. It felt like stepping into a creative mecca — the kind of space that is a luxury to the senses and beckons for enchantment. Brown offered me a cup of coffee, and then invited me to have a seat by the fire.
Soon, I would learn how much he delights in the telling and retelling of his stories, especially the funny ones. Sometimes, in fact, he is so amused by his own recollections that he forces the details out in measures, often in between staccato-like chuckles. There is something eternally youthful about him, lighting up as he relives moments from his career, though he boasts about nothing.
He makes no mention of the prestigious awards shelved in his office, the stages he has stepped onto, nor the iconic figures in his phone contact list. In fact, I would later spend hours in research, stunned by some of the accomplishments he failed to speak of. He gives his remarkable legacy about as much applause as one would give an obscure garage band’s jam session.
There is no semblance of bravado, or of the subtlest recognition of his own genius. And, when I affirm him in the slightest of ways, he immediately turns the limelight back to what “this” person taught him or the outrageously clever thing “that” person said. Most of the names mentioned just happen to be attached to icons.
There is Reba McEntire, Billy Joel, Brooks & Dunn, Jimmy Buffet, Emmylou Harris, Lionel Richie, Cyndi Lauper (“She’s so incredible, she hits every note in one take,” says Brown), George Strait (“He really is such a down-to-earth guy,” he says) and a long stretch of others. Brown doesn’t seem sparked by the allurings of fame but, instead, captivated by the human experience and, most significantly, how music connects to and resonates with the human experience.
Though his career began as a piano player, he became known as a hugely influential artist and development guy years before he was an award-winning producer. One day, Brown asked his friend, singer-songwriter and producer Norro Wilson, “How do I get started producing without a track record? How do I get an opportunity?” Wilson then welcomed Brown to co-produce Steve Wariner’s record, “Midnight Fire.” The record soared straight to the No. 1 spot.
He credits gospel singer J.D. Sumner and former President of RCA records, Joe Galante, for toughening him up. He credits his years of working with producer Jimmy Bowen for shaping him most of all, admitting to having soaked up every minute spent with his mentor. “I studied him and the musicians he worked with,” he says. “He helped me understand that I needed to trust the artists [while in the studio].”
He credits every other person for every fragment of their artistic credibility, but if you dare to amplify the notion of his greatness, he will silence your mic and pull you back to Earth. I don’t think it’s contrived modesty or self-deprecation at all; I get the sense that it’s a genuine lack of grasping the monumental thumbprint he made on the history of country music. All Brown was ever doing was being himself.
“I don’t really think about all that stuff. I just loved being in the music, studying the music… and then, I guess, following my instinct. Now, Celine Dion? That’s an icon. If she were to walk in here right now, I’d probably faint,” he says, chuckling again.
Speaking of instinct, Brown seems to have been gifted with a powerful one. Not only did he sign Trisha Yearwood (he snatched her up upon hearing “She’s in Love With the Boy” at her showcase), Alabama and Patty Loveless when they were unknowns, but he took a gamble on Vince Gill early in the singer’s career when he parted ways with RCA Records. At the time, Brown was the only one among his colleagues who was interested in signing him. “I sensed that there was something special about Vince.” he says.
In addition to signing Gill, Brown produced the record, “When I Call Your Name,” that rescripted the artist’s life. In the years following the album’s massive sales, Gill won a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance, and CMA awards for Male Vocalist of the Year, Album of the Year and Single of the Year.
But one of Brown’s most penetrating lessons was had in a fairly private moment not long ago, in 2012, while producing Lionel Richie’s “Tuskegee” album, a collection of duet reinterpretations of previously released songs. Brown, Richie and various musicians involved in the project were holed up in Blackbird Studio in Nashville. On this day, Willie Nelson, who Brown says is “a super sweet guy,” was in the vocal booth to record his part for “Easy.” But, take after take, he could hardly be heard. He wasn’t leaning into the mic.
“He was singing, but he was too far from the microphone,” says Brown. “I finally walked over and said, ‘Hey, Willie, can you get a little closer to the microphone?’ He told me, ‘Well, this song isn’t really my normal style…’ I looked him in the eyes and said, “Man, you’re Willie Nelson. You can do this. Just get a little closer.’ The next take was the one we used. It was perfect.”
When asked what that experience taught him, Brown looks thoughtful for a moment, then says, “It taught me… that everybody has their insecurities. It doesn’t matter who you are.”
A couple of years ago, Brown and his management team decided to gather his most defining experiences into a storybook of photographs and pithy reflections — one every die-hard country music lover would foam at the mouth to have on their coffee table. They reached out to several dozen of the living legends Brown has collaborated with, people he calls his “closest friends,” asking that they take a seat in his producer’s chair for a picture and an intimate conversation, where, together, they would relive some of the most climactic moments in music history.
In a promotional blurb for the book, which will release May 1st, 2018, Brown says, “Pictures sometimes tell this kind of story better than words, which is why I’ve chosen key people to be featured in my French Renaissance chair. The chair represents me. And those in the chair were present at the intersections where I took a big step, or maybe a subtle right or left turn.”
McEntire was one of the stars to climb into the chair for an interview and a picture, calling Brown “a good friend of mine.” Their relationship was born when they recorded “Fancy” but, still, the music hasn’t stopped.
Over the years, McEntire has proven her devotion to Brown in more than their professional collaborations, however. During a business dinner in Los Angeles in April 2003, Brown suffered a brutal fall down a flight of stairs, banging his head as he landed. This resulted in a serious brain injury, which required two major surgeries. At first his doctors weren’t sure he would live, and if he did, they weren’t sure he would be the same man on the other side of it. His family was unsure of how he would be safely returned to his home in Nashville. Not only did Reba visit him, singing to him bedside while he laid unconscious at UCLA hospital, but she also came to his rescue – literally. The star instructed that Brown be flown home in her private jet. “I don’t know what I would have done if Reba hadn’t come through,” he says. “I still feel so grateful for that when I think about it.”
Another artist Brown mentions often is Strait, saying one of his favorite tracks to have ever produced is “Blue Clear Sky.” But the Strait tune that speaks to him lately is “Pick Your Poison,” a track from his “Here For a Good Time” album, released in 2011.
During the height of his career, Brown was producing an average of 10 records per year. “I was always listening to music to make sure the track was good, but I wasn’t experiencing it. Lately, I’ve started listening to music for music. To soothe me.”
Brown says he has been introduced to a level of appreciation he didn’t quite identify with in years past. “It’s my work, but now the songs are speaking to me in a way they didn’t before,” he says. “It’s incredible because I’m sort of discovering some of my own music for the first time.”
He called me away from my chair by the fire and into his office, requesting to play the song for me. “Listen to these lyrics, Lacey. I feel like everybody can relate to them in some way, ” he says, increasing the volume. As the first verse opens up, Brown reclines into his desk chair and stares out of the window at his property — mature trees with amber, gold and magenta foliage surrounding the pool in his backyard. It looks like an autumn wonderland outside, but it’s as though his mind is floating up above it all. He appears reflective, stirred and, most significantly, content.
Having ended a short marriage in recent years — one that resulted in some serious allegations that were completely dismissed in two courts — Brown admits it was an arduous period in his life, but sees no reason to discuss it. On a positive note, he appears strong on the other side of the experience, certain that it gifted him with a deeper connection to his children, his friends, and — above all — his spirituality. And he is energized by the lineup of projects that are calling for his attention: the release of his much-anticipated book, his role in an HBO documentary about Presley’s life, and a full schedule of public appearances. But more than anything else? “I’m looking forward to working on more music. It’s what I know,” he says.
The thing about music is that it does something to tug at our spirits, gifting us with realizations and making us feel seen and known in ways that other modes of art and expression often can’t. Brown seems to understand this profoundly. And what is most interesting is that, as the chorus takes off, he appears to have been more than just moved by it, but to have sort of crawled inside of it, blissfully soaring through the entanglement of the chord progression and words. As though he feels seen, known and carried by something he had an artistic muscle in the actual creation of.
I can’t help but observe that there are surprising layers of insight, thoughtfulness and vulnerability inside of a man who has been declared, by some of Music Row’s most potent decision-makers, “The King of Nashville.” He is like a generation of stories — the kinds that transcend such an impressive list of accomplishments. They continue unraveling and unfurling without expiration each time he shares them, and he seems to be awake, raw and tender within each of them. Maybe that’s what made four decades of music so commanding of being heard. Maybe that’s how he willed it to himself after all.