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September 2014
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Interview: Dann Huff, part 1: On Being a Producer and Keith Urban

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Interview: Dann Huff, part 1: On Being a Producer and Keith Urban


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Click here to read Part 2: On Studio Preparedness and Recording Tips
On Music Row, Dann Huff’s name is mostly associated with hit-making production. Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Lonestar—it’s an endless list and they’re all his. Occasionally, Huff ventures outside of the contemporary country realm: he produced two Megadeth albums, and in 2009 cut Blackberry Smoke’s major label debut, Little Piece Of Dixie, before they were even signed.

Guitarists, however, know Huff for more than his award-winning skills behind the board. They know him as the consummate musician: a studio veteran who literally played on at least one track by almost every recording artist in the 1980s, as well as most of Nashville’s releases in the 1990s. They also know him as co-founder of the rock band Giant, with his brother David on drums.

Versed in every element of his instrument, yet claiming little technical knowledge, blessed with an innate ability to adapt to any genre, a player who understands that less is sometimes more, Huff is what’s known as a guitarist’s guitarist. It’s a simplified term but rich in meaning.

Dann Huff’s success as a musician and producer is, of course, the result of his talent, but being a down-to-earth nice guy has certainly played a role in why artists keep coming back. “If being a great producer means being an ass,” he remarked in a 2000 interview, “I’d rather be second rate.”

In the first installment of this interview, Huff discusses Keith Urban’s guitar work on Defying Gravity, how he defines his role as a producer, and the pros and cons of plug-ins and effects.

How has your approach to working with particular artists changed over the years?

In eight or nine months it was a rush to get three projects done: Keith Urban [Defying Gravity], Rascal Flatts [Unstoppable] and Martina McBride [Shine], all three with release dates within a week of each other, not by my design. It sounds so simple now, but in the middle of it I thought I’d go crazy. It’s not just making music these days. It’s schedules and expectations. They didn’t give me that chapter in the producer’s handbook when I got into this side of the business!

This was my third or fourth record with each of them. Rascal Flatts, for example—I mentioned expectations. They want that string of hits to keep going. Number One is a priority on everyone’s list. Then you look for musical growth and musical consistency, which can play against that growth. They systematically search for sweet spots in radio hits. Their guitarist, Joe Don Rooney, wasn’t playing much on the records when that band started. Now there’s maturity in his solos. We look for tone differences, nuances in his playing, not for flash. The same with their bass player, Jay DeMarcus. It’s harder to measure growth when you’ve been doing it for that long. From a first to a second album it’s easy to see. You look for a certain maturity that’s not apparent to the average listener, but musicians can sense it. In the choice of material, when they write, you’re always looking for different ways to say it, as opposed to an artist like Prince, who morphs into something new and different every time. Those folks are rare and far between. Also, you take a lot of risks with that, and in this day, in this business, people are less willing to take risks because they want to fill arenas, so the growth is less.


Dann and Keith show off their #1 plaques at Keith Urban's "Sweet Thing" No. 1 Party.
Photo: Ed Rode
Can you become too comfortable within that working relationship? Is it harder to challenge musicians you know so well?

I supposed it could be the case, but not so far with us because they’re self-effacing and so demanding from their standpoint, so there is always an edge in that situation. Keith and I are very close friends, but on a musical basis we always have a bit of friction. We joke about it and put it in the Lennon/McCartney syndrome, not comparing ourselves creatively, but the idiosyncrasies in our personalities. Lennon was an acrid, tough person who would say something in a tight, more cutting-edge way, and McCartney was a real musician who was always about melody and pop and seemingly fluff, but when you dive into them historically that’s not always the case. What I hate is that Keith always gets to be Lennon! Then he’ll jump into the other side of his personality because he adores pop, and I say with love that he adores the craft of it. One day I say, “I don’t need that,” and the next day he says, “Don’t put that shit on this track!” We tug at each other, and in some ways there’s more friction now because we know each other, and our sensitivities as people make us more vulnerable.

Will he ever make a guitar album?

I don’t see it in the cards. I asked him and he says he has no interest in it. That interests me about working with him, too. He can’t divorce being a singer, songwriter and musician. He’s a performer. In the studio he doesn’t just lay down tracks. He performs them. He’s communicating the song structure. If there’s no demo, he grabs an acoustic guitar, plays it, performs and doesn’t think about the guitar solo. It serves the song and emotion of what he tries to say, and when he lays down vocal tracks he has an acoustic guitar in the booth with him. He doesn’t bring in instrumental records when we listen to music together. He’ll listen to Pink Floyd, and songs with instrumental integrity, but always with a lyric. He’s grown more as a guitar player in the last two years than I can measure. When I hear his recorded solos they’re not spellbinding, but when you listen to what he says with the guitar, the growth is there, the voice is there, and I take a lot of joy from that in making our records.

Is there a track on Defying Gravity that defines Keith as a guitarist?

Keith used to be my brother in the sense that we didn’t care which guitar, whether it’s a cheap guitar—he’s one of the only people who knew less about guitars than me. To me, playing guitar is different in a lot of ways from knowing the history and making of guitars. I have friends who can almost tell you the serial number on a guitar. For me, it was never an interest. If it played good and I liked the tone, that meant it was a good guitar for me. If somebody told me it was a ’63, I would know that and that’s it. Keith... some switch kicked in, and my brother, who was as in the dark as I was, became enlightened and left me in the dust. [People who collect guitars] will have a ’59 Les Paul to show at their house and a copy onstage. Keith plays them onstage! He has educated himself and absolutely destroyed that side of our friendship! He brings in some of the most gorgeous guitars. So it’s plug in and see how it sounds, and an irreverence that keeps it fresh with him.

“If Ever I Could Love,” on the new record, is not a big “guitarist” song, but if you dissect the parts on this thing, the layers of guitars on it … I remember from the mix. We started tracking at Justin Niebank’s house with a drum machine, and Keith was using a [Gibson] Melody Maker or a Tele through a teeny combo amp, a 20-watt Marshall. We built a Mark Knopfler-type riff and a five-minute song that starts out with a drum machine and guitar ends up with half the world on it. The solo sound reminds me of almost a Queen-type sound, steeped in ’70s-sounding guitars. It’s a real defining guitar song for Keith. There’s nothing on it chops-wise that any young guitarists would say, “I can’t do that.” It’s very accessible. But I grab his guitars and play the same parts and it sounds totally different. So much of who he is comes from his fingers, from a rhythmic, textural and musical standpoint.

One that’s defining in another way, “Til Summer Comes Around,” has a beautiful solo, very spacious; the solo is deceptively simple, but with a Beck-type personality. The way we work is very stream of consciousness. Everything is built on something else. We used every conceivable amp—some vintage, one Fender Blues Junior, and once a $200 Keeley stompbox compressor. It was his guitar tech’s 10-year-old son’s and it became the sound for the day just because it was there. We don’t have an arsenal. It would be easier if we did, but it wouldn’t be us. Our path is more disjointed, but it always gets us there.
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