For nearly 25 years, Tony Brown ranked at or near the top among successful country music executives. His lengthy list of signees included Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Kelly Willis, Todd Snider, Allison Moorer, The Mavericks, Cross Canadian Ragweed and Shooter Jennings. But he also produced more than 100 chart-topping singles, and had sales from his productions of such prime hitmakers as Vince Gill, Reba McEntire, George Strait, Trisha Yearwood and Brooks & Dunn surpass the 100 million mark.
While Brown could have easily remained a prominent part of the major label business, when his contract came up for renewal at Universal South, the label he co-owned with partner Tim Dubois, Brown decided that it was time for a change. “When I first started with the company it was MCA and Universal was the film group,” Brown remembered. “Then as things evolved, it became the Universal Music Group, because the feeling was that the name Universal was one that had real power and prominence among the public. But it turns out that my favorite period during all my years with the company was the time I call the Garth (Brooks) years, 1989-1997. I realized that what I wanted to do most was produce, and that I really didn’t want to be a label executive any more, but just a producer and get in there and make some smash records.”
This week Brown celebrates the formal opening of the new offices for Tony Brown Enterprises, 1013 17th Ave. S. It’s located appropriately in Chet Atkins’ building, and it enables Brown to now return to his first and foremost love, producing. “When I was thinking about what else I might want to do after deciding not to re-sign, I thought about doing A&R for a time,” Brown added. “But over the years you get to know all the people at a label, have contacts in every department. I wasn’t interested in trying to re-establish all those contacts at a new company. Plus, now I was free to do whatever I want in terms of working with artists. I don’t have to jump through hoops if I want to produce someone who might be a different label like you would if you’re exclusive to one company.”
He’s widely regarded as the founding father of the alternative country movement, yet Brown proclaims his love for all types of country, and doesn’t let the traditional vs. contemporary divide have any impact on his creative decisions. “I truly do love it all,” Brown said. “If you look at an artist like George Strait, one of the things that he does with every session is select a song by someone like Mel Street or some other classic country singer that may not be as well known to the general public and then do a great contemporary version. He’s someone who has appeal to both the young and old in terms of audience. My real challenge is trying to make records that sound as good as what people like Owen Bradley and Fred Foster used to make.
“I’m a real fan of what artists like Shania Twain, Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban and Big & Rich have brought to country music,” Brown added. “(Producer) Mutt Lange took some of those rock licks that had been on Def Leppard albums and turned them around and made them work for Shania. It brought a new energy and fresh attitude to country. Yet I also am a huge fan of what people like Martina McBride, who are coming from a totally different place have done as well.”
Brown also wants everyone to know he’s fully recovered from the near-fatal fall he had in Los Angeles back in April of 2003, though he jokes that “when people see me the first question they always ask me is are you sure you’re alright?” He has plenty of new projects coming down the line, having just completed a new Brooks & Dunn disc, plus other sessions with Strait, Heidi Newfeld and Cyndi Thompson. But he’s especially enthusiastic about the newest release Reba Duets, a set just released Sept. 18 that pairs Reba McEntire with artists ranging from Kelly Clarkson to Justin Timberlake.
“I told Reba that I didn’t just want to make a hit with her, but I wanted it to be a huge smash,” Brown said. “She’s told me that this was a chance to get the biggest first-week sales numbers of anything she’s ever done, and we’re really thrilled about that possibility.” When asked about all-time favorite projects that he’s produced, Brown cites his body of work with Vince Gill, and two specific discs that he labels vital in establishing his profile as an ace producer.
“Pure Country was the first album George Strait had that sold six million copies,” Brown recalled. “Up to that point George had made platinum albums, but that one put him in a whole different area. Later we had a boxed set that sold seven million. Steve Earle’s Guitar Town is another record that to this day I can still hear things on it that are fantastic. We kind of did that one on blind faith, because I was certain that it would be something special, but we didn’t know for sure.
“One of the things that I’ve discovered over the years is that it is easy for artists, managers, song pluggers and other people in the business to lose track of where you are,” Brown concluded. “So I want to let everyone know that we’re now in business, and I’m ready to make some more great records.”