from artist

Here is my conversation with Grammy-winning producer, former A&R executive, and veteran musician Steve Fishell.

Steve’s highly regarded work as a musician includes a 10-year stint touring and recording as Emmylou Harris’s pedal steel guitar player in her Hot Band. As a studio producer, with decades of experience producing hit records for top labels in both the major and indie worlds, Steve’s wide-ranging resume includes projects with Little Richard, Willie Nelson, Mavis Staples, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and The Chicks. Steve has earned many distinguished awards, including multiple number one records, gold and platinum albums in both the U.S. and Canada, a Grammy in 2005 for Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster, numerous Grammy nominations and a Canadian Country Music Award for Album of the Year for Charlie Major’s chart-topping The Other Side. His work in 1994 with country vocalist Pam Tillis on her In Between Dances CD helped guide Tillis to a Country Music Association (CMA) award for Best Female Vocalist.

Steve is also the founder of Imagine Recordings, which is the outgrowth of his previous venture, Music Producers Institute. I had the opportunity to attend MPI’s Todd Snider sessions at the legendary Sound Emporium in Nashville. While I was there, Steve spoke with me at length about performance from his unique perspective as a successful musician and producer. 

Hanging out with him in Nashville for a few days was a real treat. It is refreshing to encounter someone who has been in the industry so long and so successfully but who is still completely down to earth and altruistic. Steve truly is one of the good guys.

You have a very multi-faceted view of performance, having been a sideman, and a producer, and you’ve done A&R. Given all that understanding from all those different areas and angles, are there any universal characteristics of a great performer that you’ve been able to identify?

Yes, but it’s difficult to describe in words because it’s always almost a physical response. When you hear someone’s voice combined with incredible lyrics and a great melody, putting all those things together and having it be so overwhelmingly good that you’re just humbled by the strength of the performance – I think it’s really difficult to have a template for what that greatness is. I think you actually just have to experience it.

I think we all sort of have universal excitement standards. Whoever your favorite artist is, you can apply this to them. I happen to be a fan of Stevie Wonder’s voice, but also his harmonica playing – and whenever I hear a harmonica solo by Stevie Wonder, I’m just in awe of his ability to put notes together in a new and different way that I would never have thought of. The timbre of someone’s voice will do that to me. Patty Griffin is one of my favorite singers, and I’ve heard some of her new music recently, and it just staggered me how she’s able to not read words off of a page but actually tell a story with her voice, singing heartfelt lyrics that she has written, and have them come right through to you rather than just someone mechanically sort of walking through a song.

So we all have different ways to describe that moment that reflects a high standard. I don’t view myself as any sort of music critic – it’s a very gut response. My response to good music is, it’s real obvious, and when I hear it, I know it. I can read myself. I can tell how it affects me. And that doesn’t mean anybody else is going to like it, but it gives me enough confidence to feel like I should share it with somebody else. And that’s the response I have: I like this so much that I want someone else to hear this, too, because they’re going to maybe get something from this like I did.

I do remember one of the earliest concerts I ever saw that really affected me, and I didn’t know it at the time, that it was going to have such an impact. I saw the Allman Brothers Band in Santa Barbara, in early October of 1971 – October 3rd, in fact – and the band was so tight and so powerful, and had such an incredible way as a unit, not as a group of individuals but as a band. Beyond having known the Beatles before that point, I was aware of what a band could be, but not fully until the first time I saw a real band onstage, and that was that night. 

And I was amazed that this guitar player, Duane Allman, would share the stage with another guitar player – that was unusual, there’s no ego here. And the power of that rhythm section was just undeniable. It just had a visceral effect on me. And I was also really blown away by Duane Allman’s slide playing, and that influenced me to get into finding out what that whole string movement thing was about: what’s this slide thing, and how could anyone have it sound so much like the human voice like Duane Allman does? 

Well, it turned out that three weeks later, Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident, sadly, and so I didn’t realize at the time how lucky I was to be able to see the band with him, and it left a lasting impression. Now I know what a live performance standard is, because that’s ingrained in my memory. That never fades. I know exactly how that felt. I was 18 at the time, and it just branded in my brain what live performance is. So that’s a standard that I refer to a lot.

You work with so many top-flight artists, and I’m curious about what you’ve noticed – in personality traits or presence, or some kind of tangible or intangible thing – what you find, if anything, that ties all these people together? What are the common things in those people who give you that kind of visceral response in a performance? Because you get to work with people in a different way as a studio producer – you can crawl inside people a little bit more than the people who are seeing the show.

Well, that’s true. I think, though, that audiences should feel that they’re probably seeing the most exciting moment for an artist, in terms of performance, and that is the live performance. Because that’s the standard that you apply to the studio. You try to reach that level in the studio, which is a very sterile, clinical, microscopic environment, and it’s very difficult to get a live feel in the studio, quite often. So that’s the standard that artists apply to their recorded work. 

But I think that seeing somebody in concert can be as exciting as anything you can imagine, and I understand why people tape live shows and share them. That’s why, you know, Bruce Springsteen in 1985 at such-and-such a place is thought of as the great night, because it was, it’s never going to be the same. That’s going to set a new bar. 

The point I’m trying to make is that audiences should feel that they’re connecting with their artist through the live concert. The studio is just another breed, another animal. We’re only trying to recreate that audience/concert impact. The studio makes you a bit self-conscious, because you know that one performance will be heard repeatedly, as opposed to a live performance, which is here-today-gone-today. Except, of course, when it’s recorded live…

…and ends up on YouTube…

…and ends up on YouTube, yeah, that’s true. So much for that idea! But the other part of your question, which was a good one, was about what common threads have I seen between artists. The people that I’ve worked with that I most respected, and continue to respect, seem all to be able to tap into a place in their minds where they’re not thinking about economics. They’re not thinking about anything to do with acceptance. They’re driven. They have no choice but to output this information, this music, onto the recorder. They can’t help themselves. If they don’t have an outlet for it, then they might go crazy. The artists that I most admire tend to go into the studio for all the right reasons. They’re not thinking about audience acceptance, they’re not thinking about radio acceptance, they’re not thinking about record sales, and they’re not thinking about money. They are really artists.

The term artist is a generic term that is applied to anybody that steps in front of a microphone, but that’s really an unfair definition for many, because many recording entertainers are not artists. I know that seems elitist. But I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to be in the studio in the days prior to electronics and computerized tuning and all of the devices that are now used to help artists sound like they can sing, and so I know the difference between a singer and a non-singer, and I prefer to work with singers who are not “software singers”, that actually can step in front of a microphone and deliver. It doesn’t happen all the time, and I don’t begrudge anyone who uses a little Auto-Tune when the artist is fifteen hundred miles away and the delivery date is Friday and they’ve got a deadline to meet.

What other kinds of personality traits, or ways of being in the world, have you found in common between artists?

I haven’t found too many similarities in artists. It’s actually surprising that the people that I’ve worked with have all pretty much had different personalities. They’ll be really different people, and they’ll have a different way of going about things. That’s why you can’t walk into the studio and apply a standard template to the plan that day. You have to go with the flow and let them lead you, and help enhance what they want to do, rather than apply what you think your criteria or schedule ought to be. However, they’re all driven by the same motivation to make something that’s good, and somehow feel like they’ve shown a little bit of their heart or their soul when they’ve made this music.

So a significant performance is about what you connect with, what’s a profound experience for you, what resonates for you…

You look for a connection, you look for a buzz, you look for a response when you hear something. We all want to be transported someplace else, away from our humdrum lives. Most of us work, day in and day out, and music is a bit of an escape. It’s like Hawaiian music was in the ‘30s, an escape from the drudgeries of the Depression. And we turn on the radio or we put on our MP3 iPods to be able to be transported somewhere else. 

And there’s a lot of music out there, so there’s a lot to weed through, but when you hear a voice like Patty Griffin’s, it just rips right through you in a way that’s indescribable. Or if you hear a set of lyrics by Richard Thompson or someone who has a mastery and a command of the language that’s way beyond your ability but that you recognize and appreciate, you are inspired by that to go out and do good things, whatever that is. If that is a healing process for you in your life, if music serves as a comfort or just as a rhythm to your life, then that’s why we use it.

It’s pretty primal.

And it’s entertainment. We all get something different from music. Some people only care about being entertained, and other people want something that’s entertaining but also has more depth below the surface – lyrics with meaning, and great melodies that are fetching and that take you back to your Irish roots, or whatever they may be. We all respond to music in a different way, and it’s very, very subjective.

One of the things I find interesting about seeing a great performer is when people say, “It’s a way for me to let go of needing things to be a certain way, or needing me to be a certain way, because I can look at a truly great performance and know that I could never do that, so just forget about it, don’t worry about it, just enjoy the specialness of that, because it’s so beyond anything I could do.” And it’s not even always about superb skills – there are very rough skills involved, sometimes, in truly moving experiences.

Sometimes it’s just miraculous that a person found their own voice, and developed it to the point where they took a shot at making a living at singing. I saw Ray LaMontagne live – this guy has the most incredible voice, you know? But think if he hadn’t had the opportunity to develop that voice and ended up doing something else with his life. It would just be a loss. It’s a miracle, and it’s chance, and it’s luck, that often plays into whether or not a person becomes a popular artist with a broad constituency. And there are people everywhere who have great talent and are able to artistically express themselves, but don’t get that chance.

People talk about [mandolinist] Chris Thile that way, that if he hadn’t happened upon the mandolin, you know, what would have happened to him?

He’s like the Charlie Parker of the mandolin. He’s brilliant. Not All Who Wander Are Lost is one of my favorite all-time records. I’m amazed by his talent, and I look forward to the future with what he’s doing. The Punch Brothers are fantastic, and he’s a true talent, and it would be a shame for him not to have found his voice and to have not picked up the mandolin. He certainly has taken it to new levels, and that’s exciting when that happens. That’s why I compare him to Charlie Parker, because Charlie Parker took the saxophone to new levels that had not been reached before.

Sometimes I think there’s a quality to the true artist that you’re talking about, the transformative artist, that it’s almost like they’re kind of not entirely “of this realm”, you know? They’ve got their foot in another realm somewhere, or they’re able to reach through that barrier that the rest of us can’t.

You’re right. I believe in genius. I believe that there are people who have such a brilliance in their mental capacity that they are able to take in everything about a particular subject and master it, and then, with that mastery, elevate it. That’s genius. How did Steve Wozniak develop the desktop computer, you know? I don’t have the brains for that kind of stuff, but boy, he certainly did, and it certainly changed the world.

And it often seems that these people have a difficult time being in the world, because they’re not really supposed to be entirely in this world.

I’m sure it must be difficult being a genius, at times, in a sometimes unappreciative world.

It’s like information is processed differently, what you do with that information is processed differently, their brains are firing differently, you know? There’s access to different frequencies.

Thank god, though! Thank god it comes together at times where John Lennon and Paul McCartney meet, and they write songs, and they record, and that’s no accident. That’s incredible music that will live on forever, and it’s a great gift. It blows me away when I think about the things that people have written and recorded. Those high standards are what you try to apply to what a person does in the recording studio. It’s not fair for you to expect everyone to be Charlie Parker, though – that’s just irresponsible.

To be their own Charlie Parker, maybe.

Sure, well, you want everyone to feel like they’re doing their best. That’s the goal in the studio – you want to feel like we’ve taken a snapshot of a moment that is their best foot forward. And then, hopefully, it’s something that’s contributed to the arts in a good way.

As a studio producer, you have to think big picture, and you have to think little moment – does this little moment fit into the big picture, and does the big picture fit into the little moment. And so it is kind of about the big themes and the creative process. What do you think most gets in the way of performers in their creative process?

Fear – the fear of creativity or the lack of confidence to be creative.

Or the lack of knowledge that you can access creativity?

Right – that it’s there, that you can tap it. Yeah, it’s true. If you’re being creative all the time, or, you know, several times a year, then it’s a regular routine and it’s easier for you. But imagine someone who is really, really good, but then didn’t have some breaks – had an initial success, and then their career went south for 10 years, and then they had to come back. You hear the expression “comeback” – that’s a huge challenge to come back, especially if you had this one initial success.

Think about Darius Rucker, who was in Hootie and the Blowfish – gigantic album, then subsequent albums fared not as well. And then Darius came to Nashville and started writing songs, and sought a country record deal. “Well, sure, ok, so Darius Rucker, this rock guy, now wants to be country. Oh, perfect.” He was turned down by everybody. Everybody said, “No, thank you.” But fortunately, at Capitol Nashville, a fellow named Mike Dungan over there took a chance and signed Darius, and they made a record. And damn, it had three number one singles, the record’s gone platinum, he was nominated for best male vocal at the CMA awards and he was nominated for best new artist at the CMA awards, and he won best new artist. The fact that he got nominated for best male vocal is astonishing. 

But most importantly, that reinvention is really hard to do. And my hat goes off to Darius. I mean, to reinvent yourself from Hootie and the Blowfish to Darius Rucker the country singer and have it really be good, because that’s an excellent record – a guy named Frank Rogers produced it, who produces Brad Paisley, incredible ideas, great ears – it’s just cool. So it made me really happy to see him win the CMA award. That’s hard to pull off, especially coming from Hootie and the Blowfish. You know, people just laugh at you when you come through the door. “Darius Rucker wants to be country? Oh yeah, right. African-American rock guy? You want to come and play in our playground?”

When what you should be doing is considering what made the Hootie record what it was, and what was his part in that.

Yeah, songwriting? Vocal performance? Tapping a nerve?

Yeah, what else do you need to know?

Yeah. The guy has a great voice – now, he changed his vocal style for the country stuff, but that’s some genius there, too. That’s evolving your artistic expression. It’s like moving from one Monet period to another Monet period. That’s making a serious re-inventive adjustment. Boy, that’s really hard to do. It’s much easier to stay the same, and be mad at the world for not accepting you the way you are. Instead, you’re going, ok, what do I need to do to fit in now? And if I get this chance, can I pull this off? There’s a lot of confidence that’s required for something like that.

Or it could be, “I’ve been a lawyer all my life, but what I really want to do now is be a teacher.”

That’s a great example. So you’ve got to go back to school, you’ve got to get a teaching credential, you’ve got to put in your time.

What are your thoughts on what makes a good sideman?

Oh, I think that’s easy to define. You have to subvert your own desire to show off. You have to subvert any willingness to draw attention to yourself. As a sideman, your goal, and your role, is to support the lead singer, and to help them present their material in as beautiful a way as you can. So it’s really important to stay out of the way of the voice. You have to learn that it’s not about hot licks or about playing anything flashy. You’re there to support the song. The song is supreme, and the voice is supreme in the mix, and you’re only there to help embellish the song and embellish the artist’s voice. 

So you almost have to study composition, in a way, because it’s like a call and response to the lyrics – you have to stay out of the way of the lyrics. There’s no hard-set rules, but generally, if you’re going to play while the artist is singing, it’s generally going to be a simple pad, or some sort of supportive tone. And then when their voice is finished, then you’re going to answer in some way, in something that ties to the melody, that lifts up the melody and leads the song to the next line. So the perfect fill is always something you’re trying to achieve.

You have to put your ego aside – it’s not anything about you or your instrument. The artist is up there trying to bring these words across to the audience, and your role as a sideman is to help support that artist bringing those words across. And if you suddenly decide you want to play some flashy hot lick, you’re blowing it. Go do that on your own time. Because if the artist is good, they’re going to be singing really good songs, and those songs deserve to be presented with an arrangement that’s heartfelt and soulful and evocative, and not cluttered with a whole bunch of stuff. 

It’s a real art to play as little as you possibly can to support that song, but that’s one of the most important aspects to a sideman. As little, but as supportive, an accompaniment as you can provide, that’s your goal.

When I work with bands, one of the things I’m working on with the sidemen is not to also be visually distracting, because there’s a real set of bad habits that people develop around that.

Yeah. It’s funny, I’ve changed about this over the years. I remember seeing the Eagles in 1974 in Santa Barbara, and they were all wearing t-shirts and jeans, and they looked like the roadies, but I thought that was really cool. So there was a point in my life when I thought that dressing “street” was cool. But now I kind of feel like artists should present themselves a little bit, well, not flashy or anything – I’m torn on this question, visuals are tough for me. 

Sometimes I think it’s great when somebody just looks like your neighbor next door and they’re an ordinary Joe, but on the other hand, I think it’s interesting that for some people, it became standard for a while for artists to insist that their bands wear black, everything has to be black. And then when I saw that Bruce Springsteen was doing that, and I really respect Bruce Springsteen and his band, but I think it looks a little bit like a uniform when they’re all wearing black up there – I don’t dig that so much.

But boy, I just saw them here about two weeks ago, and they blew me away. That band and that guy are incredible. He’s just absolutely superhuman onstage, and just comes out of the box like the first song is the encore, at that intensity level, and then keeps going up from there. It’s amazing. All due props and respect to Bruce Springsteen and his band – they’re badass.

They work so hard.

They really do. They do not phone it in. Now, maybe they shouldn’t all wear black, I don’t know. They might be doing that for personal reasons. I’ve noticed that they’ve done it since the 9/11 tragedy, so there might be reasoning there that I’m not taking into account.

I heard an interesting interview recently with Nils Lofgren. He was asked about Springsteen and how he gets ready for a show, because his shows are just so all out. And he said that Springsteen approaches performance like it’s a religious healing experience – not in the sense that it’s tied to religion, per se…

Oh sure, I understand.

It was like, the stage is Springsteen’s church, where he goes to heal spiritually. Which makes a lot of sense when you think about the interplay between him and the audience and with his band – he just seems to be in an elevated place.

He is! And great music can be cathartic, not only for the artist, but also for the audience. It can be something that can be spiritual healing. It can be an unexpected emotional release that helps you forget the difficulties of your day-to-day life. It’s escapism sometimes. I definitely felt like there was a spiritual connection, seeing Springsteen two weeks ago, and I love that. It’s rare to have that feeling. 

Most concerts that I go to, I just feel like I’m being entertained. He has an expression – I think it goes something like, to be a good artist, you have to see yourself when you look at the audience, and when the audience looks at you, they have to see themselves in you. So there has to be that one-on-one connection, and not some sort of aloofness. He’s not aloof onstage – he’s giving it 102 percent. He’s extraordinary. He literally did that thing, what is it called, when you flop down on the audience and they cart you across?


Yeah, he crowd-surfed. I think they saw it coming. He said, “Are you ready for this?” and he leaned back and they all caught him, and they moved him back about 60 feet, then they turned him around and they put him back on the stage. And this was on the second song! 

I was lucky enough to be in the pit at the concert, at the Sommet Center here in Nashville. A friend of mine is very close to the band and was able to get me there. And I moved over to the center, directly in front of Bruce, on the first song because I wanted to see what it was like sonically. So this was about 15 feet back from the stage in the pit, you know, 15 people back, right next to the wall that leads to the general audience. And somebody leaning up against the barricade on the inner side asked me to please move, because they knew what was about to happen, that Springsteen was about to flop down. And I thought they were being kind of rude, asking me to move out of the way, because I was dead center in front of Bruce for half of a song. But I moved back over to the side, and sure enough, he comes crowd-surfing. It looked pretty cool to me – it looked like a lot of fun.

I have this sort of mantra that I use when I work with people. It’s basically, “…like you give a shit.” You know, show up like you give a shit, dress like you give a shit, sing like you give a shit, play like you give a shit. Because otherwise, you know, you might as well stay home in your living room.

Or you might as well do something else! You know, Steve Goodman was a good friend of mine, and he said, “Look, people out there in the audience paid a lot of money to be there. You owe them a show. They’ve paid for a ticket, they paid for parking, they probably paid for a babysitter. They probably have a lot of money invested in this show, and you’d better damn well get out there and do a hundred and two percent. And no whining. This is not so much about you, this is about a mutual experience. And if you can’t handle it, then go sell shoes somewhere or something. There’s no excuse.”

If you ever saw Steve Goodman, he would go out and open for Jimmy Buffett or somebody, all by himself with an acoustic guitar, and just wow 15,000 people all by himself. If he broke a guitar string, he wouldn’t stop and whine about it. He would actually sing a song while he was putting a new string on his guitar, and the song would continue while he changed the string and he told a story. 

You know, these are four things going on at once in your mind, in front of an audience. You have to give it your all, and it’s a privilege to be on that stage, and if you’re going to be self-involved about it, think about another career. Because the audience will pick up on it – they’ll move on if they think you’re being aloof or self-involved. There are probably some artists who get away with it for a while, but not for very long. You’ve got to give back.

When you were Emmylou Harris’s sideman, I’m assuming you did hundreds of shows over those years.

I was with her for 10 years. And we worked, usually, summers – usually about three months out of the year – but we would go pretty full-tilt. We did 10 weeks – June 15 to Labor Day was usually the schedule. And that’s how I got into producing, by the way. I’d go, oh, well, I’ve got nine months off, that’s how you look at that, and that’s a privilege to be able to know your schedule’s pretty safe, and you can actually go do other things.

And you had a pretty constant group of folks that were in the band over that period of time.


So you would get that telepathy going.

Well, it was a band experience, yeah. You didn’t feel like you were a sideman, you felt like you were part of a group unit. Because she was selfless enough to share the billing – she would call it Emmylou Harris and the Hot Band – just as Bruce Springsteen does. That really made you feel like you were part of a team, rather than just sort of a side person. There’s nothing wrong with being a side person – I’ve done that before and I’ll do it again, I’m sure. But for her to be that gracious to share billing with us and to allow us, most importantly, to play on the recordings with her – that really made us feel like we were part of something extremely rare and special.

That’s a big deal.

Yeah, that’s a big difference. And thus, our goal every night was to try to recreate the recordings, and to try to present something if not as good, then even better, so that the audience would hear it and go, oh my god, this is the band that played on this record, and this is the voice that we heard on that record, and this is all firing on all four cylinders in a cool way, live. And you know, you’d have good nights and bad nights, but some of the highs were just remarkable, and I can tap right into the way it felt onstage at certain times.

Tell me about that.

Well, you know, you just remember certain shows and you remember how you feel in the moment. You know, a voice is a human entity, it’s not a machine. Emmylou and Stevie Wonder and Neil Young, these voices are not machines, they’re human, and will sometimes have a momentary flaw. And Emmylou, whose standards are really high, personally – she’s singing at a Grammy-level performance at all times. There’s no “I’m tired, I don’t feel like it”, or any of that. This is a religious experience for her to be able to come out and sing in front of people, and so she’s a hundred and three percent all the time. 

But occasionally, you might draw a breath in the hot Colorado air or something, or a fly might go into your mouth or something weird will happen, and she might miss a note. The amazing thing about the truly great masters is that when that happens, rather than being stunned and thrown off for the rest of the song or the rest of the night, the very next line is stunning, and at a record level, at an absolute Grammy-winning level that blows you away.

And I can remember that happening many times, where Emmylou would miss a note, and then the very next line would be so staggering that the musicians, we couldn’t even look at each other because we knew, we were all gasping, having just heard this incredible recovery. We probably would have welled up in tears if we had looked at each other, because we had just heard her true gift and greatness for ourselves, even though we’d hear her every night. 

So that’s a special gift, as an artist, to be able to not have your confidence be blown by a mistake. And that’s advice to anybody out there. If you bobble a note or if you miss a line, just move on. Don’t look back. What was his name, that African-American pitcher, he had an expression: “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”

Satchel Paige?

Very good! Satchel Paige – thank you! – said, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” Playing live, if you make a mistake, move ahead. Make the next line the very best that you can be of yourself, and use it as something that motivates you rather than something that intimidates you. 

And that’s one of the great things I learned from Emmylou – recover and keep going. And that’s what she does, probably better than anybody I’ve ever heard. It’s amazing. Because those next lines would just be, like, oh my god, I can’t believe I just heard that! We’d all kind of look at each other, you know, it was like, “Whoa! Oh yeah, we’re playing with Emmylou Harris.” Because you know her offstage as Emmy, you know, and privately she’s a much different person than she is onstage. But then you remember the artistic side of her, and it’s all right there, and that’s a gift from the heavens. That’s just pure musical genius coming out of the speaker.

Were there times where you felt like things weren’t flowing, things weren’t working, you were all burned out or whatever?

Oh, you always have bad nights, oh yeah – you know, I can’t say how often, but, I don’t know, once a year – where it was just horrible. It usually has to do with a combination of energy and timing. I’ve found that after about three weeks on the road, people just don’t get along. You have to break off a tour for a few days after three weeks – there’s no way to keep going. The fourth week, people are going to fight.

But it can also simply be terrible acoustics. You can be in the mood, but if you get up there and no matter what you play, it sounds half as good as you think it should – so you’re fighting to get tone or any sort of facility or any sort of texture to your sound, you can’t find it – then you get frustrated. And then you stop working as a band, and you become this little individual who’s fighting to survive in this sea of wash-y sound. Then you’re not connecting as a band. 

It’s really important to play as a band, as a unit, as a team. Everyone’s listening to everybody else. It’s not just about the solo steel guitar guy showing off. It’s, what’s the fiddle player playing right now and how do I embellish that, along with the keyboard player, all in support of this great song and this wonderful voice. So yeah, you’ll have bad nights, you can’t help it sometimes. But they’re probably not half as bad as you think they are. One time we played the Seattle Kingdome opening for Willie Nelson, and if you’ve ever been there…

Yes, it was terrible for sound.

And the stage was in the center, and so the audience may not realize this, but there is a delay. If you hit a snare drum in the center of the Kingdome, it goes straight up and hits the ceiling and comes back down, and it takes about a second and a half for it to go “BOMMMM”, and another a second and a half to go “DOMMMM”, and you hear it back really loud. So if you’d play something, it would go up and hit the ceiling and come back down, and so you were constantly hearing yourself a second and a half later, and it was awful. Mainly it was the drums. 

So it just became this huge wash – it was like being thrown into a washing machine and being all mixed up. And we would lean into our monitors and peer into our monitors and focus with all of our might, trying to find the beat, because there was no groove. And we had to go for 45 minutes and it was awful, and it was just simply acoustics. So that would’ve been a bad night. Now, I don’t know how it appeared to the audience, it might have been ok, and they probably saw it on the big screen and it seemed ok, but boy, we were fighting each other, we weren’t working together as a team.

I want to ask you about the concept of being in the zone.

I love the zone. I wish I could define the zone.

I assume you’ve had experiences in that, both as a musician and as a producer. How do you experience it as a performer, and how do you experience it as a producer, and are those different things?

It’s simply a state of complete trust in your own instincts, no matter if you’ve been playing for two years or 30 years. You don’t give a damn what anybody else thinks, you know that whatever you play is working right now – but you don’t state it in that way. It’s simply a time when everything’s working, and it feels good, and it’s effortless. We have an expression: turn off your brain. You’re not thinking about what you’re doing, you’re just doing it. You’re going on pure artistic instinct, rather than thinking, ok, I have to move this finger to hit this string. You’re creating, you’re painting, it’s flowing through you and you’re not thinking about the technical aspect of it. It’s really great when you actually hear the sound in your head, and you make the physical movement to create it and it comes out the way you’re hearing it in your head. That’s the zone. 

But the zone is mainly about being completely unselfconscious about where you are, being completely unaware of any outside distraction, and being right inside a line that goes right through the song where you’re part of that song and you’re adding a contribution to it – whether it’s as a side person, as a rhythm section member, as a singer. 

It’s expression without effort. And that is amazing. That’s the zone. Whether it’s good or not is up to somebody else to decide, but you know that it’s pure – in your mind it’s a pure moment – and it’s really a joyous moment. It’s really a happy feeling. It doesn’t happen very often, but boy, if you can get there, that’s a great time to have a recorder rolling, because you’re going to get something really good. You’re going to capture something worth hearing again and again.

How do you get yourself as an artist to a place where you can access the zone more?

That’s hard for me to answer. I’m not trying to dodge the question, but that’s too difficult to answer. If I knew the answer to that, then everyone would be an artist! Believe me, I can tell you there are times when I was asking myself that on a session when I was playing steel, because I’m lost and I can’t find the zone. 

There are so many different factors to it. It has to do with the environment, confidence, intangibles like what you’re hearing at the time, your mood, rest – but sometimes when you’re really tired you can get in the zone, too, so there are no rules about it. But it’s impossible for me to define how to get into the zone. I think that each person has to find that comfort spot themselves and learn, as they play more and more often, to find that spot more quickly. Usually it takes a singer about three passes to get to the zone in front of a microphone. But when I saw Bruce Springsteen two weeks ago, he was in the zone on the first song. I’m sure of it, because the first song sounded like the encore. It was remarkable. So how do you do that? It’s divine intervention, I think. I wish I had the answer to that one.

Maybe there is no answer to it.

No, I don’t think there is!