The Producer

From Dolly Parton to Nickel Creek, Steve Buckingham has come a long way since Ron Moody and the Centaurs.

“We didn’t know anything about disco,” the Hermitage High School graduate says, laughing. But the tune became a key signpost of the genre, an instantly recognizable glitter-ball-era definer. No compilation of the disco period is complete without the strutting strains of Alicia Bridges’ “I Love the Nightlife.”

Today, headquartered in Music City for almost a quarter century, this tall, soft-spoken, Southern gentleman is best known as the back-to-roots producer who resurrected country superstar Dolly Parton’s recording career not once but twice. But the Richmond native has been all over the place, from Dixie disco, to Clive Davis, to “new traditionalist” country.

And disco, sort of. To Buckingham, the “Nightlife” tune was “a funky, Al Green type number, not disco.” The young producer had snagged the chair that day because of his knack for making performers feel at ease in the studio. “Nightlife” remained in the vault for a year, half-forgotten, before it was released in 1978, reaching the top five. By then, Buckingham had gone back to being a session guitarist. “I cut a huge hit record, but no one was calling,” he says.

Out of frustration, he dialed the general number at big-time Arista Records. “Yeah, Clive’s been looking for you,” the guy on the phone said, referring to then label-head Clive Davis. (“What are the chances of something like that happening today?” Buckingham muses.) In the ’70s, no one was more respected and feared in the business than Davis.

Soon, the rookie with the drawl was sitting in Davis’ New York office, holding an all-day rate-a-record session with the chief pooh-bah of pop.

“He grilled me,” Buckingham recalls with a sweat. “[Davis] kept me there for what seemed like hours, playing me things — ‘Is this a hit? What do you think of this demo?’ It was like taking college boards.”

The kingmaker wanted Buckingham to bring him songs. “I gave him, I think, five, and he picked four of them. Anyone who knows Clive knows he’ll go through a hundred songs and reject them all.” Davis promptly hired the young man to produce Melissa Manchester, then a hot property. “I was fortunate, I guess. I was too new to be scared.”

Three albums with the mercurial diva Dionne Warwick would follow. “We never had a moment’s problem with ego,” he says of their relationship, although Dionne did show her chops. “We were cutting a Michael McDonald song that really cooked, had about a million chord changes. Suddenly Dionne stops and says, “There’s a wrong chord in there,’ meaning the chart. Everybody gathered around. … and we played McDonald’s original demo. And she was right. There was a one note difference in one chord in a song that had 20 changes. We were blown away. She knew her music.” Buckingham found out that John Lennon had been shot following a Warwick session. Buckingham remembers Warwick calling up her friend Yoko Ono to console her.

There are lots of memories — and memories to be made. From Arista on, Buckingham, 54, has been amazingly prolific and versatile. He’s placed his playing and production stamp on 12 platinum and 20 gold albums, from soundtracks to No. 1 country hits to cult jazz LPs. He’s charted Top 10 singles on 10 different music charts and has even produced the Muppets — on 1985’s “Follow That Bird.”

How did it happen? “Looking back on it,” Buckingham says, “the odds are a million to one.”

Dolly Parton says that “it was God’s will” that she reunited with her old pal in 1999 to make her Grammy-winning comeback CDs, “The Grass is Blue” and “Little Sparrow.”

It’s early on a recent Friday morning — an hour earlier in Nashville, where the one and only Dolly sounds just as personable at the crack of dawn as she is at midnight with Jay Leno. Her bubbly enthusiasm for the subject at hand is a sho-nuff wake-up call.

“As smart and as talented as he is,” she says, gushing over the producer of 10 of her albums, “he’d be worth a billion dollars if he played the games that some in the business are willing to. He loves the music, and he’s always been a classy guy.”

The bewigged country legend wants to tell it like it is. “There’s a lot of people in this industry you think don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground, if you know what I mean. But he has the respect of everyone in this town. Maybe it’s because he’s a musician at heart. Everyone wants to work with Steve Buckingham.”

“Yes, it was an oddity,” Buckingham admits of a career-turning move to Nashville in 1980. “I was a pop producer moving here. Now it doesn’t raise an eyebrow. It did then. I wasn’t moving because I was getting into country music, though. I intended on doing what I’d done before — pop and R&B. But I came here because I wanted to have some land, a farm, and also be near a place with studios where I knew a lot of players so I wouldn’t be on the road all the time.”

Nevertheless, in 1984, he got a call from Rick Blackburn, head of country at CBS Records (now Sony). “He asked me, ‘Are there any country artists on the label you think you can cut a hit on?’ I told him I thought I could cut a hit on Tammy Wynette.” The result was a successful cover of Dan Hill’s “Sometimes When We Touch” and a job offer as a CBS A&R (artist and repertoire) man.

In the mid-’80s, country music was changing and transforming in interesting ways — and Buckingham was to help spur the change. “That was a time when the label had so many great legends,” he says: “Johnny Cash, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard.” They also had artists like Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash — the new guard.

“A guy did an article some time ago and called us all — Rodney, Emmylou, Ricky Skaggs — the new traditionalists. What we were doing was definitely against the grain, going back to a real basic, ballsy approach to country.”

He rose up the corporate ranks by expertly handling both stars and emerging voices. One coup was discovering and producing Ricky Van Shelton from Grit, Va.: “He scored one No. 1 country record after another.”

Buckingham was also instrumental in another Virginian’s career, signing Mary Chapin Carpenter to Columbia when she was an office clerk and producing her biggest hits, including “Passionate Kisses.” “One of her managers told me, ‘You’re going to ruin her. You are making her too commercial,’” he laughs.

Cultivating new artists seems to be a specialty. Singer Shana Morrison (daughter of Van) offered a window into Buckingham’s working methods after he oversaw her 2002 CD “7 Wishes.”

Buckingham “believes in letting the music and the artist shine through a record,” Morrison told writer John Aiello. “He thinks more and talks less than most producers.”

He’s also careful about airing dirty laundry, quick to spin positive.

“I think he cares about and protects artists,” Parton says. “He’ll stand up for them even when he’s not their manager. … he looks out for your personal interests. At the major labels, they just want hit records and money.”

‘I was so busy making a living at music that I didn’t have time to study it,” says Buckingham about his college days as a beach-music pioneer.

The Lakeside native was already a working musician when he attended classes at the University of Richmond in the late ’60s, majoring in sociology and minoring in psychology (an especially useful discipline for handling artists).

When he was 15, he had helped to form Ron Moody and the Centaurs with childhood buddy Moody. He taught himself how to read music and played guitar for the group. “I hit the ground running at an early age,” Buckingham says.

The beach music group grew popular. “We had a reputation,” he says. “We were a band of white boys who could play black music.” Moody’s Centaurs still perform beach music today.

At UR, Buckingham never took a single music course, but he learned how to compartmentalize his thinking.” Those organizational skills helped later on. “What I do as a producer, musician and an A&R person, encompasses not just charts or arrangements but a whole host of things. I have to juggle a lot of balls.”

There was a lot to juggle in college, too. The Centaurs would perform on campus — backing up R&B acts like the Impressions and Jackie Wilson at the old UR Gym in the late ’60s — but their main tour comprised the beach music clubs and frat houses of Virginia Beach and the Carolinas.

The musician and student found unlikely supporters. “A number of my [Richmond] professors would write notes for me to miss class following holidays because I was out of town performing or in recording sessions.”

“Looking back, I don’t know [how I concentrated],” he says, laughing. “I remember studying a lot in hotel rooms.”

He recalls when he discovered his true talent. “In 1969, the group went to Baltimore to record at a studio owned by George Massenburg, who is now considered one of the foremost audio designers in the world, a well-known engineer and producer. [Massenburg and I] hit it off musically. I’d spend weekends at his studio learning how to make records. I knew that this is what I wanted to do.”

Buckingham became an in-demand session guitarist, a mainstay within the heady Muscle Shoals, Ala.-based session circuit, performing on records by Billy Joe Royal, Joe South and Johnny Nash, soaking it all in. From the start, he was the guy who arrived first in the control booth to help arrange, write charts, facilitate between the producer, musicians and singers. “It was just something I did, just my nature,” he says.

Buckingham’s success may lie in the fact that he’s still that guy. “He’s very serious-minded,” Parton says. “But when tension starts to build, he will come out with something that breaks it up, he’s always pulling practical jokes. But I told him years ago not to pull anything on me or I’d kill him, so he leaves me alone,” she says, laughing.

“Half of what I do is try to figure out how to make people comfortable in a very unnatural atmosphere,” Buckingham says. “It’s not natural to be relaxed in a recording studio — you’ve got headphones on, people are staring at you, there’s pressure, watching the clock.”

“He’s careful to ensure that you’re not there singing on his record,” Shana Morrison has said of Buckingham’s style. “He just lays back and lets your music shine through, without trying to point you in any certain direction.”

“My criteria,” he states several times over the course of many interviews: “I wanted to make records I wouldn’t be embarrassed to have played at my funeral, and I wanted to work with people I wouldn’t mind taking a long car trip with.”

The music business was very different a decade ago. Overseeing “product” as a vice-president at CBS, one of the most prominent record labels in the world, was disillusioning to Buckingham, who felt that major labels were changing for the worse. “It was less about music and more about business,” he says.

Buckingham was on the fast corporate track, but he wasn’t happy. “I went home one night and said, ‘You know I have no right to say this but I’m really bored.’ I felt like I was making the same record over and over again.”

He had even thought about moving back home to Virginia — “and doing God knows what” — when he got a call from Dolly Parton. Despite her fame, the CBS artist was struggling with a string of low-sellers. She had a novel idea.

Buckingham recalls, “She told me, ‘I want to make a real country record, but all of the bigwigs say I can’t do it.’ I thought, ‘Jeez, if you can’t trust Dolly Parton to make a country record. …’”

Parton says that in 1990, CBS “wanted to push younger stars, and they were dropping the established artists no matter who they were. And they wanted me to do stuff I didn’t want to do, work with people I didn’t like.”

Buckingham says she asked, “‘Can I do this and will you help me?’ I said, ‘of course you can, and I’ll help, but I don’t want [profit] points or credit, that’s not necessary.’”

The disc, “Eagle When She Flies,” ended up going platinum.

Buckingham: “We did her next album and I was told by the hierarchy, ‘Don’t think lightning can strike twice. … it won’t happen again,’ and that disc went platinum too. This was a time when CBS was purging all of their hallowed legends — including Cash and Haggard.” To Buckingham’s surprise, Dolly credited him as co-producer of “Eagle When She Flies” and paid his production royalties out of her own pocket. “She wrote me the check herself.” Their friendship was sealed.

But for Buckingham, already wavering, the end came with the infamous Tommy Mottola conversation. In the ’90s, no one was more respected and feared in the business.

“I was producing Dolly at the time. Mottola, the head of CBS/Sony, called me up in the studio and said, ‘How’s it going?’ I told him that it was sounding great. Dolly was singing and writing great and that I cut a duet with her and Ricky Van Shelton that I thought was going to be a hit. I added, jokingly, that if I was wrong he could come back to Nashville next year and tell me I was wrong.

“He said, ‘If you’re wrong, you won’t be here next year.’

“And it hit me, here I was; I had produced nearly every platinum act on that label, and I was that expendable.” He had to make a move. Dolly suggested they go into business together, forming the subsidiary imprint, Blue Eye. The duo soon moved over to Universal Music. “But it was the same thing, different faces.”

The final straw came when he got a package in the mail one day — it was a Grammy, for co-producing a gospel album by the Winans. He’d been so busy working, he didn’t know he’d won it. “That should tell you something,” his wife, Cynthia, said.

Things are different today, and Steve Buckingham owes it all to Lawrence Welk.

“Larry Welk [Lawrence’s son] called me,” Buckingham explains. “The Welk Group had bought Vanguard Records in the mid-’80s. He said, ‘I’m thinking about revamping the Vanguard label. What would you do with it?’ I told him I’d do what the Solomon Brothers did in 1950s when they started the label — put out eclectic music, no matter the style, and make it a haven for artistic people. So Larry offered me the job to bring back Vanguard [as a contemporary label]. I went to Dolly and said, ‘This has nothing to do with you but I have the chance … to really stretch myself here,’ and she said, ‘Do it. Jump on it.’

From Columbia to … Vanguard? “All my friends thought I was crazy. Later, they all told me what a great decision I made.”

The Welk Group, originally started by the late champagne-music bandleader, would soon acquire Sugar Hill Records, snagging another respected independent label with artists like Doc Watson and Doyle Lawson and a rich archive of bluegrass and old-time music. Buckingham’s job as senior vice president is to help build that contemporary haven for eclectic music he outlined. It’s a formidable stable: emerging bluegrass trio Nickel Creek, singer-songwriters Peter Case and John Hiatt, soul singer Robert Bradley, folk-country songstress Patty Larkin, slide guitarist Sonny Landreth, even the reclusive Sinead O’Connor.

Parton has followed her longtime collaborator to the land of the independents and thrived. After they parted ways in the mid-’90s, she was been unceremoniously dropped from the major labels, finding out about it like everyone else: It was on the front page of the Nashville paper.

Buckingham pounced. “In June of ’99, we happened to be on a plane together,” he recalls. “We switched seats in order to sit next to each other. I told her that the Welk Co. had just bought Sugar Hill and asked would she ever consider doing a bluegrass record. She was going off to do a movie and had only a specific amount of time, but we pulled it together. A month later, we were in the studio, cutting all the tracks in two days.” It was out in October.

“That would never have happened on a major,” Steve Buckingham laughs.

Parton says the idea came over dinner. “We were talking, and he said, ‘By the way, you might find this interesting, they took a poll in the bluegrass community and of all the artists who have never made a bluegrass album, you won hands down.’ And I know bluegrass music,” she says, affecting a fake upper-crust accent. “Perhaps there should be a bluegrass album in my … reputwah.”

“The Grass is Blue,” released on Sugar Hill, stunned critics and netted a Grammy. An arguably better follow-up, “Little Sparrow,” claimed yet another statue in 2002. The third in her rootsy trilogy, “Halos and Horns,” has been nominated this year. It’s a career hat trick for an important artist that the majors and country radio once deemed irrelevant.

Of late, Buckingham has discovered “a fantastic artist” named Mindy Smith, who has a Vanguard debut due this month. He’s also struggling to compile the essential Buddy Guy box set and is making plans to produce the Cajun group Beausoleil.

Life is good. Long-term goals seem to have been achieved too. The Nashville transplant is producing sounds he can proudly take to his grave, alongside artists who make good traveling companions.

Parton is blunt. “As long as I’m in this business, I will always work with Steve Buckingham. I’m going to go where Steve is.” S


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