Classic Tracks: Randy Travis "Forever and Ever, Amen"

Mar 26, 2012 7:11 PM, By Alison Richter


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photo of Kyle Lehning

Producer Kyle Lehning

The tracking band was an A-list of Nashville session players: Jack Williams, bass; Dennis Burnside, piano; Russ Barenberg and Mark Casstevens, acoustic guitars; Steve Gibson, electric guitar; Doyle Grisham, steel guitar; Terry McMillan, harmonica; future Nashville producer and label president James Stroud, drums; Paul Overstreet, harmony vocals; and the Cherry Sisters (Sherry Huffman, Diane Tidwell and Lisa Silver) singing background vocals.

“Most of what you hear on the record is what came off the floor,” says Lehning. “Overdubs—I’d heard about Paul Franklin having this weird instrument called a Pedabro, which was a Dobro that had pedals on it like a steel guitar, that his dad had made. I thought, ‘What the heck; let’s give it a try.’ That’s the intro of the record, and Paul tells me it’s the first record that it was really used on and actually heard. Paul played here and there on the record, and Jerry Douglas also plays some Dobro fills. The intro and turnaround is Paul. Terry McMillan does this little harp backbeat, a little whoosh-through sound, that comes from when I was engineering Waylon Jennings’ records. His harmonica player, Donnie Brooks, did that on records and I always thought it was a cool sound.

“We went over the demo, they did the typical Nashville numbers charts, we went out in the studio, counted it off, and there wasn’t any resistance,” Lehning continues. ”Once we figured out the tempo, the key and the general feel for the record, everybody knew what to play. The demo was so great that the players had a natural sense of what to do. You pick the right players, you pick the right song, and then the producer’s job is to say absolutely as little as possible, and for the most part that was what I did.”

Travis cut his vocals later at Lehning’s studio, Morningstar, in nearby Hendersonville, where the record was also mixed. Because Travis was experiencing some road fatigue, says Lehning, “It probably took more passes than we were used to. It might have taken us two or three hours. We would wait until he’d come in and be in good voice, then it would be a couple or three passes, a punch-in here or there, and that was it.”

Lehning used an AKG C24, the same mic—literally the same one—he has used with Travis throughout their 25-year working relationship. “I’ve tried it on other people and it didn’t work at all,” he says. “I think it works for Randy because he has this incredibly rich kind of quality, and his low end could overwhelm other microphones. That one has a nice, open, airy quality to it and it allows his voice to come forward in the mix without getting boomy or having to roll a ton of bottom out. It was a nice balance. Randy’s not a loud singer. He has a nice, easy quality to his singing, so that microphone captured his voice really well, and still does.”

Both Storms of Life and Always & Forever were mixed through a Sound Workshop 1600 series console. “It had 26 inputs,” says Lehning, “and I had this other little 12x8 Sound Workshop sidecar mixer that I used for reverb, delays and things like that. We had an Otari MTR-90 and an Ampex ATR-102 half-inch machine, and I mixed off the Otari, no automation, so it was all me and my assistant, Kirt Odle. We’d mix until we made a mistake, stop the 2-track, roll the 24-track back, start the 2-track again and mix until we made a mistake. Then I’d cut the half-inch together to get the mix that we wanted. That’s the way we did all of it until we had automation. You’d pull out the 2-track of those mixes, and you’d better be ready to put splices together again!

“We had some nice outboard gear,” he continues. “I had a Fairchild compressor and four LA2A’s, a bunch of ADR outboard EQ—the E900s and Vocal Stressors—plus 1176s, dbx’s; it was a really well-equipped mid-’80s studio. We also had three EMTs with mono in and stereo out. My favorite that I used mostly on his vocal was an EMT 140 [plate reverb]. We had a Publison Infernal Machine and I would do that old ‘left pitch up, right pitch down’ thing: Anything that was panned to the right, I would add a little of it into the left return of the Publison, and anything that was panned to the left, I would add a little of that, so that there was a cross-pitch kind of thing to add a little mystery and depth, because we all thought that was cool back then!”

In 1987, “Forever and Ever, Amen” won the Grammy Award for songwriters Schlitz and Overstreet in the category of Best Country Song, and the track garnered two Academy of Country Music awards for Song of the Year and Single of the Year. Lehning believes that the success of this song resulted from a perfect storm of timing and artistry. “When we finished Storms of Life, I knew how much we’d spent on the record, and I had figured out that if we sold 40,000 albums, Warner Bros. would make their money back and then some, and let us make another one, which is all I was hoping for. And it sold about 4 million. ‘Forever and Ever, Amen’ sold north of 5 million. It was just the right guy, right time, right songs, and everybody was incredibly fortunate to have been there and caught that wave.”

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