Dec 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Rick Clark
Way back in the early '80s, there was a brief stretch when I was brought onboard to play keyboards for an Atco Records pop band called the Wilson Brothers, featuring Steve and Kelly Wilson. My time with the Wilson Brothers was in support of an album they did with producer Kyle Lehning. It was a fine-sounding production that did a good job of enhancing the brothers' style of melodic pop, which fit nicely alongside artists such as the Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers, Todd Rundgren and Toto. Lehning cut some of the album at Cherokee in Los Angeles and in the office of Johnny Cash's dentist, Dr. Billy Burkes. Burkes, who was also quite a phenomenal jazz accordionist, had an MCI 24-track and a 400 Series MCI console in a section of his office.
Before the Wilsons' album, Lehning had enjoyed success producing huge '70s hit records by England Dan & John Ford Coley, and later went on to produce Firefall, Kenny Rogers, Tammy Wynette, George Jones, The Derailers, Ronnie Milsap and, most famously, Randy Travis, which represents one of his longest and most successful collaborations. In fact, Lehning has recently been in the studio with Travis recording an album of bluegrass gospel hymns called Faith and Worship.
I recently hooked up with Lehning at Ocean Way Recording, where he was co-producing with Paul Worley (Dixie Chicks, Martina McBride) for a new 13-year-old Warner Nashville pop/country artist named Alexis Ebert. In the studio, the atmosphere was very relaxed as some of Nashville's finest session players worked their way through a pop ballad penned by the youngster.
Lehning told me that he is also working on spec with artists he really believes in, including Joy Lynn White, who actually had put out some major-label Music Row records that Lehning didn't believe captured her singing and songwriting strengths. “Sometimes you get a little tired of record companies trying to decide what they want to do,” says Lehning. “You should just do it yourself. This is alt-country, and there is plenty of steel guitar and lots of Joy's attitude on the record. There are only about three outside songs; it's primarily her songs.”
Lehning's other labor-of-love-project is a jazz blues-type album for singer/Hammond B3 organist Moe Denham. “I think that Moe's sort of an unappreciated local great,” Lehning enthuses. “He's one of those old-school guys who kicks pedals and has a great feel and great sound. We're probably going to do Les McCann's ‘Listen Up,’ which he does a great version of. And he's got a couple of unique arrangements, including one tune called ‘Song for Eleanor Rigby’s Father' that segues from ‘Song for My Father’ into ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and back into ‘Song for My Father.’ I may shop it, but we may put it out ourselves. It's going to be fun.”
A few days after my Ocean Way visit, I headed over to Lehning's Green Hills home studio, The Compound, and met with Kyle, his sons Jason and Jordan Lehning and assistant engineer Casey Wood. The Compound is equipped with an automated 80-input Soundcraft DC-2020, a 24-track MCI JH-24, two RADAR II units, Mackie HUI, Pro Tools|HD and an Ampex ATR-102. Room designer Gary Hedden assisted Lehning in fine-tuning the comfortable facility, which also boasts a considerable array of mics and outboard gear. The monitor setup includes ATCs, NS-10s, Genelec 1032As and some JBL Hartsfields that Lehning's uncle owned when he listened to jazz as a child.
As we chatted, it became clear that Lehning had been giving his children opportunities to learn about and work in recording studios since they were young. Jason's studio experience started when he was allowed to program drum parts for a Dan Seals record called “Bop,” which was a big country hit in the mid-'80s. When I mentioned to Kyle that it was probably an empowering time for Jason, he noted, “It was a Number One record! We didn't pay him and he didn't ask for it either.” To which Jason replied, “I didn't know you got paid to do that stuff.” Kyle responded with a laugh, “Still don't!”
Most recently, Jason engineered Randy Travis' vocal tracks for Faith and Worship in Santa Fe, N.M. “The Randy Travis sessions were great fun,” Jason says. “We had slated five days for Randy to sing 21 songs, but he sang the whole thing in two days! We used the third day for some fixes, but came home early after that.”
Jason set up his own, still-unnamed facility just south of downtown Nashville. “When I first put my studio together, I started thinking of names, but [recording artist and friend] David Mead said, ‘Don't name it!’ Ever since then, I've asked whomever I'm working with to name it for that particular project, and that's been way more fun,” says Jason. His studio is based around a Sony DMX-R100 console: “I've had it for about a year-and-a-half, and I love it. It's still the only digital console I've heard that actually has character, and it's also a lot of fun to mix on.”
While I was at his studio, Jason played me some tracks from the new Lee Townsend-produced solo album by Viktor Krauss — upright bassist for Lyle Lovett and others — that Jason engineered and mixed for Nonesuch Records. The album features a tremendous supporting lineup, including Steve Jordan (drums), Bill Frisell (guitar), Jerry Douglas (dobro and lap steel) and sister Alison Krauss (vocals). The Krauss project was later mixed at Different Fur in San Francisco and mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound in New York.
I also got to hear tracks that Jason recorded with pop songwriter Daniel Tashian, who just inked a publishing deal with Windswept/Thorth in L.A., and whose song “Lifestyle” has recently been getting quite a bit of airplay on WRLT Lightning 100 in Nashville. Additionally, Jason produced the forthcoming record for Tashian's band, The Bees. The material on The Bees' unreleased album is rich with the kind of melodics and arrangement smarts that Jeff Lynne's best recordings have always possessed.
On a very different note, Jason has also been busy completing the mixes for Erasure's next record at Union Street Recording in Brooklyn, N.Y. “They re-recorded some of their older songs for this,” Jason says. “So many of their older songs were surrounded by electronica that showcasing the song was not necessarily the first order of business. Andy Bell, the singer, is actually hugely influenced by country music, so there are a lot of acoustic instruments on this album, with the exception of a pedal steel guitar.” The still-untitled Erasure album, produced by Steve Walsh, is slated to come out later in 2004 on the Mute label.
As if the production and engineering output of Kyle and Jason Lehning weren't impressive enough, Jordan (at 19, the youngest son) played me demos of his original category-defying music. All in all, the Lehnings create and produce an impressive amount of work, and it was an enjoyable stretch of days watching them encourage and support each other as a family.
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