Journal of Gospel Music:Producing Gaither Tribute Album “Like A Godsend” To Music Veteran Tony Brown
Despite a distinguished career in southern gospel and country music, including a Grammy Award, numerous CMA Awards, induction in the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame, and success as a major label executive, producer Tony Brown admitted he was intimidated when Bill and Gloria Gaither visited him at home to hear a pre-release version of Gaither Tribute.
“I never had Bill and Gloria in my home, so I was intimidated, to say the least,” Brown told the Journal of Gospel Music. “But as I played the project, the looks on their faces were amazing. They were totally pleased about everyone’s interpretation of the songs.”
Produced by Brown, Gaither Tribute features Gaither compositions reinterpreted by stars like Reba McEntire, Alabama, Hillary Scott, Jamey Johnson, CeCe Winans, and Ronnie Milsap. The album is slated for release by the Gaither Music Group (distributed by Capitol Christian Music Group and Universal Music) on Friday, August 25.
The opportunity to produce the album, Brown said, came “like a Godsend.” Clarence Spalding, manager for such leading lights as Darius Rucker and Jason Aldean, asked Brown about producing the project to honor the Gaithers. “Clarence and I are business associates in country music,” Brown said. “I wanted to do something faith-based before I retired, and while contemporary Christian music isn’t in my wheelhouse, southern gospel is what I was raised in. So when this opportunity came about, I said, ‘Absolutely!’ It is almost like it was meant to be.”
Brown, a gospel pianist, was an ideal choice for producer. Born in North Carolina and raised in southern gospel, he worked with the Dixie Melody Boys, the Blackwood Brothers, the pre-country The Oak Ridge Boys, and J.D. Sumner and The Stamps Quartet. He accompanied Elvis Presley, well-known for his love of gospel music. After the King passed away in 1977, Brown became a record executive and producer. Over the decades he has worked with some of country music’s biggest stars, from Reba McEntire to George Strait to Alabama.
Brown admits putting the tribute album together wasn’t easy. “I’m spoiled because I’m used to cutting an album on George Strait or Reba McEntire in a week, but I had to cut these songs one at a time,” he said. “Coordinating busy schedules to get the artists and the band together in the studio meant I had to be really patient. I admit there were times I moaned and groaned but, in the end, I was very happy with the outcome.”
When Brown met with the Gaither Group and executive directors Spaulding and Steve Moore to go over the wish list of artists, the intention was to not feature legacy performers exclusively but to include performers like Jamey Johnson and the SteelDrivers, artists somewhat outside of the country mainstream. “Country music encompasses many styles,” Brown said, “and Bill and Gloria’s music is deeper than mainstream country, so I wanted the album to be a cross-section of big stars and Americana artists.”
Another goal of the production team, Brown explained, was to find artists who wanted to participate in the record to honor Bill and Gloria, and because they love Gaither songs. “The Gaithers are the last remaining stars of southern gospel. They are like the Burt Bacharach of southern gospel. They are still young at heart, still vibrant. Bill is like an Energizer Bunny kind of guy.”
Brown was pleasantly surprised to discover that many of the Gaither Tribute artists came to the project with specific songs they wanted to record. “Jamey Johnson does ‘It Won’t Rain Always,’ Brown said. “I had never heard that song before until Jamey brought it to the table, but it’s a magical song. And the SteelDrivers said they’d only do the album if they could sing ‘I Believe in a Hill Called Mount Calvary.’ I never would have thought that song would come out of their mouth, but it did.”
Randy Owens of Alabama, someone Brown says knows the Gaither catalogue top to bottom, selected “Jesus and John Wayne” for the band’s contribution. “That was another song I had never heard before,” Brown admitted, “but Randy knew exactly what he wanted to do for this record. I signed Alabama to RCA in 1980, and this track sounds like they did it back in their heyday.”
Hillary Scott of Lady A wanted to do “There’s Something About that Name.” When it came to the song’s trademark recitation, done originally by Gloria Gaither, Scott and Brown agreed that no one could do it quite like Gloria. “Hillary tried it and she did really well,” Brown said, “but there’s something about the way Gloria delivers it. It belongs to her. She owns it. So we called Gloria and asked her if she would do it. She was hesitant at first, but she agreed to do the recitation. It turned out just perfect.”
Brown said Reba McEntire suggested combining “He Touched Me” and “Something Beautiful” into a medley (because “When He touched me, something beautiful happened,” was her reasoning) and recording it as a sister act with her sister Susie and Sonya and Becky Isaacs. Other album tracks Brown is particularly pleased with include Lee Ann Womack’s “Gentle Shepherd” and Ronnie Dunn’s “Because He Lives.” “I recorded ‘Because He Lives’ with The Stamps Quartet and The Oak Ridge Boys back in their heyday,” Brown said, “but I think Ronnie Dunn’s version is the best version ever recorded.”
Closing the album is CeCe Winans singing the Gaither/Richard Smallwood collaboration “The Center of My Joy.”
“CeCe participated in Carrie Underwood’s gospel album and hangs around the country music industry a lot, so we thought, why not finish the album with CeCe Winans?” Brown said. “I’ve worked with everybody from Lionel Richie and Lyle Lovett to Barbara Streisand and Billy Joel, but when CeCe Winans walked in the studio, I was completely intimidated! ‘The Center of My Joy’ was another song I wasn’t totally familiar with, but what a masterpiece!”
Brown hopes that Gaither Tribute not only honors Bill and Gloria for their contributions to southern gospel but helps bring southern gospel back to the forefront of people’s attention. “When I first moved to Nashville in 1969,” Brown reflected, “I was playing in The Stamps Quartet. In those days, country artists had a gospel song on their record. Johnny Cash always had The Oak Ridge Boys or some southern gospel group with him on tour. We used to perform on Buck Owens’ TV show. That doesn’t exist anymore. Now when you say gospel, people think of contemporary Christian music and worship songs, not southern gospel.”
He added: “Bill and Gloria Gaither have kept southern gospel alive as an art form, but the songs on the album are a little different from what they heard in the past. When they came to my home to listen to the record, I was a bit worried, because Bill is pretty particular and is a bit of a perfectionist. But they were pleased and I feel that I accomplished what [executive producers] Clarence Spalding and Steve Moore and the Gaithers wanted.”