“I ’m so sick of how Nashville gets treated like a redheaded stepchild when it comes to the music business,” John McBride says as he leans against the doorway of the lounge in his Blackbird Studio compound, blowing cigarette smoke out into the hallway. “I thought, ‘Here we are with the greatest players, the greatest writers, the greatest producers, great engineers, great everybody, and yet we don’t get respect out of those places. I wanna build a studio that will kick the shit out of anything in L.A. or New York.’ And we did.”
First opened in 2002, Blackbird is now home to nine studios in three buildings. “I’m telling you, if there’s a finer studio anywhere on earth, I don’t know about it,” McBride says. “I really, really wanted to have the best.” And he isn’t just blowing smoke — not figuratively, anyway. Some of the biggest acts in the world have recorded at McBride’s Berry Hill compound, from country stars such as Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley, Taylor Swift and McBride’s own wife Martina, to rock ’n’ rollers including Bruce Springsteen, The White Stripes, Bon Jovi and Kings of Leon.
Originally from Wichita, Kan., McBride started out in live production — putting a $6,000 loan he’d gotten from Wichita State’s campus credit union toward a mixer, some speakers and microphones, and running sound for anyone who called. A few years later, he met and married Martina, and the two moved to Nashville on New Year’s Day 1990.
“Within 18 months, she had a record deal, and I was production manager for Garth Brooks,” McBride recalls. “It’s just been insane ever since. It’s been a great life.”
McBride is a friendly, loquacious type who will talk your ear off about nearly any aspect of music — from gear (Blackbird owns 43 drum kits and “probably the greatest microphone collection in the world”) to The Beatles (he says he owns 300 copies of the infamous “butcher cover” version of Yesterday and Today). But one topic he’s particularly fond of is The Blackbird Academy, a project he started when he realized young recording students were going into debt for inadequate education.
“They couldn’t make a record if I held a gun to their head, and that’s frustrating,” McBride says. “Then you dig a little deeper and you find out how much money they owe, and it makes me unhappy. ... And I thought, ‘Well I can whine or complain about it, or I could do something about it.’ ”
The first Blackbird Academy class started Sept. 30, 2013, and will graduate at the end of March. The six-month program — designed to “give the greatest education in the shortest amount of time for the least amount of money possible” — costs $21,900 and features a lot of hands-on work.
“When you get out of here, you should be able to go with the Rolling Stones to any studio in the world and make a darn great-sounding record,” McBride says. He adds one caveat: “Provided they play well.”